When talking about the film “22 Years,” Fred Thomas Jr. needs to be included in the conversation.
By Lindsey Nolen
The former resident of 15th and Wharton streets plays a prominent role as the film’s director.
Although he now resides in Los Angeles, he too credits the City of Brotherly Love as helping shape him into the person, and director, he is today.
“There is no place like South Philly,” Thomas said. “I had the best childhood growing up in the streets of Philly, and it made me a well-rounded person. Being a black city kid attending Catholic school and who was able make friends with Italian and Irish dudes, and yet hang on some of the tough corners of my neighborhood and find the good in people who made bad choices, helped with my development in making the right choices as a teen.”
Thomas recalls experiencing vast support from family members, including his parents, grandparents, aunts, uncles, cousins and neighbors. Through this support and the opportunities he had to witness true “South Philly events,” such as a championship parade on Broad Street, he grew to understand strength and camaraderie, which instilled within him a drive to push forward to achieve his goals and believe in himself.
Growing up in the former St. Rita’s Parish and attending St. John Neumann, the now 47-year-old has always found an interest in directing. Thomas remembers getting the other kids at St. Rita’s to perform skits he’d mimic from “Saturday Night Live,” but he would rewrite them so they catered to him and his peers.
After graduating from Neumann, he attended Lincoln University for his undergraduate degree, and then went on to complete a variety of internships at places such as Society Hill Playhouse, WYBE and MTV.
“I wanted to get my hands on film equipment to make movies, so I applied to Temple’s grad program,” Thomas, who attained his master’s degree in film and media arts, said.
In the years since obtaining his master’s, Thomas has been nominated for seven NAACP theater awards and won awards for “Best Director,” “Best Playwright” and “Best Producer” for his play “12’x9.’” He also founded Temple University’s Black Media Collective, was one of the original friends who spawned the Budweiser “Whassup Guys!” from the iconic Budweiser campaign, directed a play for the show R&B Divas LA called “Divalogues” and produced several plays with Don B. Welch Productions.
Despite having worked on projects all over the U.S., from New York to Los Angeles to Atlanta, Thomas crossed paths with Dawn Noel when a mutual actress friend, Anisa Nyell Johnson, introduced the two. Realizing he went to school with Noel’s brothers, and that they grew up just 15 blocks apart with many overlapping friends, helped spark their friendship that ultimately led to his involvement in the film “22 Years.”
“She pitched me her story and I liked the theme and what she wanted to say about the process one can go through to forgive,” Thomas said. “So we figured this may be a great Philly collaboration, and we decided to team up.”
Thus, returning home to Philly for its premiere at the Philadelphia Independent Film Awards brings Thomas an equal sense of excitement.
“Performing in Philly is always amazing,” Thomas said. “I was there a few years back with my play ‘12’x9’ which I wrote and directed. We performed at Freedom Theatre and the response was overwhelming.”
He added that, for other South Philly kids hoping to become a director, he advises they watch lots of movies, read lots of scripts and books while writing down what is liked about each and to talk about movies with others. Additionally, he suggests visiting museums and seeing art, get outside to view nature and take in all surroundings.
“First direct what you know to hone your skills and start adding other pieces of the world to your craft and style,” he said. “Most of all believe in yourself and find your passion.”