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Hudlin brothers set out to prove there's a mainstream audience for black films

THE BALTIMORE SUN

Pack a scene with enough different types of humor and you can't help but get a laugh, says Reginald Hudlin, 30, the director of "Boomerang," the new Eddie Murphy film. He calls it the dense-pack theory of comedy: "Make it highbrow, lowbrow, political, raunchy or smooth, and then you can sneak in anything else you want."

That approach and some prickly Afrocentric politics distinguished the 1990 hip-hop movie "House Party," a low-budget surprise hit that introduced the Hudlins -- Reginald and his brother Warrington, 39 -- as major players among the new black filmmakers.

In that tale of renegade high school students, the humor ranged from the sophomoric (food fights) to the sociological (a running gag targeting meddlesome white policemen).

The Hudlin theory has been tested anew in "Boomerang," a sexual comedy of manners in which humor careens from the sedate to the outrageous. There is Murphy's light touch as a New York marketing executive and roue, and there is Grace Jones's raunchy performance as an oversexed celebrity whose behavior led the Times critic Janet Maslin to write, "It's a safe bet that every single review of 'Boomerang,' including this one, will use the word 'vulgar' to describe what Miss Jones does here."

Despite mixed reviews, "Boomerang" has grossed $47 million since its release early last month, and recently ranked third at the box office.

The Hudlins' latest effort, an animated musical called "Bebe's Kids," opened Friday. The movie -- written by Reginald Hudlin and directed by Bruce Smith, with the brothers as executive producers -- was inspired by the kinetic working-class sensibility of Robin Harris, a Chicago comedian who was featured in "House Party."

Harris was scheduled to star in "Bebe's Kids," but when he died of a heart attack at age 36 two years ago, the filmmakers decided to animate this tale of rebellious youngsters battling it out rhythmically with their adult oppressors: rap and hip-hop versus blues and jazz.

One might describe the Hudlins themselves as a couple of Bebe's kids. The New York-based brothers rode into Hollywood on the success of "House Party" and quickly enunciated their mission: to prove that there was a far larger audience for black films than Hollywood had previously acknowledged.

Said Reginald Hudlin: "Whenever blacks succeed by crossing over, say, like Eddie or Bill Cosby or Arsenio Hall, they are made 'honorary whites.' There is still the perception in the movie business that blackness, real blackness, can only be negative, that black faces on a screen scare whites away, and that depictions of certain subjects, like black sexuality, are even scarier. We're out to prove that just isn't true."

It's one thing, of course, to make a stand with a $2.5 million film like "House Party" and quite another for Paramount to risk more ** than $40 million on a new image for Eddie Murphy.

In "Boomerang," he plays a dapper lady-killer; nowhere in evidence is the ingratiating, fast-talking cutup of "48 Hours" and "Beverly Hills Cop" who brought millions into the studio's coffers.

"Paramount was nervous about it, absolutely," said Warrington Hudlin, who produced both "Boomerang" and "House Party." "But it wasn't likely they were going to be able to talk us out of anything. We're a tough bunch."

When the film fell behind schedule -- reportedly due to the star's tardiness -- and the budget ballooned, the studio's jitters increased. The Hudlins suggest that Paramount's real anxiety stemmed from the fact that its big summer release was in the hands of a filmmaking team whose one major credit was a little movie filled with idiomatic expressions and inside jokes.

"We had to convince the studio that we could be true to our black culture and still be commercial," Warrington Hudlin said. "What's selling out there in white America, what's hip, is black-designed pop culture. If they could understand that, then our blackness wouldn't be a problem; it would be an advantage. We're actually very mainstream."

The Hudlin brothers first came to Hollywood's notice when the critically praised "House Party" sold $27 million in tickets for New Line Cinema. After the film won top prizes at the Sundance Festival in 1990, the brothers were courted by almost every major studio; they signed with Tri-Star, Warrington Hudlin said, mainly because it was one of the few studios with a nonwhite top executive. (The Paramount link occurred because Eddie Murphy, who has a contract with that studio, wanted the brothers to work on "Boomerang.") Chris Lee, an Asian-American and one of Tri-Star's vice presidents, had years before tried to persuade his company to expand the 20-minute version of "House Party" that Reginald Hudlin had made while a student at Harvard.

