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Bad Credit Credit Cards – “I Had to Use Nine Credit Cards”: Shatara Michelle Ford on Test Pattern

Brittany S. Hall and Drew Fuller in Test Pattern (courtesy of Kino Lorber)

Shatara Michelle Ford’s debut feature Test Pattern addresses sensitive material with clinically painstaking detail. The narrative begins in 2017 at an Austin bar as Renesha (Brittany S. Hall) meets Evan (Will Brill), a thirtysomething white guy whose liquid courage prompts him to ask for Renesha’s phone number. Somewhat surprisingly, the two hit it off and grow to become a loving couple.One evening, Renesha begrudgingly (she has work in the morning) meets up with a friend for drinks at a local bar, where they meet two flirtatious men who proceed to drug them. Nearing unconsciousness, Renesha is taken to an unfamiliar location and is subsequently raped.

The second half of the film deals with the immediate aftermath of Renesha’s assault, never shying away from the incredible onus and burden a victim may feel when attempting to seek justice. As Evan and Renesha go from location to location searching for a hospital that can administer a Sexual Assault Forensic Exam (more bluntly termed a “rape kit”), the power dynamics inherent in the interacial couple’s relationship begin to surface. While an act of sexual violation and assault may have occurred over the course of a few hours, the long-lasting effects, both physical and psychological, continue to linger.


As Test Pattern opens today via Kino Lorber’s virtual streaming platform, Kino Marquee, I spoke with Ford about their multifaceted career history in film, the intense financial difficulty involved in embarking on a first feature and how audiences’ reactions to the film have varied widely.

Filmmaker: I recently watched an online Q&A you had participated in where you noted that “any time a Black femme’s body is violated, things don’t work like they’re supposed to [for survivors].” Could you expand on that a bit? Was that belief the impetus for writing Test Pattern?

Ford: I think the ideas are connected, yes. Back in 2015, I was working in Belfast on The Lost City of Z as [director] James Gray’s assistant. The shoot was taking place at the same time that Sandra Bland was driving to her new job in Texas and, of course, never made it. It was also around the same time that Dylann Roof walked into a church in Charleston and shot and murdered a whole bunch of Black people. This was also right after the protests in Ferguson, Missouri that were brought about by Michael Brown being murdered by police. I’m from St. Louis, and that moment in time shifted how I was thinking and feeling as an artist and as a Black person in a white-dominated industry. 

When Sandra Bland died, I kept thinking about how it didn’t make sense, how upsetting it was. I would talk to people about it and it didn’t seem to register with them. When these things happen to women femmes and to Black people with dark skin like mine (and with features far removed from Eurocentric standards), it’s almost expected that these terrible things will happen to them. People don’t seem as outraged by it. I think that’s something that people who look like me internalize. As a rule, in general, I do not feel like we are taken care of and supported and protected as we should be as a whole, but that’s structurally by design.

I had a script on The Black List in 2017 titled Queen Elizabeth. The reason it ended up on The Black List is because I spent a whole year beforehand (after working on The Lost City of Z) trying to get a feature funded. This was in 2016, when there was a lot of talk of, “oh, we need more female directors, we need more Black filmmakers, blah, blah, blah. Let’s get them out there, let’s look for first-time filmmakers!” I hit the grind hard. I tried to get somebody to give me a million dollars to make this script everyone seemed to really like. Anyway, it ended up on The Black List and I received even more meetings from being included on that, with everyone asking, “The script is great, but what do you want to do with it?” I’d respond, “Well, I want to direct it.” They’d ask “Wait, what? But have you done anything before?” I responded, “I’ve made a short.” They’re like, “Oh, did it go to Sundance? What happened to it?” The conversations always ended right then and there. Nothing would come from [those meetings].

I recognize that mumblecore is a genre, one that’s worked particularly well, especially for white men and folks of privilege who can grab a bunch of resources from their dad’s credit card and do what they need to do to get it made. They’re given much more leeway to make a movie in four days in a single room and all this lo-fi stuff. But I know that people scrutinize over women and non-white filmmakers a bit harder and I didn’t want to get trapped into doing something without all of the resources I needed, then be criticized for it or told I wasn’t ready or prepared. I think that’s a trap for first-time filmmakers across the board. There’s a trend in our industry right now where so many filmmakers have made movies with no money and no time. The industry thinks that if we can do that, then we should, that that’s okay. It’s not okay. 

I wanted to make sure that whatever first film I made, I gave myself the right amount of days to actually do the thing right. I want everyone to be fed well and paid well, to be able to get sleep at night and do things safely. Anyway, that meant that the first feature I was trying to make would be for a million dollars, and everyone laughed at me and said that there was no way they’d give a first-time, untested filmmaker that kind of money. I then received advice from folks telling me to direct more shorts—which also costs money, of course, so I spent years asking people for money for that. I was also told to do some proof-of-concepts for other ideas I had that might be distilled in those shorts.

