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Tampa film 'Paper Line' debuts this Juneteenth weekend

College-age men in black martial arts gear stand in a row out of focus. In the foreground, two more martial artists clench their gloved fists.
"Paper Line" film
“Paper Line” focuses on a secret fraternity of Black martial artists at an unnamed, prestigious Florida historically Black college or university, or HBCU.

Director Ryan Watson, who currently teaches at USF, says most of the all Black cast of actors are from the Tampa Bay area. But they had to outsource the martial artists from across the country.

At first glance, fraternity hazing and martial arts may not seem to have a lot in common. But the two worlds meet in a locally produced short movie debuting this weekend at Tampa Theatre as part of the Juneteenth holidayweekend.

“Paper Line” is the story of a secret fraternity of Black martial artists at an unnamed, prestigious Florida HBCU (historically Black college and university).

A man wearing a shirt with Greek letters smiles and sits in a black chair with an iPad in his lap. Behind him is a brick wall and boxes stacked on one another.
Ryan Watson
Director Ryan Watson took inspiration from Civil-Rights-era Black activist groups like the Black Panthers in creating his film about brotherhood and martial arts.

Director Ryan Watson said the film's title plays off of the insult, “paper pledge,” a fraternity brother who makes it through their pledgeship without being violently hazed.

The Tampa-based director, who was not part of Greek life during his time studying at the University of South Florida, said the film turns this idea of hazing on its head.

“It basically empowers people to feel that they belong and that they don't have to look for acceptance by doing things that are humiliating and disrespectful to themselves,” Watson said.

He adds that his film differentiates between hazing and abusive behavior portrayed in other films about Black Greek culture like 2017’s Burning Sands.

“If we're going to put together a situation where we have a Greek life fraternity, and there is a degree of hazing in our movie, that it's constructive hazing, that it's to make you better,” he said. “It's not just malicious abuse. It's martial arts training, which is also useful in trying to make sure that young Black men stay on the straight path.”

Watson, who currently teaches at the USF Zimmerman School of Advertising and Mass Communications, said most of the all Black cast are from the Tampa Bay area. But they had to outsource the martial artists from across the country.

“We got a guy from Memphis, Los Angeles, Cleveland, North Carolina, Miami, Fort Lauderdale area, Atlanta,” he said.

But Watson said he had trouble assembling the film’s large cast and crew at first.

“It was kind of like, ‘What is this? Who is this guy doing this thing here? He's like a teacher or some stuff, doing a martial arts film? I don't know about that,’” he said. “But then slowly as we were able to pull more people in — and people saw that we were legitimate — I had so many people hit me up.”

PAPER LINE Trailer 2

The film’s first trailer drew so much attention Watson decided to add a bonus scene to let those interested become a part of the action.

“We have a really, really, really big cast. I mean, we deeper than the Wu Tang Clan,” he said, referring to the rap collective who used martial arts iconography.

“We shot a whole prequel scene, the actual fraternity origins scene,” Watson said. “And I didn't have any problems casting that one, because people already knew what we were doing. They saw that we already had one trailer out and they wanted to get involved.”

Watson said he left the decision to premiere the film up to the cast.

“We have a group chat. And I was like, ‘You know what y'all think, Memorial (Day weekend) or Juneteenth?’

“We all like Juneteenth. So it was like, alright, cool. Let's do it,” he said. “It just felt so right to do it on Juneteenth weekend.”

Watson said viewers should expect “a mostly family-friendly film” with “some very intense martial arts imagery.”

“Paper Line” debuts Saturday at 3 p.m. at the Tampa Theatre. Admission is free.

Jack Prator is the WUSF Rush Family Radio News intern for summer of 2022.