Somewhere between tragedy, a near-death experience and anonymity, Dale Elliot Jr. found his calling.
As a rising track star at revered city high school, Kingston College, Elliott had made a name for himself as a 400-meter specialist at the prestigious annual Issa Grace Kennedy Boys and Girls Championships. He was driven by a gift and had aspirations to be Jamaica’s next great track star.
Sprinter director, Storm Saulter, was adamant about the role of Akeem; he had to legit know how to run, and act.
But on the night of Aug. 25, 2012 — when he was 16 — his momentum sputtered like a false start from the blocks.
He was out for a motorcycle ride with his uncle, Clive ‘Nash’ Harvey, a rising luminary himself on the Jamaican entertainment scene.
Elliott was Harvey’s motorcycle passenger — seated behind him — when, according to reports and corroborated by Elliott, a silver Honda Ridgeline suddenly came into their path. In an attempt to avoid a collision by stopping, Harvey lost control and skidded on the wet surface. He was flung from the bike and hit the side of the Ridgeline. He sustained multiple head and chest injuries and was pronounced dead on arrival at Kingston Public Hospital.
Harvey’s lead role in a popular television commercial for mobile company Digicel — where he played a proud father who is overcome with excitement after hearing his infant daughter say “dada” for the first time — had made him one to watch.
He was 24 years old.
Elliott also sustained injuries, but none were life-threatening.
Part of the then-teenager died that night as well, but it had been a slow burn. Shortly before the accident, his passion for running had started to wane. At the funeral, he noticed that no one mentioned him by name — only as “the pillion,” the word for the rider behind the main seat.
“When I was reading the newspaper about the death, nobody knew I was in the accident, nobody knew what I was going through and nobody knew who was on the bike with him,” Elliott explained. “Even at the funeral — and there were hundreds of people at the funeral — nobody knew somebody else was on the bike. That hit me, like, ‘If I had died, chances are … nobody … would know.’
That moment of reflection, and anonymity, gave Elliott purpose — in a strange way. “[It] let me realize that I needed to make an impact, and an even stronger one than my uncle had made, just for me to let him know he didn’t die in vain.”
Making a Name for Himself
It would only be a matter of time before everyone would know Dale Elliott’s name — and it would have nothing to do with track or the accident that took his uncle. Social media would become his outlet, and Vine, at least initially, his main vehicle.
By 2014, now 17, Elliott had started watching videos on the viral 6-second video sharing platform that was the hotness at the time. He was a natural — funny, daring — a great storyteller, gaining upwards of 11 million Vine streams (under the name ‘Elli the Viner’).
“After I started expressing myself on social media — via Instagram, Facebook, Vine, Twitter — that’s when people noticed me and telling me I have a face for film and that I could do well in entertainment,” he explained. “It was just natural. I did not one day say, ‘I want to be in entertainment.’ ”
Instagram and Elliott’s fun-loving in-your-face style seemed a perfect match. His popularity and his followers grew, and eventually saw him signed to an influencer management agency, STUSH Marketing.
Both of Elliott’s parents had been overseas for years; his mother, Simone, had left Jamaica when he was 5 to live and work in the UK. His father, Dale Sr., would later move to Florida in 1999, leaving him to be raised by his grandparents in the communities of Pembroke Hall and Harbour View.
By 2016, Elliott had enrolled at the University of the West Indies in pursuit of a bachelor’s degree in International Relations. Call it sheer luck — or serendipity — but a local Jamaican filmmaker, Storm Saulter, 36, had been looking to make a film about a local track star whose parents had lived abroad.
Saulter, himself born and raised in Jamaica — a product of parents who were creatives, he said — had some very strict criteria for the lead: he had to legit know how to run … and act.
While in Norway for an art exhibit for his first movie, Better Mus Come, Saulter had been staying with friends while he continued to search for his leading man.
“I see my friend on her phone on her couch laughing her ass off,” said Saulter, who attended Manning’s High School in Savanna-la-mar, Westmoreland and learned the filmmaking trade at The Los Angeles Film School in LA.
“I’m like, ‘What are you laughing at?’ And she’s like, ‘Storm, you don’t know this guy?’ And she shows me an IG video of Dale with a turban wrapped around his head — pretending to be his grandmother, and what struck me was he had an amazing look, and strangely like Sheldon Shepherd, who was the lead in my first film.”
Saulter was taken aback with Elliott’s IG, looking at skit after skit — until a photo stopped him in his tracks.
