A man meets a homeless teen on the street and the encounter changes the man’s outlook on life. This is the premise of “He Who Listens,” a short film written, directed and starred in by Webster University film major Maalik Shakoor.
Shakoor said he submitted the film to film festivals around the country and had it shown at the St. Louis International Film Festival, Cinema St. Louis Filmmakers Showcase and Los Angeles CineFest.
A Star is Born
Shakoor has always been comfortable in the spotlight. Shakoor’s mother, Carlisa Nelson, said he was born with a talent for public speaking.
“Maalik has never met a microphone, never met a spotlight he didn’t make best friends with, never,” Nelson said. “He’s always been that way.”
She believes Shakoor’s talent may have come from his father, who was a professional boxer in his younger days.
“[Boxers] had to have a certain bravado about themselves, you know, be bold and speak well of yourself and not be afraid to get in front of people and say things,” Nelson said. “So yeah, I think he gets that from his dad because I’m nothing like that.”
Shakoor said he frequently spoke in front of the congregation at his place of worship when he was young. Youth education and leadership organizations, like Cultural Leadership gave Shakoor a platform to speak in front of an audience. National Action Network, a civil rights organization also gave Shakoor public speaking opportunities.
Shakoor said he became known as an articulate and well-versed speaker in his friend group. This would eventually open the door for Shakoor to step into the acting realm.
While a junior in high school, Shakoor was approached by a friend who suggested he audition for a play at an all-girls school because they needed a few boys to fill the male roles. Impressed by Shakoor’s performance, the director of the play got him in contact with a casting agent and encouraged him to audition for a part in a Missouri Lottery commercial. Shakoor walked out with the lead role.
Intrigued by the experience of acting in the commercial, he auditioned for a supporting role in a short film produced by a group of New York University graduates.
“I auditioned for them, got a role in that as a good supporting character, and then seeing a black director with a black producer, with a predominantly black cast, this really seemed like a possibility, this is feasible, I see some people in the community that I grew up in doing some really big things,” Shakoor said. “So I was like ‘Okay, I like this medium of film.’”
Shakoor then declared a film production major at Webster University in 2014.
A Creative Partnership
Shakoor met former Webster student and fellow filmmaker David Kirkman during his freshman year of college. Kirkman said he was holding auditions for a film he was working on, called “Retribution,” when he received an email from Shakoor. In the email, Shakoor told Kirkman he would not be able to go to any of the formal auditions because they were on the same day as freshman orientation.
Kirkman and a few others involved in the production met Shakoor at a Panera Bread later. Kirkman said the group talked and got to know each other, and something for him just clicked.
“After that, he just got the role,” Kirkman said. “I knew I wanted him to have the role.”
Shakoor and Kirkman formed a creative partnership, and both contributed to each other’s projects. When Kirkman conceptualized a show about a young black college student finding himself amidst a black student organization, Shakoor landed the lead role of Lorenzo “Gonzo” Stephens.
Kirkman said Shakoor really displayed his acting abilities in this role, citing a specific scene in which Shakoor had very little dialogue.
“In the script, you have four pages, four minutes worth of him not saying anything until the end, and then he only has two lines… and he made that so intense,” Kirkman said. “You know, he took that and just ran with it.”
Kirkman said Shakoor’s involvement and creative input have become an integral part of his creative process.
“For me, he is literally the Leonardo DiCaprio to my Martin Scorcese, or the Denzel Washington to my Spike Lee,” Kirkman said. “You know, those duets, they work together often. And that’s how I see myself and Maalik’s relationship. It’s hard for me to see myself doing a project without him in some form or fashion in a major way.”
Kirkman is also involved in Shakoor’s projects, and assisted Shakoor in the editing process of “He Who Listens.” He said Shakoor’s directing style is very detail oriented and he likes to explore deeper meaning in his work.
“I know that for him, or at least the things he takes very seriously, he wants to be part of projects that could potentially have some serious impact or have a powerful message behind it,” Kirkman said. “And you can see that with ‘He Who Listens’ as well.”
Shakoor said his directing style is most influenced by the works of Spike Lee through his films “Malcolm X” and “Do the Right Thing.” He also takes inspiration from other directors such as Quentin Tarantino and Martin Scorsese. He said he particularly likes the written works of Charlie Kaufman, a scriptwriter most famous for surrealist films like “Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind,” “Synecdoche, New York” and “Being John Malkovich.”
“I kind of lean more towards that style, but I’m trying to develop my style and include more social commentary,” Shakoor said.
Shakoor’s environment growing up in north St. Louis also had an impact on his creative development, and he said he likes to write scripts based on his experiences and his community. He said he sometimes writes characters with a certain actor from his community in mind.
“Maybe I just like their look and their aesthetic and maybe their presence for a certain role,” Shakoor said. “Or maybe because I see myself in them and therefore use them to reflect the characters I have. And sometimes they can’t do it, and I’ll have to go to the next best thing.”
Shakoor said he had to use the next best thing in “He Who Listens” when his first choice actor for a role fell through. The second choice for the role was himself.
“The most difficult part is trying to direct when you are in front of the camera, that’s why I had an assistant director, Maxine du Maine, who did an awesome job,” Shakoor said. “I gave her director credit, and she much deserved it. The only thing I don’t like is that sometimes they put her name in front of mine. It’s like ‘I still wrote and directed most of this, my name should be in front.’ But it’s whatever, that’s just me being petty.”
With the acceptance of “He Who Listens” into several film festivals this year, Shakoor’s future ambitions are to make it into bigger festivals like the Toronto and Ontario Film Festivals. Although Shakoor’s grateful for what he has achieved thus far, he said he still has a long way to go and plenty of room for improvement.
“I want to be like an all-time legend,” Shakoor said. “I also want to be a positive influence, I want to be a mentor, I want to open up doors for other people to get to my platform. I want to be a teacher, I want to be a leader. That’s how I look at it.”