Location Scouting for No Lies Told Then in Harlem: Walking in the Characters' Shoes

There was no thought given to the date, August 9, when my director and I decided to meet for our first day of location scouting.  It wasn’t until the day came that I realized its significance.  One year ago on that day, Michael Brown was murdered.  Two years ago on that day, my grandmother died.  I wanted to cancel because everything felt so heavy, but the director and I planned this weeks ago, so it had to be done.

Harlem Location Scouting

As I walked from my home toward 125th Street, I saw what has become a weekly occurrence:  European tourists taking in the neighborhood, snapping pictures, patronizing businesses and sometimes just getting in my way.  It’s interesting observing from the outside as a place of worship becomes an attraction, how restaurants become crowded as outsiders clamor for a taste of genuine soul food.  To me, it’s just my neighborhood and the place where Sandra was born.

The director and I must have seemed like quite the odd pair -- all 5’1” of me and 6’2” of him walking side-by-side.  I carried my notebook and trusty list of locations, occasionally taking notes and snapping low quality pictures with my phone.  

Our first stop, Cheri, wasn’t on my list.  It is wonderful neighborhood restaurant whose main visual attraction is the baby grand piano in the middle of the venue.  It’s so beautiful there, with the welcoming decor, inviting seating area and stunning back patio.  I thought it would be too narrow and difficult to stage a scene but the director and the projector in his head, could already see it coming together.

The director’s excitement was contagious and some of the heaviness of the day began to lift.  We chatted as we walked to our next destination just a couple of blocks away:  Settepani.  It was still early and the late morning/early afternoon brunch crowd had yet to arrive.  We were able to look around freely, take note of the fancy bar and the piano, which wasn’t there the last time I had dinner.  The hostess was filled with personality and seemed to have an endless supply of jokes.

When people ask what I love about Harlem, I can easily point to the first two stops which immediately felt like home.  I didn’t know the owner of Cheri and I didn’t know the hostess, yet we talked like we had known each other forever. Harlem is beautiful and welcoming to all and it is so much like Sandra. What other community could have supported this young girl we will watch become a woman?  What other community would have embraced her so fiercely at both her best and her worst?

As we left Settepani, with huge smiles on our faces, we walked down 119th Street toward Marcus Garvey Park.  This is a special block in “No Lies Told Then”.  It’s where Sandra is born and raised, although it was a far cry from what it is today.  Back then, there was the homeless would-be poet who liked to recite classics under the streetlamps.  There was the park, then dangerous and home to unsavory, yet interesting characters whose hard times never seemed to end.  It wasn’t a place to hope or dream; it was a place where too many dreams died.

Marcus Garvey Park

Today, it’s quite different.  This block has a brownstone owned by Maya Angelou and another owned by Kareem Abdul Jabbar.  One day recently, I saw Marcus Samuelsson, so I could only assume he lives in one of these historic buildings too.  It’s a desirable block and in the middle of it all is Marcus Garvey Park, the next stop on our list.

Marcus Garvey Park is a rectangular gem of a space that cuts through several blocks.  We walked around the perimeter and I noted how each side of the park has a very different view and vibe.  While I was focused on the inside of the park, the benches and locations where we could shoot, the director was busy looking at the surrounding buildings.  I looked up at him curiously, but he explained he was imagining how it would look if we shot in the other direction with the cameras facing out toward the neighborhood.  It’s the little things you don’t think about that a great teammate would consider.   So, we walked and talked and considered.

We made our way inside the park, toward the Richard Rodgers Amphitheater.  Just a couple weeks earlier it was home to a wonderful production of “The Tempest” by the Classical Theatre of Harlem.  The newly renovated amphitheater is a hidden treasure. Aesthetically, it is stunning.  As only a director’s mind could, he began to re-imagine a scene that I set on the street, materialize right in this theater making use of the stage and colors and children! He spoke about it enthusiastically and suddenly I could see it too.

Richard Rodgers Amphitheatre


From the park, we headed to MIST on 116th Street.  MIST is such an interesting space.  It’s part restaurant, part bar, part cafe and part performance space.  This trip required a little stealth action as we snuck around a red velvet rope and inside one of the performance spaces.  We took note of venue and its possibilities, but before we left, we took a peek inside Madiba, the restaurant.  It too, with its classy decor and positive energy, could serve our purposes.


