It has been a long, tough road for Francine Locke.
Her journey has led her through divorce, single motherhood, juggling careers as model and actress, travel and faith.
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Now, the award-winning Arlington Heights actress and Northwest suburban native has taken those struggles and put them on the silver screen in a new movie, "A Cry For Justice."
Locke portrays Jackie Carpenter, a Georgia mother, whose contractor son, Jason, was wrongly accused of felony murder.
Based on a true story, the film by Triple Horse Studios (Courageous) focuses on Carpenter's fight to free her son and how that battle sends her own life spiraling through tragedy, wavering faith, tentative hope and ultimate victory.
"Justice" is not Locke's first movie or television role; her credits include "Risky Business," and Chicago productions "Crime Story" and "Early Edition." But "Justice" could provide her greatest exposure and give her the opportunity to help others experiencing hard times. In fact, it was the similarities between her own life and Jackie's that drew her to the role.
"The emotional upheaval Jackie endured, were things I had experienced," Locke said. "I had been left with a one year old child, I knew despair, frustration, and hopelessness, but I also had drive, intense independence and a fiercely protective spirit towards my son. I felt like I had walked in her shoes."
Born in Park Ridge and attending Maine North High School, Locke started her film career, first modeling in the midwest, Toronto and Montreal, then acting in commercials and training films.
Even though she lived near theatre rich Chicago, Locke gravitated towards film. "When you are on a film set, you get to shut everything else out, its just you, the director, and camera," she said. "I appreciate the intimacy you create."
It was during a working trip to Toronto that she met her first husband; they married and returned to the Chicago area, to be near her family, and soon Clayton came along.
"We had a lovely house, I had great dreams, but my ex never quite made the transition to full-time partner and father. He would come in to 'visit' for the weekend. It wasn't a good situation."
He left for the last time when her son was a year old forcing Locke into the role of single parent.
She moved to Arlington Heights to be near her mom who, in her words, was Clay's other parent.
"I'd call and say 'Mom, I've got a booking in Cleveland', And she'd say 'Ok, when are you bringing
Working in commercials and industrial films brought in a decent salary, the hours were manageable, so although a struggle, her life felt pretty good.
Then came what would prove to be a big shift in her life.
"I grew up learning bible stories, and knew that Jesus loved me," she said, "and I thought that was a good thing and Clay should know all that too, so we started going to E-Free (The Orchard)."
While waiting to pick up Clayton from kindergarten, she met Len Prejna of Rolling Meadows, also picking up his daughter.
"Len was this big guy with a huge voice and Clay hid behind my legs. Len drew him out and his family adopted us. He had a wife and three daughters at home, but Clay was his boy." she said.
The Prejnas introduced them to Fort Wilderness, a not-for-profit Christian camp in northern Wisconsin.
It was there, Locke said, that "the light finally came on about faith. I took it for granted that Jesus loved me, but I never knew how amazing that was. Fort Wilderness literally changed my life, and the path I was on".
She was involved in drama and taught kindergarten at E-Free, also volunteering with refugees, most not speaking English, who had come to the country with only a suitcase.
"I am about the best bargain shopper there is, so setting up their apartments was actually fun. I might not have had a lot, but everyone here has more than these families did, it felt good to be able to help," she said.
When the economy and film industry tanked around 2000, Locke took on full-time employment.
Ten years later, and recently remarried, the acting bug bit her again, but she jumped back in with a new perspective.
"Previously, acting was a paycheck," Locke said, "but now I realized I had been given a gift that I could use to give someone hope, let them know they are not alone.
"I landed a role in the 168 Project, a Christian film competition, and was nominated for Best Supporting Actress. This was the first time I realized there was a faith based film industry. Now I have to admit, my most favorite roles are broken, flawed people," she said. "None of us is perfect, we all mess up, but life's not about our poor choices, it's what we learn from them, and how we move forward."
As for A "Cry for Justice," Locke posted her demo video on their website only days before auditions.
The real Jackie Carpenter had prayed the night before for a perfect Jackie, as fate would have it, she saw Locke's reel. Jackie told her;
"Francine, at the end of that video, when I saw you hugging that boy, that was my Jason. I knew you were our Jackie."
The movie was filmed in Senoia, Newnan, and Carrolton Georgia, and they have several offers to release to the home video market but are holding out for a theatrical release.
As with any film, there are no guarantees, but as you'd expect from Francine Locke, she has faith it will happen.
"It will be released when it's supposed to," she said. "It's in His timing, not mine!"