Imhotep Coleman, a waiter at B. Smith’s in Union Station, followed one of his customers out of the restaurant after the man left him a $1 tip. Coleman had been unable to convince the kitchen to serve the diner a solo rib.
“Hey, brother,” Coleman told the man when he caught him outside. “You’re the kind of client that inspired me to make a film. It screens in three days.” He handed the man a flier for the Sept. 14 opening of Gratuity’s Included and invited him as his guest. The man promised he’d be there. He wasn’t.
Coleman’s friends-and-family-funded, 25-minute movie asks what servers and bartenders have wondered for years: If the customer’s always right, then what am I? Part training video, part score-settler, and part homage to the pain and suffering of the server, Coleman’s short, filmed at his workplace, follows career waiter B.J. Bourgeois (Paul Nicholas) through a typical night of serving troublesome fine diners. From the take-this-back-it’s-not-what-I-wanted woman to the man who insists on ordering what’s not on the menu to the table full of dessert-scamming hooligans who all happen to have the same birthday, this film’s got them all.
Coleman says that the most intense reactions he’s gotten to the film have been from folks who have never waited tables. They had no idea, he says, how the little things can build up. “Nothing in that film is made up,” he says. “I’ve seen it all. Instead of letting it get to me, I’d go back in the kitchen and write it down, saving it for later.” But Gratuity’s Included was intended to provide more than just catharsis.
The director’s ultimate goal is to find funding to shoot a treatment he’s recently completed, The Graduating Class. Based on his experience at Howard University—Coleman, 27, graduated in 2001—the film will explore class in the way that Crash explores race. Howard strikes a stark contrast to the surrounding community, says Coleman, and its students generally hail from the upper middle and upper classes.
“But a lot of the students don’t uphold that image the way the university wants them to,” he says. And while the administration frets about the dress and behavior of the hiphop generation, the school’s civil-rights-era professors struggle with the apathy of that generation, he suggests, failing to engage the students. “It’s a microcosm of what’s going on as a whole in the African-American community.”
Coleman believes Gratuity’s Included will showcase his talents sufficiently to attract investors. But whether his film company, Aspire to Inspire Films, gets funding or not, one thing’s certain: The Graduating Class won’t be filmed at Howard.
“They don’t want to deal with any of this,” says Coleman, who adds that Spike Lee’s alma mater, Moorehouse College, refused him access to its campus for the shooting of 1988’s School Daze. “I expected [Howard] to say no at first. Then after I’m successful and part of the aristocracy, they’ll say OK.”—Ryan Grim