By REBECCA JONES
For Montclair Local
“This is for the South End, the 4th Ward, Uptown, Frog hollow, the 6 Corners
The 6 sq miles that once held my universe…
This is for the tribe
This is fortified
This is 4 ever
This is 4 gotten
This is 4 you …
But who am I?”
These lines, written and sung by rapper and filmmaker Topaz Jones, embody and conclude his short film “Don’t Go Tellin’ Your Momma,” winner of the Short Film Jury Award at the 2021 Sundance Film Festival.
This 34-minute musical and visual collage, co-written and co-directed by Jones and “rubberband” (the directing duo Simon Davis and Jason Filmore Sondock), explores the role of education and place in the filmmaker’s own identity.
Jones was raised in Montclair and is a 2011 graduate of Montclair High School. Scenes of his hometown abound in the film. The film and the album that inspired it, also titled “Don’t Go Tellin’ Your Momma,” were outgrowths of a long process of re-examining Jones’ upbringing and “the ways I was taught what it was to be a man as well as what it meant to be a Black man in our society,” he said in an audio promo for the festival.
“In the ‘70s, I think mainly in Chicago, there was this series of flashcards called the Black ABCs that was passed around to after-school programs and other local things of that nature,” Jones told Montclair Local. “It would be like ‘C is for cool,’ and there would be a picture of a young Black girl with an ice cream cone. And ‘G is for groovy.’ And I had been seeing them online and just feeling very connected spiritually to what was happening there.”
The 26 scenes that make up “Don’t Go Tellin’ Your Momma” revolve around this educational alphabet, revived and re-imagined by Jones himself.
“A is for amphetamines. B is for blue. C is for code-switching,” Jones’s alphabet begins. Some scenes are scripted with actors (including Jones). Others are intercut with old photographs and home videos. Interviews with educators, rappers, healers and activists are woven in. Among them: Montclair therapist Kaity Rodriguez and Renaissance Middle School Social Studies teacher Rodney Jackson.
Jones said camcorder videos were a fourth-quarter addition. While almost finished with editing the film and looking for ways to stitch things together, he found an old box of camcorder tapes while helping his mother clear out her storage.
“As with everything with this album and with this film, it happened very organically, like the universe conspired to give me exactly what I needed at the right moment,” he said.
The videos contained scenes from his first trip to St. Lucia, where a lot of his family is from. There were birthday parties and chorus recitals at Renaissance Middle School.
“All of these things came flooding back and it was like the last thing we needed to bring some connective tissue to everything,” Jones said.
Jones earned his degree in recorded music from New York University’s Tisch School of the Arts and primarily considers himself a rapper and singer, but said he made the film because his album by the same name called for a visual piece.
“Because it tells a story, it felt right to add images,” he said.
This was not his first collaboration with “rubberband.” He and the duo have been making music videos together since their freshman first year at Tisch.
“We shot our first project in the basement of our dorm on a Canon 5D [DSLR camera]. From there, we did multiple music videos. The one for my first album, ‘The Honeymoon Suite,’ was shot on Llewellyn Road in Montclair,” Jones said.
Growing up, Jones’s mother would take him to the Nuyorican Poets Cafe to listen to spoken word. Jones’ father, funk musician Curt Jones, would play guitar in the house. The film also examines the messages he received about who he was from people outside his family, from the wider community of Montclair.
“It wasn’t until I got much older that I realized how important where I was from was to who I was. And in the same way that this [film] is paying tribute to Montclair it is also paying tribute to the way that the environment we grow up in shapes or identity, whether we’re holding to it or running from it,” Jones said.
“Where you come from,” Jones said, “it’s part of your DNA.”