The Trenton-based comic book series Surian Seed: HBCU Superheroes is making its way to the big screen. Maurice “Raheem” Mander, Trenton-native and creator of the series, has decided to bring his comic book characters to life in an animated movie featuring a mix of experienced and new actors from both the local Trenton area and out of state regions.
In late December, Mander hosted the casting call in Atlanta, GA, the same city of his alma mater and HBCU, Morehouse College. Casting calls were held in the privately booked crystal ballroom of the Hilton Atlanta hotel. Actors from Trenton and across the nation came to the city for their chance to audition for Surian Seed: HBCU Superheroes the movie.
“When people audition, you know what you have in your mind,” said Mander, “and when those people hit it and knock it out the box, you’re like, ‘yeah, this is what we’re talking about!'”
The youngest actor to hit every mark and book a role in the new trailer is 15-year-old Jahleel E. Johnson from Trenton, NJ. Do not let the age full you; this young man has been active in the industry since his early adolescence.
“Before I could even read, I’ve been acting,” said Johnson. “I remember getting taken out of school to go for this audition…I’ve just always been acting. There’s been maybe a year or two when I didn’t act, but really, acting is the first thing that I remember doing.”
Johnson’s father, Christopher Johnson, is a good friend of Mander’s. The two met as teens when attending Trenton Central High School (TCHS) together in the 80’s. After hearing of the upcoming production and the open casting call, Christopher Johnson spoke with his son and they worked out an audition. “I got on the phone, I did a Shakespeare monologue, and within a few days, I was officially cast,” said Jahleel Johnson.
Johnson will be playing the rugged, impulsive and mischievous character E-Dog, a member of the fictional 609 Gang. “Maurice modeled that character after someone he knew in real life. He was a guy who ended up being down with anything and everything and ended up [going to prison] because of it,” said Johnson. “He’s a part of the thug life, but at his core, deep down in his heart, he knows what he’s doing isn’t right, and you do see that in the trailer.”
As a Trenton-native and young Black man himself, Johnson finds the message of Surian Seed relatable and inspiring. For him, the concept behind the series has potential to showcase an underrepresented group of people.
“I’ve never seen a Black Batman, and I’ve never seen Black superheroes. There was Black Panther that came out recently, but that wasn’t until recently,” said Johnson. “So, it’s very important for kids my age and younger people around my age group to see Black superheroes, these larger than life characters being portrayed by African American people and people of color… This really makes me so excited to be a part of something so big, so groundbreaking, because there’s literally nothing like this.”
Another cast member playing a different street-tough, compassionate and daring 609 Gang member is 28-year-old Kadeem Hunter from Atlanta, GA. Originally from Milwaukee, WI, Hunter stepped foot in the entertainment industry about six years ago after taking advice from his persistent mother, who he later found out acted and modeled herself in the 80’s and 90’s. Hunter landed his first major roll as an athlete on the Showtime series Survivor’s Remorse in 2014.
Hunter heard about Surian Seed: HBCU Superheroes through a friend of his named Keith. Hunter’s friend is an alum of Morehouse College who first learned of the project through his former Cinema/Television/Emerging Media Studies Program professor, Adisa Iwa, who is directing the film.
“[The audition] was great. It felt organic. I felt at home,” said Hunter. “They made me feel welcome and next thing you know, I got word that I got the part a few days later.”
He continued, “Being that this is a story about Black superheroes, I felt like I had a responsibility to uphold.”
Originally, Hunter auditioned for the role of Isaiah Kemet (Infinite), the main character of the series. However, after hearing his audition, Mander felt his emotional acting ability was better suited for the role of a character named James.
“When we started reading, [Mander] was saying, ‘I hear pain in your voice. I want you to read this character,'” said Hunter. “So I got the role of James, which is the villain, but I don’t mind. I don’t mind because at the end of the day, as long as the story is told, I think that’s the important part.”
For many of the individuals involved in the Surian Seed: HBCU Superheroes production, authenticity and accurate portrayals of the character development is of utmost importance, for not only the sake of a detailed production, but to aid the story Mander has been envisioning for over 10 years.
As a new actress from Atlanta, GA, 23-year-old Amia “Mimi” Akwiwu is honored to have been selected to voice Tiya, the girlfriend of the main character Isaiah Kemet (Infinite). “Mander based a lot of the story on his real life, about his experiences and college, and about what it’s like growing up in that inner city, and being associated with gang violence because he’s lived that life,” said Akwiwu. “For him to have put the amount of time and years into the project to make it as authentic as possible, my hat goes off to him and I have such a huge respect for him developing the story and making it in a way that is real to him. I believe it will be real and will resonate with a lot of other people who watch this.”
She continued, “I believe, for him, when he was casting the actors and actresses who play these roles, he was trying to make sure that they can give that aura that he is familiar with. So for me, it’s an honor that I can even represent that familiarity that he’s known from back in his day.”
Although this is Akwiwu’s first major production, her acting ability set her apart from many others in the audition room. For Mander, his choice in actors is not about skill level or experience, but the talent’s ability to deeply portray the multifaceted and complex characters he has developed.
“[Akwiwu] is multi talented. She lit up the room when she came in,” said Mander. “She auditioned for multiple parts right there on the set because her talent was so diverse that you knew that she was well groomed to be in this field.”
With a limited amount of Black superhero representation in the world of comics and animation, Surian Seed: HBCU Superheroes fills a niche market. The team of Surian Seed: HBCU Superheroes see this rising production as not just a well-written story worthy of being told, but as an important new concept with potential to inspire Black youth nationwide.
“The timing is now for the HBCU superheroes to come to life,” said Raquel Hill, Director of Social Media for Surian Seed: HBCU Superheroes. “The seeds have been planted, and it’s time to harvest, and this is all just going to be amazing.”
Hill, who graduated TCHS in 1988, one year after Mander, sees the endless possibilities Surian Seed has for the young Trenton community. As someone who was raised in Trenton, she is excited to see this project change outsider prospectives on the people of the capital city.
“People kind of think about Trenton and they see it synonymous with any major city, you know, drug dealing, gang violence, young Black boys dying at an early age, but there is an underlying village tribe of really, really smart, intelligent people who are getting things done,” said Hill. “Don’t sleep on anybody from Trenton.”
In the upcoming months, Surian Seed: HBCU Superheroes will be releasing two teaser trailers leading up to the completed version. In addition, signs and billboards will be going up around the city for the new animated film. Website coming soon.