Brentin Mock is a staff writer at CityLab. He was previously the justice editor at Grist.
With Georgia lifting shelter-in-place restrictions, Atlanta filmmaker Bobby Huntley II’s spoof trailer “Coronaman” takes a different tack on a stay-home PSA.
The distance between Atlanta City Hall and the Georgia governor’s office is only a block, but the two levels of government couldn’t sit farther apart when it comes to the issue of whether to reopen businesses in the novel coronavirus pandemic. When Governor Brian Kemp decided, reportedly unilaterally, that he would be ordering most businesses to reopen in May, it caught Atlanta Mayor Keisha Lance Bottoms by surprise. She has been imploring her residents ever since to ignore the governor and comply with the shelter-at-home guidelines set by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, headquartered right there in Atlanta.
“I may not have the legal authority to override the state,” said Lance Bottoms in an column in The Atlantic. “I do have the right to use my voice to encourage people to exercise common sense, listen to the science … and stay home, if at all possible.”
Her crusade to keep Atlanta residents alive has inspired at least one Atlanta filmmaker to rise to her defense. Bobby Huntley II’s short trailer “Coronaman”— a parody of the classic 1992 horror film “Candyman”— recently went viral on social media by using horrific and comedic images and messages to stress how deadly the virus can be, especially for African Americans. The two-and-a-half minute video, which functions more as a PSA, spoofs the trailer for the upcoming “Candyman” remake, produced by Jordan Peele (“Get Out,” “Us”), but recasts the titular villain as the novel coronavirus threat.
The “Coronaman” video plays out almost note for note like the “Candyman” remake trailer, though the storyline is almost the inverse of its source material: The original Candyman was a black man who was lynched during the slavery era whose specter stalks and haunts mostly white people who dare to traverse inner-city Chicago of the early 1990s — namely by venturing into the now-defunct Cabrini-Green public housing projects. In Huntley’s film short, Coronaman is more of a wraith that stalks and haunts black people who dare to test the shelter-at-home protocols by venturing out into Atlanta’s gyms and barbershops.
In one scene, the nameless main character, played by Diezie Sahn, tries to convince his partner (also nameless), played by Danielle Maner, that she could get her nails done at a salon, to which she responds, “Keisha said no” — echoing the hashtag slogan #MayorKeishaSaidNo accompanying the clip on social media, referring to Mayor Keisha Lance Bottoms.
Lance Bottoms recently shouted out Huntley and his flick on comedian Rickey Smiley’s radio show, and Peele’s Monkeypaw Productions shared the video on Twitter. It’s a not-bad opening act to pave the way for Huntley’s first feature-length film, also set in Atlanta, called “La Vie Magnifique De Charlie,” scheduled to be released later this year. The “Charlie Movie” is a “celebration of black girl magic,” said Huntley, that also touches on issues such as depression, sickle cell disease, and other health problems afflicting black communities.
CityLab spoke with Huntley about his film and its impact as Georgia concluded its first week of reopening during the pandemic.
What were your goals in terms of grabbing the attention of Mayor Lance Bottoms, or at least steering more attention toward her coronavirus plight?
I was trying to be as middle-of-the-road as I could with my messaging, but I also had to be very specific and targeted with my words, in terms of what I felt and what our culture was feeling about this moment. I understood given her position that she can’t be just about a specific type of group. She has to be about the whole entire city. So I was trying to be careful to not do anything that would portray her platform in a negative way. I was trying to be as political as possible while being true and authentic to the seriousness of what’s going on, especially to African Americans.
That she not only received it, but, in her words, loved it and thought it was funny, and that it got the message out there — out of everything and all of the celebrities talking about it and sharing it on their platforms, that’s what I'm most proud of.
One critical take could be that while your video is aimed at African Americans, they’re not the ones clamoring to break the stay at home order, who are protesting at the capitol or otherwise outside acting trifling.
Well, it wasn’t really about being trifling. It’s about — well, it was a few things. The first thing is I understand that black people often handle trauma and terrible things with humor. So I knew coming in through entertainment and humor and artistic expression, to share my message would probably be the best way to do it. All day we’re bombarded with bad news about the leadership of this country, and at some point any person would just check out, black out, and not want to receive it — just shut down from everything and start to backslide into doing the things that are probably not best for themselves or for the people around them.
I just wanted to offer a gentle reminder, where you could smile, you could laugh, and think, ‘Oh, this is funny, this is interesting, this is cool, but there’s a real message in there.’
How long did it take you to pull this together?
I wanted to do it originally over a month ago, but I realized it just was not the right time. It was still new and terrifying to people that the death rates were rising by the minute. To try to make light of it, it probably wouldn’t have reflected well for me. I couldn’t think of any other scripts or anything else to do, but then finally some weeks went by and then the word came out that the governor of Georgia was opening up the state. With Mayor Keisha Lance Bottoms trying to remind the citizens that it’s not quite safe yet, and to please stay home, I just saw her as a black woman trying to save us [who has been] encountering complete disrespect. I felt that as an artist and as a black man, I couldn’t just sit here and not do anything. So I brushed off my initial idea I had and I centered it around her calls to stay home, which is common sense.
I called my actors, who were on standby initially from the first go-round, and they were ready to go. I sent them scripts and said, OK, we’re shooting tomorrow. And that’s what we did. We decided last Thursday (April 23) and we put it out Sunday (April 26) and now here we are.
How were you able to shoot this and adhere to social distancing, especially with the CDC’s watchful eye right there in Atlanta?
We definitely took as many of the safety precautions as we could on set. We had masks, gloves, hand sanitizers and all those things. And we practiced social distancing as much as we could. We actually shot in shifts. We would have actors coming in and out of the set so it was not too many people in a space. If you noticed it’s only the outside scenes where you would see multiple people. But inside there were only one or two people. There were some moments where I really wanted to push for physicality. I wanted them to hug or have an intimate moment, but I knew we couldn’t do that just yet. And so I just had to find a way to express that through the distance between my two lead actors. And they did a phenomenal job with it.
I have to ask: Can you decode the string of letters the nurse spouted in the scene where the lead character is trying to break their line of defense (pictured below)
I’m gonna try to keep it clean. It was something along the lines of, “I Don’t Give A F What Kemp — that’s Governor Kemp — Said You Better Stay Your Black Ass In The MF-ing House.” That’s based off of memes that have been going around that I thought were brilliant. It’s just a funny cultural thing. A lot of people got it and enjoyed that. It was just a little nugget that I put in there, and I'm happy that people picked up on it.