Film directed by West Orange resident to screen in Montclair

Taking a break from filming ‘Mississippi Scholar’ are, from left, Shannon Brown, who has appeared in “Empire,” and “Training Day,” wth Asya Branch, who was Miss USA 2020, and Obba Babatundé, who has appeared in numerous television and movie productions including “Life,” “How High,” and “S.W.A.T.”

WEST ORANGE — A film about the difficulties an underprivileged intellectual must overcome to realize his dreams for the future is the latest work and the directorial debut for a West Orange filmmaker.

“His mother is an alcoholic, his dad is absent, but he uses his education to catapult himself out of the circumstances,” said Marcus Bleecker, a long-time West Orange resident with two sons at Seton Hall Prep and a wife who teaches at the Watchung School in Montclair.

The film titled “Mississippi Scholar” was put together by New Jersey-based Other Side of the River Productions and shot in Mississippi. It was directed by Bleecker, produced by Jersey City-based P.J. Leonard and written by Leonard, Bleecker and Obba Babatunde, who also acts in the film.

Mississippi Scholar will be screening at The Claridge Theater in Montclair on Sunday, April 7 at 1 p.m. and 4 p.m. Tickets will not be sold at the door but are available ahead of time at

“We are really excited to share it with people,” Bleecker said. “I’m so happy to have the first screening on our home turf.”

Born in Brooklyn, Bleecker’s family moved to Princeton where he grew up and went to high school before graduating from the University of Wisconsin. Bleecker, who studied music in college, played in a band that traveled around the country. He also wrote and took pictures.

After college, he set up home base in Brooklyn before getting married in 2002 and moving to West Orange after his wife took a job at the Watchung School.

As a drummer he still performs regularly with the Grammy Award winner John Popper in The John Popper Project featuring DJ Logic. His writing was published by The New York Times Magazine.

With two children, who are both now students at Seton Hall Prep, Bleecker began to pivot away from music and towards filmmaking and got work as a cinematographer.

He’s worked on a variety of shows including “Project Runway”; “Cyndi Lauper: Still So Unusual”; “XOX Betsey Johnson” and the Netflix show “Patriot Act,” which won a Peabody Award.

The movie, however, is the first time he has directed a full length feature film.

Leonard, who had worked with Bleecker on some short films, came to him with the story about an underprivileged, very intelligent high school student facing a crossroads; a downward spiral or using his smarts to catapult out of his circumstances.

“We take the journey with him, his decisions, his choices,” Bleecker said.

The movie was filmed in and around Tupelo, Mississippi, over a six week period. The location was chosen because it was cheaper to film there and the community was welcoming.

“In the independent film world, you are looking for communities that are open and excited for you to film,” Bleecker said.

The cast includes Lance E. Nichols, Shannon Brown, James Wilson, Sonny Marinelli, Brian Keating, Amye Gousset and Obba Babatundé, who has been acting in movies and on television shows for more than 35 years.

Babatundé and Bleecker did some work on the script as they were filming and Bleecker credited him with going the extra mile, helping with rewrites at the end of long

“He plays the grandfather of the star, he helped with the writing, he’s phenomenal,” Bleecker said. “I learned so much working with him. He said ‘Marcus, I want you to succeed.’ He would take two or three hours every night.”

The filming was done on a tight schedule under tough conditions with the heat between 100 and 105 most days.

Photos Courtesy of Marcus Bleecker
Marcus Bleecker, left, and P.J. Leonard of Other Side of the River Productions in Mississippi during filming.

“It was not a pleasant environment but it added something to it,” Bleecker said. “It almost becomes a character.”

Bleecker thinks people will enjoy the movie and hopes they will be inspired by the story.

“You can face tough life circumstances but you want to show people the way out,” he said.

Marcus Bleecker, left, and Shannon Brown talk about the next scene during filming of ‘Mississippi Scholar.’