I was working on a short at the time that was about a person who turns into a mermaid (or perhaps a fish, or perhaps that’s always what they were from the start…) that would feature a very complicated sequence that takes place under water. It was going to cost a lot of money and we were going to shoot [a proof of concept]. I had a friend (who would go on to be an executive producer on Test Pattern) who had quite a number of financial resources (and had funded a few of my other short projects) who was willing to fund this proof of concept. Before we were to shoot that, I found myself writing a few other things, one of which turned out to be a 35-page script called Test Pattern. I gave it to my producer, Pin-Chun Liu, who was working on the proof of concept with me. I was like, “This is a full-length feature, I know it is. I also know it’s only thirty-five pages, but can you look at it and tell me if it actually makes sense? Am I wrong?” And she was like, “No, you’re not. Let’s go make this instead. I think with the money that we have, we can probably cobble together a little bit more and get what we need to make this.” That’s what happened, I asked my friend if I could use that money for a feature film instead of the proof of concept we had planned, and she said, “Absolutely, go do what you need to do.” That gave us the starting funds to go into pre-production on Test Pattern

I had really great personal credit at this time. I had a ton of student debt, but I was paying off my loans. For Test Pattern, however, I had to use nine credit cards. My partner and I were saving up to buy a house, but we wound up draining our savings on this movie. I guess I did a hybrid of the Coen Brothers/Spike Lee/Jeff Nichols path: Jeff Nichols was saving money and his wife was working while he wasn’t, and the Coens went to their synagogue to ask folks to invest in their film (I didn’t do that, but I did ask people for investments). I had a business plan and had people sign things and they gave me one thousand dollar investments. I had friends working in television (who were making more money than I was) give checks for five hundred dollars here and there. That’s how I got the film made.

Filmmaker: It’s interesting that you mentioned mumblecore earlier, as that’s something I associate with Austin. Granted, I wouldn’t label your film a mumblecore film, but what was the thought process behind filming Test Pattern in Austin for the majority of the shoot?

Ford: I had spent quite a bit of time in Austin over the years, and I think what makes the city most interesting is that they rest on their laurels for being a forward-thinking, progressive city while also being a city that has a massive gentrification problem. The city is displacing its original residents like no other and its culture is now aggressively and impressively white. They’re nice white people, but they’re displacing cultures that were there before them or that are being disenfranchised by them. Nobody likes to talk about that. I thought it was weird. I grew up in St. Louis, which is a deeply segregated city and a predominantly white, relatively liberal town that’s had its fair share of similar problems, so I related to what was happening in Austin.

Austin is a very “filmmaker friendly” city, and if I was going to make a movie on my own without any real institutional support, I needed to make sure I did it in a place that was cool with indie filmmakers going out there and doing what they needed to do. There are a lot of resources on hand in Austin that I was able to use, with the Texas Film Commission being very open and supportive of the production as we figured out how to mount this film.

At the same time, I had to be very secretive about the production because, again, I think it’s true that images of and conversations about Texas, especially amongst white folks, are extremely protected. There’s a lot of Texas pride involved and people aren’t too happy when others start poking holes into [their history], especially if you’re not from there. We had to be stealthy and very vague about the type of movie we were making. In the few instances where we told people what the film was about, they weren’t too helpful or interested in being helpful.

Filmmaker: The first half of the film, where Renesha meets and begins a relationship with Evan, is somewhat lighthearted, but it still had me a bit on edge. The film opens in media res with Renesha about to be sexually assaulted, but we quickly jump backwards to witness how she began her relationship with Evan. “Is he the guy who will go on to sexually assault her?” I wondered, but wasn’t sure. Still, I was on edge. Does the opening thirty minutes of the film intentionally not prepare us for what’s to come? Do you see it that way? 

Ford: It does and it doesn’t. I’ve gone back and forth about that opening scene. I made the movie almost three years ago and there were moments over the past three years where I’ve absolutely hated that scene. I hated that I did it and I hated that I placed it first, then I’ll go back and be like, “Actually, no, I knew what I was doing.” What I will say now is that there’s something really special about the fact that people are confused about who Evan is, as we get into the flow of he and Renesha meeting each other for the first time, and the confusion that later comes when Renesha encounters Mike [her assailant]. It’s unintentional but is absolutely useful. Mike and Evan both violate Renesha’s autonomy, and they both, at some point, cross a boundary. They both have used their power that they hold over her. In some ways, this film is also exploring toxic masculinity and patriarchy, so the fact that we’re confusing the two men at the outset is in some ways by design. They are both occupying a very similar space (in separate quadrants) of our lived experience.

Filmmaker: Yeah, both men initially approach her in much the same way, in a bar/restaurant setting where alcohol is involved (their intentions are different yet similar). When Renesha later gives Evan a tour of her apartment, Evan makes a pass at her once they arrive at her bedroom, and that leads to their having sex together for the first time. But it’s a playful and warm scene. With intimacy coordinators being more frequently used on film sets these days, I wanted to ask about your role on set directing a sex scene like that. How do you direct your actors to be comfortable and free in a moment that could lead to some moments of awkward tension?

Ford: Each of the scenes that required closed sets and cast intimacy were really stressful experiences for me. We knew we were making something very delicate and potentially triggering, so we were always thinking about how to make our production safe for everyone involved. One of the downsides of indie filmmaking is that some resources you just don’t have. I remember prepping the Renesha/Evan love scene in particular, calling a lot of my friends who were directors to ask,” I’ve never done this before, what do you do? What should I be thinking about?” Everyone had a different answer. But the one thing that never came up was the concept of an intimacy coordinator, because truthfully that wasn’t really something that was institutionalized until late-2018.

Filmmaker: Yeah, in the last two years or so I feel like I’ve been hearing about it more frequently.

Ford: Do I wish I had one? It would have alleviated a lot of anxiety and stress for me, and I think that Will, Brittany, and I, in particular, did a lot of work to make sure that we were taking care of each other and that people were being heard when we thought very carefully about what the environment should be like for them. Even so, I’m sure I made mistakes. 

Filmmaker: When filming an intimate scene like that, is there an impulse to ease potential tension that may arise? You want to take it seriously, of course, but in making your actors comfortable,  are you trying to keep the mood light? I imagine a filmmaker might have internal arguments with oneself about how to do that.

