Trying to Crash the Party : The Hudlin brothers have come to Hollywood--the latest in a wave of young black film makers
Reginald and Warrington Hudlin are behind schedule in the great Hollywood tradition of “running late.”
The two brothers, both Ivy League film school graduates, relay their apologies to a waiting reporter by car phone as they scoot from a studio meeting to the offices of New Line Cinema. With New Line about to open the Hudlins’ first feature, “House Party,” the film makers are cashing in on the stuff of “buzz”: favorable early reviews in the trade papers; strong audience reception and a prestigious award, the Filmmakers Trophy, at the recent Sundance United States Film Festival, and good word-of-mouth following industry screenings.
It’s a Friday evening, the end of a week the Hudlins have spent pitching projects across power desks to the kind of executives who make and break deals, sometimes careers.
Just one more writing-directing-producing team hustling a dream . . . but with a distinction: Reggie and Warrington Hudlin are black.
The New Yorkers are the latest in a continuing wave of African-American film makers--Spike Lee leading the charge--who are trying to get their foot in the proverbial Hollywood door without compromising their personal visions.
While their movie, “House Party,” due for release Friday, is essentially a lightweight teen comedy, it’s a quintessentially black teen comedy.
Shot for $2.5 million with a nearly all-black cast and a crew the Hudlins tabulate as 65% African-American, the film is loaded to the max with specific references--jokes, fashion, dance, music, language, products, politics--to the black teen-age hip-hop subculture. Combined with the film’s ethnic wit and edge, and its raucous energy, it adds up to a cultural richness rarely found in standard teen comedies.
The film makers see that attention to “authenticity” as an asset, not a liability, in appealing to a wide-ranging audience--noting that such film makers as Martin Scorsese and Woody Allen developed strong film-making identities by creating from their roots.
“The theory we’ve always believed,” says Reggie, 28, who wrote and directed the movie, “is that if you can make a film that is culturally uncompromised, it will still have broad appeal. And, in fact, by diluting the (ethnic content of) the film, it becomes less interesting for all audiences.”
While the Hollywood Establishment has been paying increasing attention to black subject matter--"Mississippi Burning,” “Cry Freedom!,” “Glory,” “Soul Man,” etc.--it’s been packaging many of its “black” projects with white stars and telling its stories through the filter of a white viewpoint.
The Hudlins would like to make films with content derived from personal experience, something their white colleagues have always taken for granted. First and foremost, that means the chance to make truly black films.
“We’re not talking assimilation,” says the older Warrington, “House Party’s” producer. “We’re talking equal opportunity.”
For the Hudlins, who grew up in the black neighborhoods of East St. Louis prior to their Ivy League years, that also means not being limited to black material. Noting that most black characters in mainstream feature films are created by white writers, Reggie says, “A good script comes from somebody who knows what they’re talking about (whether they’re black or white).”
“Unfortunately,” adds Warrington, “most screenwriters go home to Malibu, not Compton.”
Having lived in both worlds, they’ve been pitching projects “in all genres,” says Reggie, and feel the reception has been positive. At this writing, though, no new deals have been struck.
“I’m not convinced that Hollywood would be receptive to us making (non-black as well as black) films,” says Warrington. “But we’re testing.”
Clearly enjoying their sudden attention in the movie-making capital, they’re nonetheless aware of the realities. During a week in which they had 10 meetings and met a couple dozen executives, Warrington notes, “Only one time was there a black person on the other side of the table.
“That’s pretty pitiful.”
Reginald and Warrington Hudlin grew up in the manufacturing city of East St. Louis, Ill., across the Mississippi River from St. Louis, Mo.; their mother is a junior high school teacher, their father an insurance broker. It was a household, they recall, where academics were valued and emphasized.
Warrington calls their hometown “demographically, the blackest city in America--blacker than D.C.” Miles Davis, Chuck Berry and Ike and Tina Turner hailed from the neighborhood. “On the surface, it has all the depressing statistics,” Warrington says. “It’s a classic, burn-out town. The contradiction is that it is an incredibly rich cultural setting.”
Two 1971 films changed Warrington’s life. He decided to become a film maker, he says, the day he saw “Sweet Sweetback’s Baadasssss Song,” the landmark, angry black urban film by Melvin Van Peebles. Warrington’s creative and career fate was further sealed, he adds, when he noticed film maker Gordon Parks signing autographs after a showing of “Shaft"--"and I realized a black could be a director.”
He made short films at Yale, graduating in 1974, but couldn’t find a place in the white-dominated mainstream film-making Establishment. “As a film maker, I began to hit these walls. I asked myself, ‘How can I connect with the black community, which in my mind was my primary audience.
“Not only were there no Spike Lees (back then), there was no opportunity across the board. It was institutional disenfranchisement.”
