Finding Direction

His first movie may be set in Atlanta, but it was in Harford County that Chris Robinson began looking at the world through a camera lens


Chris Robinson had been offered the kind of film scripts you would expect an award-winning director of rap and hip-hop videos to receive -- action movies, violent movies, comedies. All predictable, none worthwhile.

A native of Harford County, Robinson wanted his first feature film to be like the movies he grew up watching and loving -- films like Diner and Do the Right Thing. He didn't want to make a movie about thugs, and he didn't want to make a movie that was little more than explosions and car chases.

Finally, he found ATL, a story of four high school friends in working-class Atlanta trying to find a way out of the drugs, violence and hopelessness that permeate their neighborhood. In a way, it's a kind of urban Diner, transported to Atlanta and the present day but still rich with themes of friendship, dreams and sacrifice.

"For me, this script was about character," Robinson, 38, said in an interview last week. ATL opens nationwide on Friday. "It was about heart. It was about friends. I wanted to start my film career in that realm."

Warner Bros. gave him $20 million to make the movie. But his career as a director got its start some 20 years ago, when Robinson began making videos for his friends' rap groups on the 17 acres surrounding his family's home in Edgewood. They'd build bonfires and Robinson would stand on top of his dad's tractor-trailer for high shots.

After stints at his father's trucking company (from which he was fired for spending too much time working on his videos), Fox 45 (ditto) and the Maryland Transit Administration, Robinson devoted himself full-time to directing videos. They were for local artists, shot in places like Edmondson Avenue and for little money, but it was a start.

Eventually, he would make videos for the likes of Jay-Z, Alicia Keys, Snoop Dogg, P. Diddy, Mary J. Blige and others. Robinson's life is now the typical bicoastal affair -- constant shuttles between Los Angeles, where the film business is based, and New York, headquarters for the music business. But he still calls Maryland home -- he has a house in Bel Air -- and he still talks to his parents every day.

In fact, his parents accompanied him to Atlanta last summer for the seven-week ATL shoot, serving as his personal assistants, drivers and cooks. They lived with Robinson and made sure he got up on time and remembered to eat during 18-hour days.

"He came in with the right attitude," said his father, Harvey Robinson. "He was willing to learn anything, but he does know his craft really well."

The film revolves around the life of Rashad, a 17-year-old high school senior who is raising his younger brother after the death of their parents. Rashad's dream is to be a newspaper cartoonist, but he spends his weekends working as a janitor and the rest of his time looking after his brother, Ant.

Robinson says Rashad is an "old soul" because he has taken on so much responsibility at a young age. When Ant becomes a small-time drug dealer, Rashad confronts the drug-dealer boss and, in a rage fueled by love, rips into his brother for being so stupid.

The big neighborhood drug dealer in ATL is played by Big Boi (half of the superstar hip-hop duo OutKast) as a charming guy who rides around in a black SUV with giant rims on the wheels. Robinson says he wanted to explain why many inner-city youths are attracted to drug dealing: They see the neighborhood dealer as the only person they know who has done well for himself.

"He has the nice car, nice clothes. He has the cutest girls," Robinson says. "You might not even know the guy who went to college. Maybe he's not around anymore. But the guy who's right in the middle of your neighborhood, a lot of times, is someone who is not a positive person."

The one escape for the young men in ATL is the neighborhood roller-skating rink, Cascade, where every Sunday night they lace up their skates and show off a dazzling array of moves. The rink scenes are also where Robinson's skills learned from music videos are most evident, in the choreographed dancing, fluid camera movements and jumble of lights and sound.

"The skating rink represents the first place your parents really let you free," Robinson says. "You get your first kiss there. You smoke your first cigarette there. Their lives are complicated even as young people, and they go through a lot of things, but at the skating rink, it's pure enjoyment."

Robinson didn't skate too much as a kid, but he did have a tight group of friends similar to the one in ATL. They played rec-league sports together, rambled on Chris' parents' property and have stayed in close touch. One of them -- Carlos Alford, a first cousin of Robinson -- died of a lung disease in October, and Robinson dedicated the film to him.

The message of the movie, he says, is a simple one that he thinks more people need to hear: Anything is possible.

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