Welcome to The New School, a new series highlighting striking, rising talents coming out of top film schools. Meet “Chocolate Thunder” writer-director Mahalia Latortue, a graduate of Savannah College of Art and Design.
Mahalia Latortue went in a daring direction for her student film “Chocolate Thunder”: She made a comedy.
“One of the things that I really wanted to do for my thesis film was a comedy, because in film school, everybody likes to do something really dark, like a tortured-artist type thing. And I was like, I just want to make people laugh,” says Latortue, who just completed her M.F.A. in film and television from SCAD Atlanta, where she was named Excelsus Laureate at commencement.
She jokes that when she was growing up in the ’90s in West Hempstead, N.Y., her mother said her career choices were doctor, lawyer and engineer. She wasn’t allowed to watch much TV as a child — but did get to watch a little bit of The Fresh Prince of Bel Air and plenty of Family Matters. They helped inspire “Chocolate Thunder.”
“I was always allowed to watch Steve Urkel because it was my grandma’s favorite show,” she says. “I just kind of thought to myself, ‘What if Steve Urkel possessed all of Will Smith’s charisma, and charm, but he could only do it online? What would that story look like? And how crazy would that get? And of course, being Haitian, I thought, what if he was also a Haitian kid on top of that?”
Set in an idealized late ’90s, the short film stars a very charming Zachary Connor as Junior Grand-Pierre, a nerd who adopts a cool online persona, “Chocolate Thunder,” who mesmerizes his high school. Junior wears the flip-up sunglasses popularized by Kadeem Hardison as Dwayne Wayne on A Different World, one of the other shows Latortue was allowed to watch as a child.
“My parents and my family wanted me to have the idea that there’s more than one way of black families existing,” she says.
Latortue pulled from her own teenage experience to write a character who is straitlaced in real life, but adopts a different personality behind the keyboard. She started out writing fan fiction on Tumblr, but soon stumbled onto a sizable online audience of people who would pay her to write sexy stories about their favorite fictional characters.
“This is something so embarrassing that I hate talking about. But I would write like… smut for Supernatural or Doctor Who, or anything like that,” she laughs. “They would send me commissions. They’d literally like send me a logline of, ‘I want this character to be with this character. And I want this line in it somewhere.’ And I would just make up a story real quick, and then send it out. I made a fake name. I tried to make it look like I was like a white girl from like California.”
Somehow, a family friend realized who she was.
“And, um, and my mother found out,” Latortue says. “That did not end well for me. I can laugh about it now. In the moment, I was like, ‘Sweet Jesus, what have I done?’”
Embarrassment aside, she found out people really liked her writing — liked it enough to pay for it, in fact. And things turned out okay. She attended Oakwood University in Huntsville, Alabama, then went on to SCAD, where she produced five thesis films and a podcast called The Struggle is Reel. She also interned at Viola Davis’ production company, JuVee Productions.