Lansing studio pays homage to Black history while creating space for Michigan filmmakers | Michigan Radio
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Lansing studio pays homage to Black history while creating space for Michigan filmmakers

Jun 24, 2021

Amaru chose the shuttered Lansing Mall Cinema, which closed in 2014, as the future home for Greenwood District Studios. He plans to open up a drive-in theater at the site later this summer.
Credit Wikimedia Commons

When the pandemic brought his career to a screeching halt, indie filmmaker and comic Amaru was scouring the state for a good place to hatch his next plan.

That plan—to launch Greenwood District Studios (GDS), Michigan’s first Black-owned independent film studio—came to Amaru when he got back home to Lansing. He was grabbing a meal with his girlfriend when an old, colorful building grabbed his attention: the Lansing Mall Cinema, vacant since 2014.

“I was like, ‘check, please,’” Amaru recalled.

The next day, he signed a lease, moved into the building, and began hatching his grand scheme.

Amaru is looking to open his film studio in 2022, but in the meantime, he’s gearing up to open a drive-in theater called Amaruflix in August. And it doesn’t stop there: a comedy club, a state-of-the-art editing bay, and a recording studio are all a part of Amaru’s vision for Greenwood District Studios.

The company draws its name from the historic business hub, known as Black Wall Street, in Tulsa, Oklahoma. The vibrant commercial district was destroyed in the 1921 Tulsa Massacre, when a white mob attacked Black residents and destroyed their businesses. Official records from the time said that 36 people died in the attack, but some historians estimate the real death toll to be in the hundreds. To Amaru, paying homage to that event has a two-fold meaning: it shines a light on an oft-neglected tragedy in American history while invoking the success and affluence that the Greenwood District once possessed.

Amaru is from Kalamazoo, but has spent his last 10 years in Lansing. He said he is looking to make GDS an integral part of the community. In addition to giving a portion of its proceeds back to the community, uplifting underrepresented voices and retaining local talent are among the studio’s top priorities.

And what better way to get integrated into the community than producing a TV show centered around one of its most beloved local chains? Drawing inspiration from Quality Dairy, a mid-Michigan convenience store staple, Quality Mart is a sitcom about the employees at a local corner store.  

“It’s something close to the city that it was made in, and everybody can relate to Quality Dairy,” he explained.

Amaru cited Donald Glover’s sitcom Atlanta as inspiration for Quality Mart. Other creative juggernauts he’s looking to as models for GDS include Tyler Perry Studios and Motown’s in-house business model.

Additionally, GDS is sitting on a completed feature-length comedy, You’re the Church. The company postponed its release due to the pandemic, but audiences can expect it up on the silver screen “sometime this year,” according to Amaru.

“It’s a symbiotic relationship between the community and the studio,” Amaru said. Typically, filmmakers and artists in Michigan have to look elsewhere to develop their career. With GDS, Amaru is aiming to change that. By providing opportunities for actors, writers, directors, and beyond, Amaru hopes that GDS will keep those creatives from relocating to places like L.A. or Chicago.

“Imagine being able to go to Michigan State, and their pitch is, not only can you come to our theater or film program, we can get you as an intern [in an] an actual studio here in the state, or even a job. You know, this is like a dream come true for any filmmaker to have something right in their yard that they can exercise their dream and not have to move that far from home.”

This post was written by Stateside production assistant Lucas Polack.