Ford: Yeah, and I think even more so for the scenes that we did with Brittany and Drew Fuller [who plays Mike], because I’ve watched enough rape movies and movies where women are sexually assaulted to know what I didn’t want to do, what I didn’t want to see, and I knew what was actually important to show. That was still hard for me to shoot because I didn’t want to experience it myself and I didn’t want to look at it. Again, I wonder what that would have been like if I had a competent, professional intimacy coordinator on set who could work through some of that stuff with us. But in general, everybody on set was very aware of what we were doing. We were each processing our own experiences of boundary-violation and assault and trauma related to this scenario, so each day we were filming those scenes was extra hard.

Filmmaker: After Renesha is drugged, we get a lot of soft focus and more intensely dramatic lighting, the purples and reds washing over her as she begins to piece together moments from the evening of her assault. The viewer knows when we’re within her POV, within her memories, due to those lighting choices that serve as nonverbal signifiers. It’s a cue for the viewer. 

Ford: Yeah, absolutely, and I’m not a big fan of dialogue “for dialogue’s sake.” I think I’m heavily influenced by German expressionism, and I really love Hitchcock and the ways in which he played with that movement. I wanted to use all of the tools in my toolkit (other than dialogue) to express this internal feeling within Renesha. Again, Black folks and women femmes aren’t always listened to even when we are speaking up, so there are many other ways in which we are communicating what is happening if only someone would pay close enough attention. Some of the ideas that I wanted to express with the character of Renesha come from the many moments in the film where she’s pushed to the background, or to the side, or is out of focus. That’s for a reason, to make you think about how we choose not to see or hear people. Then in the moments where I let you sit with her, what do you notice in what she’s not saying? All of that was intentional. 

My cinematographer, Ludovica Isidori, and I thought about colors and what they could mean within the context of our film, as did Eloise Ayala, our production designer. We talked a lot about colors as motifs and how different ones could be assigned to different characters. Renesha has a specific color assigned to her, Mike has a specific color and Evan has a specific color. Renesha doesn’t have a color when she’s with Evan, however, when they’re together and things are relatively good.

The other thing you might’ve been noticing is that in the spaces where Renesha is experiencing trauma or she is in some form of danger, the colors are incredibly saturated and really forged. We did that to express this heightened state, where each of your senses are being activated when placed into a “fight or flight” situation and how certain things tend to stick out versus others. In the moments where Evan and Renesha are going from hospital to hospital, things are really washed out and much colder, color wise. Again, that’s representing Renesha’s distance from what’s happening to her, as she’s literally being dragged around and isn’t fully present enough to process it for herself.

Filmmaker: I wanted to ask about the original score and the sampling of preexisting music you feature in the film, and specifically where you choose to feature them. The mood of the first third of the film is very much directed by that music, where even if I dreaded what was to come, the music was almost letting me off the hook…until it wasn’t. It’s another nonverbal way of directing the viewer’s emotional state, right?

Ford: Even that goes back to what we consider “classical cinema” in general, the old school idea of using elements of film other than dialogue to express an idea. I had been thinking about how melodrama was once seen as a “women’s medium.” As much as that classification can be (and is) criticized, I think there’s something really interesting in that belief. What does it look like to express the internal? What does it look like to express the things that people don’t want to pay attention to? The score was therefore going to be incredibly important.

Our composer, Rob Rusli, is one of my favorite people to work with. What I love about working with him is that he truly cares about the thematic points of a narrative and each of the extra elements I was attempting to accomplish on this film. After we dug into that for many, many hours, he went back to the drawing board to think about how to construct a piece that would evoke feelings of anxiety or alienation or fear alongside the concepts of, again, assigning certain sounds and certain instruments to certain characters. I liked the idea that when a character shows up, they almost have their own set of tunes and colors.

Filmmaker: Although the film was primarily shot in Austin, you also filmed for a few days in Los Angeles. But in the interim of shifting to California for the production’s restart, you ran into budgetary issues, is that correct? 

Ford: Yeah, and I tried my absolute best to not let my crew know I was bankrolling this entire thing myself. It’s obviously very important to build confidence on set, to make sure that people know the thing they’re working on and have committed time to has a forward-moving momentum. The truth is, the amount of [shooting] days we planned for was really important to me, and Pin-Chun and I originally scheduled a nineteen-and-a-half day shoot. Once we were nearing the end, I realized that there were a couple of things that were harder than I thought they would be. I wasn’t happy with what we had, and we had the choice to either go with it and keep it—or not. 

There were a few locations in Austin we couldn’t secure, and we were able to find cheap equivalents in Los Angeles. We thought, “Well, we had planned for two extra shooting days in Los Angeles anyway, so instead of just going with some of the stuff we’re not happy with, let’s add that to the Los Angeles shoot.” But I only had one week in-between our Austin and Los Angeles shoot, so we shut down for a week, broke down each of the sets and drove to L.A. 

Meanwhile, I had to go out to ask for additional funds. The truth is that, as much as I had what I needed to pay people for their time, I was dipping further into the personal savings of my partner and I. It was getting to the point where I was taking on more debt, even as people were giving me additional credit cards. There was going to be a point where that was going to catch up with me and…we were getting to that point. 

Before we’d gone out to shoot the film, I spoke to a few production companies that liked my other script. I told them how I wanted to make that film, and they were like, “Oh, this sounds exciting, but come back to us later, you never know! Go out and do your thing, but come back to us someday.” So, now was my time to go back to them. This is just the truth regarding the current state of independent film, which I do think is changing due to how the pandemic has made everything very different (for better and, in some ways, for worse). But at that point in time, quite a few folks we spoke to were very frank when they told us, “Look, there’s no guarantee you’re going to get into a top-tier festival, which means that there’s no guarantee that you’ll get distribution, and therefore there’s no guarantee that I’ll ever get my money back, so, no. If you can find a guarantee somewhere, then I will give you the money.” I essentially struck out and had to keep digging and digging. So much of that time was spent hoping I could gather something that I couldn’t, and I just kept going deeper and deeper into debt. It got to the point where I could no longer afford to live in my apartment in Los Angeles.

