When the Barnes & Noble store at the Bay Plaza Shopping Center closed in 2016, the Bronx, despite having a population larger than 10 of the 50 states, was left without any bookstores. In a place that is often stigmatized for having high concentrations of poverty, unemployment, and crime, a new documentary by director Gregory Hernandez flips the script and portrays local efforts to address such challenges head-on. In the film, 1.5 Million, Hernandez presents a cinematic tableau of characters who are connecting Bronxites with books to counter the borough’s systemic impediments to literacy.

Anthony Tucker, a still from the film 1.5 Million
Anthony Tucker of Playground Library (still from 1.5 Million)

The film introduces us to a cast of real-world heroes, such as Anthony Tucker, a school administrator and children’s book author, who has created the Playground Library, bringing books to children in public housing developments. Brandon Montes is doing something similar in the North Bronx with the Norwood Community Library; an outdoor, mutual aid, book exchange program.

a still from the film 1.5 Million
Brandon Montes of Norwood Community Library (still from 1.5 Million)

Complementing these grassroots volunteer efforts, other New Yorkers like Noelle Santos are taking an entrepreneurial approach. She opened the Lit. Bar in 2019, an independent Bronx bookstore in the South Bronx, with the help of a crowdfunding campaign. The Bronx bookstore also serves as a gathering place and wine bar,

a still from the film 1.5 Million
Documentarian Gregory Hernandez (2nd from left) and his crew pose with Lit. Bar owner Noelle Santos (3rd from left)

Additional subjects of the film who are working to bridge the literacy gap include Saraciea J. Fennell, founder of The Bronx is Reading – Bronx Book Festival. Fennell’s organization hosts an annual book fair and has the ultimate goal of opening a children’s bookstore.

All of these people, along with local politicians, teachers, librarians, and academics, are featured in 1.5 Million, which is director Gregory Hernandez’s first feature-length film. The owner of a video production company, Hernandez has been documenting these literacy stories over the last several years.

1.5 Million, which refers to the population of the borough in its title, will hit the festival circuit this coming Saturday. May 27th at the Inwood Film Festival. You can catch the film at a 1:35 PM screening which will be followed by a conversation with Hernandez. Click here for tickets and information.

a still from the film 1.5 Million
Saraciea J. Fennell of The Bronx is Reading – Bronx Book Festival (still from 1.5 Million)

In an interview with Untapped New York, Hernandez outlined his vision for the project.

“We are seeking multiple platforms to reach a wide range of audiences,” he explains. Next up, the film will appear at the People’s and Manhattan Film Festivals in June. But, Hernandez is not only looking at traditional venues. “We are working to show it in The Bronx to children and adults, in free screenings at libraries, schools, parks, and community centers.”

a still from the film 1.5 Million
Gregory Hernandez interviewing then Bronx Borough President Ruben Diaz, Jr.

“We want people to see that there are changemakers here in The Bronx addressing the crisis we are facing,” he continues. “People need to see the social impact, which will hopefully encourage them to get involved with these efforts.”

Simultaneously, he is also seeking distribution on other forms of media to reach a wider audience.

Hernandez is quick to share credit with his crew and supporters and makes Santos, Tucker, and the others on the borough’s literacy frontlines the film’s stars. This is a Bronx story writ large, but in talking with him it becomes clear that his own experience lends a personal connection.

He is a Bronx native and a child of immigrants from the Dominican Republic, including his father, a longtime New York Public Library employee. So, even though film and video are his avenues of expression, the value of books, bookstores, and libraries is something he knows firsthand.

a still from the film 1.5 Million
Still from 1.5 Million

More broadly, “this project enabled me to reconnect with The Bronx,” Hernandez says. “I initially intended for this to be a short film, but was inspired by Noelle Santos and the story grew organically into a feature-length project.” He notes many have helped along the way, including the Bronx Council on the Arts.

For Hernandez, this is a long journey of many steps, beginning with his interest in community efforts that sought, unsuccessfully, to prevent the 2016 bookstore closure. After years of filming, editing, and securing funding for a shoestring budget, and, of course, dealing with pandemic-related challenges, he has a 107-minute film. Now, to borrow a film cliche, 1.5 Million is ready for its close-up. For more information on 1.5 Million, please see its website here.

Next, go inside the Gould Memorial Library at Bronx Community College and Uncover 10 Secrets of the New York Public Library and the Brooklyn Public Library