The media’s representation of Baltimore in 2015 hasn’t been the kindest—well, aside from that time President Obama praised HBO's The Wire.
The sad fact is, the media would've continued to ignore the crime-ridden city’s residents' needs and discontent had it not been for the tragic death of Freddie Gray, the 20-year-old black man who died while in police custody in early April. Rightfully angered, many of Baltimore’s citizens let their frustrations be seen and heard via riots and protests. And since nationwide news outlets were there on the scene for every broken window and raised-in-solidarity fist, much of the viewing public saw Baltimore’s post-Gray events and formed opinions based on those acts.
Instead of spending so much time focusing on the city’s angriest moment, however, media outlets should be paying more attention to the young men and women who are busting their humps to uplift Baltimore both emotionally and financially.
In the new documentary short A Dream Preferred, filmmakers Heidi Ewing and Rachel Grady (Jesus Camp) have done just that. Co-produced by Tribeca Digital Studios and American Express, the film—which is currently available on various cable on-demand platforms—follows the efforts of six young black men in Baltimore, led by an outspoken go-getter named Devon Brown, who’ve started their own dessert company, Taharka Bros. Ice Cream. (The name is a tribute to Taharka McCoy, a 25-year-old local mentor who was senselessly gunned down in January 2002.) The company’s goal is, naturally, partly to use their handmade frozen treats to turn profits, but ultimately the Taharka Bros. are aiming to inspire other young entrepreneurs—they’re proof that inner-city minorities don’t need to play sports and make rap music to be successful.
A Dream Preferred, shot throughout the summer of 2013, captures their efforts to raise $28,000 in 29 days through the crowd-funding site Kickstarter. Dubbed “Vehicle for Change,” their Kickstarter plan was crucial to allow the brothers (in the figurative sense, not literally blood-connected siblings) elevate their business above using a rinky-dink ice cream truck.
With charisma to spare, the Taharka crew—especially Devon Brown, who’s the film’s de facto star—give A Dream Preferred a lightheartedness that offsets its heavier underlying themes, mainly the racial discrimination they experience everyday as young black men. In one scene, their efforts to solicit Kickstarter contributions from white folks is mostly a cold-shoulder struggle, and the Taharka brothers’ frustrations are visible.
That scene has struck a lot of people who’ve seen the film,” says Taharka Bros. creative director Darius Wilmore, 42. “It’s interesting, because that scene is part of the challenge of something like this. You have the softest product on the face of the Earth, which is ice cream, that’s made and sold by people who’ve been deemed to be the hardest, and that’s an interesting juxtaposition. Unfortunately, you can’t avoid the issue of race. It’s always gonna be there. Some people will be open to it and others aren’t, but you can’t let that stop you from doing what you’re trying to do.”
Twenty-year-old “head ice cream spinner” Chuckie Robinson, III, adds, "Race and color barriers are always going to be an issue for us. If you’re brought up to look at certain people in certain ways and immediately judge them, then that’s just what you’re gonna do. There are gonna be people who don’t want us to approach them, with or without our ice cream, because we’re young and black. They have these negative opinions about us before they even meet us, just based on how we look."
Today, Taharka Bros. Ice Cream has jumped up to 12 employees while stretching beyond Baltimore, where its wholesale factory is located, to supply various Washington, D.C., restaurants with product. It’s also a beacon of do-it-yourself prosperity in a city that’s still feeling the aftershocks of Freddie Gray’s passing. Here, Taharka Bros. Ice Cream's Wilmore and Robinson discuss the hardest lessons they've learned and what life’s been like in Baltimore since that tragic April day.
WATCH NOW: A DREAM PREFERRED - Directed by Rachel Grady and Heidi Ewing from Tribeca Film on Vimeo.
Ice Cream, the Unlikely Equalizer
"A lot of young people in Baltimore are picking up on what we’re doing. I have a lot of homeboys in their 20s who are making money their own type of way, whether it’s through clothes, boxing, football, basketball or rapping. People are making more money that way than they would if they had regular jobs."