Filmmaker: Luckily, this film did wind up having a robust festival life, although I’ve heard you mention that some of the post-screening Q&As got somewhat contentious. Did the public reaction to the film change depending on which festival you were screening the film at?

Ford: Yeah, and I think there’s two things regarding that I should note. I had a good idea about how people were going to react to the film, because of course, that was pretty deliberate. One of those deliberate things Pin-Chun and I did was hold a ton of test screenings. I wasn’t looking to fix stuff within the film itself (we held other test screenings for that sort of feedback), but I was interested in what people would pick up on and respond to while viewing the film. I wanted to know what upset them about the film, on an ideological or intellectual level. I wasn’t interested in the “this dialogue was bad” variety of feedback, but more like, “I’m upset this character said this or that that character said that.” I would make note of the moments where I could hear someone laughing, or crying, or quietly arguing with somebody about a moment in the film (which has happened). 

At the end of each test screening, people would debate what they thought takes place in the film. There were folks who didn’t think Renesha was raped at all and so they couldn’t understand what the big deal was. There were also people who absolutely understood that Renesha was raped, then there were folks who sat in the middle and didn’t know if it was okay to even go through all of this feedback stuff.

For example, we received widely differing responses toward the character of Evan depending on who our audience was that night. Certain demographics absolutely hated the idea of Evan as a person, and the fact that he could even get a girl like Renesha was incredibly distracting and frustrating to them. Due to that, the whole movie didn’t make sense to them. They couldn’t get past the fact that Renesha might be interested in him, which I found to be a very fascinating reading of the film. There were also people who would hear that feedback and get incredibly defensive on the other end of the spectrum, saying, “Evan is perfect, how dare you? Also, why are we demonizing him? He did everything correctly!” What I very much hoped would happen wound up happening. The film holds a mirror up to folks and their own ideologies and how they personally relate to these concepts of whiteness, patriarchy, toxic masculinity, sexual assault and rape. The film is a “check in” place with where you are personally with those concepts. If this rubs you the wrong way, or if this feels liberating or exhilarating to you, where is that coming from and why? What are the areas where you might need to go back and reflect on a bit?

Filmmaker: The film began its festival run in the summer of 2019 (where it was warmly received). However, given everything that has taken place within this country related to the social justice movement of 2020, I’m sure you’ve observed responses to the film altering a bit. Your film hasn’t changed, of course, but maybe our culture has, to some degree. Have you noticed the audience response changing since the events of 2020?

Ford: I have and honestly, it’s something I feel a little salty about. That’s not due to “Oh, no one paid attention to what they should have in the film.” No, it’s actually worse than that. Two Black men had to die (one in a particularly very violent and public way) for people to think about this stuff again and give it some more attention. That honestly doesn’t make me feel very good. However, what it did do is embolden me to keep trying to find a distributor for this film. At that point in time, I did not have a distributor, and I was so deep in debt in June of 2020, that I didn’t think that it would ever be possible for me to make another film. But what actually wound up happening was that the film resonated enough in places where I got opportunities I would not have otherwise received. For instance, I was recently granted a Pew Fellowship for the arts, which came via a Philadelphia-based institution (I currently live in Philly). They gave me $75,000 of unrestricted grant money, which I subsequently used to pay off a few credit cards. That grant money has changed my career trajectory, to the point where now I’m in a more settled place than I would’ve ever been. I can actually think about making something else in the future now. I’m receiving emails and phone calls being like, “Hi, I went to that test screening of yours a few years back and God, I just can’t stop thinking about your movie now!” I’ve realized that maybe this was all a timing thing.

One of the few things the pandemic has done that isn’t terrible is that it’s prompted us to start looking critically at each of our institutions. We’ve realized that we’re flawed in many places and we’re not doing the best by most people. How we’ve always done things may not be how things should always be done, right? Therefore, people have been much more open to hearing from us and our film, even though we didn’t have a sales agent or a referrable “thumbs up” or seal of approval that tends to filter out everything else. And yet, I literally would not be able to talk about this movie and see it finally have a home (after three-and-a-half years) without the social events of the past year. 


Bad Credit Credit Cards – “I Had to Use Nine Credit Cards”: Shatara Michelle Ford on Test Pattern

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Inside the Highly Profitable and Secretive World of Payday Lenders

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Illustration by Sarah Maxwell, Folio Art

When Bridget Davis got started in the family’s payday lending business in 1996, there was just one Check ’n Go store in Cincinnati. She says she did it all: customer service, banking duties, even painting walls.

The company had been established two years earlier by her husband, Jared Davis, and was growing rapidly. There were 100 Check ’n Go locations by 1997, when Jared and Bridget (née Byrne) married and traveled the country together looking for more locations to open storefront outlets. They launched another 400 stores in 1998, mostly in strip malls and abandoned gas stations in low-income minority neighborhoods where the payday lending target market abounds. Bridget drove the supply truck and helped select locations and design the store layouts.

But Jared soon fired his wife for committing what may be the ultimate sin in the payday lending business: She forgave a customer’s debt. “A young woman came to pay her $20 interest payment,” Bridget wrote in court documents last year during divorce proceedings from Jared. “I pulled her file, calculated that she had already paid $320 to date on a principle [sic] loan of $100. I told her she was paid in full. [Jared] fired me, stating, ‘We are here to make money, not help customers manage theirs. If you can’t do that, you can’t work here.’ ”

Photograph by Brittany Dexter

It’s a business philosophy that pays well, especially if you’re charging fees and interest rates of 400 percent that can more than triple the amount of the loan in just five months—the typical time most payday borrowers need to repay their debt, says the Pew Charitable Trusts, a nonprofit organization focused on public policy. Cincinnati-based Check ’n Go now operates more than 1,100 locations in 25 states as well as an internet lending service with 24/7 access from the comfort of your own home, according to its website. Since its founding, the company has conducted more than 50 million transactions.

