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April 27, 2015

White Reservation: The Justification of Breath and Those Who Take It Away

My day ended with news of a Michael Brown memorial tree being chopped down in less than a day of it being planted. Amidst the maelstrom and versions of justice, it's hard to breathe when even the process of photosynthesis is being interrupted.

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Donald Franklin, his father, died of a heart attack at the age of 36. Franklin, then 9, was a socially awkward, "bigheaded" boy of good spirit, but who suffered from a chronic case of middle child syndrome.

"At a young age I had a lot of frustrations," said Franklin, now 33 and a Vice President at Columbia Pictures, a division of Sony, in the lobby of a posh hotel in New York City last week. "When you grow up in a family of alcoholics, I think that you can go either one of two ways - you go one way where you may go the same path or you overcompensate and go the other way."

Franklin went the other way.

He used a combination of religious faith, pent up frustrations and an intense feeling of displacement to fuel a rise to lofty spiritual and professional heights. Franklin is an emerging Hollywood powerhouse, a young hit-maker behind such films as 'The Pursuit of Happyness,' 'The Karate Kid (the 2010 version),' 'Hancock' and the recently released hit 'Jumping The Broom.' It's not a coincidence that many of the films he's worked on either star or are co-produced by Will Smith. Franklin got his start as an intern for Smith and partner James Lassiter's Overbrook Entertainment.


Behind his easy laugh, the million-dollar smile and the hundreds of millions of dollars in movie profits to back it up, there is a much greater force at work: faith in God.

More than an executive, Franklin is a Sabbath-observant Seventh Day Adventist preacher whose faith has guided him to the top of an industry often maligned as sleazy and sinful. He is also the author of the recently released book, 'Produced By Faith: Enjoying Real Success Without Losing Your True Self,' published by Howard Books, a division of Simon & Schuster.

"God had given me the whole idea about the filmmaking process as a metaphor for the faith-making process," Franklin said of the book, which is part memoir, part faith-based self-help and part guide to breaking into the movie business. His Hollywood experience has been anything but the stuff of HBO's 'Entourage,' with its full-throttle debauchery.

"There are more people of faith than you'd imagine and more people that are respectful of faith than you'd imagine," he said. "I've experienced a Hollywood that is filled with wonderful people, family-oriented people of integrity - people who want to do right in the world."

Indeed, Franklin is part of a small but growing wave of players in Hollywood who have brought faith-themed films to the big screen, catering mostly to black Christian audiences, including Tyler Perry and friend T.D. Jakes, who produced 'Jumping The Broom' and 'Not Easily Broken.'

Franklin, whose swagger offers a man cut more from the cloth of Ralph Lauren's Purple Label than that of a clergyman, seems as comfortable talking film as faith. He doesn't come off as particularly preachy, though his speech is laced with positive affirmations, the kind used by the perpetually hopeful set. His good looks are more popstar than preacher, but don't let it fool you.

While many young men his age spend their Fridays and Saturdays looking for a party or thumbing through their little black books, he spends his thumbing through the good book. He observes the Sabbath, so from sunset on Friday to sunset on Saturday, he unplugs his cell phone and disconnects from the world, breaking the fourth commandment of the movie business, "Thou shalt never turn off thy BlackBerry," as he says in his book.

The book was a year in the making, but is the culmination of Franklin's professional walk that began during his time interning for Smith and Lassiter and his "spiritual walk" that began as a child.

He and his family were regular churchgoers when his father died, and they continued to attend services every weekend after. When his mother couldn't take the boys, she'd send for someone to take them.

Franklin was baptized at 11, and at 13 he had perhaps the most significant spiritual experience of his life.


A popular evangelist was preaching at a weeklong event at the Oakland convention center. "It was a really big deal," Franklin recalled. His mother and brothers, aunts and cousins were all there.

The preacher's voice filled the center, his words rising higher and higher until they bounced off the ceiling and the walls around them. Something began to rise within young DeVon Franklin, too. He can't explain what exactly, beyond a fire.

"It was just powerful, really powerful," Franklin recalled. "It was very convicting. I remember feeling that urgency and that feeling of, OK, I have to live for God and do what he is calling me to do. It was very, very strong. Very compelling."

The seeds of his faith had been planted years before that moment in the convention center, but it all came together that day: the Saturdays in church, the feelings of wanting to find a "peaceful" place, the preacher's words and the power in which he delivered them.

He said that later, "I became aware that God had a plan for me, that it was a personal relationship and so much of it was my responsibility."

Franklin said that he couldn't pull himself away from his church after that point. He'd be the one sweeping the floors, stacking and un-stacking chairs in the basement fellowship hall. He was an usher, a young deacon and the director of the youth choir.

"I was sort of this rebel in reverse," said Franklin, of dealing first with the pain of his father's abandonment and then his death. "Instead of rebelling and going crazy, the way that I handled it was to submerge myself in everything that was going on in the church."

During his school years, he threw himself further into church and his studies, student government and the leadership council. He camouflaged his internal struggles with an air of confidence, with strong handshakes and steady eye contact. He crafted an impeccable image and was even voted Most Likely to Succeed.

"Mr. Perfect," is what his classmates called him. They just had no idea how imperfect his path had been.

As a freshman at the University of Southern California, he had a "minor crisis of faith," he said, proof again of his personal imperfections. The newness of college, the parties, the college girls and the coming of age ruffled what had been his solid faith.

"I started questioning everything that I had believed about God, and really had to relearn why I believe what I believe so that I could have ownership of it," he said, "not just doing it because that's the way I was raised."

Part of that was redoubling his efforts to observe the Sabbath and learning to balance dating with his Christian values. He has since come to grips with the fact that a faithful walk is not an easy walk.

His book is dedicated to the memory of his father, grandparents and great-grandparents, but also to "all of you who have struggled with holding on to your faith. This is one of life's most challenging pursuits."

These days, he struggles more with managing his own ambition and not getting caught up with what "I want" and "when I want it," than pre-marital sex or partying.

Through his faith and his success in the film industry, and doing so largely on his (and God's) terms, he is beginning to find his place.

"I feel like in this moment in life, I'm finding more of myself than I probably have before, because I feel like who God has called me to be is beginning to manifest," he said. "In writing the book and hearing people respond to it, and talk to me about how it ministered to them, has been encouraging. A lot of people say, you know, I went through the same thing. So that helps me feel like, Wow, I'm not so alone as I thought I was."
Tagged as: Bishop TD Jakes, Columbia Pictures, Jumping the Broom, Karate Kid, the pursuit of happyness, Tyler Perry, Will Smith
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