In The Seawall, a short film that debuted at the Cannes Film Festival this year, a young boy begins an emotional journey from his home in Guyana, South America, to a new life in Brooklyn. It’s a journey that filmmaker Mason Richards himself made when he was 7 years old.
“I was born in Guyana, and we shot the film in the house where I grew up,” says Richards, BS’97. “But it’s not really autobiographical. The story is a universal one of having to leave home for a better life in another country.”
In Richards’ case, leaving home meant moving with his family to Brooklyn, which has a large Guyanese population. “There are more Guyanese living there and in Canada and England than in Guyana itself today,” Richards says. “Guyana is a beautiful country, but very poor. So we came to New York like many others—to pursue the American dream.”
That dream seems to have come true for Richards. After working as a child actor in New York and touring the U.S. with City Kids Theatre Company, Richards enrolled at Vanderbilt as part of a cohort of students recruited from New York City by The Posse Foundation, a college access and youth leadership development program that works to connect students with exceptional potential to top-ranked colleges and universities. While at Vanderbilt, Richards directed the university’s first African American student theatre production, For Colored Girls Who Have Considered Suicide/When the Rainbow Is Enuf by Ntozake Shange, an experience that planted the seed for Richards’ pursuit of a film-directing career.
After working for CBS News in New York and in marketing at Paramount Studios in Los Angeles, Richards returned to school to earn his master’s degree in fine art in film directing from the California Institute of the Arts in May 2010. “The Seawall is my thesis film,” Richards says. “I brought a camera person and a sound person with me, but the rest of the crew and cast are nonprofessionals from Guyana.”
The result is an intimate look at 10-year-old Malachi’s life as his grandmother, Marjorie, prepares him to move to Brooklyn. Doing so means that Malachi must go beyond the seawall that separates Georgetown, Guyana’s capital, from the ocean and defines the only world the boy has ever known.
“I wanted to premiere my film at an international festival because of its subject matter,” Richards says. “So I submitted it to Cannes—and was accepted. Attending the festival was life-changing. I was meeting filmmakers from all over the world and attending workshops for new filmmakers. It was inspiring.”
Richards is using that inspiration to shoot another short film this summer in Brooklyn, one that deals with a boy whose father is coming home from prison. “Then I’ll begin work on my first feature film,” Richards says. “It’s an inner-city coming-of-age story based on a published novel.”