The Hudlins' incisive sensibility grew out of their upbringing in East St. Louis, Ill., which Reginald calls "the blackest city in America." (A middle brother, Christopher, is in the insurance business.) Warrington Hudlin's attitudes were particularly shaped by his parents, both of them schoolteachers, and by his experimental high school, where instructors included three leading African-American literary figures of the day -- Eugene Redmond, Shelby Steele and Henry Dumas. Both Hudlin brothers attended the dancer Katharine Dunham's performing-arts training center.

With a scholarship to Yale, Warrington initially intended to study law or medicine. But seeing "Shaft" in 1971 persuaded him to switch to film. "I couldn't believe a black man could make a movie," he said.

In 1974, he made his first documentary, "Black at Yale," and followed it with "Street Corner Stories," a look at the black men who hung out on stoops, spinning yarns, in New Haven.

The films made the blues integral to the cinematic rhythm; later, Reginald would use the hip-hop of the rappers Kid 'n' Play to energize "House Party."

Moving to New York to pursue filmmaking, Warrington ran into what he calls a wall of "institutional disenfranchisement." To try to redress the situation, he established and serves as president of the Black Film Maker Foundation, a 3,000-member national organization that sponsors screenings, creative workshops and performers' showcases.

In 1982, the organization arranged a showing of Spike Lee's student film "Sarah" at a black dance club in Manhattan. Four years later, when Hollywood executives stampeded to discover "the next Spike Lee," the original one, said Warrington, sent them to the Hudlins.

By that time, Reginald had graduated from Harvard and become his brother's partner in a company that produced music videos for artists like the Uptown Crew, Heavy D and the Boyz, and the Nu Romance Crew. But Reginald's interest in making movies had been sparked much earlier.

"I wasn't even in high school yet, and I kept telling Warrington my film ideas," he recalled. "Then one Christmas, he gave me a book with blank pages and said, 'Here, write your stories down in this.' "

Reginald's second student film, after the short version of "House Party," was "The Kold Waves," about a white drummer trying to join an all-black band. Unlike his brother, Reginald came of age in a time of unprecedented opportunity for blacks, and his ambitions were as eclectic as his influences.

He and Warrington haunted art houses, studying the classics of Japanese cinema and the films of Francois Truffaut, Federico Fellini and, a particular favorite, Preston Sturges. "I really wanted to do it all, and I couldn't see any reason why not," Reginald said. "My palette is very broad."

Whether the Hudlins or any other black filmmaker will be given the opportunity and the budget to realize such objectives is the question in black directors' minds as they push with growing confidence against the white hegemony in the front offices.

"That's one advantage to Ivy League education," said Warrington Hudlin. "You know how to play their game." The point was driven home one afternoon when a studio executive offered the brothers a deal at the end of a meeting. "I thanked him and said that our lawyer would be in touch to negotiate," Warrington recalled.

"He said, 'Whoa, whoa, whoa. No negotiations. It's take it or leave it.' So I told him, 'Well, I guess we'll leave it.' He couldn't believe we weren't groveling with gratitude. 'Do you know what we're offering you?' he said. 'This is a great deal.' What he didn't add was 'for you.' "

The brothers are eager to deal with more complex black issues, noting that American blacks are not a "monolithic" community. Their next project, now in development, is "P. Funk," a science-fiction fantasy inspired by George Clinton and his Parliament-Funkadelic concept albums of the '70s.

Dealing with more than two millennia of African history, the film should provide young blacks with a historical perspective they rarely get in film or television, said Warrington Hudlin.

As for Reginald Hudlin, he says he isn't interested in providing only "positive images." "As much as I'm interested in being positive," he said, "I'm more interested in being authentic -- and funny. People don't go to the movies to be preached at. They go to be entertained. If you're funny enough and real enough, you can reach out to anybody."

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