EVERETT — There’s nothing novel about the plot of “Battlefield America” — which opened Friday. Los Angeles marketing executive Sean (Marques Houston) gets pulled over for driving under the influence and has to work off his sentence at a local community center, where he falls in love with the beautiful Sarah (Mekia Cox) and turns a bunch of underprivileged children into the winners of the mythical title dance competition.
What’s new is that Battlefield America is a battle among young hip-hop crews. And three members of the cast are from the Boston area: Russell Ferguson, 22, from Roxbury; Kyle Brooks, 16, from Fall River; and Edward Mandell, 13, from Sharon. They have gathered at the kids’ spiritual home, Phunk Phenomenon Dance Complex, in Everett, to talk about the movie and about their love of dance.
The three were not exactly plucked from obscurity. Ferguson, whose specialty is krumping, won the season six edition of “So You Think You Can Dance,” in fall 2009. Brooks and Mandell have been members of Phunk Phenomenon’s Lil Phunk team, which performs at Boston Celtics home games. They were also part of the Lil Phunk Boyz crew that won gold in the junior division at the 2009 USA and World Hip Hop Championships in Las Vegas.
Still, how did the kids make it into “Battlefield America”? Ferguson has a simple answer: “They’re dope!”
Brooks elaborates. “The director [Chris Stokes] found a choreographer, Kolanie Marks,” he says, “and I think the director asked him if he knew any dancers who can act.”
Reia Briggs-Connor, who owns Phunk Phenomenon, explains, “Kolanie is a friend of mine, and we competed against his team, RNG, in the Hip Hop International. So he looked at our video and pointed out who he wanted. These two were fortunate enough to go to Los Angeles. It was a risk, but their moms agreed to it, their dads agreed to it, and they went out and gave it a shot.”
Mandell’s mother, Janette Mandell, went with them. “We were out there for close to six weeks,” she says. “The casting director told me, ‘You have to be on set and be with them at rehearsals 24/7.’ So it was a big commitment.”
Brooks and Mandell wound up as members of the Bang Squad, Battlefield America’s defending champions, and the team that Sean’s Bad Boys crew has to beat. Brooks’s character, Roger, is the one with the big blond mohawk. Mandell’s character, Marv, is the one who, in a confrontation at a fast-food restaurant, gets punched by Bad Boys leader Eric (Tristen M. Carter).
“We shot it, I’m guessing, about 15 times,” Mandell remembers. “It took an hour. And Tristen actually hit me once. So they had to cover up the real bruise [on Mandell’s cheek] with makeup and put makeup on the fake bruise [over his eye]. They cut a couple scenes that kind of explained why he punched me. I was sort of flirting with his girlfriend, but they took that out.”
Ferguson also had scenes that didn’t make the final cut. His character, Prime, is brought to the community center by Sean to mold the kids into a crew. “There was one scene,” he recalls, “where the kids were first seein’ me and they was kinda like, Who’s this clown? And I was supposed to demonstrate what I could do right then and there. They took that whole segment out. Also, I had a freestyle in one of my crew battles, and they cut out that whole freestyle.”
He adds, “I felt like they didn’t focus on the kids.” The “Battlefield America” poster, he points out, says, “Where kids rule.” “So I felt like it should have been way more about the kids’ lives than about Sean’s life.” And he has reservations about the editing. “I’m all for music videos, but when it comes to artistry, sometimes the camera just has to sit there. We have effects, our dancing is effects, so you don’t have to chop it up.”
Still, he says, “I loved it, I felt it was a great experience.” And though in the film Sean’s mostly black Bad Boys are pitted against the mostly white Bang Squad (with Brooks and Mandell), the three are adamant that, as Ferguson puts it, “In dance, there’s no color. Absolutely.”
They also agree there’s no gender barrier. “Whether you’re a boy or girl doesn’t matter,” says Mandell. “It’s what you can do that matters.”
There’s not even a dance-genre barrier. “I tell my friends that I do ballet,” says Brooks, “and they go, ‘Oh, you’re gay,’ when I’m not. Ballet helps your legs turn. If you’re a football player, do ballet.”
Everybody is happy that “Battlefield America” got made. “I really appreciate what Hollywood is trying to do for dance,” Ferguson says. “And I appreciate things like YouTube. All these outlets that dancers are now taking advantage of, it’s the right way to go. That’s why this movie had to be done. With Boston people in it.”