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VPA Graduate Paves the Way to Develop His First Feature Film
Carlton Daniel Jr. G’16 fell in love with filmmaking at an early age. Growing up in Ohio, he spent a lot of his childhood at the local movie theater, browsing for videos at Blockbuster and dissecting films with his family. His passion for movies led him on a trajectory from writing and directing short films to developing his first feature.
After finishing a bachelor’s degree at Ohio University, he applied to the College of Visual and Performing Arts. Syracuse reminded him a lot of his hometown of Cleveland. He saw this small-town community as a place that would nurture his artistic voice much like his roots in Ohio. Daniel chose the M.F.A. film program because it offered him a flexible environment to hone his craft as a writer and director.
“I really admired the interdisciplinary approach offered at Syracuse. I was able to study disciplines outside of film that informed my storytelling, which I really feel made me a better writer and director,” he says.
His thesis film and 2017 directorial debut, “Monogamish,” explores identity, love and relationships as an openly gay Black man through narrative filmmaking. The film screened at more than 20 festivals both domestically and internationally.
“I arrived at Syracuse just months after the shooting of Treyvon Martin. The classes I took in the African American studies department while learning the history of Rust Belt cities like Cleveland and Syracuse were really eye-opening,” Daniel says. “Understanding how population shifts and institutionalized racism like redlining influenced my communities, and learning from Associate Professor Kishi Ducré about the effects of residential segregation inspired me to use storytelling to engage with some of these issues.”
“Syracuse was the foundation for me in really finding my voice, who I am as an artist, and the things I want to say to the world. It all started here,” he says.
Those studies informed his second short film, “Homegoing,” completed in 2020, which centers the story of a mortician’s son balancing the hardships of hypermasculinity, wealth disparities and everyday realities of Black life in America. The short script won the inaugural Central New York short film competition, netting $40,000 to make the project, which was shot entirely in Syracuse with local actors and crew. The film has since won places at highly competitive film festivals across North America, including the American Black Film Festival, Outfest LA and Palm Springs Short Fest.
Most recently, Daniel wrote, directed and co-produced a horror film for 20th Digital Studio, “Rebecca,” which is currently streaming on season two of “Bite Size Halloween” on Hulu.
“I want to continue writing and directing films and creating opportunities for folks from underrepresented communities to have access to film sets to learn about the different opportunities that come with filmmaking,” Daniel says. “There are so many jobs on set that people don’t even know about. I want to be able to give back to Syracuse and Cleveland so that young people can also feel empowered to make films and tell their own stories.”
Ultimately, Daniel wants to be a change agent, “If you can’t see different perspectives, if you can’t see different worlds, different characters and people of all experiences and backgrounds, how can we ever understand each other and our humanity? How can we strive for better futures? That’s part of my mission to make things better for the next generation.”
This spring, Daniel wrote and directed a short film in partnership with CNY Film Professionals’ inaugural youth program, “Call Time,” intended to pipeline inner-city Black and brown youth into jobs within the Central New York film industry.
Now, Daniel is developing “Homegoing” into a feature film with his creative partner, Evan Starling-Davis G’20. Both the short and the feature film script were inspired by his experiences growing up in the Rust Belt.
“After graduating from Syracuse, I went home to Cleveland temporarily and started working at a funeral home. It was just a job to earn money, but I was so moved and inspired by the family who owned it and the community that I was meeting every day as they came to grieve their loved ones. I was just shocked by how so much love, so much joy and community were in this space. I was just engaging with those little slices of life and wanted to make something of it that’s heartfelt and personal,” Daniel says.
Daniel draws inspiration from his own experiences, conversations overheard and conversations with his late grandmother that he recorded while back home. “I take these things and craft them into notes and journal entries and make character descriptions, arcs, and story plots.
“I force myself to do this because I feel like if it’s uncomfortable for me to talk about, it’s probably going to be helpful for someone else—something others can relate to. I really push myself to step out of my comfort zone when I am writing and talk about things that aren’t easy. It’s not even always serious, sometimes even comedic moments that come from really tough places.”
“The main character in ‘Homegoing’ is haunted by nightmares and returns home from college to his family’s funeral parlor to salvage his grip on reality. In the process he reconnects with his grandmother, learning more about the business, while also learning about his family history, his identity and how the family migrated from the south to Cleveland in the 1940s. The main character begins to realize that there are larger forces—spirituality—at play in keeping him home. In doing so, he must come to terms with his family, community and the man that he loves.”
Daniel’s script was selected for the Outfest screenwriting lab in Los Angeles. “I spent two weeks with writers and executives from the film industry, getting script feedback and mentorship from professionals,” Daniel says. “The script soon after went on to be selected for Tribeca Film Festival’s, Untold Stories grant competition, where it placed in the top five projects, netting $10,000 as a constellation prize. ‘Homegoing’ has since made it to the final round of consideration for other incubation programs including the Sundance Creative Producing Lab and the Sundance Development Track.”
Daniel is now undergoing casting and seeking financing from private investors for the development of “Homegoing.” As a young, promising alum of Syracuse University, he’s also seeking to strengthen his network and support from the alumni community.
As a filmmaker, Daniel tries to engage with issues that are important to the next generation. “It’s really moving when I get feedback from other people—particularly other young people—who just felt moved or inspired by something that I wrote or directed. Being an artist is really powerful in that sense. Filmmakers reach such a wide array of audiences. Hopefully, my films and the stories I am telling will leave a little mark on the world and make things a little better for the next generation and for my community.”
Contact Daniel and find out more about his work via his website.