Next on the list:  Make My Cake on 116th Street.  From the moment we walked inside, the director said he knew it was the only place for this particular scene.  I felt it too.  Rather, I saw it.  The trip inside.  The flirtation.  The jealousy.  Most importantly, I could see the neighborhood people who give life the Harlem.  The sista with the natural hair, the woman with the weave, the children with the braids and the new transplants who are in awe of it all.  

Make my Cake

Since we knew it was the perfect location for the scene, we focused on the food.  The director has a sweet tooth, as do I, but I do try to exercise a bit of self control.  After all, what his 6’2” can easily burn off, goes straight to my hips.  He eyed the chocolate but we both stayed far from the counter.  After the cashier promised she wouldn’t bite us if we moved closer, I finally decided to buy a mason jar of sweet tea for later.

Next up was Minton’s Playhouse, formerly a legendary jazz venue.  So many greats played that stage from Armstrong to Monk to Parker and Gillespie; imagine the secrets those walls could tell.  It was reopened a couple of years ago by investors including Dick Parsons.  Location scouting provided the perfect opportunity to visit a place that had long been on my “to see” list.  


If I hadn’t know it was there, I would’ve walked right past it.  A small, unmarked door with a tiny sign is the only indication it exists.  We walked inside one door and were promptly met with another which had a tiny window.  Even if I did my best Misty Copeland impression and stood en pointe, I still would not have been able to see through the window.  Fortunately, the director could.  He peered inside and was immediately noticed by the host who urged us to come inside.  We didn’t want to interrupt the performance by the band, but he assured us it was fine.

Minton’s had a different feel.  A bar off to the side.  Tables lining each wall. Just a few patrons enjoying Sunday brunch with a jazz band.  It wasn’t what I expected, not to say it was either good or bad, just different.  We soon realized it wasn’t quite right for the scene we had in mind, but as we walked to our next destination, the director suggested it could be right for another scene.  He was right.  Part of filmmaking is being able to adjust on the fly, especially when you’re working with a smaller budget.  I noted this change and we kept walking.  

As we made our way further west, we stopped at a wine store, The Winery. I’d passed the place many times, but I never had time to go inside.  What a find!  As a wine drinker who is sometimes overwhelmed by the sheer variety and organization (or lack thereof) of some stores, this one stood out.  Each aisle was carefully labeled and the warm yet dark colors were relaxing.  This store is loved.  I made note that it may not be right for our film, but it is a place where I will spend my money.

The Winery

Our time together was coming to an end.  We managed to pop inside Harlem Vintage, a great little wine store that I’d patronized many times.  As usual, the staff was eager to help and kind.  Although I had visions of filming inside and as lovely as it is, it just isn’t right for the scene.

We ended our journey uptown, near my home at my home away from home:  Make My Cake at 139th Street.  As soon as we walked inside I heard Kevin say, “Hi Torri” before he tried to get me to indulge in one of their yummy desserts.  The woman behind the counter, Frankie, asked if I wanted my usual coffee but I declined; I still hadn’t finished my cup from the morning. The director stood there salivating and I suspect he did less scouting and more drooling before caving and buying a slice of sweet potato cheesecake.  

The day, which started on a depressing note, ended on a much higher one.  We were productive and as we considered various locations, scenes came to life and changed before our eyes.  We discovered new places to entertain ourselves and our friends.  We met so many wonderful people who welcomed us with open arms.  There was no pretension; strangers greeted one another as though we’d been friends for years.  

I realize now that on that Sunday, August 9, 2015, the director and I walked in Sandra’s shoes.  We popped inside restaurants she would frequent.  We interacted with people who would be her friends.  We strolled through her park and visited the bakery where a pivotal moment in her life occurred.  

We may not have found every location and there is still so much work to do, but part of the fun is the process.  We adjusted on the fly.  Mentally revised scenes to incorporate some of truly special places in Harlem.  Location scouting is time consuming, but when you have to walk block by block in a community such as this, you learn to appreciate, discover and in some instances re-discover, what makes this place truly magical.