GREENSBORO — With successful faith-focused movies like “Facing the Giant” and the “War Room” as inspiration, William H. Stokes, an erstwhile customer-relations associate and Christian hip-hop artist, went about making his own.
It would mean using friends and family members as extras and scouting as many free locations as possible for a story on “healing race relations through the power of love and faith.”
But having partners who work as professional wedding photographers and videographers would also mean access to the kind of equipment that a Steven Spielberg might have used.
And a call for actors on Facebook, Stokes says, yielded a bounty for the major roles.
One of the main actors is a well-known Southern Gospel singer, and another is a drama professor at South Carolina State University,
“I had to cut back on a few meals, sacrifice a few things, and I did odd jobs,” Stokes, the founder of Divine Flava Ministries, said of raising the budget without taking out loans. “And I had faith.”
This weekend, that film, ”The Last Dime,” holds its North Carolina premiere at Harvest Church with a free showing. Donations will be accepted.
At screenings in South Carolina, where most of the filming took place, the audience gave Stokes standing ovations.
“I know I’m the writer,” Stokes said, “but it was so much more than people expected out of an independent film.”
Stokes also knew the potential of an audience.
Faith continues to be on the big screen in a big way.
There was “Son of God,” which earned $25.6 million its opening week. The $125 million blockbuster “Noah” followed and earned more than $250 million worldwide. Nearly two decades ago, Mel Gibson sank $31 million into “The Passion of the Christ,” one of a couple of movies noticeably marketed directly to Christians. It took in more than $670 million and is among one of the highest-grossing movies of all times.
Last year’s “I Can Only Imagine” has already surpassed $85 million.
“We were very intentional about it being a Christian film,” Stokes said of “The Last Dime.” “But it’s not a publicity stunt — it’s who we are.”
That’s because there was a time when he says his life was headed in a bad direction with addictions and bad choices. But he says God’s grace spared him from a prison cell or worse. He has developed inspirational books and musical CDs including “The Holy Bible S.I.V. (Street International Version),” and performs under the name The Quiet Storm.
“It was the power of God that changed me, and I can say he literally saved my life,” Stokes said. “And now it’s very important to me that I express my faith in whatever I do.”
The South Carolina native with a degree in computer science was already living in Greensboro and thinking about issues of race and healing when a young white gunman walked into the basement of the historically black Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Charleston in 2015 and killed nine people during Bible study. The shooter, Dylann Roof, later confessed to targeting the nine as part of a white supremacist attack and is now on death row.
Stokes didn’t want to tell that story. But he wanted to tackle solutions to race relations through faith
“The story that I wrote is just a mirror I’m holding up to America,” he said.
It’s a tale of hurt, forgiveness and grace.
And he thought it was a good story. But to get it on a big screen would take lots of sacrifice and work.
“I remember telling my wife,” he said with a laugh. “At first, she wasn’t so excited.”
They had a mortgage, children and other bills. It would mean putting off vehicle repairs and spending money on anything that could wait.
She ended up being his biggest supporter.
“Our twins were in day care, and our vehicles weren’t in great condition,” Tonya Adams Stokes recalled. “My thought was, ‘Oh, my gosh! I knew that it was gonna be good. I was just thinking financially and about the logistics.”
Stokes partnered with lifelong friends Marlon and Enisha Adams, the husband and wife team of professional videographers at MEA Entertainment, who produced the movie.
It would also take a year and a half of maintaining his day job and then making the nearly four-hour drive to Orangeburg, S.C., every weekend for cast read-throughs filming, and then making the nearly four hour drive back home to start all over again.
“It was draining,” he said.
But mesmerizing, too, as the words he put on paper came to life.
He admits that when he looks at the final reel, there are a few things he would do differently.
Eagle-eyed viewers might spot a scene in which one of the characters has two different hair styles because scenes had to be shot on multiple days or re-shot and a minor actor showed up with a different look or maybe a different outfit.
Next time, the budget will have to include additional behind-the-scene staff because at times he was director/chief go-fer.
“Outside of the cast, it was basically me and my two partners,” Stokes said. “We had to put on many hats, but we also learned a lot.”
At today’s screening at Harvest Church, there will be a concession stand and a movie banner so people can take pictures in front of it and post it to social media to help create a buzz for the movie.
Stokes also has a marketing plan for taking the movie to the public.
Stokes has invested in a mobile movie theater — a big screen and high quality sound system and movie projector,
“We can basically convert any space into a movie theater,” he said.
And that’s what they plan to do. After this weekend, there are two more dates lined up in South Carolina and Stokes is working with other congregations and groups for a tour up and down the East Coast.
Regardless of whether it eventually makes its way onto a theater marquee or not, Stokes says it has all been worth the effort.
“Because we were able to do it against all the odds — without the financial backing, without real experience in filmmaking,” Stokes said. “The fact that we were inspired and followed what we believed was the voice of God in doing this — in my eyes, that’s success.”