Before a single shoot took place, local filmmaker Tyshun Wardlaw knew at least one thing about her ambitious feature-length documentary debut: This wasn’t just a movie for Milwaukee.
“My original intent was this film needs to go to a national audience,” Wardlaw said. “I didn’t even know who was going to be in it. I didn’t even know what the message was going to be, clearly, because I hadn’t started. But I knew that that was my vision and that was my motivation for creating the film: that we’re changing what we’re seeing about Milwaukee on a national level.”
Her early dream has become an incredible reality as Wardlaw’s feature-length documentary, “Growing Up Milwaukee,” debuted this week on HBO Max, sitting beside massive blockbusters and iconic cinematic legends on Warner Media’s star-studded streaming service.
It’s a Hollywood ending for her Brew City-based movie, a journey that began more than five years ago for the self-proclaimed “floater,” moving around earlier in her career from undergrad school at Santa Clara University in California to a potential gig with “The Oprah Winfrey Show” in Chicago to other talk shows and news gigs on the West Coast and beyond – but always finding her way back to Wisconsin and Milwaukee.
When she would check in or return to her hometown, Wardlaw noticed the city making headlines – and not always for the best reasons.
“In all of that transitioning, I noticed that Milwaukee had changed – changed even in what my younger family members were dealing with as youth growing up in the city,” she noted. “And I noticed as well the staggering statistics, unfortunately, that we knew on a national level that Milwaukee was the worst place statistically for blacks to live, from incarceration to education to the economic disparities, just across the board.
“But no one, especially on a national level, was really asking where are the stories behind some of these youth. We may catch them every now and then on the local news, but on a national level, unfortunately, the only thing we heard about Milwaukee as far as the Black community was extremely devastating.”
In order to tell her hometown’s true stories and to find the humanity beyond the harsh numbers, Wardlaw started her own production company, Wardlaw Productions, in Milwaukee in 2015, and formulated its lead project: a documentary about what it was actually like growing up in the city and in the shadow of these troubling statistics.
After spending years building funding and enmeshing herself into the local filmmaking community, “Growing Up Milwaukee” grew from an idea into a feature-length film, following three Black youths coming of age in the city.
Each has their own story to tell: Marquell, a teen coping with abuse and trauma in and around his single-parent home; Brandon, a young man trying to start again in a group home after spending time incarcerated; and Tiana, a young teen mother trying to be the best role model and parent possible for the son she lost custody of – all people easily simplified and compartmentalized by some into mere statistics but portrayed in the film as complex individuals with ambitions, hopes, struggles, personal truths and perspectives on their world.
Along the way, Wardlaw talks with community leaders and local organizations, such as True Skool and Flood the Hood with Dreams, working to encourage the next generation’s ambitions – including the film’s subjects – and break the harmful cycles.
“I knew I wanted to make sure that we’re introducing these youth to organizations or individuals who are helping to change the narrative,” Wardlaw said.
After wrapping filming, Wardlaw submitted a rough cut of “Growing Up Milwaukee” to the Sundance Film Festival in 2019. Even though the movie didn’t get accepted, Wardlaw saw the moment as setting the stage, pushing her forward to perfect the film and take it to the next, hopefully national level. And that’s exactly what happened.
Promoting the film in the midst of a global pandemic shutdown and of the Black Lives Matter movement breaking through into mainstream consciousness, emphasizing the need for more Black stories, perspectives and experiences in the spotlight, Wardlaw received interest in “Growing Up Milwaukee” from various networks and distributors – eventually teaming with HBO and its new streaming service to achieve her goal: a wide audience for her film’s plea for action and change.
“For individuals – whether from a city level, a state level, a federal level, I don’t care what level it’s from – it’s a call to action to say, ‘What can I do to be a solution to some of the problems they’re facing?’” Wardlaw said. “We can talk about it day in and day out. We can have several forums and different things. But if we’re not putting action to some of these things that we need, they’re going to remain the same.”
Wardlaw is keeping in action as well. The local filmmaker already has her next documentary pitch in the works – another Milwaukee-based story with hopefully national implications and interest. She’s also hoping to continue growing her production company, going beyond its Milwaukee hub by opening an office in Chicago this spring and hopefully expanding its creative footprint.
In the meantime, “Growing Up Milwaukee” will hopefully evolve and humanize the conversation about the city, its citizens, its shortcomings and its promise.
“Unfortunately, Milwaukee is a lot of things in the Black community – but hopeless is not one of them. All hope isn’t lost. It’s not going to change overnight. It’s not going to change within a few days or even in a few weeks. But it can change if people will continue to move forward and bring solutions to the problems we’re facing in the city.”
"Growing Up Milwaukee” is available to watch now on HBO Max; for more information on the streaming service, click here. The film is also a part of Milwaukee Film’s Black History Month program, available to rent on the local theater’s digital platform starting Feb. 22-28. For more information, visit Milwaukee Film’s website.
As much as it is a gigantic cliché to say that one has always had a passion for film, Matt Mueller has always had a passion for film. Whether it was bringing in the latest movie reviews for his first grade show-and-tell or writing film reviews for the St. Norbert College Times as a high school student, Matt is way too obsessed with movies for his own good.
When he's not writing about the latest blockbuster or talking much too glowingly about "Piranha 3D," Matt can probably be found watching literally any sport (minus cricket) or working at - get this - a local movie theater. Or watching a movie. Yeah, he's probably watching a movie.