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Red Carpet Treatment

TIMES STAFF WRITER

Just about everybody in the housing project knows about it.

Grandparents 2,000 miles away will be watching.

Cousins and aunts will come to see them off, snapping photos like on prom night.

“My mother is telling everybody in the project to come out here at 3 p.m. and watch me get in the limo,” Cynthia “Queeny” Turner, who lives in the Imperial Courts housing project, said with a laugh. “She is so happy. She can’t wait. You know how mothers are.”

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This year’s Oscar night--Hollywood’s biggest party--is also a big night for some of the residents of Watts. “Colors Straight Up,” an Oscar-nominated documentary directed and co-produced by Michele Ohayon, was filmed in this community. The cast members all belong to Living Literature/Colors United, an after-school performing and visual arts program founded at Jordan High School.

With cameras rolling, Ohayon, who was raised in Israel, followed six members of the group for a year, filming moving passages of their growing up in Watts.

Tonight, Turner and the other cast members will follow Ohayon--to the Academy Awards.

“I always wanted to walk on that red carpet,” said Turner. “If I couldn’t walk on the red carpet, I wanted to be on the side, but I’m going to be walking on it, with my black tall heels and my black velvet dress.”

In style, Turner said.

Since the nominations were announced, the cast members have been preparing for the evening, selecting evening dresses and tuxedos, shoes and accessories. They have been on early-morning shows and late-night shows talking about the film and have attended screenings.

Getting an Oscar nomination, they have found, has earned them praise and encouragement. A smile fills the voice of 16-year-old Michael Ford when he recalls a conversation with his grandparents in Georgia. “They’re proud,” Ford said. “My granddaddy told me, ‘Keep up the good work.’ I just love it when I hear my grandfather say something like that. My grandmother too.”

David Powell, the president of American Career College, where Turner is a student, was so moved by the news that she was attending that he offered to help her with the expenses--including the cost of the limousine ride, she said.

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“He didn’t even know me,” said Turner, who has dreamed of going to the awards since fifth grade. “I had never been in his office. I couldn’t believe it.”

This is what Ohayon wanted.

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For years before, during and after filming, cast members gave her access to their lives. When Oscar Sierra was put in jail, she was there. When Turner went to visit a sister in a drug rehab program, she was there. Now Ohayon has given them an experience to remember.

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“For me, this is the most exciting part of the whole thing, to see their excitement, their parents’ excitement,” said Ohayon, whose co-producer on the project was Julia Schachter. “They had the courage to come forward and tell their stories, and I wanted to pay them back in a way.”

Finding proper Oscar attire for the cast has been a serious study in collaboration, headed by Gail Simms, a fashion designer and stylist who is the sister of Phil Simms, the founder of Colors United.

Gail Simms called on her friends in the fashion industry for help. Most were already booked because of the Oscars, but a few agreed to donate their expertise to the group. Hollywood makeup artist Giani Thomas will be at Turner’s house this afternoon doing hair and makeup for the cast members, she said. The black evening dresses and tuxedo rentals were also gifts from friends.

On Saturday, she took Turner and Norma Perez shopping for shoes.

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“They’re all going to be extremely elegant--absolutely elegant and wonderful,” Gail Simms said. “And that’s what they wanted. That’s how they saw themselves.”

Their choice of Oscar attire surprised Simms. “I thought they would want to be extremely off the wall,” she said. “They were very much concerned with being as simple and wonderful-looking as possible. They didn’t want any clutter.”

Phil Simms and Kingston DuCoeur, president and musical director of Colors United, will be at the awards ceremony as well.

The way Phil Simms sees it, the evening is an opportunity not for the cast members to see the stars, but for the stars--and the rest of America--to see them.

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“We always tell them, ‘Don’t go get their autograph; let them get yours,’ ” he said. It is yet another way he reinforces the idea that they can look anyone in the eye, and be on equal footing.

“Like last night, little Michael Ford said, ‘I got a Michael Jordan tux.’ I said, ‘No, you got a Michael Ford tux.’ He straightened up and said, ‘That’s right.’ ”

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This is Simms. The Brooklyn-born instructor dispenses wisdom and hugs freely and frequently. Simms appears in the documentary doing just that. “We all love Phil to death,” Turner said. “None of this would be happening if it wasn’t for Phil.”

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The group, which now operates on several other campuses and a skills center, boasts a 100% graduation rate for its members and a 0% return to gang involvement or delinquency, Simms said. Through the arts, the group motivates young people to overcome challenges in their lives.

With productions like “Watts Side Story” and “The Life and Times of Ernest Hemingway,” they have entertained at President Clinton’s first inauguration and have traveled to Denmark, Egypt and South Korea. Recently, the group was invited to a conference on global violence in Geneva, Switzerland.

“We’re allowing them to replace and dislodge the negative things that might have happened to them in their lives,” he said. “We really help them process dream fulfillment.”

While cast members, who also include LaToya “Lovely” Howlett, Stanley Elam and Theo Heard, are at the Academy Awards, other members of Colors United will be watching the ceremonies from Lucy’s El Adobe restaurant on Melrose Boulevard.

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The Oscar excitement and attention might help accomplish what Michael sees as the value of the documentary.

“I wanted everyone to learn that Watts is not all bad,” he said. “We do have a lot of good things here, and just because a person comes from an area like this doesn’t mean they’re always bad.”


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