Zaire Paige Not Only Played a Movie Killer, He Became One in Real Life.

This is how he squandered his big chance to go straight.

Zaire Paige Not Only Played a Movie Killer, He Became One in Real Life.
Illustration by Dan Page

The most compelling moment in Brooklyn's Finest takes place near the very end. Ethan Hawke, who plays a renegade NYPD cop and the 2009 film's central character, stands in a filthy drug den in a Brownsville housing project. Ransacking the apartment, he finds what he's looking for: wads of dollar bills inside a washing machine. As he rips into the stash, the sound of shots explode as Hawke's character is gunned down from behind. He breathes his last breath covered in cash and blood.

The camera reveals Hawke's killer: "Man Man," the lookout in the local drug gang.

It's Man Man's big moment in the film—and also for the actor who played him, a 21-year-old from Brownsville named Zaire Paige.

Zaire Paige
Overture Films
Zaire Paige
Don Cheadle's "Tango" urges Paige's "Man Man" to make his court date.
Overture Films
Don Cheadle's "Tango" urges Paige's "Man Man" to make his court date.

Paige isn't an actor—he has no formal training and had never acted professionally before making the film. But at his audition, he showed such an unlikely dose of talent and confidence that director Antoine Fuqua gave him a significant part. During the 2008 filming, Paige got advice from veteran actors like Don Cheadle, Wesley Snipes, and Hassan Johnson, who played the tough-nosed Wee-Bey on The Wire. And Paige made such an impression on the rest of the cast and crew that he was flown out to Los Angeles to meet other Hollywood types, staying for two weeks in the house of James Brown's widow.

But Fuqua knew that the charismatic Paige had a troubled side, one that added authenticity to his role in the movie. With multiple bullet wounds on his five-foot-one body, Paige had the scars to go with felony convictions for drug and gun possession. Police and prosecutors suspected that he was a high-ranking member of a Crips faction in Brooklyn. Appearing in Brooklyn's Finest, Paige and his family hoped, was his best chance of escaping that life.

He squandered that opportunity three months after filming his scenes. On October 27, 2008, Paige and a longtime associate, Robert Crawford, stormed into a Fort Greene hair salon and pumped more than a dozen rounds into a 20-year-old suspected gangster named Lethania Garcia. It was a revenge killing over the 2006 murder of a friend; when Garcia fell, he collapsed on a hairstylist who was also hit by multiple bullets. Today, the woman is unable to stand upright without excruciating pain. An off-duty cop who was in the salon was also hit by gunfire and sustained an injury to her foot.

Local media descended on the murder scene at the De Lux Natural Hair Gallery—a destination black hair salon with celebrity clients in a gentrified Brooklyn neighborhood—and have reported more recent developments: In November, Paige and Crawford were convicted of homicide after a three-week trial. Crawford was sentenced to 53-years-to-life in December. An accomplice, Paul Wint, whose testimony was key to the conviction, pled guilty and will be sentenced to four to 12 years this week. On Monday, Paige was sentenced to four consecutive 25-years-to-life sentences for the murder and four assault charges, plus an additional seven years. (See also, "Zaire Paige Goes from Movie Killer to Actual Killer, Gets 107 Years in Prison.") The judge noted that Paige would not be eligible for parole for another 107 years.

What hasn't received as much attention is how Paige, just months before the revenge killing that would put him in prison for decades, managed to find himself on a movie set with the likes of Richard Gere, Hawke, and Cheadle.

Jailed eight months after his scenes were filmed, Paige never got an opportunity to see himself on screen when Brooklyn's Finest opened in theaters early in 2010 (it had played earlier at the 2009 Sundance Festival in Utah).

Paige insists that he is innocent of the murder, claims that he is no longer affiliated with the Crips, and is appealing his case. But for now, he's going nowhere.

"His life is over," Fuqua now says of the young man he put before the cameras. Paige, meanwhile, has a lot of time to think about what happened to his big shot at stardom, the advice he got from some well-known actors, and what might have been.

Director Fuqua (Training Day, King Arthur) grew up in public housing in Pittsburgh; he knew how to give his film an authentic look and he was determined to get it. He would be directing a script written by a former MTA employee, Michael C. Martin, about corrupt cops. His first choice was to make the film in East New York, but the NYPD's 75th Precinct refused to grant permission. The 73rd Precinct, in nearby Brownsville, proved more open to the idea of a large film crew setting up shop for an entire summer in a sprawling local housing project.

For help with "street authenticity," Fuqua hired as technical consultant Randy Eastman, a local fashion stylist who also played a small role as a drug dealer in the film.

Eastman, who is 36, says he immediately thought of bringing along his friend, Zaire Paige. He'd known Paige since the younger man was in middle school, and he knew that Paige had had a turbulent childhood with a mother who battled addiction. He says he wanted to give Paige the break that would get him off the streets of Brownsville. "He was the reality gangster that would turn into a fantasy gangster," he says. "That was my goal."

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