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How ‘Summertime’s’ young L.A. poets transformed ‘Raya’s’ Carlos López Estrada

A diverse group of young adults stands on a sidewalk smiling at the camera.
“Summertime” cast and creators, from left: Marquesha Babers, Tyris Winter, Austin Antoine, producer Kelly Marie Tran, Madyson Park, director Carlos Lopez Estrada, Marcus James, Jason Alvarez and Raul Herrera in Los Angeles on June 30, 2021.
(Carolyn Cole / Los Angeles Times)

Spoken word poetry transmits messages through a singular language: deft prose molded into a visceral performance by rhythm, intonation and physicality. The delivery turns words into daggers of truth, for soul-searching or external confrontation.

In the spring of 2019, this potent conduit for liberating one’s innermost struggles and yearnings worked itself in the psyche of Carlos López Estrada. The Mexican-born director behind the indie breakthrough “Blindspotting” and this year’s Disney release, “Raya and the Last Dragon,” attended a showcase of young poets from across Los Angeles at Get Lit — Words Ignite, a nonprofit in Koreatown founded by Diane Luby Lane to promote literacy through self-expression.

Get Lit operates in tandem with LAUSD high schools to introduce a curriculum into English classes that integrates classic and contemporary poetry, from Yeats to Kendrick Lamar, in order to encourage students to generate their own pieces. The artists he witnessed, some seasoned, others just coming into their own, embodied fearlessness in their openness and the kind of determined hope that can be life-altering. It was for him.

The encounter led López Estrada to his second feature, “Summertime,” an omnibus narrative film celebrating 27 spoken word storytellers and the corners of the city they most identify with.

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“I left that showcase feeling impossibly optimistic. Here was a diverse community of young artists who turned to poetry as a way of coping with hardship. My only reason for wanting to make this movie,” López Estrada says, “was to allow other people to experience what I experienced when I first heard the poets perform.”

That pivotal night, Marcus James, a poet and educator who was then part of the Get Lit staff, hosted the event. Now in charge of managing the impact campaign tied to the film’s Friday release, James can attest to the profound relationship young people develop with the form and why it became unshakable to the filmmaker.

“You have an idea, you write your first draft, you edit it, and then once it’s done you get to memorize it, to put it in your body and then you share it when you perform it,” James says. “The process of taking an idea from your head and then transitioning that all the way to having a finalized performance piece is the reason that that makes spoken word so interesting.”

Galvanized by the community he discovered, López Estrada worked hard to ensure “Summertime” was a collective process between himself and the student poets.

Six people each kick one foot toward the camera.
“Summertime’s” poet-actors, from left: Austin Antoine, Maia Mayor, Tyris Winter, Jason Alvarez, Marquesha Babers and Mila Cuda, photographed in the L.A. Times Studio at the Sundance Film Festival on Jan. 24, 2020, in Park City, Utah.
(Jay L. Clendenin / Los Angeles Times)

This wasn’t easy. With some of the poets starting college in fall 2019 or finding new jobs, the only time to bring the venture to fruition was during the students’ summer break. In just a few months they conceived, developed, wrote, pre-produced and shot a full production with scenes in numerous locations.

“We knew that the heart of the movie wouldn’t be how perfectly rehearsed and how perfectly executed it would be,” López Estrada says, “but in allowing these poets to have the room to express themselves in whatever form they may need.”

Each poet brought one or two previously written poems they wished to explore in the film. Some preferred to find new material specifically for the screen. Starting with their Koreatown office as headquarters, they first tried to decipher the geographic path the movie would follow.

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Taking restaurant critic Jonathan Gold’s experiment of trying to dine in every eatery on Pico Boulevard as a reference, the group devised a route that swiftly takes the viewer from one region of the city to the next. The start line is on the beach in Venice, and then the story heads to downtown and East L.A.

Together they crafted maps of the neighborhoods each poet wanted to celebrate. The next challenge was turning the poems and maps and life experiences into a narrative, connecting the dots based on which stories spoke to each other, which poem complemented another and which characters were best suited for a certain moment or transition.

Austin Antoine and Bryce Banks, for instance, play Rah and Anewbyss, two aspiring rappers who go from humble beginnings to riches overnight and learn that their most authentic tracks, such as one on being grateful toward their mothers, connected with audiences more than lyrics flaunting an outlandish lifestyle.