What the website doesn’t say is that many, if not most, of those transactions were for small loans of $50 to $500 to working people trying to scrape by and pay their bills. In most states—including Ohio, until it reformed its payday lending laws in 2019—borrowers typically fork over more than one-third of their paycheck to meet the deadline for repayment, usually in two weeks. To help guarantee repayment, borrowers turn over access to their checking account or deposit a check with the lender. In states that don’t offer protection, customers go back again and again to borrow more money from the same payday lender, typically up to 10 times, driving themselves into a debt trap that can lead to bankruptcy.

Jared and Bridget Davis are embroiled in a nasty court battle related to his 2019 divorce filing in Hamilton County Domestic Relations Court. Thousands of pages of filings and 433 docket entries by April 26 offer the public a rare glimpse into the business operations of Check ’n Go, one of Cincinnati’s largest privately-owned companies, as well as personal lifestyles funded by payday lending.

The company cleared $77 million in profit in 2018, a figure that dipped the following year to $55 million, according to an audit by Deloitte. That drop in revenue may have something to do with the payday lending reform laws and interest rate caps passed recently in Ohio as well as a growing number of other states.


The day-to-day business transactions that provide such profit are a depressing window into how those who live on the edge of financial security are often stuck with few options for improving their situations. If a borrower doesn’t repay or refinance his or her original loan, a lender like Check ’n Go deposits the guarantee check and lets it bounce, causing the borrower to incur charges for the bounced check and eventually lose his or her checking account, says Nick DiNardo, an attorney for the Legal Aid Society of Greater Cincinnati. After two missed payments, payday lenders usually turn over the debt to a collection agency. If the collection agency fails to collect the full amount of the original loan as well as all fees and interest, it goes to court to garnish the borrower’s wages.

That devastating experience is all too familiar to Anthony Smith, a 60-year-old Wyoming resident who says he was laid off from several management positions over a 20-year period. He turned to payday lenders as his credit rating dropped and soon found himself caught in a debt trap that took him years to escape.

Two things happened in 2019, Smith says, that turned around his financial fortunes. First, he found a stable manufacturing job with the Formica Company locally, and then he took his mother’s advice and opened a credit union account. GE Credit Union not only gave him a reasonable loan to pay off his $2,500 debt but also issued him his first credit card in a decade. “I had been a member [of the credit union] for just two months, and I had a credit rating of 520. Can you imagine?” he says. Smith says he is now debt-free for the first time in 10 years.

Consumer advocates say Check ’n Go is one of the biggest payday lending operations in the nation. But knowing its exact ranking is difficult because most payday lending companies, including Check ’n Go and its parent company CNG Holdings, are privately held and reluctant to disclose their finances.

Brothers Jared and David Davis own the majority of the company’s privately held stock. David bought into the company in 1995, but CNG got its game-changing infusion of capital from the brothers’ father, Allen Davis, who retired as CEO of then-Provident Bank in 1998. Allen sold off $37 million in stock options and essentially became CNG’s bank and consultant.

By 2005, however, the sons were part of a public court battle against their father. Allen accused Jared and David of treating his millions in CNG stock as compensation instead of a transfer from his ex-wife (and the brothers’ mother), sticking him with a $13 million tax bill. In turn, the brothers accused Allen of putting his mistress and his yacht captain on the company payroll, taking $1.2 million in fees without board approval, and leading the company into ventures that lost Check ’n Go a lot of money. Several years of legal fighting later, the IRS was still demanding its $13 million. CNG officials did not respond to requests for comment for this story.

Jared and David split $22 million in profit from CNG in 2018 and, according to the Deloitte audit, CNG’s balance sheet showed another $42 million that could be split between the two brothers in 2019. Jared, however, elected not to receive his $21 million distribution “in order to create this artificial financial crisis and shelter millions of dollars from an equitable split between us,” according to Bridget’s divorce filing.

Worse, she claims, Jared said they would be responsible for paying taxes out of their personal accounts rather than from CNG’s company earnings, making her personally responsible for half of the $5.5 million in taxes for 2019. She believes it wasn’t happenstance that $5.5 million was wired to Jared’s private bank account in December of that same year. Bridget has refused to sign the joint tax return, and Jared filed a complaint with the court saying a late tax filing would cost them $1 million in penalties and missed tax opportunities.

“For the duration of our marriage and to the present, Jared has full and complete control of all money paid to us from various investments we have made in addition to our main source of income, CNG,” Bridget wrote in her motion. She suspects that Jared, without her knowledge or consent, plowed the money for their taxes and from other sources of income into Black Diamond Group, the fund that invests in the Agave & Rye restaurant chain. Beyond the original restaurant opened in Covington in 2018, “they have opened four other locations in one year,” she wrote, including Louisville and Lexington. (The ninth location opened in Hamilton this spring.) Agave & Rye’s website touts its Mexican fare as “a chef-inspired take on the standard taco, elevating this simple food into something epic!”

In his response, Jared wrote, “We have very limited regular sources of income.” He says he isn’t receiving any additional distributions from CNG, the couple’s primary source of income, “and this is not within my control. The company has declared that we would not make any further distributions in 2020 given economic circumstances. This decision is based on a formula and is not discretionary.” Agave & Rye helped produce $645,000 in income for Black Diamond in 2020 but has paid out $890,000 in loans, he says. Through August 31, 2020, he wrote, the couple’s “expenses have exceeded income from all sources.”


