Conquering the Unknown

Current MBA student, Bradford Downs, will be graduating this May. Over the course of the last three years, he has been leading a busy life. During William & Mary’s recent Global Film Festival, his debut documentary, The Conqueror, was screened in Tucker Hall. Bradford completed his undergraduate studies at William & Mary in 2013 earning a BA in Interdisciplinary Studies. A Self-Designed Major, this speaks to Bradford’s zeal for making things up as he goes along. From an early age, Bradford knew he wanted to “get into the world of entertaining people and storytelling.” This calling has manifested itself in different ways. Bradford is a musician, songwriter, and now a filmmaker. Prior to launching himself into the unknown narrative of film, he was a guide along the Outer Banks providing off-road “safari-style” history and eco-tours across the beaches. Tourists loved coming upon wild horses, likely descendants of Colonial Spanish Mustangs that first arrived via Spanish shipwrecks over 500 years ago. Also a guitarist, Bradford gave guided tours by day and by night played in his band to keep himself afloat. The second track in The Conqueror is an original song composed and recorded by Bradford.

Serendipitously, he met Timothy Blackwood while giving one of his tours. The following summer he hired Tim as a tour guide. “We worked together for a few seasons, honing our storytelling craft, developing documentary and movie ideas, and creating some epic memories of our own.” Tim still divides his time between Los Angeles and the Outer Banks. The two friends decided to go on a road trip to make a documentary film. They had no agenda, no script in mind, and Bradford was new to the techniques of filming and videography. That their subject would be a boxer was not in their wildest dreams. They were open to anything. The story behind the actual making of their film is equally fascinating: Two young men, one possessing the skills to shoot a film, the other full of passion, embark on a journey into the unknown. They landed in Philadelphia, venturing into a neighborhood notorious for high crime—Strawberry Mansion. Their search for a protagonist—a hero on the margins—was soon answered. At Joe Hand Boxing Gym, they were introduced to Jerome Conquest. It was sheer happenstance. One of the trainers said they must meet Jerome and from then on, as bromidic as it may sound, the rest is history.

A random guy in a random city. This begs the question for readers who have yet to watch the documentary, “Why Jerome Conquest?” Why not? Jerome Conquest is a pro boxer, known to Philly, though obscure on the global stage. He is boxing his way into the news. With the showing of his documentary, people in other countries will have the opportunity to know his story and follow him as his life continues to unfold. Bradford and Tim wanted to depict the man that he is in life. They were careful not to idealize any element. Jerome is a generous man off-screen, hosting book drives and Christmas donations. He is rich in character and earns an honest living, though it sometimes pays just enough to get by. Jerome lost his best friend, Calvin, to street violence several years back. As a healthy outlet, and to save himself from the perils of gang fights, Jerome turned to boxing, literally working his way up from the ground. When Executive Producer, Bradford Downs and Director, Tim Blackwood, were asked to explain the purpose of their film in a Q&A following its showing in Tucker Hall this past Saturday the 2nd of February, their response was poignant. Jerome Conquest was standing beside them, having come to Williamsburg, Virginia, for the event.

Well-aware of the countless stories about the underdog rising to glory, Tim explained, “Rarely is the athlete, artist, or performer captured in the raw before he or she makes it big. We wanted to highlight an unknown in his humble beginnings.” In just 12 minutes The Conqueror reflects the “vast human dignity, virtues and love for family” which Jerome possesses. His story is intended to be a positive statement to his local community portraying how with patience, hard work and a positive perspective, anything is possible. If an everyday guy from Strawberry Mansion can rise above the negativity and obstacles of his environment, then anyone can do it. The story of success lies in perseverance, knowing what you stand for, and not allowing those who say, “You can’t,” to hold you back. The documentary depicts Jerome’s modest life and was funded by Bradford and Tim with a shoestring budget. Sometimes they had to take a break from the project in order to save up more money before tackling the film again which prolonged production time. They made countless trips to Philadelphia on their own dime.