For Antoine, freestyle was just a pastime in his adolescence and even at CalArts, where the environment wasn’t conducive to growing his voice. It wasn’t until he was offered to partake in Get Lit that his own perception about the meaning of his work shifted.

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“I wasn’t sure I was equipped because I don’t particularly do poetry. I rap. I write lyrics. I write words that convey my thoughts and emotions and things that I go through. Come to find out at Get Lit that I am a poet,” Antoine says. “And thank goodness that I’m able to claim that because that opened so many more doors.”

Tyris Winter, fashion icon in the making, was a later addition to the ensemble. That may come as a surprise since he is the de facto captain of this ship named “Summertime” — he helps the viewer navigate the serpentine narrative. Early on in the film, he offers a denunciation of the overpriced menu items at a trendy restaurant and its disconnection with the average person living on a low income.

Poet-actor Tyris Winter stands with her arms crossed.
“Summertime” poet-actor Tyris Winter: “It wasn’t a character. It was my life story, which shows how honest the film is.”
(Carolyn Cole / Los Angeles Times)

Later in the film, his unforgettable performance as a queer youth experiencing homelessness broadens the layers of this group effort.

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“When we filmed that moment I was still going through it. It wasn’t a character. It was my life story, which shows how honest the film is,” Winter says. “All our poems are what we want to express as people for others to witness. It also goes to show that Carlos was just so diligent to really stay true to our stories. It was quite difficult to perform, especially knowing that so many other queer teens have experienced that or are still going through it. It’s a story that is not uncommon. It’s so disheartening.”

Korean American poet Madyson Park focuses her screen time on capturing an unseen moment of the everyday triumphs and defeats of her community. Shot inside a kitchen at a Koreatown restaurant, the chapter shows several women of varying ages, Park included, dancing to lessen the burden of their jobs.

“Los Angeles is such a mobile city and I wanted to have my scene be almost like a buffer in between all the movement to show that joy and cultures exist in really small corners that we might not always be privy to,” Park explains.

A smiling woman in a white T-shirt that bears the words "Good Vibes."
Marquesha Babers, one of the poet-stars of the movie “Summertime.”
(Carolyn Cole / Los Angeles Times)

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“I love the movie because it shows the side of L.A. that normal movies in normal Hollywood try to cover up,” adds Marquesha Babers, a poet who gives a showstopping performance. “In this film we intentionally show the grit and the grime and the other side of reality and what it is really like to live here and all of the different cultures, people and spaces. I just think that’s really beautiful.”

Her scene uses a poem she wrote years ago confronting a man who’d degraded her size and physical appearance. Through tears, she executes the earth-shattering text that stuns with its sorrowful rage.

This was an emotional moment for her to film. She felt as if she were actually re-creating the scenario and finally dealing with the situation in a way she hoped she had done off camera. “It gave me an opportunity to confront some things that I had never confronted in my real life, using the film as, for lack of a better word, a therapy session,” she says.

Babers wants to continue pursuing acting and is finishing a sci-fi fantasy script that she expects to cast herself in someday.

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A woman holds up her hands in a nighttime photo.
Marquesha Babers in “Summertime.”
(Good Deed Entertainment)

“I really loved how much acting felt like poetry on a screen. I used to think that there was such a disconnect between the actor and the character that they were playing,” Babers says. “I didn’t understand how real it was and how much of yourself you actually have to put into a character to bring it to life.”

As in Babers’ case, intimate tragedies were the fuel for many of the poets’ entries. Inspired by the inability to process loss after the death of a close uncle, Raul Herrera thought of the core line that would later yield a poem titled “Clouds.”

“I woke up the day after his passing and I had that chorus in my head, ‘I’m headed towards the clouds.’ Originally it said, ‘I’m headed toward the clouds and one day I’ll see you.’ I was never able to flesh out the rest of that first version of the poem but I really did like that chorus,” says Herrera, whose first relationship with the written word as venting mechanism was in hip-hop.

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With time, the piece changed to speak more broadly about the fleeting and finite quality of our existence. “We plan out our life because of time. We lose people because of time. We gain people because we have the time,” he says. “I was just deciphering that for myself and breaking that down.”

“Clouds” becomes a summation of the many parts of “Summertime.” Herrera, who detested school as a boy, is proud of his accomplishment and is now a mentor figure, educating students who lack the resources to find their own identity through spoken word.