The divorce case filings start slinging mud when the couple accuses each other of breaking up their 22-year marriage and finding new partners. Jared claims Bridget began an affair during their marriage with Brian Duncan, a contractor she employed through her house flipping business. Bridget, he says, paid Duncan’s company $75,000 in 2018 as well as giving him a personal gift of $70,000 that same year. Jared says she also bought Duncan at least one car and purchased a house for him near hers on Shawnee Run Road for $289,000, then loaned money to Duncan. Jared says Duncan has been late in repaying the note.

While Bridget says Duncan has been drug-free for several years, he has a rap sheet with Hamilton County courts from 2000 to 2017 that runs five pages long. It lists a half-dozen counts of drug abuse and drug possession, including heroin and possession of illegal drug paraphernalia; assaulting a police officer; stealing a Taser from a police officer; criminal damaging while being treated at UC Health; more than a dozen speeding and traffic violations; a half-dozen counts of driving with a suspended license; receiving stolen property; twice fleeing and resisting arrest; three counts of theft; two counts of forgery; and one count for passing bad checks.

Bridget has fired back that Jared not only is hiding his money from her but spending it lavishly on vacations, resorts, and high-end restaurants with his new girlfriend, Susanne Warner. Bridget says Jared gifted Warner with $40,000 without Bridget’s knowledge, then declared it on their joint tax return as a “contribution.” Bridget’s court filings include photocopies of social media posts of Jared and Warner globetrotting from summer 2019 to summer 2020: vacation at Beaver Creek Village in Avon, Colorado; cocktails at High Cotton in Charleston, South Carolina, and dinner at Melvyn’s Restaurant and Lounge in Palm Springs, California; getaways at resorts in Nashville and at a lakefront rental on Norris Lake ($600 per night); in the Bahamas at a Musha Cay private residence ($57,000 per night), at South Beach in Miami, and at a private beach at Fisher Island; in Mexico at Cabo San Lucas; in the U.S. Virgin Islands at Magen’s Bay and on a private yacht ($4,500 per night); in California at Desert Hot Springs, the Ritz-Carlton in Rancho Mirage, and Montage at Laguna Beach; and in the Bahamas at South Cottage ($2,175 per night).

For her part, Bridget has gone through some of the top lawyers in town faster than President Trump during an impeachment—six in all, two of whom she’s sued for malpractice. She sent four binders of evidence to the Ohio Supreme Court, asking for the recusal of Hamilton County Judge Amy Searcy and claiming Searcy was biased because of campaign donations from Jared and his companies. Rather than deal with the list of questions sent to her by Chief Justice Maureen O’Connor, Searcy stepped down. Two other judges have since stepped into the fray, and in March Bridget filed for a change of venue outside of Hamilton County, arguing she can’t get a fair trial in her hometown. At press time, a trial date had been set for June 28 in Hamilton County.

The poor-mouthing in the divorce case has reached heights of comic absurdity. Jared claims he’s “illiquid” because he didn’t get his distribution from CNG in 2019. Bridget has received debt collection notices for the nearly $21,000 owed on her American Express card and a $735 bill from Jewish Hospital. There’s no sign yet that anyone is coming to repossess her Porsche, which according to her filings has a $5,000 monthly payment. Each party has received $25,000 a month in living expenses, an amount later reduced to $15,000 under a temporary legal agreement while the divorce case is being sorted out. Court filings show that Jared’s net worth is almost $206 million and Bridget’s is $22.5 million.


In the early 1990s, Allen Davis was raising eyebrows at Provident Bank (later bought by National City), and not only because of his very unbanker-like look of beard, ponytail, and casual golf wear. He was leading the company into questionable subprime home loans for people with bad credit and a frequent-shopper program for merchants, though the bank’s charter barred him from getting involved in full-blown predatory lending practices. With guidance and funding from his father, Jared, at age 26, launched Check ’n Go in 1994 and became a pioneer in the payday lending industry. Jared and his family saw there were millions of Americans who didn’t have checking or savings accounts (“unbanked”) or an adequate credit rating (“underbanked”) but still needed loans to meet their everyday expenses. What those potential customers did have was a steady paycheck.

Conventional banks share a big part of the blame for the nation’s army of unbanked borrowers by imposing checking account fees and onerous penalties for bounced checks. In 2019, the Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation estimated there were 7.1 million U.S. households without a checking or savings account.

The Davises launched Check ’n Go on the pretext that it would “fill the gap” for people who occasionally needed to borrow money in a hurry—a service for those who couldn’t get a loan any other way. But consumer advocates say the real business model for payday lending isn’t a service at all. The majority of the industry’s revenue comes from repeat business by customers trapped in debt, not from borrowers looking for a quick, one-time fix for their financial troubles.

Ohio’s payday lending lobbyists got a strong hold on the state legislature in the late 1990s, and by 2018 Democratic gubernatorial candidate Richard Cordray could rightfully claim in a campaign ad that “Ohio’s [payday lending] laws are now the worst in the nation. Things have gotten so bad that it is legal to charge 594 percent interest on loans.” His statement was based on a 2014 study by the Pew Charitable Trusts.

The frustration for consumer advocates was that Ohioans had been trying to reform those laws since 2008, when voters overwhelmingly approved a ballot initiative placing a 28 percent cap on the interest of payday loans. But—surprise!—lenders simply registered as mortgage brokers, which enabled them to charge unlimited fees.

The Davis family and five other payday lending companies controlled 90 percent of the market back then, an express gravy train ripping through the poorest communities in Ohio. The predatory feeding frenzy, especially in Ohio’s hard-hit Rust Belt communities, prompted a 2017 column at The Daily Beast titled, “America’s Worst Subprime Lender: Jared Davis vs. Allan Jones?” (Jones is founder and CEO of Tennessee-based Check Into Cash.) In 2016 and 2017, consumer advocates mustered their forces again, and this time they weren’t allowing for loopholes. The Pew Charitable Trusts joined efforts with bipartisan lawmakers and Ohioans for Payday Loan Reform, a statewide coalition of faith, business, local government, and nonprofit organizations. Consumer advocates found a legislative champion in State Rep. Kyle Koehler, a Republican from Springfield.

