Fortitude brings 2 black film portraits to screen

April 06, 1993|By Stephen Hunter | Stephen Hunter,Film Critic

It's never easy, this getting a movie made. But all across America, filmmakers traditionally denied access to the glossy studio system are somehow finding ways to get the job done, with a few bucks here and there, a loan, a gift, the collaboration of friends.

All it takes is faith, hope and charity -- your faith, your hope and someone else's charity.

And so it is that last Friday two such productions arrived in Baltimore, representing entrepreneurial efforts that would overwhelm the most seasoned studio exec and that, more importantly, represent voices that so seldom get a fair hearing. One is Leslie Harris' "Just Another Girl on the I.R.T.," the story of Chantel, an in-your-face Brooklyn girl who is definitely not just another girl on the I.R.T. The other is Darryl Roberts' "How U Like It Now," an ensemble piece set among young African-American professionals in Chicago.

Though each movie is substantially different in tone and meaning, they share the conviction that the real story of African-American culture has somehow never made it into mainstream media.

"It's more than drug deals and gunfights and all that stuff you see," says Ariyan Johnson, who plays Chantel with the verve and sass of a seasoned trooper, though she was 19 when the film was shot two years ago on an extremely modest budget.

As for Roberts, he says that when he showed the film in Hollywood, "Producers out there were amazed. They had very little awareness of a black audience for films. I'm amazed that they hadn't even watched the music industry, which shows what a huge black audience there is and how it can drive an industry."

Presently, Roberts has a deal with Shapiro-Glickenhaus, a smaller company that would only take on the film after Roberts had financed a two-week run in Chicago theaters.

He laughs about it. "The truth is, they don't understand one single thing about it. They just looked at the bottom line, at the numbers."

Johnson took her responsibility to represent that new voice -- the street-smart, capable and dedicated black teen-ager -- seriously. natural and persuasive a presence is Chantel that most everyone thinks she's Ariyan Johnson, and that the role is more ** an act of photography than acting.

Of course, that's exactly wrong. Far from being a tough street kid, Ariyan Johnson is the product of an artistic family, well-schooled in dance (she's a professional choreographer) and other performing arts.

Her Chantel is like Meryl Streep's Sophie: an act of research and inspiration. "I'd go by and see these vibrant young girls," she says, "who spoke a different language than I. So I had to meet them . . . learn the creative ways they changed English.

" But she had no illusions about Chantel. "When I first read the script, I didn't even like her. Sometimes she's unsympathetic. I tried to make her somewhat more sympathetic. Now I think of her as if she's a child of mine. I think she pretty much knows now. She had a lesson to learn and she learned it the hard way."

The film turns on the dilemma of out-of-wedlock pregnancy. It's an extremely honest film. Johnson isn't always beautiful; in fact, in some scenes, she's downright unattractive. "That's the way it is," says the ebullient Johnson. "There are plenty of shots where I don't look good. But that's life."

Like "How U Like It Now," "Just Another Girl on the I.R.T." was cobbled together on loans and dreams. At one point, the production company even "stole" light from another, more complex shoot -- a commercial for the Broadway production of "Miss Saigon" -- by setting up adjacent to its powerful lights and shooting a few quick scenes in the glow.

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