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.

Paige was familiar to the police officers of the 73rd Precinct. He had two felony convictions and a misdemeanor possession charge on the books before the murder, and possibly more that's now buried in sealed records. (He's currently facing charges for another drug and gun possession case and for his involvement in a Rikers Island riot.)

Bettie says she was terrified about what was happening to her grandson. "I had issues with all his friends," she says. At the time, she wasn't getting along with her daughter, and even though Zaire was living with Ayeni, Bettie registered her grandson as a runaway. He was sent to a group home upstate as a lesson, Bettie says. "I was hoping to scare him," she explains, "To threaten him with the loss of family."

But things only got worse when Paige returned to his mother's house in Brownsville. In 2004, his friend, Michael Atkins, was murdered within footsteps of his apartment. Paige says he remembers first identifying his friend by his shoes. "All I see is the sneakers. And once I see the sneakers, my heart starts bumping," he says, beating his chest repeatedly. "As I got closer, I just seen him—my friend." Paige was 17 at the time.

Director Antoine Fuqua prepares Paige for a scene.
Overture Films
Director Antoine Fuqua prepares Paige for a scene.
De Lux Natural Hair Gallery, the site of the shooting.
De Lux Natural Hair Gallery, the site of the shooting.

That death was followed by other murders, including the killing of his friend, Teddy McNichols, in 2006. Seven of his friends were killed during his adolescence and early twenties. "All my good friends passed away or are incarcerated," he says.

But it was the McNichols murder that particularly devastated him, Paige says. And according to a source in the Brooklyn District Attorney's office, the prime suspect in the killing was a man named Lethania Garcia, or "Fifty."

After consulting Eastman, Antoine Fuqua decided to use the Van Dyke Houses, a 22-building public housing complex in Brownsville, for the backdrop of Brooklyn's Finest and the place where the three major plotlines involving Richard Gere's cynical and retirement-obsessed patrolman, Don Cheadle's undercover cop, and Ethan Hawke's corrupt narcotics officer all converge at the end of the film.

Paige didn't live at Van Dyke, but the project was a short walk away from the places where he spent most his time—his mother's apartment on Riverdale Avenue, his own apartment on Union Street, and the Strauss House, a two-story house on Strauss Street that was home to a revolving group of friends and a couple of Rottweilers in the basement. The house belonged to the Gravenhise Family. Paige's girlfriend, Sade Gravenhise, with whom he has a daughter, stayed there sometimes.

The film set was also close to the bodega on Legion and Riverdale—Paige's longtime hangout and the site of numerous encounters with police.

Fuqua was drawn to Paige's authenticity, but he had concerns about whether he could be counted on for such a big job. "I told him, in this business, you can't be late. You can't not show up if I got an actor here who was counting on you," he says. "If I had Don Cheadle showing up on time, then you have to be there."

Just to be safe, the director tried to slate Paige's scenes to occur early in the film's schedule. And he asked Eastman to check on the young man from time to time. If something happened to Paige, Fuqua worried, he'd have to shoot the part all over again.

But Paige kept his word—showing up on time and never missing a day of shooting during the summer of 2008. "He had the charisma," Fuqua says. "He had the discipline." Paige approached his new job with utter seriousness; he understood that Brooklyn's Finest was the best thing that had ever happened to him. "The life that he was introduced to was even more captivating than the life he was living," Eastman says.

A month before shooting began, Fuqua had come up to Brownsville to get to know the neighborhood; Paige showed him around, and explained which areas were controlled by which groups. "I said to him, 'Do you think you can help with some of the stuff, and help me navigate some of the street politics?" Fuqua says. "He was like, 'No doubt.' This is my home, this is my world, and invited me up there with open arms." He continues: "I watched him closely, and talked to him a lot. I saw the respect that he commanded there. To be that young, he lived a life of a general. He seemed to have the respect and the fear of a lot of people there."

There were times when Paige would show up early to the set and sit quietly on a bench as if he were merely a bystander. "I would look around, and he would be there. And I would say, 'C'mon! You're in it!' " recalls the director. Paige says Fuqua took his advice to rework a buy-and-bust scene to make it more authentic, but the scene never made it into the movie.

On set, Paige easily took up with a group of veteran black actors. The Voice talked to many people who worked on the movie that summer—everyone who met him said they took to him right away. "He had the ability to draw people. If the right people had their hands on him, he was going places," says Hassan Johnson, who plays the drug dealer "Beamer" in the movie. "I didn't get mentorship like that, coming into the game, and doing some of my first films with Spike Lee and Harrison Ford. He had it at his disposal—heartfelt one-on-ones with famous actors. He could get that while we were around."

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