I both very much wanted to be a movie screenwriter and was fearful of what being one would do to me. Twenty years ago I was deeply invested in being a cutting edge New York journalist who knew everyone and everything going on in black pop culture. Hip hop music and Spike Lee’s movies were expanding the culture’s commercial reach and I was one of the folks chronicling this historic wave. But I was in my early 30s and acutely aware that I didn’t want to spend the rest of my life writing about other peoples’ success. I wanted to be on the other side of the story. I wanted to create cultural product others would talk about.
Eventually I took the sun glasses off and signed a deal to co-write a low budget comedy that would be released in fall 1991. I remember at one point during the negotiations I got a ridiculously low ball offer for my contract and a producer told my attorney saying, “Tell Nelson everyone gets raped in their first Hollywood contract. Just tell Nelson to bend over and enjoy it.”
Well, I didn’t enjoy the deal, but I very much profited from the film getting made. The difference between being a produced screenwriter and an un-produced screenwriter is huge. I got in the Writers Guild. I got invited to more screenings and premieres. I was suddenly treated as a professional and not one of the countless wannabe’s hawking a dream.
Looking back I realize how fortunate I was to be part of a pop culture moment when black film was embraced by studios and independents. As a result of meetings in 1990, the next year saw the release of BOYZ IN THE HOOD, NEW JACK CITY, FIVE HEARTBEATS, DAUGHTERS OF THE DUST, JUNGLE FEVER, STRAIGHT OUT OF BROOKLYN, STRICTLY BUSINESS (the film I co-wrote) and several other features. All in all 1991 may have been the greatest year in African-American film history with Oscar nominated films, big box office success, art films and a slew of dynamic young talents introduced.
Aside from Tyler Perry’s prodigious output few African-American themed films get released theatrically in the 21st century. Of course niche films, be they black, art house or foreign, are not really part of the mix at multiplexes across America. Sure we have the internet, cable, VOD, etc as new pipelines, but none of these means of distribution has yet to launch a culture defining feature along the lines of BOYZ. Hopefully it’ll happen soon.
So until then I, a grateful product of a more hopeful time, can’t help but mourn the absence of African-American life on screen (and TV too) in an epoch when a black family resides in the White House.
Nelson George is an award winning author and filmmaker who specializes in documenting about African-American culture. His screenplays include “Strictly Business,’ ‘CB4,’ and ‘Life Support,’ an HBO film that he also directed. He has executive produced a number of television shows, such as VH1’s Hip Hop Honors and BET’s ‘American Gangster,’ and George produced the feature documentary Good Hair. Among his award winning non-fiction books are The Death of Rhythm & Blues and Hip Hop America. His memoir, City Kid, is now available in paperback and his next novel, The Plot Against Hip Hop, is being published next fall. His web site is www.nelsondgeorge.net.