In the aftermath of the whirlwind production, “Summertime” premiered at the Sundance Film Festival in 2020 with all the poets in attendance. When the pandemic pushed “Summertime’s” release for a year, López Estrada finished work on the other project he had going, “Raya and the Last Dragon.” The Disney animated action saga inspired by Southeast Asian folklore is his highest-budgeted endeavor to date,

During production of “Raya,” López Estrada developed a friendship with actress Kelly Marie Tran, known for her role as Rose Tico in the recent “Star Wars” trilogy; she also voices the title heroine in “Raya.”

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In March, on the night of “Raya’s” premiere at the El Capitan Theatre in Hollywood, the director and Tran agreed to have dinner. Even though the filmmaker was already certain he and Tran were kindred spirits, it wasn’t until that one-on-one heart-to-heart that they engaged on a personal level.

“We were talking about the type of art that we wanted to see in the world, the types of things that inspired us. We both have had a similar experience of being two individuals from communities that have not been given space in the entertainment industry,” Tran says. “We had very similar ideas of the types of things we wanted to be involved in.”

After their dinner, López Estrada sent her “Summertime.” Tran watched the vibrant ode to speaking one’s unabashed truth and soon came on board as an executive producer.

“Watching ‘Summertime’ was a transformative experience,” she says. “It was the first time that I felt poetry was accessible to me. To hear the powerful words coming out of the mouths of these incredible artists changed my perception of what poetry was and made it feel like I could also take part.”

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Over the last few weeks, López Estrada and Tran have amped up their efforts to be meaningfully involved in the poets’ future — whether that means helping those tickled by acting get headshots or introducing them to industry professionals who would appreciate their talents.

“We want to create a sustainable support system for this community of poets. Kelly and I are trying to figure out how we can remain present,” says López Estrada.” I feel what films do often with these kinds of communities is they come in, they document them, put it out into the world and then move on to the next thing.”

“To this day I can’t believe it’s real and that I’m in a movie and that I’m doing poetry, because when I was young I didn’t think too much about dreams,” says Jason Alvarez, one of the youngest members of the cast. Until he found spoken word, he notes that his economic circumstances and machismo in Latinx culture held him back from expressing his most complex feelings. “I grew up in the hood and my mentality was, ‘I’m going to be in a gang,’ you know?’ Now I’ve found my light. Poetry is my light right now.”

A key component of the impact campaign James is overseeing is a series of free screenings from Friday to July 16 at parks and community centers. There’s also the “Are You My Angel?” campaign, which paved L.A. and Orange counties with reflective stickers as a way to call attention to the “Are you My Angel?” zine and a pop-up booth where the general public will be asked about the kindness they’ve received and extended to others.

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The zine contains writings from seven of the poets in the film writing on timely subjects such as the effects of COVID on the Latinx community, the importance of found family for queer people, and the significance of arts education for Korean Americans. It also offers a list of organizations addressing those specific issues. Separately, James is also one of the editors of an upcoming book, “Summertime Odes to L.A.,” with even more writings from the prodigious rising stars.

Recently, in order to immerse themselves deeper and reciprocate the trust the writers granted them, López Estrada and Tran took an intensive spoken word workshop where they learned how to write in this format and how to perform. These sessions also yielded a group poem on what we understand as home.

For both the director and producer, this final leg of the long “Summertime” trip is the most rewarding. Pushed to reconsider their own cinematic expectations and motivations, they can now see clearer what fulfilling undertakings to concentrate on. As they usher their radically auspicious anthology movie into the world, the duo can already see its life-affirming effects in themselves.

“The poetry workshop was a really beautiful experience that brought me full circle to the genesis of the movie: that spoken word showcase in that same building, in that same room at Get Lit where I saw them for the first time,” says López Estrada. “The work we’ve done with the poets has been so grounding. I now really consider myself a part of the community and that’s meant the world to me.”

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As for Tran, she says, “My relationship with acting feels like it’s always evolving and being able to go through this poetry workshop and spend time with the poets has made me think about the meaning of vulnerability, the meaning of bravery. What does it mean to, as an artist, share parts of yourself that society has taught you are broken and shouldn’t be shared? To see these poets embrace themselves has been one of the most inspiring things in my life. I am just so grateful to have met them.”


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