South LA native Jonathan Curtiss, among a select group of 33 students accepted to the USC Master’s Screenwriting Program; wants to use film to improve perceptions of men of color
SOUTH LOS ANGELES (MNS) — Jonathan Curtiss, Jr. was raised in South Los Angeles, where he worked in the family business — Word of Life Christian bookstore, as a teen, is now on track to become a filmmaker, having gained acceptance to the University of Southern California’s heralded Master’s Screenwriting Program in the School of Cinematic Arts.
A love for writing and film grew in him as a child. He even tried to pursue acting, but his parents encouraged him to focus on his academics. Despite a solid family foundation, Curtiss often struggled with his sense of identity and heeding the warnings from his mother to avoid certain crowds. Along with support from family, he credits a trip to Nigeria and an after-school enrichment program he attended in high school, as the catalysts in changing his life’s perspective.
“I had an interesting upbringing [growing up] up in South Los Angeles in a home with parents who [were] a symbol of stability in the midst of chaos in my community,�? Curtiss recalled. “I was surrounded by gangs, drugs, and all types of other nasty realities of Black poverty.
“I did my best not to let my environment limit me. As a child, I worked in the family bookstore, which my grandparents started in the heart of South L.A. in the 1960s. It’s located in the middle of what the Rollin’ 60s Crips street gang claim as their territory,�? Curtiss said.
Curtiss, 24, attended high school outside of South L.A. at Bishop Montgomery High, a Catholic high school located in Torrance, Calif. From there he went on to graduate from Boise State University in Idaho, where he earned a bachelor of science in civil engineering, and a minor in film production. After Boise State, Curtiss acquired a job at Brave New Films, where he continues to work as a social justice documentary filmmaker, examining issues like criminal justice, and immigration.
It wasn’t long before Curtiss would realize his true passion for film.
“I realize[d] the power that film has to change perspectives, and ultimately change realities,�? he said.
Growing up in South L.A., attending college in Idaho, along with numerous other experiences took Curtiss out of his comfort zone and gave him a diverse cultural perspective. He is passionately pursuing a career in screenwriting, today and said his goal is to use film as a tool to challenge perspectives and encourage social change.
“As a young man I had an idea how society viewed me; I knew who the media identified me as, and I saw how officers treated me based on their perceptions, but I was still trying to figure out who I identified myself as,�? Curtiss said. “I knew the ways of the ‘church,’ and I knew the ways of the streets — all of these different influences were tugging on me.�?
During his teenage years, Curtiss said he faced life and tense encounters with street gangs that often led him to question [his] identity and purpose, more.
“I didn’t truly find my identity until I was 16 [when] I joined my grandparents on a mission trip to Nigeria,�? Curtiss recalled. “I had always seen myself in the context of Crenshaw Boulevard., Inglewood, and Compton, but I wanted to embrace a more distant part of my culture.
“At the time I was running a small t-shirt business out of Word of Life, so I persevered to raise enough money to take 1,000 shirts to Nigeria to give to children. I went door to door asking for money; I wrote letters to businesses, and eventually, it became a reality,�? Curtiss said.
The trip to Nigeria made a lasting impression on him and was the impetus for his decision to major in civil engineering. Curtiss saw first-hand how the availability of fresh water — something taken for granted in America — is a critically fragile lifeline in many developing African nations, even in the rural zones of an affluent nation like Nigeria.
“I thought I knew what poverty was, but I got a real taste in Nigeria,�? Curtiss said. “I was there to give back, but what I received was invaluable. I learned how to be thankful for seeing people smile through some of the toughest living conditions.�?
Curtiss had thoughts of building borehole wells for clean water in areas that could benefit the people in need, there. But, back home, the academic rigors of civil engineering were presenting some of their own unique challenges.
“I entered the school of civil engineering [in my freshman class] as the only African-American student at Boise State University. This was an environment that stretched me,�? Curtiss said. “Not only was I in culture shock being in Idaho with students who grew up on farms, but I barely knew what civil engineering was.
“I fought through engineering school, despite the intensity of the exams, despite the times my work ethic was unfairly judged by professors, and even when the Engineering Department turned its back on me to protect a professor.
There were times when Curtiss considered giving up on engineering.
“I had every right to because I was passionate about film, but I decided not to run away in fear. The mountains that I faced showed me what I was made of,�? he said. “They showed me that I could keep calm in the face of calamity and that I could have faith in the midst of uncertainty. I learned how to forgive when I felt I had been done wrong, and how to use my experiences to encourage others in their journey.
“I was able to write four feature-length scripts while studying civil engineering. My passion continued to grow for a film to the point that upon graduating, I turned down engineering positions to pursue screenwriting,�? Curtiss said.
“Every different environment and experience have all played a role in shaping my perspective. I feel that I see the world through a broad and unique lens and I plan to use film to strategically challenge perceptions and speak for underrepresented voices,�? Curtiss added.
The aspiring filmmaker said being the eldest of his siblings and cousins put pressure on him to set an example and be the first in the family to graduate from college. His mother graduated from high school and his father attended college for a short time, before abandoning it to devote full time to the family business.
“[My father] never got to finish what he started, but since we share the same name, when I graduated, my diploma essentially was his diploma,�? Curtiss noted.
With his vision refocused on film, Curtiss, along with a select class of aspiring filmmakers will seek to graduate in two years with the coveted masters of arts from the USC School of Cinematic Arts. The cost of attending the nation’s top-ranked school is quite expensive — more than $60,000 per year. The sum didn’t discourage Curtiss, who set about applying for every scholarship he could find, among them, the coveted, George Lucas Diversity Scholarship, which he was granted.
“The media played a subtle role in how we thought we were supposed to be, as young men of color. The kids I grew up with were either Black or [Latino], and we were all facing the same issues of gang violence, police brutality (in many cases), and poor schools,�? Curtiss said. “It even affected the things we thought we could accomplish, which is why I plan to use film to strategically provide uplifting ideas of progress for communities of color.�?
Curtiss wants to change the narrative about men of color. “I want to challenge myself to write for a major show and prove to be the best screenwriter I can possibly be, so I can eventually open my own production company, producing films that speak for underrepresented voices,�? he said.
“It is my social and artistic responsibility to ensure that my scripts give society a balanced view of people of color. The goal of my writing is to captivate hearts and challenge people to identify with others of completely different backgrounds, which inevitably brings about the progress we need to see,�? Curtiss said.
A volunteer tutor in algebra at the West Angeles Education Enrichment Program in South L.A., an afterschool program he once attended, Curtiss said the only barrier standing in his way to matriculating at the famed film school is $20,000. Ever resourceful, Curtiss has launched a crowdfunding campaign to accrue the balance of the money as told through a compelling video: https://www.generosity.com/community-fundraising/from-south-central-to-the-world-s-top-film-school
For every $1,000 Curtiss receives, he will spend a weekend mentoring young men and teaching the basics of screenwriting at the Fades for Grades After School Program in Watts, Calif. Any amount accrued above his goal will go directly to a scholarship fund for aspiring screenwriters from South L.A., Watts, and Compton.