CSUSB alumnus Jay Gerren (2000, communication studies) had his latest film, the feature-length documentary “Bar Daddy,” screened at the Pan African Film + Arts Festival in Los Angeles in February. This is Gerren’s second time to be invited to screen one of his films at the prestigious event, among the largest African American film festivals in the country.

His previous documentary invited to be screened was “Inglewood Morning Sessions.” It focused on a police lieutenant named Scott Collins who mentored a group of high school boys, one of whom became an NBA Champion, Hall of Famer and broadcaster: Paul Pierce.

For Gerren, owner of Gerren Productions, “Bar Daddy” was deeply personal as it focused on his uncle, Al Jenkins. Jenkins has spent his life tutoring approximately 3,000 people to take the state bar exam. Sometimes multiple times.

“My brother happens to be an attorney as well,” said Gerren. “I saw what he went through, taking the bar. He also worked with my Uncle Al.”

Jay Gerren
Jay Gerren

Gerren sees his uncle through two sets of lenses. The first is as his uncle, coming by the house and always smiling. The second is the profound recognition that, through his uncle’s life-long work, “I see him as a historical figure.”

The research and interviews he conducted for the film were eye-opening for Gerren. The most sobering statistic for him is that Black Americans make up just 5% of the legal profession but 26% of the prison population.

“My goal was to try to flip that or work towards flipping that,” he said.

The key to making that happen boils down to one word: diversity. “A lot of people I interviewed — defense attorneys, prosecutors, judges — revealed that in what they told me. For example, cultural nuances come up during cases that someone might have difficulty understanding. And for juries as well.” 

The entire legal system, he saw, can benefit from diversity.

He also learned how much of a challenge passing the bar is, as he encountered people who have taken the exam up to nine times. “Al has told the people he tutored: If you want to try it again, I’m here for you.”

Gerren observed that the applicants who appear to be the most successful are the ones who can literally say, for six months or however long it takes, “all I will do is study for the bar.”

Gerren’s documentary ultimately focuses on two individuals who are taking the bar, one of whom passes and one of whom fails. “We follow two people through their journey,” said Gerren. “It was emotional for me to film and for the people who were in it. And that is what the audience takes with them.”

“Bar Daddy” is Gerren’s third feature-length documentary, but he has also produced a narrative feature. The latter, his first film, was a faith-based movie called “The Young Believers.” It followed four kids as they tried to navigate through high school.

Jay Gerren, CSUSB alumnus and owner of Gerren Productions, shoots a scene for one of his films.
Jay Gerren, CSUSB alumnus and owner of Gerren Productions, shoots a scene for one of his films.

“I am a storyteller who makes films about people who haven’t had their story told yet,” he reflected. “I also find myself gravitating to community heroes.”

He has also found himself drawing upon the skills he learned as a communication studies major. “My mass communication and intercultural communication classes prepared me to talk to people from a different background than my own,” said Gerren. He added that the combination of the classes he took along with internships, his professors and work study prepared him for his career.

He has fond memories of the campus itself. “I found a little study area at the top of the library,” he remembers. “I would go there and look out at the mountains and dream.”

His advice to would-be filmmakers? “Though it sounds cliché: just do it. Just make films. At whatever level you are. I’ve seen some amazing high school, junior college, college films. There are always reasons or challenges that can stop you, but — anyone can make a film on an iPhone or can edit,” said Gerren.

Gerren has discovered that he is driven by the question of why, and that informs his approach to his filmmaking. The key, though, ultimately is story.

“Number one, the film has to tell a story. Don’t be as concerned with the medium. There are a lot of mediums out there,” said Gerren. From experience he has learned what the audience is going to say, which is, “What’s the story? They’re not going to say, oh, that doesn’t look like the latest camera out there in the marketplace,” he added.

Gerren knows that there are a lot of stories out there to tell, and he wants to be the one who tells them. And he will continue to find them by using the skills from his communication studies degree and asking, “Why?”