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

THE BALTIMORE SUN

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."

When he finally assembled his army, someone was horrified: his grandmother. He used her apartment, which was in the Red Hook projects, as the home of his fictional Brown family. Only on the first day of shooting he forgot to tell her there were 250 people coming over.

But all along he was driven by one goal.

"I saw my role simply: It was to be real. To make a movie where, if people laugh or cry, they say 'Oh, he's so real.' We know what white society is doing to us. We need to change our bad traditions and the only way to do that is to show them."

The movie is a horrific account of an abusive father who passes his rage on to his wife -- he beats her to death -- and his son. The young man, desperate to save his family from the projects and themselves, engineers a crime, which of course backfires, with tragic results.

And at one point in the post-production work, donated free by a sound stage owner in the New York area, he was introduced to a bland-looking middle-aged man, to whom he paid utterly no attention. Later, it was explained to him that the man was the film director Jonathan Demme, just putting the finishing touches on "Silence of the Lambs."

"Next day I was all over that home boy," he says with a laugh.

The Demme connection in turn led to other meetings with highly placed show business executives, and ultimately Rich picked up the Samuel Goldwyn Company as a national distributor.

Says Rich, "The lesson in my film is that if Matty can make it, we can all make it. We may not make a movie, but we can do something positive. Matty took that negative anger and used it positively."

As Matty Rich was inspired and driven by his mother, John Singleton was driven by his father. Indeed, "Boyz n the Hood" is in some sense a tribute to the strength of his father's personality. His father -- played in the movie by the great actor Larry Fishburne -- kept him straight and in school as the young man was growing up in the tough Englewood section of South Central Los Angeles.

In the writing program at U.S.C.'s film school, Singleton began the film as his senior thesis.

"I was supposed to be turning in 'pages.' But I never did that. I just went off and wrote the whole thing and finally submitted it. Got an A."

The script quickly acquired attention in the industry and Singleton was able to get a representative at the powerful CAA talent agency, who in turn shopped it all around town, setting up meetings with executives.

"I had lots of lunches in lots of Italian restaurants," Singelton remembers with a smile. "I grew very fond of ravioli."

Ultimately, the agent submitted it to Frank Price, then head of Columbia Pictures.

"And just like that," Singleton says, "they green-lighted it."

"Boyz n the Hood" is the story of three youths in a South Central L.A. that is like the Saigon of the '60s, with cruising choppers, probing spotlights and the spray of automatic weapons fire in the alleys. It's a great place to have a war but no place to grow up in, and of the central triumvirate -- Tre, Doughboy and Ricky -- whom we first meet in their early teens and last see in their late teens, only one clears.

The characters, he acknowledges, are drawn from himself, are aspects of his own personality.

"Doughboy is what I would have been if I didn't have my father," he states. "Ricky is the daydreaming part of me."

Tre, whom Singleton doesn't mention, is the center of the film -- the son of Furious Styles who is guided by his father and, though tempted by the pleasures and rages of the city, develops the strength to pass them by. He takes up the gun -- but puts it down.

Unlike Spike Lee's occasionally romantic and dreamy films, Singleton stays in the tradition of urban naturalism. He shows it the way it is, complete to the kind of pointless, vicious black-on-black crimes that accomplish nothing except to elevate body count.

"We have a responsibility," he says, "to give information about society. It's the same one that fell on novelists 50 years ago."

He looks forward to a vivid and powerful African-American cinema.

"The films of the '30s [about black people] were made by Toms; the films of the '70s [the "blaxploitation" movies] were not made by black people. In the '90s, I think we're going to get a true African-American cinema, and as such, more powerful feelings in the movies."

He's not interested in "breaking out" to reach a crossover audience or in doing projects that have no reference to racial reality.

"I can't do those pictures. There are plenty of other people out there who can. I'm trying to create a core audience right now, that I can continue to rely on and to grow. I'm in it for the long run. I can't consider films that don't relate to how we relate to other people. That's why I'll never leave the 'Hood' " -- a reference to the Englewood neighborhood he still lives in.

His next film -- he has a six-picture deal with Columbia -- will be about "black sexual politics," he says. "It shows how you can't have love without money."

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