A romantic comedy directed by south Phoenix native Irin “Iroc” Daniels premieres Friday in theaters across the country.
“The Unhitch King,” which is based in Phoenix, follows an aspiring comedian who, after being fired from his job, monetizes his comedic abilities by orchestrating stunts to break couples up.
Starting Friday, September 23, Arizonans can watch it at Harkins Theaters across metro Phoenix and in Tucson.
‘Experience Arizona through my eyes’
As a Phoenix native, Daniels said he wants his film to capture the essence of the city.
Most of the scenes were shot along Roosevelt Row, and they showcase public art features like the Prince mural near the intersection of Grand Avenue and Roosevelt Street and the Ten-O-One building’s nine-story mural of James Baldwin by south Phoenix artist Antoinette Cauley, a close friend of Daniels.
“A lot of people say Phoenix doesn’t have culture because it’s a big melting pot of different people,” Daniels said. “I’m a native of Arizona, which seems to be a rarity, and so I view Arizona differently. I think I shoot Arizona differently.
“I want people to just sit and experience Arizona through my eyes,” he said.
Daniels pooled local talent to create the film’s entirely original soundtrack. It features Phoenix-based artists Miles Prime, Negus Jones, and Sam Opoku, as well as Daniels’ son, Marquel Deljuan, and composer and south Phoenix native Arthur “Buddy” Strong, who is currently on tour with Dave Matthews Band.
Daniels initially encountered many of the film’s featured artists when they booked time at his self-service recording studio, which also houses his production company Marmera Films.
“It really brings the arts and culture of the city to life,” said Daaron Battle, the film’s music supervisor.
Battle, who has known Daniels for over 20 years, is a native of west Phoenix and the media production director for Pilgrim Rest Baptist Church. “We’re using some of the best artists, producers, directors, writers, that Phoenix has to offer,” he said. “It’s really a movie for the city of Phoenix.”
From music, to teaching, to film
Born and raised in south Phoenix, where almost all of his family members still live, Daniels initially pursued a career as a rapper. The bridge between his music and film careers — teaching — was an unexpected one.
After he finished high school, in the early 1990s, Daniels created Iroc Records, which he housed in a studio he rented. Though the studio was near 27th Avenue and Thomas, “it serviced everybody in south Phoenix,” Daniels said. “I started recording people and just built my name up as being a good engineer and a good beat maker.”
Daniels’ cousin, Ronald Whitehead, who grew up with him in south Phoenix, remembers those days in the studio fondly.
“That became a safe haven for those of us that come from the streets, because he opened up the studio to different people from different neighborhoods, and everybody got along,” Whitehead said. “I commend him for that because that was something that was very hard to do at that time.”
Daniels’ experience recording music and making beats eventually landed him a job running the recording studio on the West campus of Arizona State University. There, a twist of fate led him to teaching, and ultimately, to film.
One day, a professor in the music department got into a car accident and asked Daniels to temporarily watch over his orchestration class.
“I didn’t know anything about orchestration,” Daniels said. “But because I had been in the rap industry for a long time, I knew all about publishing.” He began to teach the class about music copyright, and though the professor arrived in time to take over, he asked Daniels to finish the class.
Once the class was over, the professor connected Daniels to a job teaching the music business at Phoenix College. Soon after, Daniels received a call from Collins College asking him to teach audio for film.
He was eventually asked to teach more classes, including video editing. “That’s how I ended up learning film, just by necessity of having to teach the classes,” Daniels said. He started directing music videos, including for artists 2 Chainz and Juicy J.
“I had videos that ended up on MTV, REVOLT, BET, and that segued into me wanting to start writing my own feature films,” he said. He released his first feature film, “Blood Ink,” in 2018. His second film, “The System,” followed soon after.
These two films featured people Daniels grew up with.
“He’s always been about his community and bringing people together,” Whitehead said.
“He’s the perfect example of overcoming obstacles,” Whitehead said. “He stuck to the script. And he tried to pull a few people out of the streets and bring them along with him. He gave everybody a chance.”
In addition to filmmaking, Daniels now teaches a course on DIY content creation in ASU’s popular music department.
‘We’re gonna create our own film industry’
Though the initial idea for “The Unhitch King” came from a short he worked on years ago with producer and writer Melissa Oldham — who served as the feature film’s executive producer — Daniels was also inspired to write the film to fill a void he saw in the industry.
“There’s not a lot of African American romantic comedies that have been released as of late,” Daniels said. “And I think it’s important that people laugh right now, especially coming out of what we came out of in 2020.”
D.F. Wright, a producer on the film, echoed this sentiment.
“What he has created is something that I feel has been missing,” she said. “Often when I watch African American films, even if it’s supposed to be a rom-com, there’s still a level of trauma involved and it kind of takes away from the comedy or the love.
“It’s refreshing to have a film that’s funny, and it has that love, and there’s no trauma involved,” she said.
To bring the project to fruition, Daniels said he strategically chose and contacted theaters across the country to show “The Unhitch King.”
“It’s hard as a Black man to break into the film industry out here,” said Daniels. “So I was like, ‘Forget it, we’re gonna create our own film industry.'”
Visit unhitchking.com for the film’s trailer and a full list of theaters where the film is showing.