Miles 20 Years Later
This is not from the LA show, but this gives a fraction of the feeling of the night.
Miles left the planet 20 years ago, but his music, his cultural affect continues. Three of his alumni, Marcus Miller, Herbie Hancock (lot of alliteration there) and Wayne Shorter teamed up and did a series of concerts celebrating his music. Since Miles didn’t look back, they turned the music inside out and arranged as the soundtrack to Miles’ dreams.
After going backstage, I was leaving with my man Steve McKeever and said I had never met Herbie Hancock. Steve said he’s never taken a picture with him. So we went back to fix both those mistakes.
Herbie was lovely and we got the dope picture with Herbie and Marcus in the shot. Niiiice, real nice.
John Singleton Tribute At The DGA
Speaking of John Singleton, John asked me to moderate a discussion with him about his work in a star studded tribute to his career. As John said, it was like our conversations in the parking lot of Golden Apple Comics, but now with a audience of hundreds watching.
I got a lot of great emails from people who enjoyed our comfort with each other along with our different styles.
Enter The Dragon 40th Anniversary
The Academy had a special screening of ENTER THE DRAGON with key surviving cast and crew present. They told great stories, then we watched the movie again…which I had not seen in its entirely since I was a kid.
Damn it holds up! What a great time! It is lean and mean as a mug!
Afterwards we enjoyed the amazing exhibit of classic kung fu movie posters donated to the Motion Picture Academy by Stephen Chin.
Here’s a picture of Selwyn Hines with John Singleton and his son, who is now a student at USC.
Back On The Fantastic Voyage!
Jamie Foxx kicked it off with a variety show of a performance with music and comedy guest stars ranging from Jay Anthony Brown, Guy Torry and Kym Whitley to Tank, Little Kim, Biz Markie and Trey Songz. He seamlessly weaves comedy and music together like no one else.
Jamie is a world class total entertainer and a great guy on top of it. Afterwards, Tom Joyner told me he didn’t expect Jamie to do all that, and we didn’t know how any other act could follow him.
Back To Work
The day after the Oscars, I had to report to work to prep an episode of the long running series BONES. I would not have planned it that way, but when I booked the episode months ago, who knew I’d be a nominee?
They were kinda surprised I made it, and I wasn’t entirely there, but I was welcomed by a wonderful cast and crew. And I got to work with these lovely ladies.
BONES means there will be bones. Here is this weeks’ victim.
Thanks for the portrait, Gordon!
NAACP Image Awards
On February 1st, I produced the NAACP Image Awards. Moment of clarification: in television, the highest title is executive producer, which I was on this show along with Brad Lachman. On movies, the main “producer” title is producer, which I am on Django along with Stacey Sher and Pilar Savone. Most civilians not in the entertainment business mix them up, or give me jobs on projects that I didn’t do, like direct the Image Awards (Tony McCuin did that) or write and direct Django (Quentin Tarantino did that).
Back to the Image Awards. I knew it was going to be a great show when the NAACP told them they were giving Harry Belafonte the Springarn Medal, their highest honor. Mr. Belafonte is a person I try to honor whenever I can. He received BET’s top honor when I was there, and I was glad to do it again.
Seeing living legends Sidney Poiter and Harry Belafonte onstage together blew everyone’s mind. This was the most popular moment in the show. No surprise there. By the way, when I asked Mr. Belafonte if he minded if Wyclef performed in his honor since he had such deep respect for him, he loved the idea, loved Wyclef and suggested that Common join him. That’s how hip the 85 year old Mr. Belafonte is.
Jamie Foxx won the Entertainer of the Year Award, which is an audience award, not just the NAACP membership. As usual, he brought it home with an amazing heartfelt speech. I HATE that it got clipped at the end…but this is NBC, not BET…we could not run long.
I Miss Your Smile!
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TERRY GLOVER has been a friend of mine for a long time. One of my first jobs after I graduated from college was in the Illinois State Arts Program. Cable was still being installed across the country and as part of the negotiation for the right to provide cable to a city, cable companies had to provide a public access channel, a studio and equipment for locals to make their own shows. I was brought in to teach folks how to use the equipment in interesting ways.
