In her first feature film, Tina Charles allows viewers to learn what makes her tick off the court.
In 1883 Emma Lazarus defined what it meant to exist in the United States. With her sonnet “New Colossus,” she gave America an identity and a responsibility to freedom and liberty.
This past August, Ken Cuccinelli, the acting head of Citizenship and Immigration Services obliterated Lazarus’ poem to smithereens, uttering how being an American is a “privilege” and added the phrase “who can stand on their own two feet and who will not become a public charge.” The statement probably had Lazarus rolling in her grave.
Rawlston “Charlie” Charles, who immigrated to the United States from Delaford, Tobago in 1967 was far from a “public charge” and according to Lazarus and her “New Colossus” was rather a young person “yearning to breathe free.” Or as his daughter, New York Liberty All-Time scorer Tina Charles has said, her dad simply “bought into America.”
Tina made her directorial debut chronicling the life and times of her father Rawlston and his journey developing Brooklyn’s version of Motown in the documentary “Charlie’s Records.” Debuting at Tribeca this past May, the film clocks in under two hours and is not only a biographical tale of Charlie, but is a course in music education or an almanac in the Carribean birthed Calypso and its less political and less troubadourian cousin Soca, short for soul-of-Calypso music.
Screened at the 5th annual Caribbean Film Series at the Brooklyn Academy of Music on November 6, “Charlie’s Records” wasn’t only an immigrant’s story. It’s a tale of discovering passion and watching it become the greatest love of all. It’s a tale about learning to foster a labor of love and deal with its inevitable repercussions.
At its start, the film plops the viewer on the Island of Tobago with Charlie visiting his old childhood home in a pink ensemble brighter than the aquamarine tone of the Carribean Sea. In addition to Tina’s decision to allow camera to lean on the beauty of the island, there was an early focus on Charlie’s hands, which was a symbol of the means to his drive. The 7X WNBA-All Star was inspired by Rashida Jones’ “Quincy,” another father-daughter documentary film which also focused on the subject’s hands.
Shy of photos and video footage of some of Charlie’s earliest and most vivid memories, the film fills the void with its most creative feature. Editor and associate producer Parker Dixon suggested illustrations to serve as storytelling set pieces. The bright colored animation brought an extra vigor to some of Rawlston’s most vivid memories. Staying with strangers and adapting to the New York snow once he arrived in America, a near fistfight in a recording studio, and meeting Mick Jager face-to-face were just some of the moments captured by illustration.
The film covered a lot of ground, which might have been both a blessing and a curse. In less than two hours, Charlie is a teen fixing up cars in the Carribean, a 24-hour taxi driver in America, a Brooklyn DJ, then a record producer for his label Charlie’s Records and a small business owner of his store Charlie’s Calypso City and his up-stairs studio Rawlston Recordings.
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Without an initial extensive knowledge of Calypso and its Calypsonians, there were many names, songs and ideas that floated around in my head. Lord Kitchener. Calypso Rose. Leston Paul. I might have needed a crash course beforehand or maybe an episode of Tina and her father talking to the New York Times’ Jon Caramanica on Popcast— which they should still try to do, by the way.
The transitions didn’t ease how overwhelmed I was. There were many unanswered questions. How did these artists from Trinidad and Tobago just find Charlie? How did hip-hop stars Fat Boys, Doug E. Fresh, and Run-DMC just show up on Fulton Street? How exactly did Rawlston Charles become an insider? In between all of the names, bands, and songs, it was almost as if his rise to gain trust and notoriety was a whirlwind.
Initially, Tina aimed to pass on her father’s story to Spike Lee, and maybe if Lee was at the helm it might have been a little cleaner and maybe a bit more focused. Lee knew this which was why he still advised Charles that she had to tell her father’s tale. Charlie’s place in his world in Brooklyn and the razzle-dazzle he provided to his community might have been minimized if anyone other than his daughter took this project on. The film might not have been as warm.
