The deal goes down at the corner of Branch and Mangum streets on a cold and damp December afternoon in Southeast Raleigh. In fewer than 10 seconds, the cash and drugs have changed hands. Then it happens again. And again. Same customer, same dealer, same boarded-up, derelict house rotting away in the background.
Raleigh Police Department crime statistics for the past six months show more than 50 arrests for drug-related offenses alone within a 500-foot radius of the corner. In spite of the RPD cruiser idling half a block away, no one involved in this particular deal will wind up handcuffed in the back seat.
That’s because the mastermind behind the whole operation, Robert Wagner, is himself an officer with the department. The so-called “Wagz” isn’t a dirty cop, and he’s not using his position of authority to profit from the illicit drug trade. The deal itself is just one of more than two dozen scenes being shot during a three-day period for his short film, “Bragg ‘N East.”
The movie was born of Wagner’s experiences on the job and a desire to change a seemingly forgotten part of the city that has benefited little from the region’s explosive growth of the past several years. The faith-based film tells the story of how a traumatic event brings together a veteran police officer and a hardened gang member seeking to improve the lives of all those around them.
Initially envisioned as a feature-length film, budgetary shortfalls led Wagner to trim the movie’s running time, but did little to hamper his enthusiasm or his ambitions for what the movie can achieve.
“It’s a movie designed to stir God’s people into literally loving the hell out of those who need it,” Wagner said.
Inspired by a number of traumatic experiences on the job, including the death in his arms of a six-week-old infant, Wagner hopes the film will bring more than just an uplifting experience to its audiences. By shooting in the neighborhoods where the story takes place, and hiring locals as crew members, Wagner said the production can offer on-the-job training and connections for local residents in an industry where even those with a checkered past can find work.
Although the short is being put together on a less-than-shoestring budget of $15,000, he plans to use it as a way of drumming up interest in a feature film or television series. Any profits will be funneled back into the community through his nonprofit, Within a Yard ministries, and Wagner hopes that a bigger budget and a longer production timetable will bring more jobs, training and opportunity to the downtrodden area he once patrolled as a community officer.
“This is just the beginning,” Wagner said.
A Rocky Start
As reported by the Record in June, Wagner had initially budgeted the film at about $700,000, with a portion of that to be raised through a Kickstarter campaign. The campaign raised only $4,000 of its $80,000 goal.
In addition to the financial hardships, Wagner faces outspoken opposition from some within in the community who derided him as “the great white hope” and argued that as an outsider, it was not his place to bring this kind of change to the community. After these complaints were addressed by Police Chief Cassandra Deck-Brown at the central Raleigh Citizens Advisory Council meeting in June, Wagner was re-assigned from the Bragg Street area to Five Points.
Wagner continued unfazed. Although he was unable to win the support of those who had spoken out against the project, a variety of local residents were more than willing to pitch in. Many of the scenes shot at homes in the Bragg Street neighborhood granted the production free use of the properties. And in spite of the dreary weather, many area residents turned out last weekend, umbrellas in hand, to watch Wagner’s dream slowly become a reality.
While the budget shortfalls proved somewhat more difficult to overcome, Wagner was able to make a number of adjustments — including taking on the role of the main police officer in the film — as a way of keeping costs down. A number of local agencies also volunteered the use of their equipment and personnel: uniforms and patrol cars from the Capitol Special Police, a SWAT team and armored vehicle from the Wake County Sherriff’s Office, and EMS personnel, also from Wake County.
Although Wagner is currently employed with the Raleigh Police department, and took two weeks of vacation time to work full-time on the film’s production, RPD did not allow the use of any uniforms or vehicles in the movie.
Raleigh police spokesman Jim Sughrue said that many officers pursue personal projects in their off-duty time, and Wagner’s efforts on the film were viewed no differently.
“We just wanted to keep a clear distance between what he’s doing with the movie, and what we’re doing as a department,” Sughrue said.“We didn’t want to put them or the department in any kind of situation that could potentially create conflict.”
Although several years in the making, the actual production schedule for “Bragg ‘N East” is occurring in a relatively short window — a large swath of the casting took place Dec. 8, and by Dec. 15, principal photography was wrapped up.
The auditions, held in the Christ our King Community Church, drew more than 75 hopeful actors, many of them turned on to the film through their local church groups.
One exception was Chastity Davis, who said she found out about the film at the last minute, through a Facebook post.
“I do a lot of entertaining, singing, performing, and I want to get into acting,” Davis said.
While waiting for her turn to be called in to read, Davis said she is currently involved in a play scheduled to run at the Durham Performing Arts Center in January, called Joe Crack.
“It’s a community play that tries to send a positive message, similar to what Rob [Wagner] is doing,” she said.
Davis was eventually cast as the mother of Dae’Quan, the film’s hardened criminal protagonist. Six days after the audition, Davis, who had already wrapped up her scenes for the day, hung around the cold, rainy set in South Raleigh to watch one of the film’s crucial scene’s being filmed — the death of her grandson in the arms of Wagner.
Later that night, an exhausted Wagner, nearing the end of a second 16-hour day of shooting, found himself seated in a pew of the Mt. Sinai Church, prepping for a scene with the church’s Bishop, Bruce Rogers.
Rogers and Wagner met at a weekly early-morning bible study. Once Wagner mentioned the film, Rogers knew he wanted to be involved.
“I told him, ‘I’ll do whatever you need,’” Rogers said.
Rogers eventually donated the use of Mt. Sinai for filming and took on the role of Brother John, a man who consoles Wagner after a series of tragedies have led him to seek solace inside the church walls. The advice he offers, originally a quote from author C.T. Studd, is also the slogan for Wagner’s nonprofit: “Some want to live within the sound of church or a chapel bell; I want to run a rescue shop within a yard of hell.”
Like many of those Wagner hopes to reach and help through the film, Rogers grew up in the Bragg Street area, and said he once lived the life of a criminal.
“I did some hard criminal time when I was a young boy, ignorant, like a lot of those guys out there,” Rogers said. “I needed guidance, I needed to find someone, and truth be told it was a few officers who really gave me the best advice during that time. When I got saved and I got out, I found them and we still correspond.”
While there are still a number of smaller, pick-up scenes to be shot, mostly just featuring Wagner, the final main scenes to be shot were completed Sunday evening in Mt. Sinai.
“It was awesome,” Wagner said.“The room downstairs was packed full of residents from the neighborhood and some of the gang members and drug dealers, and they were down there building relationships.”
As one of Wagner’s main goals with the film was to help people learn how to be positive influences in their own community, seeing those from so many different walks of life come together in this fashion was one of the highlights of the entire production.
“I sat there and I almost broke down in tears,” he said.
“This is exactly what this calls for, this is why what we’re doing it. It’s what is needed, it’s bringing the good, the bad and the ugly together in one room where they can build relationships and affect each others lives in a positive manner.”
Editing will take place during the next few weeks, with the hopes of having a rough cut available by January which can be sent off to various festivals and used to pitch to studio executives.
Once the film is complete, Wagner plans to hold a premiere screening in Raleigh.
“What I would really like to do, is do it red-carpet style, bring residents out, everyone who was involved, I think it would be really cool for them, it would be a great experience, it would be awesome to do that,” he said.