In Baltimore, a screenwriter finds a home in exile Urban Renewal


It's an ancient pattern: the gifted African-American writer who begins to feel the chafing of racism and the despair in his community a little too acutely against his skin. Each day becomes a little misery. He knows: I'll die if I stay here. Or, the same thing: I'll never write again if I stay here. So he goes into exile.

Paris, usually. Richard Wright went to Paris. Chester Himes went to Paris. James Baldwin went to Paris.

Barry Michael Cooper went to Baltimore.

In Baltimore he found what had died in the Harlem that nurtured him: a community. Privacy. Open vistas for long lonely walks -- usually to the top of Federal Hill -- for the solitude and space that a writer needs so fiercely. A family life, with his Baltimore-bred wife and two kids. Distance, perspective, time.

In Baltimore, Barry Michael Cooper became the journalist who wrote the first pieces for Spin magazine that chronicled the coming of crack cocaine and gun culture to urban teen-age life. He also wrote more cover stories for the Village Voice than any other writer.

Then Cooper became a screenwriter.

He rewrote the script of "New Jack City," which went on to become a huge hit and make Wesley Snipes a movie star. And he wrote "Sugar Hill," which recently opened, again with Wesley Snipes as a Harlem drug lord who wants out.

Cooper also wrote "Above the Rim," a music-driven sports film that opens soon, about which he says, "God knows what's going with that one."

Today, Barry Michael Cooper is a solemn, dignified man, who holds his bulk with considerable discipline, listens intently and answers in slow and measured sentences.

"I got tired of New York," he says. "I wanted to start anew. Baltimore reminded me a lot of the Harlem I'd grown up in, but doesn't exist anymore. And I've done my best writing here."

But consider how cruel America can be to her writers, especially her black ones.

"Oh, sure, the jobs," says Cooper, who moved into a northwest Baltimore neighborhood in 1984. "I worked at the Hecht Company. And out on Broening Highway, Maintenance crews. Pushing a broom. You know, that sort of thing."

And, all the time, writing.

"I always wanted to tell great stories."

The first stories he told were of what was happening in the black community. He wrote a piece for Spin on crack, one of the first in the nation to chronicle the arrival of a new blight. At the same time, he met the man who would become his mentor, Rudy Langlais, then an editor at Spin and now the producer of "Sugar Hill."

He wrote the first piece on kids with guns, appearing in Spin in May of 1987.

Getting noticed

In 1987, he did a piece for the Village Voice on Detroit as New Jack City, the city of money and drug power. Quincy Jones saw it and liked its authenticity and street crackle. So Cooper got the job of rewriting a script that Jones was developing.

"I knew nothing about screen writing. Not a thing. I got a few books out and I just started hacking away, and when I was done it was 150 pages long and just too literal. It couldn't have been a movie."

But five drafts later the film was before the cameras and then on the screens. Even now, however, he hates what the movie became.

"When you are the screenwriter you are the low man on the totem pole -- unless they need the script right away. But I found it very difficult. I'm a spiritual person. It took a lot of prayer to get through the experience. I knew I had bigger and better things in me."

"Sugar Hill" also became something different from his initial idea.

"I wanted to break away from what 'black cinema' had become," he recalls. "I'd been going to the Harlem clubs and I'd see these young girls there. My take on them was that they were a lost generation. They wanted rap stars, athletes, dope dealers. I thought it was so sad. And I wanted to connect it with the loss of Harlem, how the city I grew up in had changed and really died. I felt there was a connection there. I was going toward the work of John Cassavetes, you know, shadowy and realistic. But ultimately the movie became a mix of 'Goodfellas' and 'A Star Is Born.' It became a much different, a much larger film, with a Gordon Willis -- 'Godfather' -- type of look."

He is a committed film-goer; his discussions of film glitter with references to movies well-known and obscure, with the names of cinematographers as well as directors and writers. Like many filmmakers, he was a film-goer first.

A love of reading

And before he was a film-goer, he was a reader.

"I grew up lower middle class in Harlem and my parents were readers and they made me a reader," he says. "I was given 'The Autobiography of Malcolm X' when I was in the sixth grade. I was always surrounded by jazz, art, books. I owe so much to my parents."

For Cooper, stories begin in the same way.

"I may have a piece of music in my mind, or see something abstract. Sometimes it even comes to me in a dream state. Then I write what that story means. Then I grapple with it. I get up at 6:30 in the morning and work for 5 1/2 hours. Maybe the first day I'll watch a lot of TV, just to get numbed. Then I just stay at it. Eventually it builds and builds and sometimes it feels like the script is jumping out of my head like an animal. And when I'm done, then I have four days of depression. You just feel spent, shot, beaten. And then, eventually, I'm OK again."

Can you run a big Hollywood screen-writing career from Baltimore?

"In fact," he says, "you have to do it from Baltimore. The farther you stay away from Hollywood, the more respect you have from there. You aren't someone who just hangs out; you're your own man."

He says he'd never give up Baltimore.

"I've got two great kids. I love Baltimore and I love Maryland. It's a big small city. Everything is here. You may have to go to D.C., but in one way or other, it's all here."

Life is good for Barry Michael Cooper. He's working on a new screenplay, called "Thirsty," about two corrupt U.S. marshals who use armed teen-agers to rip off drug dealers. And he may direct a documentary on kids in the projects. The grosses to "Sugar Hill" have been good -- not great, but good. Gene Siskel and Roger Ebert singled him out for praise when they reviewed "Sugar Hill." His kids are happy, his wife is happy. He can stand atop Federal Hill and look down upon a city that glitters with the coming of nightfall; a city that somehow stands for the possibilities that stretch before him.

But . . .

He remembers.

"I know drug culture from the inside. I was on drugs from 14 till I was 22. I was at those places I write about. I got out before the crack epidemic hit, but I know everything you could know about it. I knew how it tasted, felt and smelled. That scene in 'Sugar Hill' where someone recalls being so high he didn't even care if he fell off a ledge or not? That happened to me."

When he went back as a journalist to face what could have killed him, he says, "it was scary."

What got him through it was "just God. That deep belief. I just didn't want to do it any more.

"I wanted to get that into 'Sugar Hill,' for the young people. When they saw it, they first think it's a dream, all the fast cars and sleek clothes. But then they see the pain in it and the cost."

The end result

And so it is that the bleak and powerful ending he had written for "Sugar Hill" -- the one that would have ended the film on a note of inescapable tragedy -- was ultimately modified for commercial release.

"That [the original ending] was what I intended, but it messed the preview audiences up." The producers added a last, happy scene.

4 Some people still don't get it, he acknowledges.

"We got slaughtered in a lot of places by a lot of critics, but enough critics -- Roger Ebert, for example -- figured it out."

But he says the film is getting good reviews where it counts: in the grocery stores.

"My wife was in the Giant and she heard the people talking about it. They were saying, 'Hey, it's not anything like 'New Jack City,' it's sad.' People seem stopped dead by the original ending. And they argue over whether it's a 'type' of movie or something original."

That pleases him, but still he wonders: Is it enough?

He shakes his head, the man who knows. "It's like people are in the Big Sleep right now. They're enjoying it, but someday, they're going to wake up."

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