Growing up Black in the Texas suburbs, Fred Leach felt the effects of magnified stereotypes, social isolation, marginalization, and unconscious biases.
That’s why although the SMU graduate has lived in Los Angeles for several years, he wanted to return home to shoot Caged Birds, his feature directorial debut.
“I really wanted to tell a story that looked at the Black experience from that perspective,” Leach said. “This was something that came from a real place. My goal was to make it feel authentic and real. The setting is important.”
The coming-of-age drama was inspired by Leach’s experiences during his upbringing in the Houston area and Richardson. He hopes that sharing a personal story can connect broadly with moviegoers.
The story follows a bullied affluent high school senior with Ivy League aspirations (Kamil McFadden); his athletic cousin (Bentley Green) whose dreams of playing college basketball are derailed in part by racism; and a classmate (Christian Menace) who helps them carry out a prank to gain revenge. When the scheme backfires, it jeopardizes their future.
“I’ve seen both sides of it,” Leach said. “I’ve been the kid who feels like I wasn’t Black enough because I wasn’t cool, and I didn’t play sports. And then when I got to high school and started playing sports, I was trying to be something that I wasn’t just to try and fit in.”
After graduating from SMU in 2012 with degrees in film and history, Leach taught history for three years in Balch Springs through the Teach for America program.
He spent those summers traveling to California for film classes and eventually made the move permanent a few years later. He gained experience by writing and directing short films and web series.
Leach shot Caged Birds in just 15 days in August 2019 at various locations in North Texas, with a mostly local cast and crew. Among the leading actors, Green (TV’s Snowfall) and Menace are Dallas natives.
The low-budget film, which gets its title from Maya Angelou’s iconic autobiography, has played at various festivals this year. It will be available on upstart streamer Urbanflix in November.