Tina Charles knows what it is like to be on the big stage.
Charles, after all, is a five-time WNBA All-Star with the Liberty. She has two Olympic gold medals, one league MVP award and was the WNBA’s No. 1 draft pick overall in 2010.
Yet, Charles never has been on the kind of stage that she will find herself on Friday night when her documentary “Charlie’s Records” debuts at the Tribeca Film Festival.
For the past two years, Charles has spent nearly every second that she isn’t on the basketball court making a film about her father, Rawlston Charles, who immigrated to New York in 1967 from Trinidad and Tobago. The elder Charles had a vision to promote Calypso and Soca music to the world through his Charlie’s Calypso City in Bedford-Stuyvesant and his music label, Charlie’s Records.
"My dad came over here speaking about the American dream and literally bought into America,” Charles said in an interview this week. “He came over three years after Martin Luther King was assassinated when Bed-Stuy was a no-man's land … He opened a record store that served the immigrant population there at the time and his store became a hub for many Caribbean immigrants to have a home away from home.
"He’s an unsung hero. It was really neat for me to tell the story.”
Charles, who is the youngest of her father’s six children, was a small child during the record label’s heyday. She knew her father was an important figure in the Trinidad and Tobago community in New York, but she knew few of the details of his immigrant story until 2017. Charles was hanging out talking to her father at his store with former UConn teammate Kalana Greene, when Greene suggested that she make a documentary about her father.
Charles initially thought the project would be a good one for Spike Lee and was able to get a meeting with the director to pitch the idea.
"When I told him about it, he saw how passionate I was,” she said. “He said, ‘Tina, you have to do your own film. You have the passion. You have to be the person who makes it come out the right way.’”
Charles, who studied psychology and criminal justice, didn’t know much about filmmaking. She did, however, know how to work hard and network.
Charles took a few classes a NYU to see what she was getting into. She also introduced herself to Jane Rosenthal, the co-founder of the Tribeca Film Festival, at a dinner they were both attending. Rosenthal, she said, became a big supporter.
"I would compare her to coach Auriemma,” Charles said, referring to UConn coach Geno Auriemma. “She was able to challenge me and get the most out of me.”
Charles did not play overseas the past two WNBA offseasons, nearly every moment of which was spent working on the film. In addition to filming and researching in New York, she flew to Trinidad and Tobago to interview famous Calypsonians— that’s what Calypso performers are called — and she also landed an interview with Prime Minister Keith Rowley.
Charles’ Liberty teammates and coaches are expected to be in attendance for the screening Friday at Village East Cinema. The film and its Brooklyn setting dovetails nicely with the Liberty’s new ownership as the team was recently bought by Nets co-owner Joseph Tsai. The Liberty will play two of their games this season at Barclays Center, which is about a mile and half from Charlie’s Calypso City.
The Liberty open training camp on Monday. Though Charles has yet to sign her contract with the team, coach Katie Smith said Wednesday that that was merely a formality.
"She is a huge part of what we do,” Smith said. “She’s one of the best players in the league. She puts in the work. She’s someone we rely a lot on basketball wise and leadership wise. And obviously, being a New York kid, there’s a special attachment to that. There’s a connection that is different and we want to hone in on that and the passion of representing your city.”
Charles, who grew up in Queens and played at Christ the King, so enjoyed the process of telling her father’s story that she has formed her own film company — 31 Enterprises — and would like to continue to produce films in the future.
Said Charles: “I’d love to be able to tell some of the stories of my peers in the WNBA . . . There are a lot of good ones out there.”