Anyone who knows Andrew Long knows that he has a bad habit of being late. Once, Andrew overslept and missed his youngest brother’s wedding. “To be fair”, he’d always say, “I didn’t miss any one of my other four brothers’ weddings!” This was Andrew’s charm; he could always make a rebuttal with a funny comeback.
I glance down at my watch that reads 12:08pm and grin to myself. We’d planned to meet at Gregory’s Coffeeshop on the corner of 25th and Park Avenue South at noon. Seven minutes later, two fingers gently tap my right shoulder and I know my chronically late but somehow still lovable friend has arrived.
“It’s been way too long” he shouts, grinning from ear to ear as he leans forward, wrapping me in a sweet bear hug. He has on a red and white striped t-shirt, a light blue denim jacket, and navy blue trousers that one might think to be black if not carefully observed.
“What would you like to drink, Ms. Lee”, he asks playfully. I know how this works. I’d tell him that I’ll buy my own cup and he’d dismiss the idea. Then I’d take out my wallet and his 6’2”, 180 lb self would easily steal it away from me. He wasn’t going to lose this fight. “An iced latte, please and thank you”. He flashes me a grin, a sign of his victory, and marches toward the cashier.
I first met Andrew on a megabus to Washington, D.C. during the summer of 2014. He was the last person to get on the bus, and ended up sitting right next to me. I remember Andrew to be a madman. Throughout our entire 4 hour ride from New York City to the nation’s capital, he ardently scribbled things into a marble notebook, often letting out sighs and using the tip of his pen to scratch the ends of his eye brows. He seemed pensive and passionate, and whatever he was writing must have been extremely important.
Twenty minutes out of D.C., I felt two fingers gently tap me on the shoulder. Andrew’s pen had run out of ink and he asked if I had a spare one he could borrow. By the time we got off the bus, I learned that Andrew was a filmmaker, graduate student at NYU, and was originally from D.C. He told me that he was writing a script for his next film, something about Africa, but I couldn’t fully hear him over the rumble of the bus engine as people got off, one by one. We exchanged Facebook profiles, and parted ways. A year later, we met up in Boston to have coffee and that was the last time I’d seen him up till now.
“Your latte, miss”. His eyes are gleaming with satisfaction.
It is a Saturday afternoon and we are sitting at our small table, sipping coffee, in a space where a preponderance of middle-aged white men dressed in tailored suits and polished Oxfords flock to on their lunch break. Andrew, with his long beard, Tommy Hilfiger boat shoes, and black Jansport bag fits right into the crowd. We’re in New York City after all. “When I become famous, you’ll never see me wearing a suit”, he remarks. “They’re uncomfortable and when I’m uncomfortable, I can’t work.”
At 27, Andrew and his friend, Faraday Okoro, are one of five teams who have been selected to pitch their films at this year’s Tribeca Film Festival. The 2017 winner will receive $1 million, which Andrew says “would make all the difference”. His film, The Nigerian Prince, is about a Nigerian-American teenage boy who is on a mission to return to the United States, after he is deported to Nigeria. Andrew reaches for his phone and starts to Google something. He shows me an article written on variety.com about him– his first ever mention in a globally-read magazine–and says, “I’m not wearing a suit”. We laugh.
Andrew is ready to grasp fame.
At 16, his grandmother bought him a used Canon Ae-1 camera from their next door neighbor. “My brothers despised me for having it but they also couldn’t say anything about it because I was the only one in the house who brought home any good money. My grandma adored me with good reason!” When Andrew was just four years old, both his parents walked out. From that point on, his grandmother was the one who took care of all five boys. Then, when Andrew turned five, a baby turned up on their front porch with a note that read, “Kone”. “Kone could be my mama’s son or some other woman’s child. We don’t know. I think they knew my grandma was going to do a good job taking care of the kid. It’s wrong in so many ways. We don’t talk about it much in our family”.
While Andrew’s older brothers were dealing drugs on the streets and getting into trouble with the law, Andrew was working multiple random jobs from catering to dog-walking, stepping up as the man of the house. He tells me that he skipped his entire senior year of high school as a result. When Andrew wasn’t working, he was taking pictures with his camera. One day, his grandmother saw a bunch of pictures that he had taken and suggested that he become a photographer. “My grandma was the first person to realize my potential and encourage my passion”, he says. “I knew that I didn’t want to be like my brothers. I’m not a thug. I liked to learn and I craved to learn more about film and the arts. I always come back to this thought that had it not been for our financial circumstances back then, I would have graduated high school with all A’s.”
Andrew took his GEDs and passed after studying for a mere three months. His next step was to pursue his career in film, though he wasn’t sure exactly how to do that yet.
“Film saved me”, Andrew says softly. He shivers, retreating into his denim jacket. “It’s cold here”, he says. I wonder if it isn’t just his body giving in to the topic of our intimate conversation, a simple, short human reaction telling the story of all the cold experiences he’s endured in his past. He takes a quick sip of his coffee and frowns when his tongue touches a cool liquid.
“What’s important is that I’ve made it all the way here. It took a long time but I did it. I’ll be showcasing my work in front of a panel of incredible judges in a week” he says, excitedly. “Even if Faraday and I don’t win, we’ve already succeeded. The fact that we’ve got people like Len Amato and Lee Daniels viewing our work is an honor in itself.”
On April 18th, jurors of the Tribeca Film festival will announce the fate of The Nigerian Prince. Runner-ups will still receive $10,000 each. “It’s in God’s hands now”, the filmmaker remarks. “I’ll promise you one thing- I’ll get there an hour early”.