“Are you miserable?”

“Not right now.”

The ‘La Raza’ approach to filmmaking is an interesting one. The Latino film studio Ave Fenix Pictures based in Chicago have helmed this community-based filmmaking style, which incorporates members of the general public with no previous acting experiences to portray themselves or fictional characters in stories that reflect urban neighborhoods in Chicago.

Black Ruby (2017) is the first film from Ave Fenix Pictures to have the filmmaking movement ‘La Raza’ credited as the director. Black Ruby centralises around Jules and Louis, two young jazz musicians striving to write a successful and commercially viable jazz song. Ruby, a young prostitute is suddenly introduced into their lives and distracts the pair of budding jazz musicians from their immediate career goals. The pair of musicians have to deal with detriment to relationships, both old and new, whilst trying to write a song good enough to allow Jules to leave the shadow his famous jazz musician father has been casting over him.

Poetic distrubia Luis Katz (Zachary Laoutides).jpg

Although this is an ensemble picture, Joseph Mennella’s gritty and grandiose depiction of Jules Mandel takes centre stage. His energetic performance plays well off of both Zachary Laoutides’ Louis and Krystal E. Heredia’s titular Ruby, who both have more reserved and solemn performances. Zachary Laoutides’ performance has traces of a young Marlon Brando, which is actually reflected within the dialogue later in the film with a reference to On The Waterfront (1954).

The pacing of the narrative is easygoing, and allows the relationships between the characters to progress naturally and rhythmically. Whilst watching, I found myself thinking back to 2016’s La La Land, directed by Damien Chazelle, and its bubblegum sweet depiction of a  relationship dealing with jazz and striving to find success, and some of the complete differences with the depictions and uses of jazz in Black Ruby. This film has a more gritty, grounded and personal relationship with its characters, focussing on the struggles and battles within a different social class whilst still having an affinity and love for jazz music.

For the most part, this film was shot using an iPhone 7, which ties in brilliantly with Ave Fenix Pictures’ community-based approach to filmmaking and storytelling. Often, films shot on mobile can look extremely clunky and amateurish, but in recent years films like Tangerine (2015) and Unsane (2018) show that the days are gone where excellent storytelling has to rely on high-end technology to work. There is a lot of reliance on natural lighting and there has evidently been some creative editing of both saturation and desaturation of colours in certain scenes to reflect themes and moods throughout. Using low-cost technology to share reflective stories with a diverse range of people and places is a growing trend within independent filmmaking –– and a welcomed one at that.

Seduction Ruby (Krystla E Heredia).jpg

Whilst the mobile cinematography works really well, the sound design is one part where I find real fault within this film. A lot of the recorded dialogue seemed to be captured using room microphones or simply via the cameras themselves, with the occasional use of ADR. Within the sound mix, there were times I was struggling to hear certain lines of dialogue, or some of the more reserved performances seemed to be drowned out by foley work or the soundtrack.

Another gripe with the relationship between the sound and image is that there are often scenes where the characters would play the piano, and the movement, rhythm and placement of their hands would hardly reflect the piano work of the soundtrack at all. This may be quite a niche nitpick, but I deem it important in a film based around songwriting. It was exciting to have an eclectic mix of different songs and genres on the soundtrack. A blend of big band jazz, ambient soundscapes, and acoustic ballads all find their place in this film to reflect both the actions and moods being depicted through the visuals.

It was refreshing to see a community-based studio put out such a coherent and developed narrative, whilst dealing with a multitude of different characters, relationships, and motifs.   

Ultimately, Black Ruby has all the components of a good jazz song: Grounded in reality, unpredictable when it needs to be, and quite a lot of fun to witness.


Editor’s Note:

Black Ruby received accolades from the 2018 Los Angeles Film Forum Awards, 2017 London Independent Film Awards and 2017 Rome Film Awards. Black Ruby also received 19 festival nominations and 5 wins including “Best Actor” for Zachary Laoutides, “Best Feature Film” & “Best Original Dramatic Score” at the 2018 Los Angeles Film Forum Awards.

Black Ruby was co-produced by Mónica Esmeralda Leon and Zachary Laoutides, and was released on-demand and on all digital platforms March 5th, 2019.

Watch Black Ruby on iTunes, Amazon Prime Video, or Redbox.