"There’s a scene in the film where a little kid says he wants to join the NBA, and I think that mentality exists because the other routes, you probably have to work longer to get where you want to be. Doing something like Taharka Bros. takes a lot of hard work and dedication. With things like basketball and rapping, you still gotta work hard, but you can catch a big break really quickly and suddenly be rich. But if you look at the NBA, there are only 5-10 players on a team, so it’s not as easy to make it in the league as it might seem on TV." -Chuckie Robinson
"What Taharka Bros. is trying to do is unusual. The social enterprise approach isn't your traditional business model, where it's completely about making a profit. With our model, you’re trying to make sure you’re doing something that contributes to the betterment of society, but at the same time, you’re trying to make a profit. There will always be people who don’t believe in that or don’t think it can work. You gotta make sure that the people you’re working with—the people involved with the business' financial capital, specifically—believe that your unique model is a possibility, and that it’s not just pie-in-the-sky thinking. We’ve had some struggles with that."
"It’s been tough to get people to understand that Taharka Bros. is more than just ice cream. We’re trying to get people to understand that these two things, ice cream and social change, can go together." -Darius Wilmore
Living in a Post-Freddie-Gray Baltimore
"Baltimore is different from a lot of places. After what happened to Freddie Gray, there were a lot of people saying that the riots were wrong, but I was actually for them. I was here at the Taharka Bros. factory working, so I wasn’t out there looting and all that, but I wasn’t mad at anybody for looting. If they would’ve never did all that rioting and looting, Baltimore and the situation here wouldn’t have trended like it did. The fact that they got it heard brought it to more ears and eyes, so now they had no choice but to treat it like it’s a big deal. The mission was complete, then. That’s what had to be done to get certain things seen and heard. If you go the quiet route, nothing happens, so the people of Baltimore had no choice but to go the loud route." –Chuckie Robinson
"Chuckie just said, 'I was working,' and that hits on a really important point about this. While Chuckie was working, I was able to be out there during the marches and protests, but the factory had to keep running. It’s not like everybody could leave the factory and go march on the streets—if we all had, the business would’ve went under. There's your conflict: how do you hear about something like Freddie Gray and then respond efficiently and effectively? How do you participate in the social rights and justice aspects of it without forgetting that Chuckie still needs to make ice cream? If he doesn’t do that, everything could fall apart."
"The other part of it is, when you ask how the city’s been in the wake of Freddie Gray, it depends on who you ask. That question might be premature—maybe if you ask that question a year from now, you could have a much more deeply rooted answer. The conversation might be deeper if you look back on it a year from now instead of just four months after what happened to Freddie Gray. There’s still a lot that hasn’t happened or come out yet."
"A big goal of Taharka Bros. has been to keep the business running while doing these other things in our community. That's been critical to the company’s bottom-line, to try to use the company to spur progressive social involvement and engagement, and that’s directed both at the people in our community and internally, to the people who work at Taharka Bros. With that being said, the interesting thing about the whole Freddie Gray thing is that Devon [Brown, the company’s former CEO] now works for [State’s Attorney for Baltimore] Marilyn Mosby’s campaign."
"A couple of years ago, Devon ran for city council, and his campaign was birthed out of conversations inside the Taharka Bros. offices, and some people at the company worked on his campaign. After that, he started volunteering with Marilyn Mosby’s campaign, and now he’s officially part of her team, and he was part of helping her win the State’s Attorney position [in June 2014], when so many people thought she was going to lose. She’s the person who got Freddie Gray’s killers indicted. It’s really great to see how Baltimore was really in a bad way but then a Taharka Brother was able to be in the political office that brought a calming to the city. It was an incredible thing to see."
"That speaks to one of the ideas about this whole Taharka Bros. thing: it’s a platform for a group of young brothers to gain experience and better themselves and their community. What Devon’s been able to do is an incredible representation of that." –Darius Wilmore
A Dream Preferred is available via cable on-demand via Comcast, Time Warner Cable, Verizon, Cablevision, Cox and Brighthouse, Vimeo, interactive smart TV app American Express NOW, the American Express YouTube Channel and American Express OPEN Forum.