I didn’t know much about video, but I did know I wanted access to cameras and editing bays, so I stumbled my way through teaching in local high schools and community groups in a small town called Zion Illinois. Zion was founded by a religious cult who thought the world would end at the dawn of the 20 century so they went to the lake for a great view of it. When the days kept coming, they just settled in there. Most of the streets are alphabetical and have Biblical names.
On the weekends, I would pack up a camera and some lights and drive down to Chicago where I knew one person: Richard Pena, who was running the film program at the Art Institute of Chicago. Richard graciously let me stay on his couch. Eventually I met other filmmakers in Chicago like Floyd Webb, Sergio Mims and Terry Glover . With them as my core supporters, I begged, borrowed and stole my way into shooting a half hour short film called REGGIE’S WORLD OF SOUL. It was a no budget version of IN LIVING COLOR years before that show was launched.
I have no idea how I got so many wonderful people to help me out with no money, but I did. Terry had a great smile and her temperament balanced out the whole circus act.
Years later, Terry reached out to me after she became managing editor of Ebony, asking about replacing the old “Just For Laughs” cartoon section in Ebony for something relevant to the 21st century. I volunteered myself to write the new strip, and she was surprised but happy. She wanted an epic graphic novel with intrigue and politics. I wanted that too, but knew I needed to deliver some family oriented laughs too. So YOU CAN’T HANDLE THE TRUTH, which mixed Cosbyesque sitcom (usually from my own life) with my ongoing obsession with transforming and uplifting my home town of East St. Louis, was born.
Terry was a tough editor, but very supportive and helped protect me from other folks at Ebony who clearly hated the political content of the strip. To keep it alive under increasing editorial scrutiny, I dumped the overtly political plotline, and focused on subversively political family humor.
Sometimes Terry would disappear, unreachable for several weeks. Eventually she revealed she was undergoing chemotherapy. But she wouldn’t really talk about it.
Defending The Indefensible: Great White Hype
Producer and director Reginald Hudlin first became a noted filmmaker back when he was attending Harvard University when he created an award winning short film called House Party. That same film would be picked up by New Line Cinema and remade into a feature length megahit by the same name with rap dup Kid and Play in the leads. The job led to him directing the Eddie Murphy vehicle Boomerang (which still stands as one of the tipping point in Eddie’s career before moving on to more genteel fare), and his successes afforded him the ability to go a lot grander on his next project.
Set against the backdrop of professional boxing with a screenplay by Ron Shelton (Bull Durham, White Men Can’t Jump) and Tony Hendra, The Great White Hype came hot on the heels of a much publicized joke of a real life fight between a fresh out of prison Mike Tyson and some random ass white guy named “Hurricane” Peter McNeeley from Massachusetts who probably had no business ever being in the ring with the former champ. McNeely got over-hyped and threatened to wrap Tyson in a “cocoon of horror” and white America lost their shit. Here was a clean cut white boy who was going to beat up a former prisoner and the baddest man on the planet! Don King promoted the fight like it was Jesus fighting Satan with broken glass taped to their fists in an Outback Steakhouse. It was one of the highest grossing fights of all time… and it was over in less than two minutes.
Taking a healthy dose of inspiration as to what infamous fight promoter Don King had made of the sport of boxing, Hudlin landed an all star cast to tell a similar, satirical version of the same incident that looked to talk a bit about racism. Before he became the (now former) president of BET in 2005 and before he lampooned himself openly as a producer of the groundbreaking animated series The Boondocks, Hudlin had made a film that was too far ahead of its time to really be a financial success. It debuted at number four at the box office and sank like a stone shortly after, making just barely over $8 million. Reviews on The Great White Hype were mixed and Hudlin’s star as a director faded slightly with him going on to help things like Serving Sara and The Ladies Man, but looking back now, he was really onto something.
One doesn’t need to look further than the opening seconds of Hudlin’s film to see an obvious comparison to the same sort of racial satire that’s on display in Django Unchained. There are two black scorpions shown in a close up fighting to the death in the middle of the desert outside Las Vegas. Just as one of them seems to have the battle won, an enormous, shiny, and new Cadillac Brougham squashes them both dead under its wheels without even thinking about what happened.