But also Charles and Dixon initially had three and a half hours of footage which included cut segments of Michael Jackson and the Jackson 5 performing Kitchener’s “Sugar Bum Bum” at the Queen’s Park Savannah and instances where Charlie was arrested for “blasting his music super loud.”
But what they did include were some comedic zingers which aided in the characterization of Charlie and his community on Fulton Street. “I was going to buy a record, but I really came to see how you’d look today.” Charlie’s flamboyantly fly wardrobe was just as much of a motif as it was the butt of many jokes in “Charlie’s Records.” During an animated scene during his DJ days, the line: “Americans dance from the knee down,” elicited a roar of laughter.
The most compelling part of the entire film wasn’t necessarily the high profile acts that Charlie helped develop and record in his state of the art studio, Rawlston Recordings. “Charlie’s Records” leans into the story of an unsung hero just as much as it further explains the journey and the ethos of the one behind the camera, the 2X Olympic Champion Tina.
Charlie was indignant in improving the audio quality of Calypso and while daughter Tina did not stop until she added a three-point shot to her game. The evidence goes even further. Charlie admitted it himself back in 2018 during a labor day event on Fulton where Tina conveniently had her camera crew filming b-roll.
“The fruit do not fall far from the tree,” he said to the crowd about his daughter. “And you know, a man from his will. And so I see what you are doing, it’s what I’ve been doing since I was a young man growing up. And you perfect it for me.”
Before Charlie left for New York back in the 1960’s, he knew himself very well. He wanted to “be a creator of things” and that “one failure” wouldn’t get in his way. The same goes for Tina.
“I love serving others,” she told IONCINEMA back in May. “Creating this film allowed me to serve others. And that’s how my father was… My father and I, we have many similarities as far as how we go about things. Wanting to impact: that’s something I always want to do just continue to impact those around me with the platform that I have playing in the WNBA.”
In addition to capturing service, Tina caught vulnerability on camera naturally. Watching her father recount his experiences being taken advantage of by the politics of the music industry, including the dispute over the global hit “Hot Hot Hot” which Charlie produced and was initially recorded by the late Soca artist Arrow but later was covered and made a conga-line staple by Buster Poindexter. Charlie’s approach to disappointment and betrayal was refreshingly nuanced. Allowing artists to return to work with him following their departure to another producer was unexpected and refreshing.
I was reminded immediately of how Tina has handled playing in the WNBA in the last two seasons. I don’t have to repeat what the New York Liberty have been through. How does someone continue to bet on something that wasn’t giving them the same care and support in return? Instead of allowing pride and bitterness to take over, Tina Charles of course has a different idea.
“I feel the WNBA can do a better job at highlighting [her peers] and I’m someone who takes action as you can see,” she said at BAM. “And if it’s up to me and [her new production company] Thirty-One Enterprises to do that, that’s what’s going to happen.”
At the Q&A following the screening, Charlie asked his daughter why in the world she’d put the same effort she puts into basketball as she would into a film that might not garner financial returns.
“I asked her: why do you want to do this?” he said. “[Charlie’s Records] isn’t going to bring no money back to you. She said: ‘Dad it’s not about your money. If I can give Sudan $30,000 to build or fix or renovate a school, then why can’t I spend some money on you.’”
Charlie’s questioning of his daughter was ironic to say the least. He bet on Calypso and Soca music at a time when it wasn’t profitable and had no place in the United States. The parallels between the two are uncanny.
But, the two have their own differences. Tina wanted to be inconspicuous. She was seated in the upper right corner of the theater within the Peter Jay Sharp Building. She wore a grey and black jacket while father Charlie was decked out in flamingo pink and a floral pattern. Rawlston Charles can talk for hours while Tina chooses her words carefully. She values brevity while Charlie, however, enjoys a healthy rant.
In “Charlie’s Records” both the subject and its director are woven out of the cloth of the “New Colossus.” They welcome the challenge. They don’t leave or balk at what’s been “tempest-tost” in their American lives.
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