New dawn for Darkroom

Baltimore hip-hop producers are heading west to make movies

January 25, 2009|By Sam Sessa | Sam Sessa,sam.sessa@baltsun.com

For the past three years, the local beat-makers at Darkroom Productions have brought national attention to Baltimore's hip-hop scene.

Now, the duo of Jamal Roberts, 31, and Juan Donovan Bell, 32, is looking to make waves in the movie business. In early March, Bell will move to Los Angeles and open a film office, where he plans to produce feature films and further incorporate Darkroom Productions tracks onto movie soundtracks. It's a natural progression, Bell said.

"The move is elementary, really," said Bell, a Baltimore native who still lives here. "When it comes to entertainment, you hit a ceiling in Baltimore. There's only so high you can go."

In fact, Bell has already begun producing Darkroom Productions' first film. Titled Cult, it tentatively stars Giovanni Ribisi and Liana Mendoza and follows a mother who takes revenge on a group of religious fanatics who killed her son. Darkroom Productions and Darin Roche will co-produce the film, which will be directed by Charles F. Kaufman. Filming is slated to start in April.

Roberts, a Washington native who lives in Silver Spring, will still be based in Baltimore, where he will continue making hip-hop tracks for regionally and nationally renowned artists, Bell said.

"He's going to stay on the East Coast, because this is where you need to be if you want to be doing music," Bell said.

Though Bell has never produced a film, his love of storytelling preceded his passion for music, he said. Back in elementary school, he would write his own comic books and sell them to his friends.

"Music is our heart and soul, but the first thing that got my heart pumping when I was younger was film and television," Bell said.

About three years ago, Roberts and Bell began producing hip-hop tracks for the HBO series The Wire. Local and national media discovered Darkroom, which was featured on National Public Radio and in Rolling Stone, among other places.

Last year, when filmmaker and Baltimore native David Manigault was making the documentary Poet Pride, Roberts and Bell reached out to him about writing music for the soundtrack. The documentary follows Dunbar High School's basketball teams from as far back as the 1950s.

"Once we connected, I thought it would be a great idea to bring [Darkroom] onboard to do some scoring," Manigault said.

Manigault enlisted Darkroom to come up with music for the segment of Poet Pride set in the 1950s. Manigault, who has lived in Los Angeles off and on for the past few years, liked the tracks Bell and Roberts submitted. And when Bell came to him for advice on the Los Angeles move, Manigault was happy to help.

"L.A. is who you know," Manigault said. "It's so competitive out there. That's the industry. It's the ultimate mecca of filmmaking. I just told him don't go out there cocky, go out there with a knowledge of the business, a knowledge of what you want."

Bell has been shuttling between Baltimore and Los Angeles for the past several months getting Cult off the ground. Since Bell is charting new territory as a film producer, he assembled the best possible crew and backer he could when he started working on the film last year, he said.

"It's kind of like starting any business," he said. "I'm armed with a great staff and a great team."

Manigault said it's tough to predict what kind of success Bell and Roberts' Los Angeles venture will have, because there are so many variables, but the combination of hip-hop and cinema is well-proven.

"Music and film go hand-in-hand because rappers are actors these days," he said.

Cult will be Bell's first credit as a film producer. But he's not worried about his lack of experience.

"Nobody has the experience until they do their first film," Bell said. "You've got to start somewhere. This is my start."

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