The plot set-up generally follows the McNeely debacle to a T, minus the whole champ being in prison thing and using real names so they didn’t get sued. Turban wearing boxing promoter and loud mouth Reverend Fred Sultan (Samuel L. Jackson, still riding high on his Pulp Fiction success) can mind fuck even the best and brightest simply by repeating “I love you” and “You’re my brother!” The power he wields is clear and he disingenuously prays to every deity there possibly is, and sports a turban to cover up his blonde, Uncle-Tom-ish haircut.
He represents the heavyweight champion of the world James “The Grim Reaper” Roper (Damon Wayans, in one of his best performances), who just isn’t the draw he used to be. Undefeated in 38 fights, Sultan has built his product up far too heavily. Gate earnings and pay-per-view bounties have taken a nose dive, and he can’t even afford to pay the already pissed off champ what’s owed to him. The idea is presented to Sultan that there needs to finally be a white chump to fall to Roper instead of just watching him destroy more black people since fights with white boxers in main events have always meant bigger paydays for everyone involved.
The patsy they discover after some creative searching is Cleveland grunge rocker Terry Conklin (Battleship and Friday Night Lights director Peter Berg). He was a former Golden Glove winning amateur, is dumb as a stump, and was the only person who was able to knock out the former champ when both were coming up. Now a sensitive, goofy looking Buddhist, Sultan makes the young man a deal for $10 million that he can give to, in Conklin’s own words, “eradicating the homeless population and poverty situation in America, as well as the United States.”
On the surface, the social satire seems pretty obvious, but there’s a lot more going on in Hudlin’s film than just the main plotline to make things interesting. Documentarian Mitchell Kane (Jeff Goldblum, showing off how great he can be doing comedy) originally sets out to take down Sultan by way of an expose, but ends up becoming the promoter’s PR guy instead after his old hype man (a nicely understated Jon Lovitz) can’t put any good spin on what they’ve set up. Through Goldblum’s character the audience gets to see first hand how Sultan can butter someone up into taking a bribe, and how the power behind his advances are far more devastating than any potential gains from the person taking the bribe.
Roper and Sultan have also been openly ducking the true number one contender for the title, Marvin Shabazz (Michael Jace) for no real good reason other than to flat out ensure that the title never changes hands. Shabazz comes with his own personal hype man and mouthpiece, played by Django Unchained leading man Jamie Foxx as a camera shy shill who desperately wants to groom himself into a new version of Sultan.
Terry takes his work seriously, working with a professional trainer (Jonathan Rhys-Davies) who tries in vein to get him to become a racist to anger him since his talent level isn’t up to snuff. (His attempt to make the pacifist Terry seem like a beast to a black sparring partner by making him wear a confederate flag shit is one of the film’s slyest throwaway gags.) He’s only there because the owner of the casino housing the fight (Corbin Bernsen) and the head of the boxing commission (Cheech Marin) are both on his payroll. Terry even goes along with everyone saying he’s Irish just to sell more tickets (because if you’re a white boxer, you must be Irish). That joke becomes even funnier because most of the time when music plays him into a room some smartass starts playing Scottish bagpipes.
There’s a whole lot going on here to keep it all straight, but the script and direction are tightly constructed enough to make it work, but the real glue that holds the film together are the performances from the three leads working well within the crazy world that they seem to have constructed on their own.
In Django Unchained, Jackson delivers one of the best performances of his career as a house slave working in the employ of Leonardo DiCaprio’s boy emperor plantation owner during the final years of the antebellum southern US. In that film, Jackson plays a parrot on the shoulder of a more powerful man, but one with an unbeatable level of power among his fellow slaves due to his close relationship to the true mastermind. Sure, he’ll sell out his own kind to get ahead, but it’s a method of self-preservation that’s served him well over his almost 80 year career.
In The Great White Hype, Jackson delivers another one of his career best performances in the slave master role, and in many ways it’s even flashier than the one DiCaprio gets to play in Tarantino’s picture. Sultan has a harem of lackeys from every race and religion that would simply fall to their knees whenever he snaps his fingers. He’s the man who gets what he wants because everyone fears him; they begrudgingly respect him because they’re all opportunists themselves who see him as the true ideal of what they could be themselves, and because he’s mastered the art of psychological manipulation.
