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DETROIT (Reuters) - Convicted crack dealer DeWayne Wilkerson would be in prison until 2015 if not for changes in Michigan's controversial "mandatory minimum" laws. Instead he has made a film.
"The Greatest Gift 2.0," which Wilkerson began working on after his 2009 release, premiered last weekend at one of Detroit's largest churches and is booked for several other screenings in coming weeks.
It all started in 1996, when Wilkerson was a 26-year-old independent hip hop concert promoter who was moonlighting by peddling crack 30 miles south of Detroit in Monroe, Michigan.
One day in late June, he sold to one regular buyer three times in eight hours. The man turned out to be a police informant, and Wilkerson was later convicted and sentenced to five years for each transaction: 15 years "for a day's worth of work," he says.
As a small child in Memphis, he loved music. Wilkerson, who is black, did not let his complexion stop him from wanting "to be Elvis." The third of five children, he and his siblings moved throughout the Midwest with their mother after she and their father, a drug addict, split up. Eventually, Verastine Yancey got the struggling family to Monroe, and she took a job at a General Motors Cadillac plant in Detroit.
During the 1980s, when rock cocaine rocked his hometown along I-75, a frequent drug pipeline stretching from Florida to Michigan, dope money bought a teenage Wilkerson designer clothes and expensive sneakers.
But he often battled with his religious mother about the path he had chosen. He nearly missed his high school graduation after getting arrested on the eve of the ceremony.
Hip hop would reawaken his desire to work in music, but the drug scene competed for Wilkerson's attention. At 18, he was shot after sticking "a pistol in a dope fiend's mouth because he owed me some money," he said. At 23, his spleen was removed when he was shot again.
Later, when he was a hip hop promoter, trafficking helped Wilkerson snag Biggie Smalls, the world-famous rapper he brought to Monroe in 1995; California's Too Short was booked for Monroe and Detroit shows. But after once losing $21,000 on a single show when he could not fill a concert venue, illegal cash became insurance.
"I called myself using the game," says Wilkerson, 42, "but it used me."
After starting the mandatory minimum sentence for drug trafficking and other offenses, his creative drive returned, this time in the form of storytelling. His mother bought him a primer on screenwriting, and he taught himself the ropes in his state prison cell in Detroit.
Using lessons that he believed would inspire youth to choose more wisely than he had, he wrote and rewrote "The Greatest Gift 2.0" for seven years.
"I believe that you can bend the universe to the way you want it go," says Wilkerson, 42.
The 70-minute drama, which Wilkerson compares with the Oscar-winning "Crash," with its urban characters at crossroads of life, was inspired by an unlikely source that came to him on his black-and-white prison cell TV.
"I was watching George Burns' 'Oh God! You Devil,' and I thought, ‘What if there was a serious film with hip hop swagger, about good versus evil?'" said Wilkerson.
After his prison release, Wilkerson researched companies through the Michigan Film Office, finding Captive 8 Productions' Brion Dodson.
"He said, ‘We don't know what we're doing, we don't know how to hold a camera, but we got this script,'" says Dodson. "He was totally honest. I could tell he was a straight-up guy."
With financial help from Wilkerson's mother and actors who agreed to perform solely for screen credit, the pair cut corners to produce a film that Dodson says would normally cost $300,000.
Wilkerson says he will use "The Greatest Gift 2.0," which contains no profanity, as part of a "youth motivational package," ideally with corporate backing. Greater Grace Temple church hosted Friday's premiere for 500 children, Detroit officials and local celebrities.
"This presentation can be a powerful tool," says Greater Grace Bishop Charles H. Ellis III. "It takes a look at real issues in a way that really speaks to the heart of young people, and challenges them to consider consequences of their actions."
Wilkerson also held a screening in Monroe over the weekend and plans other appearances before church and community audiences there as well as in Columbus, Ohio; Topeka, Kansas; and Denver.
He says the film represents his second chance.
"I'm the impossible," he said. "I've got six felonies ... In my mind, I'm the success that society says can't happen."
Editing by Lisa Von Ahn