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Alumna aims to inspire audience to speak up in feature film “Raise Your Hand”

Growing up in Minneapolis during the ’90s, writer-director Jessica Rae said the film is inspired by her own unique perspective and experiences. (Alex Driscoll/Daily Bruin staff)

By Nina Tartibi

Nov. 19, 2020 10:11 p.m.

Correction: The original version of this article misspelled Evan Allen-Gessesse's name.

This post was updated Nov. 22 at 7:18 p.m.

Inner-city teenage life takes center stage in the drama, “Raise Your Hand.”

Written, directed and co-produced by UCLA alumna Jessica Rae, the feature-length film was released at the Social Justice Now Film Festival in late October. “Raise Your Hand” navigates the hardships of growing up and finding one’s identity through the lens of two high school girls – Gia (Jearnest Corchado) and Lila (Hanani Taylor) – who are living in a ’90s Midwestern inner city. Rae said she hopes to use this film to uplift her voice and the real-life experiences she, other women, men and minorities have lived through.

“The majority of the women came up to me and shared some sort of personal story or experience that they’d had and said … the movie inspired them to be able to talk about things and open up,” Rae said.

(Alex Driscoll/Daily Bruin staff)
UCLA alumna Jessica Rae explores the lives of inner-city teenagers and the hardships they face in her new feature drama, “Raise Your Hand.” (Alex Driscoll/Daily Bruin staff)

While she said the narrative in the film is fictional, it still reflects real-life topics like sexual assault, police brutality and racism. And along with producer and friend Evan Allen-Gessesse, Rae said she wanted to make the film in order to promote discussion and awareness of socioeconomic injustices.

Rae wrote “Raise Your Hand” prior to the #MeToo movement and the recent resurgence of the Black Lives Matter movement, but she said the relevance of these social initiatives has persisted even before they found their mainstream spotlight. Growing up in a racially fractured Minneapolis, Rae said the film covers situations that her friends and family experienced in real life, demonstrating that moments of racial profiling are not coincidental and have been happening for decades.

“I remember having a lot of fear of the cops in Minneapolis,” Rae said. “We were always fearful and running away, and we were not troublemakers, but we also weren’t perfect angels.”

Typically, the media have failed to portray teen life from the perspectives of people of color, Rae said. As a woman of color who grew up in the inner city, Rae said she hopes “Raise Your Hand” will encourage other teenagers and historically marginalized groups to raise their voices.

(Courtesy of Dano Bierbower/Unabridged, LLC)
(Courtesy of Dano Bierbower/Unabridged, LLC)

[Related: Alumnus’ film ‘Murder Bury Win’ digs into nature of competition, price of winning]

Behind the scenes, Allen-Gessesse said he considered his job as primarily making Rae’s job as easy as possible while providing the production necessities. But he said all the hard work and time paid off at the end given how the film can now help brew conversations about sexual assault, police brutality and familial issues.

Such social injustice topics lend themselves to the film’s gravitas, Corchado said. She said her character, Gia, expresses her powerful emotions through art.

“(Gia) wants to believe in love, and she wants to trust people, and she wants to be her best self,” Corchado said. “But in these moments, I think that it was about … taking the layers of the character and just presenting her as humanly (as) possible.”

Aside from the character building, Rae said she intentionally set the film in the ’90s, having grown up in an era before cell phone cameras. Although this provided the extra challenge to accurately portray the ’90s aesthetic, Allen-Gessesse said the time stamp was essential to the story.

“When there were no phone cameras or easy ways to shoot footage of police interacting with people, you would just see it and you would just say what happened, and it was their word against yours,” Allen-Gessesse said. “And (the justice system) was always going to go with theirs because they’re sworn officers.”

In comparing the ’90s to the present day, Allen-Gessesse emphasizes the importance of cell phones to capture injustices in real time, providing fuel to the social justice movements he and Rae aim to promote.

[Related: Alum comedically critiques corporate activism in self-made vlog-style web series]

Beyond social justice activism, Rae said “Raise Your Hand” also explores Gia’s intimate struggle for identity and how she ultimately reaches the first step of finding who she is through art and writing – an arc that parallels Rae’s own personal journey. Even with the pandemic creating social and political divisions, she hopes the film can evoke conversations among people of all races, genders and socioeconomic statuses. In the future, Rae said she is hoping for her film to be available on platforms such as Netflix, increasing its accessibility and paving the way for more films that explore difficult topics.

“My whole objective as a filmmaker really is to bring you in in a way that you don’t realize you’re going on this ride,” Rae said. “I know that I put people on pretty intense rides, I always have.”

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