Sultan is the runner of the Mandingo fights in Hudlin’s film. He hasn’t gotten bored or sick of them, but they’ve been becoming less profitable. To maintain his power the money has to keep coming in to facilitate his deals. Instead of paying Roper, he just orders his staff to buy him two more cars. He talks down a frustrated, gun toting Shabazz by offering him a car. He offer’s Marin’s commissioner money, sex, and drugs to give Conklin a bullshit ranking to ensure a title fight, which he declines and says he wants power instead. Sultan, with Jackson’s most cold blooded line reading in the movie, simply says “fuck you” and the stooge in a suit is forced to acquiesce to the intimidation.
Jackson gets his most open opposition in the form of Goldblum’s tarnished idealist, and their relationship isn’t like anything else in the film. The cheekily monikered Kane knows a lot of secret factual information about Sultan, and while he’s clearly done his research, within two seconds of their first encounter in a steam bath and spa Sultan has already sized up and analysed who this reporter is. He’s not an idealist, but a shill out to make a name for himself by going after a high profile target. It seems like it isn’t the first time someone had tried that, and Kane emerges from the room with a job offer that he quickly takes to betray his ideals. The seed was also placed by Sultan at the exact same time to eventually have Kane become so seduced by this newfound sense of power that he has a tragic way of cutting him loose now that he’s no longer making the documentary.
On his own, Goldblum gets the chance to play a part early on in Hudlin’s slight, but amusing potshots at the artifice of documentary filmmaking. A scene with him attempting to interview Jace and Foxx underlines quite nicely just what a rube he truly is. The awkward pause Goldblum has become known for over the years would be put to excellent use here in a performance sure to appeal to fans of the actor.
As the pugilists, Berg doesn’t have to do a heck of a whole lot except play Terry as a potentially brain damaged dumbass that says more inappropriately stupid things than he probably should, but it’s hard not to feel for the guy as he actually himself becomes corrupted by what he sees around him. He never abandons his social morals, but he becomes just as cocky as the champion; an aggressive shit talker with not much to back up his words outside of an admittedly killer overhand right hook.
Wayans on the other hand gets used a bit more sparingly and wisely. He has his own entourage that will gladly kiss his ass, but he’s definitely the lone wolf who has stopped caring about his prey. His training for the joke of a fight thanks to his frustration at not being paid consists of downing pints of ice cream and smoking while doing push-ups. He’s constantly admonishing his own long suffering trainer that his “blackness will beat him.” Sultan’s pretty convinced of it, as well, but none of it matters since Roper refuses to even see Sultan or come to anything on time because he isn’t getting compensated for it. He doesn’t even get angry enough to show up for the fight until someone shuts off his inspirational tape of Dolemite. He knows he’s being used and he’s trying to fight back in his own way. Wayans doesn’t play Roper as a smart-ass, but as a deadly serious misanthrope who never smiles, but he probably finds everything going on pretty funny.
Much like The Boondocks, Hudlin peppers the film with wall to wall jokes while calling bullshit on the glitz and glamour of the fight game, equating it to something perfectly unwinnable and to a backhanded form of indentured servitude. It’s hard now to see why such a film came and went so quickly from theatres, especially considering that the four films that beat it out in its opening weekend didn’t have nearly the same amount of smarts. Maybe people thought it just cut too close to the bone despite the cast or maybe it’s because that all boxing films with the exception of Rocky have been box office poison. Either way, the time is ripe for a rexamination of this one.
Django Unchained Producer's Diary: Part II
An Inside Look at the Making of One of the Season's Most Anticipated -- and Controversial -- Movies
By Reginald Hudlin From Ebony Magazine
February 2012, Jackson Hole, Wyoming
We're high in the mountains in Jackson Hole, and it's freezing. The temperature never gets above 12 degrees Fahrenheit, but when we first arrive on set at 5 a.m., it's 15 degrees below zero. You have to watch your step; I moved off the path and one leg plunged waist deep in the snow. Jamie Foxx is training to be a quick-draw gunfighter. Sometimes the guns are so cold, the misfire. They have to be warmed with hair dryers to function properly. The working conditions are tough, but it doesn't matter because the shot looks great.
