Dedicated black directors are finding crews, money they need to make movies


July 14, 1991|By Stephen Hunter | Stephen Hunter,Sun Film Critic

Orson Welles once lamented that the only thing a writer needed was a pen and an artist an easel -- but the film director needed an army.

Getting an army has historically been the rub of the movie business; but hard as that is, imagine how much harder it would be if you were a young black male living in the Red Hook section of Brooklyn. You're 17 years old. Where do you get your army?

Or imagine that you're 22 and you're from South Central L.A., the stalking ground of the Bloods and the Crips, and you seethe to make a film that tells the truth about your growing up. Armies don't grow on trees, not even palms.

And yet both these gentlemen, on sheer chutzpah and talent, fought the fights they had to fight and told the lies they had to tell and scrambled and schmoozed and soothed. They got their armies. They made their movies.

Matty Rich is now 19; his "Straight Out of Brooklyn" opened nationally two weeks ago to generally good reviews. John

Singleton is 23; his "Boyz n the Hood" opened Friday to smashing reviews.

Indeed, the two of them represent only a part of the wave of young black directors who, much in the manner that young Swedish tennis players followed upon the breakthrough success Bjorn Borg, have followed upon the success of Spike Lee.

"In 1986," recalls the intense John Singleton, "one spring night, I went to see 'She's Gotta Have It' [Lee's first film], and I had a sudden sense that I was not alone. Before then, I'd simply gone to films for entertainment."

Since then, Singleton has become one of Lee's most eager admirers.

L "I can call him for advice. He's my idol. It's good for me."

In 1991, 19 films have been released or will be released with African-American directors. These include old pros like Lee and Michael "Car Wash" Shultz, whose "Livin' Large" is due in August; and Robert Townsend, whose "The Five Heartbeats" was released in April. They include former actors, like Bill Dukes ("A Rage in Harlem") and Mario Van Peebles ("New Jack City"). They include the first-timers like Rich and Singleton, as well as Joseph Vasquez ("Hangin' With the Homeboys") and Topper Carew ("Talkin' Dirty After Dark").

And some are directors who've moved into the big time after art house successes, such as Charles Lane, who some years back made a "silent" movie to much acclaim. This summer he's represented in a big-budget Disney-Touchstone production called "True Identity." And then there are the long-shot independent productions, like "Up Against the Wall," from African-American Images, which played a few weeks in the spring, and chronicled the story of an inner city African-American youth whose track abilities got him a billet in the suburbs.

Is all this action just sheer coincidence?

Or is Hollywood, and by extension America, at last interested in a black point of view?

"The only reason that certain black filmmakers break through," says Singleton, "is that they stay as culturally specific as possible. In that way they become universal."

As for Matty Rich, he says, "I didn't know there was a black revolution going on when I started. I heard about it when I finished. I don't know about the others, but for me, I did it because of the pain and the oppression. I was tired of seeing my people knocked off."

A continent apart but at almost the same historical moment, Singleton and Rich set about to make their movies, though by almost mirror images. Rich is the sheer outlaw filmmaker, like Oscar Michaux, who flies by the seat of his pants, improvises desperately, and somehow, on sheer nerve, coaxes his movie into existence.

Singleton, on the other hand, is Mr. Insider, who got an agent early and learned how not to fight the system but to make it work for him.

Rich's "Straight Out of Brooklyn" is almost more astonishing in that it exists, rather than for what it says.

With no credentials, financial backing, education or reasonable chance, he set out at 17 to make it happen.

"I saw my mother go back and get her master's degree while supporting the family working full time as a day-care teacher. My mother was the jump of the whole thing. My mother and my sister just wouldn't let me quit."

Rich, who grew up in Red Hook and later moved to slightly more hospitable circumstances in Park Slope, attended a writing program for high school students to learn the rudiments of screenplay work and then etched out a 110-page script, inspired by the short life and death in prison of one of his friends in Red Hook.

The next year was a maelstrom of meetings, fund raising, starts and stops. At one point, after taking out an ad in Backstage magazine for actors, he found himself sunk in 2,000 resumes. The breakthrough was an appearance on a radio talk show as a desperate appeal for funds.

"In two days, we raised $77,000 from regular black folks," he says. "It was enough to finish shooting."

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