Breaking Writer Kwame Kwei-Armah on His New Film and Making the World a Better Place
What happens when a veteran tries to make an honest living for his family but faces financial issues due to a mistake the government made? In the case of Brian Brown-Easley in the film Breaking, he asked to have his due of $892 returned from the government by holding up a bank. This sad and true story was well crafted by the writing team of Kwame Kwei-Armah and Abi Damaris Corbin in the new film “Breaking“. Taji Mag was able to discuss the writing process with Armah and get his thoughts on the project.
DDF: What was the writing process for this beautiful and emotional film?
Kwame Kwei-Armah (KKA): Well, first of all, thank you for your kind words. It means a lot. I was sent the article about Brian Brown-Easley, titled “They Didn’t Have to Kill Him,” from Abi, the director and co-writer. We knew that if we were going to tell this story together, we had to feel that we did our research as effectively as humanly possible.
So we flew to Atlanta and went to the bank where it happened. We walked from his hotel room to the bank. We walked around the area, we drove around, and we spoke to people who were there on the day of the incident. We spoke to Brian’s ex, but what was most important for us was that we listen to the transcripts of the 9-1-1 operators. So we knew every word that had been said in that room. And there was a draft of this. [It] was 200 pages long…we said the only dialogue we’ll use is the dialogue that was actually said. But it was a bit too long, so we shaped it from there.
DDF: I read in production notes that you both wrote a draft of the film and went through each one line by line. That’s absolutely surgical!
KKA: Abi did the first cut. I did the second cut. Then, from there, we just started cutting things out. We were in there together, shaving and shaving away at the script.
DDF: Were there any moments where you just had to stop and step away to take a break because, emotionally, it was too tough to get through? Especially while doing the research and listening to the transcripts?
KKA: I don’t know if you’ve ever stepped away from your Blackness walking down the street, right? You know there’s no stepping way. If you have the luxury of being a storyteller and you’re telling a story, why? Because you wanna make the world incrementally better. You wanna put a spotlight on something that says “I do this so that people can be seen and people can be heard, and their stories can be heard”. But there’s no stepping away.
DDF: What was your process for developing the supporting characters? There’s no antagonist or protagonist in this film. It’s mostly just people, human beings.
KKA: I love how you frame it because, actually, the system was the antagonist, and that’s always hard to portray. But I think one of the big things [about writing] is that you have to love every character in any narrative you create. And if you don’t love them, you’ve gotta find something in them to love. So, actually, what we found with all of the characters was that everybody was in there, they all had a stake in how to help Brian survive that day, and it doesn’t mean that they weren’t scared. It doesn’t mean that they didn’t know how to do it at some point, but they all tried, and that’s joyous to try and write.
DDF: What song would you use to describe this film?
KKA: What song would you pick? Well, that’s funny. I don’t think there is a song. If there was one, it might be Marvin Gaye’s “What’s Going On.” If I had to choose a rap song, it would be Public Enemy’s “Fight the Power.”
DDF: What was Brian’s family’s first reaction to the film?
KKA: I tell you it was one of the most beautiful things when we were with Brian’s wife, John (Boyega), and Abi. I switched on the film and I was really nervous. Then Brian’s wife said she saw her husband. She saw Brian when John started acting on screen, and we were all in tears over it.
DDF: What was one of the happiest moments that you experienced from the set?
KKA: Actually, I didn’t get on set. COVID was around. I was based in London and we couldn’t fly. I couldn’t come back to the states. So Abi was writing this script with me, starting at 10:00 PM LA time and off we would go.
So actually, the happiest moment was when my manager, Max Gohar, and Abi were on set. He had recorded the first slate live. I saw John’s first lines and I was so proud. The movie went forward, and that was the greatest moment for me. It had to be like the greatest award you can ever have as a writer: just to have your craft perfectly said on paper and then on film.
DDF: What do you think people will get out of this film?
KKA: I think the universal thing we’re trying to tap into with this film is that we’re living in times where we’re all breaking a little bit. There are so many walking bombs; maybe our role as citizens is to see people more, hear people more, and help extinguish some of the fires burning inside. And that starts with listening, and that includes systems.
DDF: Is that why you changed the film’s title from 892 to Breaking?
KKA: Yes, kind of. I think part of why I changed the name was because when you sit in the film, you think, “892, I understand it now.” But we were having some problems with people wanting to access the film. Cause they were like “892. What does it even mean? Who cares?” So actually, you write for the maximum audience, not the minimum. So when that came to our attention, we went, “okay, let’s find another name” and Breaking was the name we came up with.
Breaking is an emotional and touching film that is slow in pace but carefully detailed. Every moment in the film captures your attention as John Boyega puts on an excellent performance. From mannerisms to dialogue, you can tell Brian was a kind but broken man. At times, I understood the character’s motives and how he tried to control his emotions throughout the whole process. Boyega deserves praise for this compelling performance and hopes it’s worthy of some nominations during award season.
Nicole Beharie also had a compelling portrayal of bank Manager Estel Valerie. Estel, although she feared for her life, wanted to help make things right for Brian and assist him in getting home to his daughter. She could relate as she has a son herself. I like that Estel was brave by ensuring everyone got out before she did. This included her teller Rosa Diaz played by Selenis Leyva, who was very effective during those intense moments.
Breaking was Micheal K. Williams’ last film, and his performance as negotiator Eli Bernard was moving. He put on a quality performance. His relatability to Brian and desire to save his life made me want to keep rooting for him to get Brian out alive. I can believe the disappointment once Brian’s life was ended.
The transitions in the film from past to present were sleek and did not distract from the film’s intention. When Brian flashes back to the past, it frustrated me that he gave his life for a country that refuses to help him stay on his feet.
The film’s tone was solemn and dramatic, but not to the point where I got bored. Just enough to keep me in the moment. The tension was high, which I felt through the acting, sound design, and videography.
The film was well received at the Sundance Film Festival, taking home the “Special Jury Award for Ensemble Cast” in the U.S. Dramatic Competition. At that time the film was called “892.”
Breaking is an emotionally compelling film about a man’s fight for what he is owed after sacrificing himself in a war. If you are looking for something beautiful and want something to touch you emotionally, I highly recommend Breaking, playing in a theater near you.