The two joined forces in 2006, and, after a three-year journey, have released their first feature film, “Unconditional,” which opened in theaters this weekend.
The movie is based on the true story of “Papa Joe” Bradford, a former convict who created Elijah’s Heart, a Nashville organization aimed at bettering the lives of underprivileged families.
With faith in the forefront of his work, Legg, 36, knew that his first film would have to hit certain notes.
“We were looking for a story about love and serving those in need, and obviously using Biblical principles with that,” he says. “We wanted to improve the art, and make it something that could jump out of being a faith movie and more of a mainstream movie with a faith message.”
Unbeknownst to them, their muse was one that they had been in contact with for awhile.
The two had been volunteering with Elijah’s Heart for more than a year. During lunch one afternoon with founder “Papa Joe” Bradford, Atkins mentioned he was looking for a good story to launch the film company with. He asked Bradford if he knew of any good stories.
“All he knew was that I worked with children,” says Bradford. But the two continued to talk, and before he knew it, Bradford says, “I just started pulling the skeletons out of my closet.” As he continued to speak, Atkins “started lighting up,” remembers Bradford, which threw him for a bit of a loop.
“‘I’m like ‘OK, I’m telling this guy some crazy stuff, and he’s smiling,’” Bradford says.
A convict finds his mission
Born and raised in Waverly, Tenn., Bradford was one exam away from receiving a bachelor’s degree in computer and industrial engineering when he hacked into a computer banking system.
“As a hacker, I could do things no one else could do … pride rose up in my heart because of that power,” he says. His thoughtless actions led to his conviction and an eventual 18-month prison sentence in the late ‘80s — plus he lost out on a job at IBM.
“It was devastating — I couldn’t give you the words,” he says.
After his release from prison, he moved to Nashville in 1990, where he met and married his wife, Denise, in 1993.
They were both musicians –Bradford plays the saxophone – and began working with adult and children’s church choirs in the area. The eventually wed and began a family.
In the summer of 1996, Bradford discovered he was afflicted with kidney disease. His treatment and eventual recovery put a financial strain on the family. They lost their apartment, and moved to project housing at the suggestion of a friend.
Bradford’s criminal record was an obstacle, but the family was able to work around it with the manager. “We got in there on the note that we would help out the children in that particular community,” Bradford remembers. “We didn’t know how we were going to do it, because we didn’t want to be there.”
The first day they moved in, Denise attracted the attention of a young deaf girl by offering her a piece of candy.
“Even though she was deaf and mute, she did know how to let other kids know that she got some candy from us,” Bradford says. As the neighborhood kids began to flock to their home, the Bradfords decided to form a choir with the 50 or so kids that congregated at their residence after school.
Parents began to take note of the activity occurring at the Bradford home. “I don’t know if they thought we were a daycare, and just helping out, but they saw we were taking in kids after school,” Bradford says. “These kids were hungry — and we were just as broke as they were.”
Denise took the initiative to make fliers and find out which families needed help feeding their kids, and was able to solicit food donations.
The ministry began to expand to other neighborhoods, and the Bradfords eventually decided to fold their work into what would become their nonprofit, Elijah’s Heart.
Bradford earned the name “Papa Joe” after stepping in as an advocate for a young child in his choir, who had been abused. The girl’s younger sister was so impressed that she asked Bradford to be her father.
“I thought she was just kidding,” says Bradford, but her request started a chain reaction among the other kids. “I went home and prayed over it, and I felt like the Lord was changing my name to ‘Papa Joe,’” he says. The name is now used by both young and old, and follows him across the country as he travels, giving speeches as an advocate for at-risk children.
On the silver screen
Largely intertwined with the events in Bradford’s life, “Unconditional” is focused on a young woman, played by “True Blood” star Lynn Collins, who is seeking to rebuild her life after her husband’s death.
Bradford is played by actor Michael Ealy, whose credits include “Takers,” “Barbershop” and “Think Like A Man.”
“About 99 percent of what you see about Joe in the movie is true,” says Legg. “Because Papa Joe is not a nationally known figure, that part didn’t matter as much. It was more about capturing the essence of who Papa Joe is.”
Ealy “actually has a heart for what we’re doing,” says Bradford, who is credited as a producer in the film. “When you see the movie, it’s like you forget you’re watching a movie — whenever that happens, you know the acting is good.”
Legg is confident that “Unconditional” will serve as more of an inspiration than a sermon, and hopes that the messages of entertainment, faith and service can move theatergoers to action.
“The movie definitely points to God … but your average person is going to not walk out and say ‘Ah, I was just preached to.’ I think they’re just going to walk out and be inspired and have questions. I want them to feel good about the movie, feel good about the experience and say ‘That was well worth my time.’”
Erin Williams is a graduate of Faith Christian School and the University of Alabama. She is a performing arts aide for the Washington Post Style section.
‘Unconditional’ opened in Gadsden this weekend. Visit www.unconditionalthemovie.com/theaters to find other area venues that are screening the film.