February 2012, New Orleans
Quentin is very unusual in the film industry because he is "cinematically ambidextrous" -- he's as good a writer as he is a director and vice versa. He's also a brilliant film critic. One the weekends, Quentin would screen movies for the cast and crew. It might be a classic kung fu film such as Snake in the Eagle's Shadow; a great Black action film such as Coffey, or an early film in the career of a Django cast member, such as Return to Macon County with Don Johnson. The best part would be Quentin's introduction of the film, during which he would provide insights into why he loved it. His observations would transform how you saw the movie. Afterward, there would be a vigorous discussion that was better than any you'd hear in a graduate film class.
February 2012, New Orleans
Kerry Washington is on set now, and she's spending a lot of time perfecting her German. Her character in the film, Broomhilda von Shaft, grew up as the servant of German immigrants who taught her the language. This creates a special bond between her and Django's partner and ally, the German dentist-turned-bounty hunter Dr. King Schultz. Although her language coach says she sounds great, she keeps practicing. she goes beyond the dialogue, learning a German lullaby that ends up in the film.
This is Jamie Foxx's second film with Kerry Washington playing his wife, and their bond is evident on-screen and off-screen. Whenever she speaks German, he beams with pride. He loves the idea of Black viewers seeing a character and an actress with that much versatility.
March 2012, New Orleans
Though we had been filming for months before Samuel L. Jackson came to the set, his arrival changed the vibe on the film. He's the actor most closely identified with Quentin's films -- especially his brilliant work in Pulp Fiction and Jackie Brown -- and he's made some type of appearance in nearly every Tarantino film. Jackson plays Stephen, the treacherous head house servant on the plantation where Broomhilda has been sold. Quentin and Samuel have a deep trust and respect for each other, similar to the relationship for each other, similar to the relationship Quentin has with Christoph Waltz who won an Oscar for his magnificent performance as Col. Hans Landa in Inglourious Basterds. To have Samuel and Christoph and Jamie and Kerry and Leonard DiCaprio -- one of the biggest stars in the world -- feels like an embarrassment of riches. Leonard playing a supporting role -- and as the villainous plantation owner Calvin Candie, at that -- is unusual for him. But he did it because of his respect for Quentin as a filmmaker and his strong feelings about racial intolerance. In conversations with him about the role, Leonardo said he wants people to understand the twisted logic that people in that era used to justify their behavior. Despite his classic movie star looks that allow him to effortlessly play roles that would have gone to Clark Gable in another era, he's very much a member of the hip-hop generation. As each generation sheds the racial baggage of the previous one, it's important to remember how things were so we can understand where we are.
September 2012, Los Angeles
Birth of a Nation is [studied] in film schools across America. It is a historically important film because of many of the technical innovations of the time, such as the close-up, but also because it tells the story of the rise of the Ku Klux Klan in heroic terms. While the racist politics of the film are dismissed out of hand by professors who encourage their students to focus on the filmmaking, I remember watching it and hearing my fellow students (none of whom was Black) cheering at offensive points of the film. When it screened at the White House, President Woodrow Wilson said, "It is like writing history in lightning," I think that was an apt description. Except for the history part. It's a period film that mythologizes the most vile racism.
I thought about Birth of a Nation while watching the first hour of Django Unchained. Sitting in a converted garage-turned-editing room in a suburban neighborhood, we were transported to another time and place. For an intense hour, we alternated between suspense, all-out action, tears, laughter, pride and love. If we got all that out of the first hour, what was going to happen when we saw the whole movie?
But most of all, I thought, this movie is the anti-Birth of a Nation. Whereas Birth painted Black men as evil brutes, Django is a full human being: strong, moral, intellectually curious and courageous. In a world where Black men aren't allowed to ride on horses because that literally elevates them, Django's willingness to shoot straight, ride hard and talk back to White men reminds us of the great men and women of courage whose stories aren't told but paved the way for our freedom.