While Bradford performed band gigs and bartended to make a film and then embarked upon earning his MBA, Jerome continued in his own life, toiling away. He works as a custodian to support himself and his family while training full-time in and out of the ring. As a boxer in the beginning, he made no money. Now he conserves his earnings as much as he can to make it last before the next match. Boxing, alone, is not enough to make ends meet…yet. The last few years have not been easy. Jerome is married and a father. His dedication is fueled purely by the desire to make a better life for his family, himself, and to leave a legacy of hope for those who share a similar story of losing a best friend. He gives talks throughout the inner city.

Speaking with Bradford, one is instantly taken in by his fluid language. His passion for telling stories comes alive. His engaging, innate speaking skills when addressing an audience and promoting the film are an asset not to be overlooked. Some artists are true introverts and struggle to put themselves out there despite authentic, incredible talent. Bradford possesses an inspiring, outgoing personality which is essential in the world of business, marketing and entrepreneurship. Tim exudes these same qualities combined with experience in the film industry and helpful contacts in L.A. Tim’s earlier work, How Can I Keep from Singing?, premiered at the International Cannes Film Festival in 2014. Bradford is candid about the collaborative process of working on projects and future ones as well. He knows it requires all types of people and skills to bring their knowledge, creativity and experience to the table. Such partnership is founded on having a shared vision. The approach to executing the vision may be different, but the desire for telling a story is without dispute.

Bradford applied to the Raymond A. Mason School of Business in ’17. Deadline-wise, his application made it just under the wire. Much like his approach to the documentary, he didn’t agonize over applying. He just went ahead and did it, hoping for a good story to unfold. Bradford understands that you can create an amazing story, but if you don’t possess marketing acumen and business skills, then it will be even more difficult to disseminate meaningful stories to the larger public. Luck and who you know may go a long way; however, you need to “prepare for that moment when luck presents itself as an opportunity.” The key is being prepared. Bradford extols William & Mary as a “superior institution” which definitely assisted in preparing him for the future. Though confident and optimistic, Bradford is modest, understanding that when it comes to making films, he may still be regarded as a rookie with only one documentary under his belt. Nevertheless, The Conqueror has been picked up for several film festivals throughout the nation and abroad. Bradford reflects upon the first screening of The Conqueror. “We were in Indianapolis. An unknown theater in the middle of nowhere. It was a Friday afternoon.” Only eight people showed up, but those eight people meant everything. To some this might have seemed discouraging. Bradford saw it for the success it illuminated. Eight people were better than none. The ball was rolling. Bradford’s advice to others is honest. In order to keep learning, “You have to accept and embrace the fact that you know nothing.” Bradford knew nothing about film. “You have to leave yourself open to flexibility.” Not many individuals throw caution to the wind, jump in a car and go on a road trip in quest of a story! It requires commitment to the unknown even when others think it’s a half-baked notion. You must be “open to dedicating yourself to new experiences.” Bradford emphasizes the need to “Commit. Cast a wide net of curiosity, which I would say pound for pound every student at William & Mary does. It’s that liberal arts foundation. If you come here, William & Mary will prepare you for life. If you have a job lined up after graduation, great. But be willing to network and hustle. Do what it takes to find that job, be good at the job, or get that project off. I was a musician and tour guide and I was given the opportunity to come to this project.” Rather than overthink it with doubt, Bradford grasped the tail strings of a dream-kite, completely trusting that the winds of chance would blow him right where he needed to be.

As for what flickers on the horizon, Bradford says, “We [Tim, Jerome and the rest of their small crew] just want to enjoy the wave of success and hopefully continued success. It’s important to have your true north. I knew I wanted to do something powerful with storytelling. How that would present itself I didn’t know. I set off on a road trip—a journey, with that guiding true north. It’s been a wild, crazy, up-and-down circuitous ride. Somehow, someway, and with a little bit of faith, we pulled it off.”

Oxford Film Fest: The Conqueror won Best Documentary Short