A new film premiering in the Baltimore region on Friday features the actor Wendell Pierce, a familiar face to many here, as a conflicted husband and father who has an affair with a teenage boy he meets online.
Pierce, best known for his portrayal of Detective Bunk Moreland in the acclaimed Baltimore-based series "The Wire," says in production materials for the film "FOUR" that his role is one "people would never expect" him to play.
"I expect people to say, 'Why did Wendell participate in the emasculating of a black man?'" Pierce says in the production notes. "The real question is, 'Why do you feel as though that's emasculating?'"
For Pierce, depicting the human nature behind personal conflict is "the role of art," he said, and portraying Joe, his character in the movie, was a challenge he wanted to take on.
Pierce, who could not immediately be reached for comment, was nominated for an Independent Spirit Award for his performance.
"A Must See," he wrote on Twitter on Sept. 5. "Never did anything like it."
"FOUR" premieres at the AMC Owings Mills on Friday and will also be the topic of an open Q&A event at the theater on Sunday.
The movie takes place on a hot July Fourth night in an unidentified American suburb. The storyline that features Joe and his teenage paramour June (Emory Cohen) intertwines with another featuring Joe's daughter Abigayle (Aja Naomi King) and her love interest Dexter (E.J. Bonilla), as both pairs try to make sense of the confusing, exciting and discomforting circumstances that brought them together.
Joe's wife in the film (Yolanda Ross) is described as ill, and is barely featured apart from a dramatic, though silent, interaction with her daughter. Still, her presence is felt.
The film is based on the play of the same name by Christopher Shinn, and in it there is an undercurrent of racial tension. Joe is black, the much younger June white. At one point in the film, Abigayle calls Dexter "half white, half spic," and at another, Dexter tells Abigayle he wishes he was black.
The film also confronts sexual taboos head on, particularly in the scenes featuring Joe and June and their awkward dance through an unbalanced courtship.
While June is a confused teen still unsure of the identity he will claim as he makes his way in the world, Joe seems a man regretful of the identity he picked long ago but too proud to admit it fully -- even as he pressures June to face his own reality and desires.
As Stephen Holden wrote in The New York Times, "The film's unblinking, nonjudgemental focus on this illegal relationship, and its extremely articulate and pointed dialogue, put it squarely in the post-New Queer Cinema tradition."
Pierce, also of HBO's "Treme" and NBC's "The Michael J. Fox Show," was high on first-time film director Joshua Sanchez's list of actors to play Joe, Sanchez said in an interview Wednesday.
"He was really at the top of my list of people who could really pull the part off," Sanchez said.
Isiah Whitlock Jr., who played corrupt state senator Clay Davis in "The Wire," has taken a turn as Joe on the stage, and since Whitlock and Pierce know each other, Sanchez figured Pierce would be aware of the play.
He was, and liked it, Sanchez said, and agreed to play Joe -- something Sanchez called a "lucky break" for the film, which shot in the summer of 2011 and has been years in the making.
The first Baltimore area screening of FOUR, which is rated R, is at AMC Owings Mills on Friday morning. The Q&A will be held 5:15 p.m. Sunday, after a 3:30 p.m. screening.
The film, from 306 Releasing, is also being shown on Friday at nine other AMC theaters across the country through AMC's independent film program, and had a premier in New York on Tuesday night.
The theater was full, Sanchez said, and he hopes theaters in Baltimore and other cities are full this weekend, too.
"I would love if the audience just really related to the film and thought it to be thought-provoking and entertaining," he said. "I'm really happy the movie is getting out there."