From freeze moves to freeze frames

Raphael Xavier’s Swerve changes direction for Philly’s stigmatized BMX culture

2 minute read
Raphael on a bike in front of a stoop. He's wearing a hoodie, smiling towards the camera. He has a long grayed beard
Raphael Xavier's upcoming film portrays BMXers in a positive light. (Photo by Monica Chang.)

An unmarked police car pulls up in front of the convenience store, and the officer wants to know if the teenage boy lying in the parking lot is okay. Actor Jayden Alexander stands up, brushes himself off, and gets ready to do it all over again. And again. And again.

Pop and wheelie

The fight that passers-by had just witnessed was actually a scene being shot for Swerve: The Movie, a short film being produced by Philly-based hip hop artist Raphael Xavier and directed by Gary Dourdan. In the film, when BMXer Van Xander (played by Xavier) is given the chance to mentor 15-year old Eli who’s trying to make a name in Philly's wheelie culture, they end up riding for each other. The title Swerve refers to an abrupt change of direction not only for BMX riders but also for both main characters.

Although Xavier received a $25,000 grant from the (IPMF) to help fund the film, he is bankrolling the rest of the expenses himself. Xavier is not a newcomer to film production; his hip hop documentary Chamber of Echoes, which was filmed in Brazil, was featured in the 2012 BlackStar film festival. And he’s certainly not new to BMX; he’s been riding since he was 12, the same age as when he started dancing.

Setting the stage

A self-taught hip hop and breakdancer, Xavier is a former member of Rennie Harris Puremovement and creator of Ground-Core, a Somatic dance technique. When he’s not working on his film, Xavier is touring with The Musician and the Mover, a production featuring a jazz quartet and four breakers highlighting the parallels of street dance and improvisation. He also teaches the history of hip-hop dance along with culture and introductory breaking courses at Princeton University and the University of Texas at Austin.

Whether he’s on the dance stage or the film set, Xavier appears right at home. These days, he’s choreographing scenes instead of dance numbers. Dance still infuses his film work. “It’s a place for me to create narratives. It’s all about movement. It’s apparent in the dance, it’s apparent in the filming. I was compartmentalizing all the work I did instead of bringing it together.” He says the film will include spoken word, poetry, and—no surprise—a little bit of dance as well.

With Swerve, he’s intent on dispelling negative stereotypes about BMX riders. It’s not just the riders putting a spin on things. The film addresses tough issues—drugs, gun violence, bullying—but Xavier’s goal is to shed a positive light on the BMX community, citing how their passion for riding keeps BMX riders out of trouble.

Xavier says the word “swerve” has gotten a bad reputation, as have many BMXers. “Hopefully this will give them some positive attention, something to be proud about.”

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