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.
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."
Eastman rehearsed Paige's lines with him as the two drove over the Williamsburg Bridge to an audition space in Chinatown. It was Eastman who later gave Paige his first check from the movie—it was for $2,700—and remembers Paige hugging him.
"That kind of affection is not demonstrated ordinarily by people like him," Eastman says.
He didn't have to do much to sell Paige to the film's producers. Fuqua says that he was convinced Paige was right for the part of Man Man as soon as he saw him audition. While he auditioned others, the director tells the Voice that he kept coming back to Paige, whose picture he'd put up on the wall. "You think you can act?" he remembers asking the young man. Yes, Paige replied confidently.
Fuqua was impressed. "He is a kid who obviously comes from a violent world. . . . He just fit the bill. He had no fear in his eyes."
Paige had actually grown up in Park Slope, known more for strollers than for gang-bangers. He and his five younger siblings were raised by their grandmother, Bettie Paige, in a neat apartment in a historic apartment building on Sterling Place. Zaire's mother, Stephanie Ayeni, was around only occasionally.
"She was still young and running around thinking about the party life," Paige says of his mother in interviews at Rikers Island. "So I think that's why my grandmother felt that it was in her best interest to take custody."
Paige's grandmother, Bettie, is a clerk at the city's Department of Environmental Protection, and she ran a tight operation. "I was overbearingly strict," she says.
Bettie's grandson, however, had trouble in school, moving from P.S.282 to P.S.11 and then to the Hanson Place Seventh-Day Adventist School in Fort Greene, which both she and her grandson refer to as "Catholic school" despite its Protestant affiliation. "I put him in Catholic school because I wanted him to have opportunity, go to college, and be around more affluent people," she says of the Hanson Place School, which is just three blocks away from where the murder occurred years later.
Zaire was smart and social—an easy talker and a natural leader. As a child, he earned a brown belt in karate. He attended church regularly. He was also a serious collector: He preferred Marvel Comics, and laminated his collection of basketball cards, with limited editions of NBA players like Penny Hardaway, Michael Jordan, and John Stockton. When he became a teenager, he worked at the local Met Food and Pathmark, bagging groceries to earn money for the newest Nike sneakers. Bettie calls her grandson a "man-child," because he was athletic and loved to explore. Every day, she recalls, he would eat a raw egg that he kept hidden in his dresser drawer. "Men took to him," she says. "He was the kind of boy that a man would have loved to raise."
In eighth grade, Paige was expelled from the Hanson Place School for stealing a female student's wallet. "I was just attracted to money," he admits. "I always used to get in trouble in school so they were always attempting to kick me out." His grandmother, who was paying his tuition, was so upset that she sent him to stay with his mother in Brownsville.
Paige, who hadn't known much beyond the world of Park Slope, says that it was then, at 13, that he was introduced to a different life in Brownsville: "staircase smoking, cutting classes, and, you know, doing the regular teenage stuff, feeling on girls and flirtin'," he says. "It was just a whole new environment."
Working at his godfather's flower shop and attending Acorn High School, Paige split time between his old life in Park Slope and his new one in Brownsville. He made friends, discovered an affinity for rap music, and chased after girls. "I [saw that] the girls wanted to have sex with the dudes that was cutting classes, dudes that was smoking weed. I just ended up falling into that atmosphere."
After being caught stealing a phone from his godfather's flower shop at 13, Paige turned to small-time hustling. "I started selling weed and doing petty robberies, like snatching something from somebody," he says. "Didn't nobody turn me on to it because I had my mind made up that I needed money."
Paige began hanging out with Crips members, and his mother says she saw him changing. "Suddenly, it was like, everyone wanted to hang out with 'Za'," she says, using the nickname his friends use. Paige began hanging out in front of the bodega at Riverdale Avenue and Legion Street, a notorious drug corner. He started to make music videos and appeared in a series of battle-rap video installments made by local production companies called "Smack Videos" and "The Product."
Eastman saw Paige's growing popularity and power. "I know Zaire from when he was a kid," he says. "I knew what kind of talent he was, and what kind of phenomenon he was, as a street entity—a street superstar. Ultimate power in your environment—that's what this is. This is a country inside of a country." Friends and family also say that Paige was generous with his money.
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.
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."
Some knew Paige had gang affiliations. "He was open and honest about it," says Fuqua, who added that the young man had talked with him about wanting to get out of the street life.
Paige says Wesley Snipes advised him to vote, and Michael Kenneth Williams, who played the character "Omar" on The Wire, told him that it was important, as a young black actor, to keep from being pigeonholed into gangster roles.