“I see a pic of him in a pose like he was coming out of the [running] blocks — so something just hit me, like, ‘This is interesting.’ I just sensed it.”
Upon returning to Jamaica, Saulter contacted Elliot to bring him in to audition for the role of Akeem. An exceptional 200-meter sprinter with an easy smile, Akeem’s potential is threatened by issues at home: his dad, lonely and weary from missing his wife and raising two sons, falls prey to the bottle, and Akeem’s older brother gets entangled with a local gangster.
“I don’t know how he got my number to this day,” Elliott said, laughing.
Said Saulter: “We brought him in — he was super-green; IG videos are totally different from acting on screen, but when I told him the story of the lead character — about Akeem being away from his mom and his desire to reunite with her — he was, like, ‘Yo, did somebody tell you about my life? Because this is literally about my life.”
“When he broke it all down, I was, like, ‘F*ck!’ At the end of the day, I liked this kid — his energy. We knew he would be rough around the edges, but we knew this experience was real to him, and I believed he would bring something to the screen that is authentic.”
While he admits to being overwhelmed at first — it was his first time on a movie set — Elliott said he slowly settled into himself, thanks to some hand-holding by Saulter.
The film, appropriately titled Sprinter, was first backed by former NBA star Richard Jefferson and later executive produced by Will and Jada Smith, who, after reading the script, provided the fuel that gave the film its biggest boost. With its mostly Jamaican cast and crew (and a cameo from Empire star Bryshere Y. Gray), Sprinter wrapped final scenes in LA and made its debut in 2019 in the UK and select theaters in the US.
The film, which boldly addresses topics such as alcohol and drug addiction, gangs and crime, sex and religion, is, at its core, a story about family. Rave reviews followed its world premiere at the American Black Film Festival (ABFF) in mid-2018, and an April 15 Netflix release is giving the film a second wind while everyone’s looking for something fresh to watch while under quarantine.
Elliott’s IG followers, now over 220,000 and growing, include Usain Bolt, who makes a cameo appearance in the film.
Explained Saulter: “We had a theatrical run in the UK for six weeks and we’re streaming in over 40 countries on the African continent with MNET, a massive company that streams. Netflix was always part of the plan; we’re not just happy to be in a potential bracket corner. Trust me, if the Olympics was still going on we were planning how we were gonna do our release in Japan.”
“This is my mother, people”
In a moment of art imitating real life, there is a scene in the film where Akeem is to meet his on-screen mom for the first time since they separated. Saulter had anticipated a massive moment, fraught with emotion. But it wasn’t to be.
“They wanted me to cry, but it was really difficult for me,” said Elliott. “Growing up at 5 years old, I didn’t really miss my mother, to be honest. I talked to her on the phone, but it’s not something where I longed to see my mother and father. I had my grandparents, so when I saw my mother in real life, it was like, ‘Oh, a so yuh did shawt?’ [laughs]”
Added Saulter: “We wanted more emotion from him — and, he said, ‘Yo, I built a wall around that emotion. I blocked those emotions for my mother off.’ And here we were trying to get him to access emotions that he had worked so hard to shut off.”
The moment Saulter wanted actually did come — but long after the movie had been made. While on the film’s press run in the UK, Elliott, now in his early 20s, would lay eyes on his mom for the first time since he was 5.
“I saw my mother for the first time last year — last February — when I went to London for a festival, and that’s where I saw her,” said Elliott, who, at 24, is the oldest of four. (His other siblings are Joshua Elliott, 13; Christopher WIlliams, 19; and Daijah Williams, 21.)
For Saulter, it’s a scene he himself couldn’t have written any better.
“It was amazing to see that — they hung out. And when the film premiered at the BFI British Film Institute, he’s sitting on stage telling the audience about this moment, and his mother is in the audience; it was a crazy experience … there was hardly a dry eye in the room.
He handled it graciously … but he’s a tough yout’ — a survivor.”
Dale and his mother, Simone, were reunited last February at the film’s UK premiere hosted by the British Film Institute
Jefferson, whose friendship with producer and scriptwriter Robert A. Maylor brought him to the project, agrees: “Dale lived with me for a long time while we were going through this project, and once he got comfortable and started to realize that this film was really art imitating culture and life, he just embraced it.”
Since last November — his degree in International Relations and Minor in Management Studies in hand — Elliott is now living in LA, still actin’ the fool on IG and shopping agents to take him to his next leading role.
Dale Elliott Jr. is no longer anonymous. He’s also living proof that sometimes the journey to success is indeed a sprint, and not a marathon.