Years before she began filming her comedy "Peeples," about a high-earning, high-achieving African-American family, writer-director Tina Gordon Chism drove around Long Island looking for possible filming locations. First stop: the Hamptons, of course.
It didn't take long for Chism to discover the village of Sag Harbor. The director in her was attracted to the lovely waterfront homes and wealthy black enclaves like Azurest and Ninevah, while the humorist in her was intrigued by its unlikely history of African-American whalers and deep pride in being mentioned in Herman Melville's 1851 door-stopper, "Moby-Dick."
"Black whalers in Sag Harbor? I just loved the idea of it," says Chism. Even when budgetary reasons led her to shoot in Rowayton, Conn., Chism forced it to double for Sag Harbor. "I just couldn't change the location," she says.
And that's how the fictional Peeples family became pillars of the Sag Harbor community. The film, which opens Friday, stars David Alan Grier as patriarch Virgil Peeples, an imperious federal judge whose life revolves around the town's annual "Moby-Dick Day"; S. Epatha Merkerson (NBC's "Law & Order") as his wife, Daphne, a former disco singer; Kerry Washington as their daughter, Grace, a high-powered lawyer; and Craig Robinson (NBC's "The Office") as Grace's boyfriend, Wade, a children's musician who doesn't quite meet Virgil's standards.
Produced by Tyler Perry for Lionsgate Entertainment, "Peeples" is the directorial debut of Chism, who wrote the screenplays for the teen films "Drumline" (2002) and "ATL" (2006). It's also a first for Robinson, finally playing the leading man after playing secondary roles in "Pineapple Express" and "Hot Tub Time Machine." Robinson downplays his above-the-title placement, though, joking that he only joined the film because the script included a racy sex scene.
"That was the closing point when they were pitching me," Robinson says. "I was like, 'You're a new director? That's cool. David Alan Grier's in it? Cool. Oh, I get to spank Kerry Washington? Where do I sign?' "
"Peeples" also marks one of Grier's highest-profile film roles. The actor ("In Living Color"), who grew up in Detroit among well-educated families, says he didn't have to stretch to find inspiration for the character of Virgil. "He was just all those imposing, torturous, self-important fathers that I had to endure when I was younger -- the doctors, judges, lawyers," he says. "I can laugh about it now, but those guys were really like that. 'Bring my daughter home alive, Mr. Grier! I know your daddy!' "
Chism may not have much in common with the Peeples family, having grown up on a farm in Virginia -- "I challenge you to find another black dairy farming family," she says -- but her film is less focused on class or race than on family dysfunction. The humor, Chism stresses, is what's important.
"Believe me," she says. "If you're going to sell the studio on the idea of black people celebrating 'Moby-Dick,' you'd better have some good jokes."
See Rafer Guzmán's review in Friday's exploreLI.