Ethan Hawke remembers Paige, too, as a talented young man who led a very tough life. "He had five bullet wounds on his body," he tells the Voice.
During the course of the filming, Paige had a court date coming up—the case resulted in a misdemeanor possession conviction—and it became an issue for Fuqua, since it threatened the young man's ability to keep shooting the film. Johnson says the producers wrote letters in support of Paige. Older actors, like Cheadle, sat with him in his trailer and counseled him to make the court date. The court appearance was such a frequent topic of discussion that Cheadle inserted it into the storyline of the film. In an early scene in a parking lot, Cheadle's undercover cop throws his arm around Man Man and says, "You know you're going to make that court date, right?"
"It was really sincere," says Johnson. "He was sincerely asking him to make it." Johnson adds that the thought of losing his chance to be in the film consumed Paige that summer. "He was walking on eggshells. He was like, 'Dang, what a fine time to be in trouble! How much bad energy did I put into the damn world, to be able to be in the movie of a lifetime. . . . How much bad luck does one dude have?' "
If the shooting of Brooklyn's Finest was the biggest thing to have happened in Paige's life, it was also remarkable for Brownsville itself. Lisa Kenna, the fierce and motherly tenants' association president of the Van Dyke Houses, recalls seeing elderly people she had never even met come out of their apartments to ogle Richard Gere. Young men who weren't in the film—like Paige's murder accomplice, Robert Crawford, would come around just to hang out. Kenna arranged everything so that local members of the Nation of Islam would be handling security, and she talked with the producers and Eastman about hiring locals: Fuqua ended up hiring more than 100 people from the neighborhood. For the first time in a long time, Kenna says, Van Dyke residents felt special, like someone was paying attention. Kenna had a bit part in the film, too; she played a sobbing mother, distraught after a local boy was shot by a cop. That summer, the director even started a small program that taught local kids to handle cameras and shoot film. After a while, though, the illusion wore off, Kenna says. When she finally saw the movie when it was released wide in March 2010, she was disturbed by the portrayal of the neighborhood: the same old shoot-'em-up violence, gangs, and drugs.
"It was corny," another local resident, Betty Weaves, tells the Voice. Of the many drug dens featured on the film: "I've lived here for 50 years and I've never seen an apartment like that," she says.
If the locals were mostly happy, the 73rd Precinct was decidedly not. When the film came out, the NYPD wasn't amused about being shown in such a bad light. But some officers say they were grateful for the way the film showed the real pressures on them.
In the months after the shooting of his scenes, Paige was flooded with new opportunities.
He was flown to Los Angeles, where he attended a BET event, met boxer Floyd Mayweather, and was on set for the filming of the T-Pain and Lil Wayne video, "Can't Believe It." There, he was introduced to producers. "I was just trying to get in everywhere and promote myself," Paige says. "That just opened up so many doors for me to get into a whole different thing. I wasn't just thinking about the acting."
Two weeks later, Paige flew back to Brooklyn with scripts in hand. Back at home, he became a sort of "pseudo-celebrity," says a source within the Brooklyn District Attorney's Office. Wint testified during the trial that he wanted to hang out with Paige because he was very powerful and because many people thought he was on track to become a famous movie star.
But Paige's relationship with the 73rd Precinct also heated up. On August 16, he was arrested for gun and drug possession at the Strauss Street house. A week later, say the Paige family and Paige's attorney, Gary Farrell, Internal Affairs Bureau officers arrived to interview the family about a complaint they had made to the Civilian Complaint Review Board, but the officers ended up arresting Ayeni and a friend of Paige's she had adopted. Paige himself fled by jumping from a second-story window. Charges against Ayeni were later dropped, and she has filed a civil rights lawsuit in Brooklyn Supreme Court over the incident, which she describes as a complete ransacking of her home.
Paige got away, but not before the officers had cuffed one of his wrists. The handcuffs can be seen in a "Smack" video he made soon after that was later uploaded to YouTube as "Brownsville Brooklyn Crips."
Wielding the handcuff like a badge of honor, Paige can be heard saying, "At the end of the day, we fuckin' B.K. machines. But we straight Crip." For a brief moment, Robert Crawford appears to Paige's right, his face visible just above his shoulder, standing like a brother in arms ready for battle.
Two months after the video was shot, according to court documents, Paige and Crawford headed out to avenge the death of their friend, Teddy McNichols.
On the night before the murder, Paul Wint drove his blue 2001 Chevy Tahoe to the two-story house on Strauss Street. Paige was there that night, distraught because two friends had been murdered.
