Star of Comedy Central’s ‘South Side’ to create film jobs for youth through nonprofit
Chicago native Sultan Salahuddin and Skokie native Debbie Holstein created Lane 44, which will produce several Chicago-centric films on the South Side, hire neighborhood youth as production assistants and contribute to diversifying Hollywood’s behind-the-scenes workforce.
If he had his way, actor and Chicago native Sultan Salahuddin would have given jobs to all the kids who swarmed the set of Comedy Central’s “South Side,” during filming of the series in neighborhoods on that side of the city last summer.
Now Lane 44 — Salahuddin’s six-month-old nonprofit — hopes to achieve just that.
The mission: produce several Chicago-centric films on the South Side, hire neighborhood youth as production assistants — giving them elusive film credits required for union membership and more work — and contribute to diversifying Hollywood’s behind-the-scenes workforce.
“Last summer, when we were filming — I’m talking about in the neighborhood, like 78th & Cottage Grove, 105th & Ashland — we’d pull up the trucks, gear would get dropped off, people would load up, you would see all this commotion, and the kids would come,” Sultan Salahuddin said, chatting over coffee on a recent morning, with his Lane 44 co-founder, entertainment industry vet Debbie Holstein.
“Between scenes, I had an opportunity to talk with the youth, and they were asking questions like, ‘Oh, what are you guys doing here? Who are you? Are ya’ll making a music video?’ I’m like, ‘No, we’re making a show.’”
“South Side,” premiering on July 24, centers on a rent-to-own store in Englewood, and the adventures of two of its employees, would-be entrepreneurs and recent community college graduates.
“‘How in the heck can I get involved?’ That was the number one question the kids would ask me. And it just hit me in the heart,” said Salahuddin, who plays one of two central characters on the show that his brother Bashir Salahuddin, also an actor, created with writing partner Diallo Riddle.
Raised in the South Shore and Auburn Gresham neighborhoods — his veteran Chicago Public Schools teacher mom still lives there — Salahuddin and two brothers ended up going into the entertainment industry.
After shooting wrapped, Sultan Salahuddin’s conversations with kids who’d hung around stayed with him. He called Holstein. “I said, ‘Debbie, you know what? I’m looking into the eyes of a lot of these kids, and they’re just looking at me, like, “We don’t have nothing to do, man.” All that talent out there just sitting around waiting for somebody to come in and create a job. I said, ‘Why don’t we just do it?’ ”
Holstein, who grew up in Skokie and has spent 20 years in the industry, mostly in TV and film production, but also in nonprofits, said after talking it through, creating the nonprofit film production entity focused on neighborhood job stimulus, was a natural.
“It’s an interesting model….Profits from films telling Chicago stories will go back into Lane 44 to fund the workforce development and job creation aspect,” she said.
“A normal crew is up to 200 people give or take. We’re going to make 30%, as opposed to a handful of those positions, production assistants. And the youth will fill those jobs, from behind the camera to the front, pre-production to wrap. Then they get to go out into the world, break through that barrier of union membership and diversify that workforce in Chicago, the country’s second largest market for TV and films.”
The jobs creation and film projects will be limited to the South Side, “because that’s where I’m from,” Salahuddin said, noting that he grew up in a gang-plagued neighborhood, but being exposed to the world and opportunities outside his ‘hood made all the difference.
“My parents made sure we were exposed to many, many different things, museums, etc., and my dad worked for the airlines and made sure we saw other cities. So in that regard, I was very privileged as a child,” said Salahuddin, who will throw out first pitch at the June 28 White Sox v. Minnesota Twins game.
“The value of that was I got to understand that there are no limits to the heights you can go. But that was because someone else took the time to say, ‘Hey, take a look at this,’ ” Salahuddin continued.
“So Lane 44 is about inspiring the generation where I grew up. When they get to the end, and get to sit back and see that movie on the screen, and say, ‘Hey, that’s my neighborhood,’ or, ‘Hey, I remember helping with that part,’ that’s empowerment. That’s what I’m after. That’s what is going to change slowly how they see the world.”