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Self-taught filmmaker never lost focus

Jordan Crafton, 26, edits a film at his

Jordan Crafton, 26, edits a film at his apartment in New Jersey on Wednesday, Jan. 22, 2014. In 2009, the Baldwin native released “My Block: Strong Island,” a 75-minute documentary following 15 area youths from predominantly African-American communities. Credit: Bruce Gilbert

The first time Jordan Crafton entered a movie in his college's student film festival, he bombed.

Crafton's short film, "This Is What Happens," about a claustrophobic ninja avenging his abused mother, earned a score of just 30 out of 90 from the judges at the University of South Carolina in a 2006 contest. The Baldwin native could have chalked up the low score to the fact that his major was hospitality management, not film, and given up any serious ambitions about show business.

But by then, the sophomore's longtime interest in film had become a passion. So he took the score sheet to Kinko's, blew it up to 24-by-36 inches and hung it on his dorm room wall for motivation. He submitted another entry the following year and came in a very respectable third out of more than 30 entrants.

"I was the only kid at the festival who wasn't a film student," Crafton recalled. "It gave me credibility."

That determined focus has gotten Crafton where he is today: director of photography and editor for Nick Cannon's "TeenNick Top 10," on the Nickelodeon TV channel, and producer of two documentaries about life on Long Island.

It sustained him through long nights of working after work. It gave him the nerve to pester his way into the company of one of the top names in entertainment. And along with a strong faith instilled by his parents, it helped him deal with the heartbreaking loss in 2009 of his childhood friend and film company partner, Tyrell Spencer.

"I release a new video every year on the day he passed away," Crafton said, referring to Nov. 24 and the car crash that killed his friend. And he said the "D" in the name of his production company, JDC Films, no longer stands for his middle name, Dexter, but for Spencer's, which was DeVaughn.

 

Encouraged from the start

Crafton, 26, who now lives in Mahwah, N.J., is the youngest of three sons of John Crafton, a retired deputy superintendent with the New York City Transit Authority, and his wife, Jeanette, a retired teacher. His brother John, 36, is a Manhattan real estate agent who lives in Amityville. Jason, 31, lives in Nyack and is head coach of the Nyack College men's basketball team.

All three were raised in an atmosphere where hard work was encouraged and support was freely given.

"As a teacher, I didn't tolerate nonchalance," said Jeanette Crafton, a lifelong educator who last taught at PS 251 in Springfield Gardens, Queens. "We established excellent morals. You have to realize there are a lot of sacrifices to make in order to achieve excellence."

Crafton was a good student at Uniondale High School, and returned in 2009 to give the commencement address. In college, even after his father said it would be OK to change his major to film, Crafton stuck with hospitality management, reasoning that a steady job managing a restaurant would help finance his film career.

Indeed, it was his mother's busy schedule -- she also was a tutor and led a weekend reading program for children, among other things -- that turned Crafton into a once and future hotelier.

When he was 8, he would set up his bedroom like a hotel room for his mother to relax in after work. She could order room service through the "intercom," which was actually an old baby monitor.

"He acted as if he was at the front desk," Jeanette Crafton said, chuckling at the memory. "And he said, 'When you check out, please remember to refer me to your friends and tell them what a nice time you had.' "

Crafton's grand plan is to again one day cater to his mother's relaxation needs, but right now he's focused on laying the foundation to achieve that goal. These days, he still doesn't own a couch and doesn't have cable in his apartment.

"When I come home, I have to work," he said. "That was the biggest ingredient in my success after college, keeping my life intact -- and I hate to say it this way -- but not to allow myself to enjoy myself."

 

The perfect partnership

Crafton met Spencer in a seventh-grade Spanish class, and the two became fast friends.

"I had my older brothers who I looked up to the most," Crafton said. "But Tyrell was a tougher kid than me. I think that's why we mixed so well. I was tough, but I was the smarter kid. Tyrell was gifted, but he had the street smarts and the savvy."

It was Spencer who had the idea for what would become JDC Films' first big project.

"He said, 'We should do a movie about the town. We're gonna be heroes.' "

Crafton borrowed money from his father to buy the last two Sony Handycam hi-definition video cameras at a Best Buy near campus that was going out of business. He worked at a restaurant to pay back what he owed, and eagerly returned to New York in the summer of 2007 to start work on the project. He had no formal training then or since, so he learned the basics of shooting and editing film from YouTube tutorials.

The result was 2009's "My Block: Strong Island," a 75-minute documentary following 15 youths from Uniondale, Freeport, Hempstead and other predominantly African-American communities on Long Island as they negotiated obstacles and struggled to build lives and careers. One of them, Nick, designed the poster for "It's Showtime," Crafton's latest documentary. "My Block" carried a theme of hometown pride and resentment at playing second fiddle to Manhattan, and was an official selection at that year's Long Island Film Festival. It premiered on June 5 before an audience of more than 450 people at the Uniondale High auditorium.