At trial, Wint claimed not to be a gang member, but his record included two robberies—one in Atlantic City and another in Connecticut for prescription pills, which he planned to sell to an illegal pharmacist in Brooklyn until he was caught.
Over the next day, Wint testified, Paige laid plans to follow Lethania Garcia out of a court appearance, vowing to "get this bitch-ass nigger."
Picking up Crawford and using another accomplice to watch Garcia, Paige and Wint trailed Garcia to Fulton Street and Hanson Place in Fort Greene after his court date. It was about 1 p.m. when Wint pulled up in the Tahoe near the De Lux Natural Hair Salon.
Several people were inside the salon. Two women were getting their hair done: One was a civil rights lawyer, the other was an off-duty cop. The women, ironically, had been chatting with their hairstylists about the actress Jennifer Hudson, saying what a tragedy it was that Hudson's mother, Darnell Donerson, and Hudson's brother, Jason, had been killed. Their conversation was interrupted when they heard a barrage of gunshots coming from the street.
People instinctively ran toward the back door of the salon, which opened out onto Hanson Place. To do that, they had to pass through a vestibule. On that day, the vestibule door jammed. They were trapped in the salon.
Garcia, meanwhile, burst into the salon, running for his life—and also got stuck in the vestibule.
Paige and Crawford followed him inside, firing at Garcia, prosecutors alleged. When Garcia collapsed on hairstylist Samantha Reed, the gunmen kept shooting. Reed was hit multiple times in the leg. The killers then fled.
In the Tahoe, Wint testified, the men were hyped up and overjoyed that they had killed Garcia. Back at the Strauss Street house, they turned on the television to watch coverage of the murder. Paige made a phone call to Teddy McNichols's mother and asked her to relay a message to Teddy's father, Teddy Sr.: "Tell Teddy I took care of that."
Later, Paige got another ride to downtown Brooklyn: He had to meet with a public defender about an unrelated drug possession case.
Neither Paige nor Crawford testified at their trial this past November. While Wint testified against them, Paige's attorney, Gary Farrell, pointed out the many places where Wint had lied to officials during the various times he recounted the murder. (Wint is charged with hindering prosecution.) The evidence that ultimately led to the men's conviction came from cell phone records—dozens of rapid-fire phone calls between a cell phone Paige appeared to have used that day, a cell phone registered to Crawford, and one of the two that belonged to Wint. Testimony from a T-Mobile employee showed the cell phones moving between downtown Brooklyn, Fort Greene, and Brownsville. The only time the cell phones were down that day was during a short span at around 1 p.m., the time of the murder.
Paige insists he is innocent, but will not discuss aspects of the case because it is pending appeal.
In Brooklyn's Finest, Man Man is last seen fleeing the scene after murdering Ethan Hawke's corrupt cop. He disappears to an uncertain future.
Zaire Paige's fate is a lot less ambiguous.
"His life is over," says Antoine Fuqua. "Hopefully, he'll see the ugliness and the consequences of doing something like that. You know, it's not pretty, and it's not glamorous, and ultimately he is going to be sentenced alone. All the people he knew growing up, all that street talk, nothing matters."
"It makes me wish now that I kind of picked his brain more; I wish that I had gotten a bit deep with the young dude," says Hassan Johnson. "You have literally your whole life ahead of you—you're just getting to life. You know how in The Matrix, when you swallow the pill, and you get unplugged? He was just coming into the real world, and the real world swallowed him up. I don't know how you make a happy ending out of this one. It's just sad." He adds: "I think that was his test. That was his test right there. That was God's test. And I guess the first half of the exam went well, and the rest—it was all downhill from there."
Eastman reflects on Paige's background and the path it put him on: "I was one of the few people in his life to show him that he was human. I am not here to judge a person's life—I'm not a judge and jury. I'm here to tell you that if you raise someone to be an animal, to survive at any cost, then do not be upset at what they become."
In the Park Slope apartment where Paige grew up, his grandmother keeps a meticulous record of his life in bulging file boxes: the Marvel comics, the laminated basketball cards, the records of hospital bills from police injuries, arrest reports, court files, and the family's many CCRB complaints.
In another box, she also keeps a copy of the next movie script that Paige had been given to read for a potential role. "An Emotional Homicide," is a tale of international criminal espionage: Using the U.N. as a front, a crime cartel is running a drug trafficking ring that stretches from Africa to the gangs of New York City. Bettie Paige, who still believes that her grandson is innocent of murder, was hoping that he would have a promising career in acting. But, as usual, she had concerns about the scripts he was getting.
"I don't want my son playing those stereotyped, cop-killing roles," she says, looking at the script and shaking her head. "For goodness' sake, do something that justifies your morals."
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