Growing up Black in the Texas suburbs, Fred Leach felt the effects of magnified stereotypes, social isolation and marginalization, and unconscious biases.
That’s why although the SMU graduate has lived in Los Angeles for several years, he wanted to return home to shoot Caged Birds, his feature directorial debut.
“I really wanted to tell a story that looked at the Black experience from that perspective,” Leach said. “This was something that came from a real place. My goal was to make it feel authentic and real. The setting is important.”
The coming-of-age drama, which screens on Sunday as part of the Dallas International Film Festival, was inspired by Leach’s experiences during his upbringing in the Houston area and in Richardson.
The story follows an affluent high school senior (Kamil McFadden) with Ivy League aspirations who is bullied, his athletic cousin (Bentley Green) whose dreams of playing college basketball are derailed in part by racism, and a classmate (Christian Menace) who helps them carry out a prank to gain revenge. When the scheme backfires, it jeopardizes their future.
“I’ve seen both sides of it,” Leach said. “I’ve been the kid who feels like wasn’t Black enough because I wasn’t cool and I didn’t play sports. And then when I got to high school and started playing sports, I was trying to be something that I wasn’t just to try and fit in.”
After graduating from SMU in 2012 with degrees in both film and history, Leach taught history for three years in Dallas through the Teach for America program.
He spent those summers traveling to California for film classes, and eventually made the move permanent a few years later. He gained experience by writing and directing short films and web series.
Leach shot Caged Birds in just 15 days in August 2019 at various locations in the Dallas area, with a mostly local cast and crew. Among the leading actors, both Green (TV’s “Snowfall”) and Menace are Dallas natives.
The low-budget film, which gets its title from the iconic Maya Angelou book, has played at various festivals this year. It will be available on upstart streamer Urbanflix in November.
However, the DIFF screening will be its local debut. Leach, Menace, and co-star Aaliyah Muhammad will attend and participate in a Q&A.
The abbreviated festival, which begins on Friday at the Alamo Drafthouse Cedars, will feature Dallas premieres of major fall titles such as Wes Anderson’s The French Dispatch, Kenneth Branagh’s Belfast, and Mike Mills’ C’mon C’mon, starring Joaquin Phoenix.
Also in the lineup are a handful of other features with North Texas connections, including:
The Blazing World — Fort Worth native Carlson Young (TV’s “Scream”) stars and makes her directorial debut with this haunting tale of a woman returning home to sort through a family tragedy.
Cat Daddies — Mye Hoang, an SMU graduate and founder of the Asian Film Festival of Dallas, directed this breezy documentary about the special relationship between men and felines.
Jockey — The first feature for Dallas filmmaker Clint Bentley has garnered festival acclaim and awards buzz for its bittersweet story of an aging horseman trying to keep his career on track.
Kufi Krew: An American Story — This documentary chronicles the founding of the first Muslim fraternity in the country at UT Dallas, fighting for acceptance during a time of heightened social and racial tension.
Miracle Fishing — Dallas native Miles Hargrove’s documentary repurposes his own video diary to revisit his family’s harrowing effort to rescue his father after being kidnapped by Colombian guerrillas in 1994.