It no doubt helped reform efforts that former Ohio Speaker of the House Cliff Rosenberger resigned in spring 2018 amid an FBI investigation into his cozy relationship with payday lenders. Rosenberger had taken frequent overseas trips—to destinations including France, Italy, Israel, and China—in the company of payday lending lobbyists. In April 2019, Ohio’s new lending law took effect and, since then, has been called a national model for payday lending reform that balances protections for borrowers, profits for lenders, and access to credit for the poor, according to the Pew Charitable Trusts. New prices in Ohio are three to four times lower for payday loans than before the law. Borrowers now have up to three months to repay their loans with no more than 6 percent of their paycheck. Pew estimates that the cost of borrowing $400 for three months dropped from $450 to $109, saving Ohioans at least $75 million a year. And despite claims that the reforms would eliminate access to credit, lenders currently operate in communities across the state and online. “The bipartisan success shows that if you set fair rules and enforce them, lenders play by them and there’s widespread access to credit,” says Gabe Kravitz, a consumer finance officer at the Pew Charitable Trusts.

Other states like Virginia, Kansas, and Michigan are following Ohio’s lead, Kravitz says. Some states, such as Nebraska, have even capped annual interest on payday loans. As a result, Pew researchers have seen a reduction in the number of storefront lending op­erations across the country. Even better, Kravitz says, there’s no evidence that borrowers are turning instead to online payday lending operations.

Cincinnati is one of five cities chosen for a grant to replicate the success of Boston Builds Credit, an ambitious effort that city launched in 2017 to provide credit counseling in poor and minority communities by training specialists at existing social service agencies. The program also encourages consumer partnerships with credit unions, banks, and insurance companies to offer small, manageable loans that can help the unbanked and underbanked improve their credit ratings. “Right now, local organizations are all kind of working in silos on the problem in Cincinnati,” says Todd Moore of the nonprofit credit counseling agency Trinity Debt Relief. Moore, who applied for the Boston grant, says he’s looking for an agency like United Way or Strive Cincinnati to lead the effort here.

Anthony Smith is thankful that he’s escaped the downward spiral of his payday loans, especially during the pandemic’s economic turmoil. “I’m blessed for every day I can get paid and have a job during these difficult times, just to be able to pay my bills and meet my responsibilities,” he says. “I’ve always kept a job, but until now I’ve had crappy credit. That doesn’t mean I’m a bad guy.”

Can others worth millions of dollars say the same?

Inside the Highly Profitable and Secretive World of Payday Lenders Source link Inside the Highly Profitable and Secretive World of Payday Lenders



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What’s Questionable Credit and Can I Get a Car Loan With It?

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Questionable’s definition means that something’s quality is up for debate. If a lender says that your credit score is questionable, it’s likely that they mean it’s poor, or at the very least, they’re hesitant to approve you for vehicle financing. Here’s what most lenders consider questionable credit, and what auto loan options you may have.

Questionable Credit and Auto Lenders

Many auto lenders may consider questionable credit as a borrower with a credit score below 660. The credit score tiers as sorted by Experian the national credit bureau, are:

  • Super prime: 850 to 781
  • Prime: 780 to 661
  • Nonprime: 660 to 601
  • Subprime: 600 to 501
  • Deep subprime: 500 to 300

The nonprime credit tiers and below is when you start to get into bad credit territory and may struggle to meet the credit score requirements of traditional auto lenders.

This is because lenders are looking at your creditworthiness – your perceived ability to repay loans based on the information in your credit reports. Besides your actual credit score, there may be situations where the items in your credit reports are what’s making a lender question whether you’re a good candidate for an auto loan. These can include:

  • A past or active bankruptcy
  • A past or recent vehicle repossession
  • Recent missed/late payments
  • High credit card balances
  • No credit history

There are ways to get into an auto loan with questionable credit. Your options can change depending on what’s making your credit history questionable, though.

Questionable Credit Auto Loans

If your credit score is less than stellar, it may be time to look at these two lending options:

  • What Is Questionable Credit and Can I Get a Car Loan With It?Subprime financing – Done through special finance dealerships by third-party subprime lenders. These lenders can often assist with many unique credit situations, provided you can meet their requirements. A great option for new borrowers with thin files, situational bad credit, or consumers with older negative marks.
  • In-house financing – May not require a credit check, and is done through buy here pay here (BHPH) dealers. Typically, your income and down payment amount are the most important parts of eligibility. Auto loans without a credit check may not allow for credit repair and may come with a higher-than-average interest rate.

Both of these car loan options are typically available to borrowers with credit challenges. However, if you have more recent, serious delinquencies on your credit reports, a BHPH dealer may be for you. Most traditional and subprime lenders typically don’t approve financing for borrowers with a dismissed bankruptcy, a repossession less than a year old, or borrowers with multiple, recent missed/late payments.

Requirements of Bad Credit Car Loans

In many cases, your income and down payment size are the biggest factors in your overall eligibility for bad credit auto loans. Expect to need:

  • 30 days of recent computer-generated check stubs to prove you have around $1,500 to $2,500 of monthly gross income. Borrowers without W-2 income may need two to three years of professionally prepared tax returns.
  • A down payment of at least $1,000 or 10% of the vehicle’s selling price. BHPH dealers may require up to 20% of the car’s selling price.
  • Proof of residency in the form of a recent utility bill in your name.
  • Proof of a working phone (no prepaid phones), proven with a recent phone bill in your name.
  • A list of five to eight personal references with name, phone number, and address.
  • Valid driver’s license with the correct address, can’t be revoked, expired, or suspended.

