CHAMPAIGN — The plot: A studious black teen is persuaded by friends to go to a big party, and on the way, they're stopped by a police officer for speeding.
What happens next? "The Drive," a virtual-reality movie under production by a student media startup, will let viewers take the perspective of different characters as the story unfolds.
The idea is to build understanding about police relationships with marginalized communities and "take the next steps toward healing," said co-producer Jewel Ifeguni, 21, a University of Illinois senior from Naperville.
The movie is a project of YouMatter Studios, the startup founded almost two years ago by Ifeguni, a communications major minoring in computer science.
"The goal is to have them empathize with both sides," Ifeguni said. "I want people to be able to understand where police are coming from, but I also want people to understand where marginalized groups are coming from."
Ifeguni and her co-producers are holding auditions this week, and they hope to finish the 10-minute film by the end of February, Black History Month. They've launched a GoFundMe account to cover the remaining $10,000 cost of the project.
YouMatter Studios started out as a video game developer. Ifeguni was inspired by her little sister, Elora, who was having a hard time finding avatars in video games that looked like her. Ifeguni decided to create a game with diverse characters, something she had dabbled with while interning at Microsoft.
"I was always trying to find a way to make a difference with tech and combine it with media," said Ifeguni, whose parents, Esther and Louis Ifeguni, immigrated to the U.S. from Nigeria and now work as a pharmacist and CEO.
Jewel Ifeguni founded the company with several other students in January 2017. But the game never really gelled, and in the meantime, she and her partners realized they would rather turn YouMatter Studios into a media company.
"Our goal is to build a more inclusive and empathetic society through our virtual-reality films and web series," she said.
Virtual reality allows producers to "put someone literally in someone else's shoes," she said. "You're being immersed in the film. We do it in a way that you're actually in the main character's body."
"The Drive" also was influenced by a short virtual-reality video that Ifeguni and several other students produced for a computer science class about Sandra Bland, a 28-year-old black woman who died in a Texas jail three days after being arrested during a traffic stop in 2015.
"That could have easily been me," Ifeguni said. "I just wanted people to actually stop and think about what actually happened there."
The viewer has the perspective of Ms. Bland as she's sitting in her car before and after being pulled over and threatened by the officer for not getting out. Ifeguni and her team used transcripts from the actual police stop and videos of those involved.
After being interviewed about the project on a Texas radio station, Ifeguni was contacted by Ms. Bland's mother, who wanted to see the video.
"She was literally quoting Sandra as she's watching it," she said, "the way she stood up for herself in that situation, her mother said, 'That's my Sandy.'"
The script for "The Drive" is still being tweaked, but it features the young black student, Davion, who isn't sure he should go to the party but is persuaded by his best friend, Krishna, who is East Indian. Krishna offers to drive Davion there along with their friend, Mia, who is white.
The multiracial cast reflects Ifeguni's own experience in Naperville, where "I'm very used to having a lot of friends who don't look like me." She also wanted to show people of different racial backgrounds how they could end up in that situation.
The producers chose a traffic stop because "it's something that can happen at any moment, to anybody," she said.
The three teens are stopped by Officer Will, a white single dad whose partner was recently shot and killed by a perpetrator. He is likable and passionate about being a police officer and prides himself on being impartial, she said.
The viewer will see the perspective of three characters — the police officer, Davion, and Davion's mother, who is strict and protective of her son.
Ifeguni said that character was based on her experience with Sandra Bland's mother and conversations with her own mom about her older brother, David, a computer science major at Duke University. He's a "quiet genius," she said, but Esther Ifeguni always worried about him driving on the highway and being pulled over by police.
"In my opinion, this is one of the most important effects in these cases — the effect on mothers. Studies show increasing anxiety levels in black women because of what is in the news. They're literally afraid to put their sons out in the world," she said. "That's what I wanted to capture in Davion's mother. No matter how many accolades he has, no matter what neighborhood he lives in, he is still a black man at the end of the day."
YouMatter Studios is part of the iVenture Accelerator, a program run out of the Gies College of Business that supports student-led startups. Ifeguni said the program helped the group focus on a "business mindset," make new connections and gain exposure for their company.
Co-producer Adia Ivey, a senior from Oak Park, said the goal of the film is to help bring communities together through "empathetic media" and workshops and start a constructive dialogue about the issues involved.
After its debut, Ifeguni and Ivey said, YouMatter Studios hopes to hold campus panel discussions with the UI Police Department. Producers also want to show the film and host discussions in Chicago and other communities, to encourage more dialogue.
They also plan to submit the movie to film festivals and hope it will help introduce virtual reality and other technology to a more diverse audience, Ifeguni said.