ComArtSci Alumnus Kenneth Nelson, Jr., Brings Indie Film to Life Using Sets in Lansing
With roots at Michigan State University, a team of filmmakers and actors joined forces to produce the indie film titled Sincerely, Brenda. A serious drama that’s now making rounds at film festivals across the U.S., the movie tells the story of an African-American family that must confront the consequences of alcohol abuse.
Directed by ComArtSci Alumnus Kenneth Nelson, Jr., Sincerely, Brenda premiered on Nov. 17, 2018 to a sold-out crowd of more than 200 people in Lansing. The film also draws upon the talents of Producer Briana Sparks ’18 and Assistant Director Paul Roh ’18, both alumni who majored in Media & Information at ComArtSci. In the movie, a recovering alcoholic attempts to reconcile with his estranged sons over a weekend, and instead the encounter reveals skeletons from the family’s past that put the family at risk of falling apart.
“We filmed it all in Lansing, with the exception of two scenes in Detroit,” said Nelson, who obtained an M.A. in Digital Media Arts and Technology 2007, after receiving the program’s B.A. in 2005. “We worked on a rigorous schedule. We started shooting in July and we held the premiere in November of the same year.”
Writing an Award-Winning Script
The film became an official selection of the Miami Independent Film Festival, the Rome Prisma Independent Awards, and the Christian Family Film Festival. The movie went on to sell out to audiences in Cleveland, Detroit, and Port Huron, Mich.
“When I got the script, I was really moved by it,” said Teri Ann Nelson, who stars in the film.
Nelson wrote the script himself, allowing the actors and actresses in the film to make the lines their own and edit some of the dialogue.
“It started off as a dysfunctional family piece, and it took three years to write the script,” said Nelson. “It started with a focus on the mother (Brenda), but it evolved to focus on a father and his two sons.”
The drama portrays men in a way that Nelson and his crew believe is more realistic than the standard Hollywood blockbuster.
“There’s so many people walking around with unforgiveness,” said Sean Vaughn. “It’s toxic.”
Vaughn played the role of Michael in the movie, and he also worked with Nelson as executive producer on the film.
“We’re challenging these things, and we’re showing you that the real world is vulnerable, and open to being free to share your feelings and your emotions—and just being able to come together as one and heal, so that we can move forward,” said Vaughn. “That’s the beauty of redemption, and that’s what ‘Sincerely, Brenda’ is all about.”
Nelson wanted to depict men who face real struggles and work hard to overcome harrowing circumstances.
“It was important to me that you see the complexity of emotion in the black male characters, because when I grew up, I didn’t see that complexity on screen,” said Nelson. “During the screenings I realized, this isn’t just a black male issue, it’s men in general. We are flawed, and many times it’s difficult to face the situations that shaped who we are. So, some of us find solace in bad choices.”
An Authentic Look at the Road to Redemption
One of the most striking performances is that of the father in the film, Charles, played by Rico Bruce Wade. When asked, Wade said he was simply playing the role of an actor.
“It starts with the text,” said Wade. “Ken gave us a wonderful character. You just build on that and make it genuine—make it authentic.”
Sincerely, Brenda has been nominated for 18 awards, winning 10 awards including Best Feature Film of the Year from the Rome Prisma Independent Film Awards. The film also won awards for Best Director, Best Actor, Best Supporting Actor and Best Cinematographer from various organizations.
“It’s been touching so many people who are dealing with recovery and addiction,” said Nelson. “I wanted to make a film that had a theme of forgiveness.What does that look like over a span of 20 years?”
Nelson credits much of his success to his experience in the Media & Information Department at ComArtSci.
“MSU has been integral to my development as a filmmaker,” he said. “Besides learning about the craft, I forged friendships with students and faculty that have served me well professionally and artistically.”
One of his earliest projects was a documentary film that led to the true-to-life and biopic work he is doing today.
“After watching my thesis documentary, I will always remember Bob Albers, my professor and a documentary filmmaker, being very impressed with my film,” said Nelson. “I respected his opinion, and I felt in that moment, ‘I can do this. I can be a filmmaker.’”
Establishing the Mitten Made Film Festival
At the center of his work, Nelson aims to foster a more inclusive culture in filmmaking. His hope with the casting in Sincerely, Brenda was to help a wider section of the public be able to envision themselves on stage. The movie features an all black cast, with powerful performances by actors and actresses from Michigan State and elsewhere.
Now, Nelson is taking his pursuits a step further, opening the realm of filmmaking to artists who have made films in Michigan.
“I’m not only working to make films, but I really want to create a platform for local artists, whose films may not have many opportunities to be seen, get the chance,” said Nelson.
In partnership with Sean Vaughn and Sheri Brooks, he is one of the founders of the Mitten Made Short Film Festival, a film festival focused on highlighting inspirational short films from Michigan filmmakers. The film festival is presented by Xari Studios, in partnership with Malku Media. Together, the founders believe that great films with powerful messages can change the world.
During its inaugural year, the Mitten Made Short Film Festival will be held June 29, 2019, at the Lansing Public Media Center on South Washington Avenue in Lansing, Mich. Film submissions are closed, but the festival is open to all Michigan artists, and film buffs that want to come out and support Michigan films. The event is free to attend.
By Melissa Priebe