Depending on your individual situation, you may need fewer or more items to apply for a bad credit auto loan. However, preparing these documents before you head to a dealership can speed up the process!

Ready to Get on the Road?

With questionable credit, finding a dealership that’s able to assist you with an auto loan is easier said than done. Here at Auto Credit Express, we want to get that done for you with our coast-to-coast network of special finance dealerships.

Complete our free auto loan request form and we’ll get right to work looking for a dealer in your local area that can assist with many tough credit situations.

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Entrepreneur Tae Lee Finds Her Fortune

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By Jasmine Shaw
For The Birmingham Times

Birmingham native Tae Lee had plans last year to visit the continent of Africa, the South American country of Columbia, and the U.S. state of Texas.

“I was going to stay in each place for like four to six weeks, and then COVID-19 happened,” she said. “So, I just was like, ‘You know what, I’m just gonna go to Mexico and stay for six months.’”

Once home from Playa Del Carmen, located on Mexico’s Yucatán Peninsula, the 33-year-old entrepreneur put the final touches on “Game of Fortune: Win in Wealth or Lose in Debt,” a financial literacy card game for ages 10 and up.

“We created ‘Game of Fortune’ because we realized there was a gap in learning the fundamentals of money,” said Lee. “We go through life not knowing anything about money and then—‘Bam!’—real life hits. Credit, debt, and bills come at us quick!”

Lee believes the game “gives players a glimpse of real life” by using everyday scenarios to teach them how to make wiser financial decisions without having to waste their own money.

“I feel like [financial literacy] can be learned in ways other than somebody standing up and preaching it to you over and over again,” she said. “You can learn it in ways that are considered fun, as well.”

Which is why “we want the schools to buy it, so we can give students a fun way to learn about financial literacy,” she added.

Lee, also called the “Money Maximizer,” is an international best-selling financial author, speaker, coach, and trainer who is known for her financial literacy books, including “Never Go Broke (NGB): An Entrepreneur’s Guide to Money and Freedom” and the “NGB Money Success Planner High School Edition.” The Birmingham-based financial guru focuses on creating diverse streams of income in the tax, real estate, insurance, and finance industries.

For Lee, it’s about building generational wealth, not debt.

Indispensable Lessons

Lee got her first glance at entrepreneurial life as a child watching her mother, Valeria Robinson, run her commercial cleaning company, V’s Cleaning. Robinson retired in 2019.

“My grandmother had a cleaning service, too,” said Lee. “So, even though I didn’t start out as an entrepreneur, watching my mom and grandma do it taught me a lot.”

Lee grew up in Birmingham and attended Riley Elementary School, Midfield Middle School, and Huffman High School. She then went on to Jacksonville State University, in Jacksonville, Alabama, where she earned bachelor’s degree in physical education. She struggled to find a career in her field and became overwhelmed by student loans.

“My credit and stuff didn’t get bad until after college,” she said. “I was going through school and taking money, but nobody told me, ‘Oh, you’re gonna have to pay all of this back.’”

Before embarking on her extensive career in money management, Lee had not learned the indispensable lessons that she now shares with clients.

“‘Don’t have bad credit.’ That’s all I learned,” she remembers. “Financial literacy just wasn’t taught much. I learned the majority of my lessons as I aged.”

In an effort to ward off collection calls and raise her credit score, Lee researched tactics to strategically eliminate her debt.

“I knew I had to pay bills on time, and I couldn’t be late with payments,” she said.

Lee eventually began helping friends revamp their finances and opened NGB Inc. in 2017 to share fun, educational methods to help her clients build solid financial foundations.

“People were always coming to me like, ‘How do I invest in this?’ and ‘How do I do that?’ So, I said to myself, ‘You know what, people should be paying to pick your brain.’”

Legacy Building

While Lee enjoyed watching her clients reach milestones, like buying a new car with cash or making their first stock market investment, she was also designing “Game of Fortune” to teach the value of legacy building.

“The game gives players the knowledge to build generational wealth, not generational debt,” she said. “It gives you a glimpse of life, money, and what can truly happen if you mismanage your coins.”

Using index cards to create her first “Game of Fortune” sample deck, Lee filled each card with pertinent terms related to debt elimination and credit and wealth building. She then called on a few friends to help her work through the kinks.

Three of her good friends—Barbara Bratton, Daña Brown, and Sha Cannon—were just a few of the people that gave feedback on the sample deck.

“From there I met with Brandon Brooks, [owner of the Birmingham-based Brooks Realty Investments LLC], and four other financial advisors to fine-tune the definitions and game logistics,” Lee said.

Though Lee was unable to land a job in physical education after graduating from college, she now sees her career with NGB Inc. as life’s unexpected opportunity to teach on her own terms.

“Bartending and waitressing taught me that working for someone else was not for me,” she replied. “In order to get the life I always wanted, I had to create my own business.”

In her entrepreneurial pursuits, Lee strives to be an open-minded leader who embraces the need for flexibility.

“COVID-19 has shown me that in entrepreneurship you have to maneuver,” she said. “When life changes, sometimes your business will, too. You may have to change the path, but your ending goal can be the same.”

“Game of Fortune: Win in Wealth or Lose in Debt” is available and sold only on the “Game of Fortune” website: gameoffortune.money. To learn more about Tae Lee and Never Go Broke Inc., visit taelee.money and nevergobroke.money or email tae@taelee.money; you also can follow her on Facebook (https://www.facebook.com/nevergobrokeinc) and Instagram (@nevergobrokeinc).

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