"The biggest day of me and Tyrell's life was the 'Strong Island' screening," Crafton said.

Spencer died five months later. He was on his way home for Thanksgiving break from SUNY Potsdam, where he was a history major, when the car in which he was a passenger overturned. The driver and another passenger, both from Long Island, were injured.

"He was the man," Crafton said. "When he passed away, it tore me apart. It absolutely tore me apart. I felt so alone."

Spencer's mother, Eydie, a Baldwin resident, still keeps in touch with Crafton and said she is proud of the legacy her son left with the "My Block" film.

"It was touching," she said. "And it was a positive look for young African-Americans. He [Tyrell] always thought Jordan was a positive person. Tyrell, he knew the street kids and he knew the positive kids, and he was friends with both. But he always stayed focused and stayed on track and knew what he wanted."

Before Spencer died, he and Crafton were collaborating long-distance on a short promotional film about the Uniondale High marching band and its then-director, Frank Abel, who was retiring. Abel, who turns 68 on Feb. 3, led the band from 1996 to 2011.

Spencer and Crafton later decided to expand the piece to a full-blown documentary about the band's 2009-2010 season. After Spencer's death, Crafton pressed on with the project and ended up with "It's Showtime," a film that captures the exuberance of the marching band experience and the affection of its members for the larger-than-life Abel.

"It all started as a little film to say goodbye to me when I was thinking about retiring," said Abel. "Three years later it's blossomed into this documentary that is awe-inspiring. Every time I see it I'm so impressed."

Meanwhile, the summer that "My Block" came out, Crafton completed a training program at the Red Lobster seafood restaurant in Hicksville, became manager of a Red Lobster in Nanuet, Rockland County, N.Y., and moved to Mahwah, N.J. In 2011, he transferred to another Red Lobster in Middletown, in Orange County, N.Y.

Between shifts, he began making inroads in the entertainment world. For three years he was the personal videographer for Terrence Davidson, hairstylist to celebrities including singers Nicki Minaj, Patti LaBelle and Jennifer Hudson.

Crafton had settled on pop impresario and "America's Got Talent" host Nick Cannon as a good match for his skills, and launched an all-out effort to contact him. He finally reached Cannon's road manager, Dorian Graham, himself a documentary filmmaker, and landed a meeting in early 2012.

"We got to see what his work ethic was, how creative he was, getting his input on things, and we realized he was a gem that we found and we should lock him in," Graham said. "He's a hardworking kid. He's learned his craft, and what he doesn't know he's ready to learn. He never felt like he knew more than anybody else or talked down to anybody, like a lot of people in this industry do."

Next came the call to meet Cannon backstage at "America's Got Talent." Cannon asked him to help shoot some video -- a golden, though unpaid, opportunity. Eventually, Crafton was assigned, with pay, to shoot and edit the pilot of "TeenNick Top 10," which would air on New Year's Eve 2012.

The show -- a weekly roundup of what's hot in music, videos and culture, and which features Cannon chatting with celebrities and discussing up-and-coming artists -- was a hit and the network picked it up. In January 2013 he left Red Lobster, and within a month he had been named director of photography and editor of "TeenNick Top 10."

 

A Long Island success

Crafton hasn't started shopping for a couch, and he still drives the 2002 Honda Accord that he said he and Spencer "borderline lived in" when promoting "My Block." He is planning a sequel to that documentary that will focus on older Long Islanders. Still, he hopes to broaden his scope from documentaries to dramas, and to topics beyond his beloved Long Island.

Though he doesn't feel he has "made it" yet, Crafton said he is confident that he is proving one of the points made in "My Block": Long Islanders can be successful, too.

"I like being from where I'm from," he said. "It matters. I'm as strong a hustler as people from Harlem or Manhattan or whatever. Just because we have trees and squirrels doesn't mean we're any less New Yorkers than anybody else."

 

 

'Strong Island, revisited'

Jordan Crafton plans to release a sequel to "My Block: Strong Island" this summer, which will include older generations and take a broader look at what the young filmmaker said are the "unique characters and ingredients that helped build the culture of our home."

The project is being funded by the National Center for Suburban Studies at Hofstra University in Hempstead, as part of its Oral History Project.

"My Block: Strong Island Part II" will "use our oral histories and the other materials we have gathered for either inspiration or as source material, and have it inform the story of the more diversified suburb we have today," said Lawrence Levy, the center's executive dean.

"The one thing that I'm sure of is that it will be interesting, because Jordan Crafton is a very interesting young filmmaker," Levy said. "One day he's going to be a thought leader for his generation."

Meanwhile, the Long Island Studies Institute and Hofstra University Archives will sponsor a Feb. 19 screening of "It's Showtime" at 7 p.m. in the school's Guthart Cultural Center Theater, Axinn Library, First Floor, South Campus. Admission will be free. Details will be on jdcfilmsonline.com.

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