Django Unchained Producer's Diary: Part I
An Inside Look at the Making of One of the Season's Most Anticipated -- and Controversial -- Movies
By Reginald Hudlin From Ebony Magazine
First Day of Production
As dawn breaks on the Django Unchained set, the first shot of the movie starts. Christoph Waltz, Oscar winner from his work with Quentin Tarantino in Inglorious Basterds, drives a dentist's wagon with an oversized tooth on a bouncy spring into the Western town. Next to him, a Black man is on horseback. It's Jamie Foxx, Oscar winner for his work in Ray, playing the lead role of Django. His hair and beard make him look like a cross between Jimi Hendrix, a young Gil Scott-Heron and a very youthful Frederick Douglass. He's wearing a bloody coat and hat he took from the slavers he is now free of. No shirt. In the distance, we hear the sound of a hammer driving nails into a hangman's scaffolding.
When the women on the set see Jamie, there's a quiet intake of air from all of them. He's not trying to be sexy. In fact, he's grimy and filthy. But Jamie's also in peak shape, and the image of a Black man on horseback -- bloodied but not bowed -- is so striking, it creates an electric charge that everyone feels.
Jamie's horse belongs to him, meaning he was already a rider with his own horse when he met with writer/director Quentin Tarantino about playing the lead role in the film. I don't know if a Western star has appeared with his own horse since Roy Rogers and Trigger, but it's one of the many reasons why Jamie is perfectly cast in the role. It's a physically demanding part that required months of quick-draw training, working in the subzero temperatures in Wyoming and the humid summers in New Orleans. But Jamie bears it all without complaint. He knows the ancestors he's representing onscreen endured miseries we can't imagine. The least he can do is experience a fraction of their pain to make sure his performance is accurate.
Third Month of Production
We're shooting on Plantation Row in New Orleans. I had never been on a slave plantation before, and the natural beauty of the old South, with Spanish moss hanging off the overarching trees, provide an ironic contrast with the slave shacks below them where horrible crimes against humanity were committed on a daily basis. The ghosts are still there. As tour buses playing clips from Gone With the Wind drive past, I am happy to be working on a film that will tell the truth about the brave men and women who fought back.
When we were shooting in California and Wyoming, we were focused on the "Western" aspects of the movie. Now we're focused on the South, and it's been a tough week for the cast and crew. Watching actors playing villainous overseers who tie a young woman to a tree stump as they prepare to whip her for breaking eggs has everyone on edge. While Cooper Huckabee, as Little Raj, tightens the ropes around her wrists, M.C. Gainey, who plays Big John, cracks a whip in one hand and carries the Bible in the other. In a brilliant last-minute addition, Tarantino had the idea of the character patching the holes in his clothes with pages from the Bible. Big John lectures her with completely bogus quotes from the Bible, taking advantage of her illiteracy to convince her that the enslavement of Black people is God's plan.
Now the moment we've been waiting for is here: Django arrives, grabs the whip that was about to be used on the young woman and beats Little Raj mercilessly with it. For the whole cast and crew - Black, White, Native American and Asian - it's a huge cathartic relief. Once payback is delivered, you can feel the crew getting giddy.
Set visitor Kenny Leon, the Broadway director who had just worked with cast member Samuel L. Jackson on the play The Mountaintop, can't believe what he's seeing. "I know you said he was going to whip him, but he beat him till he got tired!" He pauses, then adds, "Why can't this movie come out next week?"
After a couple of takes, I walk over to Quentin and ask, "Between the two of us, we would know the answer to this: Is this the first time in cinematic history that we've seen a slave master beaten with his own whip?" Quentin goes quiet, mind racing through millions of images in seconds, then says, "Yes." We quietly fist bump, then go back to work.
As ferocious as Django is during the scene, the minute the director calls "Cut," a compassionate Jamie Foxx re-emerges and lends a helping hand to the man he was just wailing on. "It's just a movie," Jamie would often say to put the emotional weight of the work in context.
These words electrified me. I thanked him profusely for his insights and shared the minister's story with as many cast and crew member a possible. If there was ever a sign that we were on the right track, this was it.
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