A celebrated actor fresh off his role as Magic Johnson in an HBO series and an up-and-coming movie producer, both alumni of Kalamazoo College, returned to campus last week, seeking a chance to change society’s views regarding marijuana incarceration policies.
Quincy Isaiah ’17—an actor known for Winning Time: The Rise of the Lakers Dynasty—and Producer Adam Edery ’19 met students for a conversation about social justice in the entertainment industry and screened their new independent movie, Grassland, with a discussion panel and a private audience at the Arcus Center for Social Justice Leadership.
Grassland is expected to premier at a variety of film festivals in 2024 with Isaiah, Edery and Consulting Producer Shon Powell ’18—a third K alumnus—among those in its credits. The movie, set in 2008 during the Great Recession, follows a single Latina mother whose illegal marijuana business is jeopardized when her son befriends new neighbors, a young white boy and his police officer grandfather. According to production research, Latino people were four times more likely to be arrested for marijuana possession than white people at the time, while Black people were seven times more likely.
Actors Mía Maestro and Jeff Kober star alongside Isaiah, who plays Brandon. Maestro’s credits include the 2014–15 TV series The Strain and the 2012 film The Twilight Saga: Breaking Dawn, Part 2. Kober’s credits include TV series such as The Walking Dead, Sons of Anarchy and China Beach. His movie roles include a part in the 2016 film Sully.
Edery was among the first to join the project with one of his jobs being to secure funding for it, a role he relished considering the film’s subject matter.
“For me, I feel like my participation in the creation of the film was because of my K experience,” Edery said. “I was an anthropology-sociology major, and even before I had anything to do with film, I wanted to go into social justice and activism. A lot of the early projects that I produced were comedy based or random opportunities. There was nothing that felt like, ‘Wow, this is the type of story I want to tell.’ And then I read the script for Grassland. It was like a light flipped on in my head. The passion to do this project was inspired by me coming to K.”
Edery had previously reached out to Isaiah to connect as both were in Los Angeles, both were in the entertainment industry, and both were K alumni. Isaiah didn’t have a lot of time to meet until his work with Winning Time had finished, but when they finally got together, their networking proved to be mutually beneficial.
“We met for lunch and Adam slid the script to me,” Isaiah said of Grassland. “I read it and I loved it. It was beautiful and it had a lot of heart to it. I think that’s what pulled me to it, and with the K connection, I think there’s a different expectation you feel about certain people. Just meeting with him and hearing his thoughts about social justice made me feel very comfortable to work with him. I felt a kinship.”
Edery never had a doubt that Isaiah would flourish in his role as Brandon, but the producer said watching Isaiah act in person was amazing.
“I was blown away while watching him on set,” Edery said. “I always knew that Quincy is a super nice, hard-working, super talented actor, but I had never been there before to see him physically act. I remember a graveyard scene where it felt like I was looking at a different person. I think that’s a testament to how great Quincy is as an actor and how he crushed the role by pouring himself into it. When we watch it on screen, it almost doesn’t register that I’m watching Quincy. It’s like me and Quincy are watching Brandon.”
Beyond the film’s acting talent, Edery hopes the film will be known for asking its audiences an important question: How did we get here?
“The movie takes place in 2008 and something Quincy and I talk about is that this film has no villain,” he said. “It doesn’t say the police officer is the villain or that Sophia, who is growing weed, is the villain. It points at the system in place. Then being in 2023, it forces us to ask, ‘What are the systems that allowed us to have 40,000 people in prison for something that’s legal in Michigan now?’”
Isaiah said the film’s importance, in his opinion, is about viewers seeing different perspectives while following characters on a journey of emotions.
“These are people you could pass on the street and never pay much attention to, but when you see their story on the big screen, it’s right in front of you,” he said. “You have to pay attention and care about them.”
With there being no villain in Grassland, Isaiah said any character could potentially resonate with any viewer at any time.
“Some might gravitate toward Brandon,” he said. “Some people will gravitate toward Sophia and John (a police officer) or even Sophia’s mom. She’s so good in it and it’s for such a short time, but there’s so much weight to her role. I think everybody will find some character they see themselves in and that’s what you want a movie to be. You want to see yourself represented on the screen.”
His own character, though, is somebody who feels stuck with few options for moving on.
“I don’t want to spoil the movie, but he’s just finding himself in tough position after tough position because of something he did as a child,” Isaiah said. “He’s looked at like a dog and that’s the story of so many people. I relate to Brandon because I want the freedom to mess up and not be reprimanded for life because of it. But as sad as his story is, there’s something in him that will allow him to have a second life. He just has to put in more effort than his counterparts, which is difficult, but it’s his reality and I think he’s strong enough to figure that out.”
Ultimately, Edery said the opportunity to screen the film at K felt obvious, especially after discussing the possibility with President Jorge G. Gonzalez and Associate Vice President for Development Andy Miller ’99 and connecting with Arcus Center Executive Director Emily Williams.
“Even when we were filming, Quincy and I were saying that we have to bring this film back to campus,” Edery said. “One of the reasons we made the film was the K connection, but this is a movie that people can engage with through debate and conversation, laughter and crying. I think K students are the perfect crowd for it because they’re thoughtful and they want to reflect. It was a no-brainer to bring it back to K.”
“I double down on that,” Isaiah added. “K students are thoughtful and open to conversation, and we’re alumni, so it’s like being back home. We met with some students and we were able to have some candid conversations about the film, about our roles and our jobs, and about their curiosity regarding us as people and professionals. There were some big questions, so it was an excellent experience. It’s so surreal to walk down that cobblestone road. Coming into K, I was a kid. When I left, I had the tools to figure myself out. I think the K influence is that I can be fully transparent and vulnerable on screen. That’s what I learned to do here: I learned how to be a man.”
With the movie complete, Edery and Isaiah will be among those teaming up to nominate Grassland for inclusion in film festivals such as Sundance while participating in social justice campaigns to advance its cause.
“We want to get it in front of as many people as possible whether it’s here at K, at film festivals or wherever,” Edery said. “I’m proud of it, and when people watch it, I hope it inspires them to change their hearts and minds. We’re also partnering with organizations like the Last Prisoner Project to support the work that they’re doing to get people out of prison or their sentences commuted if they’re in prison because of marijuana. If we could boil it down to one goal, I’d like us to focus on the people who are still locked up right now and push that charge to get people out.”
Isaiah hopes that one day he will hear stories about how the film changed people’s hearts and minds.
“Marijuana is everywhere now,” Isaiah said. “It’s not fair for people to be locked up for that and then be unable to find a job or feed themselves or their families because of a mistake they made 10 or 15 years ago when it wasn’t OK. If we can make a change for even one person, that would be cool because hearing their stories breaks my heart. I hope people will hit up their representatives, talk to a formerly incarcerated person, take a virtual prison tour or do whatever it is that the film inspires them to do to push for change.”