PROSPECT HEIGHTS — When filmmaker Adonis Williams grew up on Underhill Avenue in the 1990s, his block was filled with businesses as diverse as its residents; a Jamaican fruit stand operated next to a Chinese-owned laundry and a bodega run by a Middle Eastern family.
But now, like many parts of Brooklyn, a lot of those shops have been replaced by more upscale spots. And as he’s watched the change — in Prospect Heights, where he still lives, but also in Bushwick, Williamsburg and Bedford-Stuyvesant — he can’t help wonder if he may have helped it happen.
That’s because, as a teenager, Williams had an unusual part-time job: working as an undercover auxiliary officer for the NYPD, helping officers bust corner bodegas for selling liquor and cigarettes to minors.
“I thought it was cool. They fed you, they picked you up. There were different precincts that would call you and say ‘Hey, are you available tonight?’” he said. “At the time, it was fun, but after a while it started becoming kind of like, ‘What am I doing here?’”
Now, Williams is exploring that question through a fictionalized short film, “Civic Mind,” based on his experience with the NYPD, set to start shooting next month, he said.
Like him, the main character of the film, Antonio, wrestles with how his work — visiting stores to try to buy beer or a boxcutter, then returning the contraband to waiting officers, who would issue a summons — affects his neighborhood.
The idea for the film — Williams’ fourth since graduating from SVA in 2008 — came to him while he drove past a now-shuttered Bushwick bodega he once busted.
“I was like ‘Damn, did I do that?’ And that’s what the character in the film struggles with,” he said.
“I thought I was doing something right when I probably contributed to this thing that makes me feel like I’m not home anymore," he added.
The memory of the job is particularly complex because, despite his feelings now, Williams says he really enjoyed the program. It gave him “an ego boost” because he was good at, he said, and he learned new skills. But while he was on the job, he only ever told one friend who immediately labeled the gig “shady,” he recalled.
“There’s always been that tension between the cops and teens of color, so I was scared to bring it up,” he said.
To make the film happen, Williams is working with Brooklyn young people, both for the cast — composed of students at the Brooklyn High School of the Arts, where his sister attends — and crew from the Brooklyn Young Filmmakers Center, a local non-profit that’s serving as the project’s fiscal sponsor.
The film has a budget of $5,000, already 80 percent funded as of Monday through an online fundraising campaign set to end in nine days.
But whether he gets the full funding or not, Williams is ready to move forward with the shoot and bring Antonio's story to life — but not true-to-life, exactly.
“His integrity is different than mine. He makes different decisions” he said. “It’s inspired by personal experience, but it’s definitely taking a different route.”
For more information about "Civic Mind", visit the project’s IndieGoGo campaign.