“Man, it is a lot of snow out there dog,” says the dreadlocked guy in the back seat of the van. “I really hope ain’t no black ice on this road.”
“Why everything that’s bad got the name ‘black?’” says the guy next to him. “Like black ice… how you know it’s black?”
“It look clear to me!” says the first guy.
The celebrated new film, Black Ice, opens with this comical dialogue between Malik “Tha Martian” Martin (the first guy), and Chris Dean, two Black climbers who, along with eight others from South Memphis, Tennessee, travel to Montana to spend four days in an icy world, poles apart from their home turf. They team up with pro climbers, Conrad Anker, Manoah Ainuu and Dr. Fred Campbell, to climb frozen waterfalls, learn to ski and go camping in sub-zero temperatures.
This moving, 45-minute journey is one of four films in the newly released REEL ROCK 15, a virtual film tour produced by Boulder-based, Sender Films.
Martin is a freelance director, photojournalist, and director of social media for Memphis Rox, a nonprofit climbing gym in the historic Soulsville neighborhood of South Memphis.
“My duty is to tell the story that often doesn’t get told within my community,” he told me.
One of those stories concerns the young climber, S’Lacio.
“S’Lacio is our main character in the movie because he’s a good kid that a lot of stuff has happened to,” said Martin.
With both parents absent, S’Lacio was raised by his grandparents. His younger brother is in prison. When S’Lacio was 17, he was shot in his back and in his chest. One bullet came up his neck and out his mouth, blowing his bottom teeth out. He has difficulty speaking and he can’t raise his left arm above his shoulder.
S’Lacio, who turned 20 during the trip to Montana, had never left Memphis before.
“Generally, people in high poverty, high stress, high crime, high violence situations don’t get to frolic, you know what I mean?” said Martin. “Seeing S’Lacio in the snow for the first time, frolicking and playing like he was a child — it was my favorite moment I captured.”
S’Lacio struggled to swing the ice tool with his injured arm that first day. Others, including Martin, had trouble adapting to the cold and the unnatural choreography of climbing ice. But on the last day the sun shone, and everyone wore smiles. Dr. Campbell helped S’Lacio adapt his left arm swing so he could climb an entire frozen waterfall.
“This is what it’s about, man,” said Ainuu, one of the only dark-skinned climbers living in Bozeman. “Getting people psyched on being outside and like, connecting with each other through the vehicle of climbing.”
It’s been nearly a year since that trip. Martin told me it’s the camaraderie that has stuck with him, which is one reason why he wants to share climbing with others through his work.
“The thing with minorities is, it’s not that we’re disinterested (in climbing), there’s just barriers in accessibility,” he said. “If people have chances to do things outside of basketball and football they will. And Memphis Rox has shown that.”
Chris Dean is the Director of Outreach for Memphis Rox, from where the climbers in Black Ice all knew each other. Founded in 2018 with the mission of inclusivity, Memphis Rox allows access to everyone, even if they can’t afford to pay.
The gym relies heavily on donations and a “pay it forward” mentality from some of its patrons. Martin told me about one guy who came in a few times with only a dollar on him. But another day he showed up and donated $500. Some pay for two day passes instead of one, while others donate their time rather than money.
“We have investment bankers climbing with kids from one of the poorest zip codes in America,” said Martin. “And that’s because when you have a wall in front of you, your financial status doesn’t matter.”
At the end of the film, Dean sums up what Black Ice and Memphis Rox are all about: “It’s bigger than just diversifying rock climbing. It’s providing space to live and to dream.”
Contact Chris Weidner at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Instagram @christopherweidner and Twitter @cweidner8