He and two Yale classmates, George Cunningham and Alric Nembhard, founded the nonprofit Black Filmmaker Foundation in New York City in 1979 to provide networking and administrative support for their black colleagues, help develop an audience for their work and nurture serious criticism of black film. Last year, the organization celebrated its 10th year, claimed 1,500 members, and continues to hold monthly screenings of new, black-themed films (“Limited only by budget,” Warrington says, “but not by imagination”). Black Face, the group’s semi-annual journal of criticism and thought on black film, first appeared in January.
The BFF, Warrington says, distributed the early films of Spike Lee, Charles Lane (“Sidewalk Stories”), Charles Burnett (“To Sleep With Anger”), Julie Dash (“Daughters of the Dust,” for “American Playhouse”) and others. “To the extent that the world thinks of black films as an artistic movement, BFF had a pivotal role.”
Lee says the group “was very important, not only for networking, but getting films seen. Warrington should be commended, because he put aside his own career to run the organization. It was very unselfish. The BFF has helped a hell of a lot of people.”
About the time Warrington was co-founding the group, younger brother Reggie was setting off to Harvard. The BFF-sponsored National Conference of Black Independent Filmmakers in 1980 proved to be his “watershed moment.”
“It was important because I saw an alternative to Hollywood,” Reggie says. “Because of BFF, when I made a film, it meant it would be shown in New York, critics from New York would see it. It wouldn’t just be shown in museums.
“I really consider myself a very fortunate recipient of what BFF offered.”
At Harvard--he graduated in 1983--Reggie’s senior thesis was a 20-minute film called “House Party,” which won a New England regional student Academy Award as best film. Warrington, meanwhile, was making documentaries. Partners since 1986, the two brothers have taken turns producing what the other writes and directs, including a number of videos for such hip-hop groups as Heavy D and the Boyz, Guy, and the Uptown Crew.
But making commercial feature films remained an elusive goal.
In late 1987, they took Reggie’s feature-length script of “House Party,” based on his student film, to executives at the New York headquarters of New Line Cinema (“Nightmare on Elm Street,” “Hairspray,” “Torch Song Trilogy”).
Set in the urban heartland somewhere between Los Angeles and New York, the story follows a rap-writing teen-ager named Kid, grounded by his strict but loving father, as he sneaks out of the house to attend a party being thrown by his best buddy, Play. Getting to the party safely, connecting romantically, singing his latest rap song and sneaking home without getting caught forms the basic plot.
The Hudlins initially struck out, but New Line creative affairs executive Janet Grillo liked Reggie’s work. “Reggie’s visual wit was clearly apparent from his short films,” she recalls. “They were crude, very low budget, but that allowed me to see even more of his raw talent. A lot of student films are made with Daddy’s money. These weren’t.”
In late 1988, New Line “changed its mandate to include a wider diversity of films, including non-mainstream projects,” Grillo says. She put “House Party” into the development hopper, with Gerald T. Olson assigned as executive producer.
“We were very careful to present it to the committee (executives who control the purse strings) as a film that was true to its own identity,” Grillo says. “We saw its cultural specificity as a strength, not a weakness. We presented it as a film that could be made for a low budget and that can appeal to a specific audience. If we could do that, we could guarantee that it could recoup its costs.”
There were inevitable conflicts between the film makers and executives, Grillo admits. “We ran around the block a couple times. We had some animated discussions that this wasn’t"--she breaks off, laughing--"a white film. But that quickly ceased to be a big issue. We wanted to protect Reggie’s vision. We all realized there was no point in having middle-aged white people giving script comments on a black teen-age film.”
A year later, a completed film was in the can, shot primarily on Los Angeles locations, but with a non-L.A. look.
Perhaps not since “Cooley High” (1975) has a feature film given black adolescents so much equal opportunity to hang loose and be themselves--without being perceived as threatening sociopaths.
“Black life has been so ignored in TV and film that you could pick any (black) subject and it needs attention,” Reggie says. “But that’s especially true of black teen-agers.”
“House Party” lets its black teen-agers swear, cut up, get down, make out, break rules, make mischief and really have fun--just like the white kids in “Risky Business,” “Ferris Bueller’s Day Off,” “Sixteen Candles,” “Porky’s,” et al.--and still be seen as decent, likable young people.
In most teen movies, when white guys get their dates home late, their main concern is angry fathers. In “House Party,” walking a “project girl” to the door means worrying about snipers on rooftops. It’s a world where obese parents slurp Dick Gregory’s Slim-Safe Bahamian Diet, not Ultra Slim-Fast. Where rats are truly nasty--and die hard. And where cursing racist cops to their faces is not considered bold but matter-of-fact.
The rap duo Kid n’ Play (Christopher Reid--with his distinct Afro-Eraserhead look--and Christopher Martin, respectively) star as Kid and Play; Robin Harris (the beefy “corner man” from “Do the Right Thing”) is the suspicious dad, and Tisha Campbell and A.J. Johnson portray two smart, independent teen-age girls who get involved with the boys.
The language in “House Party” is bound to offend some women, gays and blacks, and has earned the movie an R rating from the Motion Picture Assn. of America. “It’s just street talk,” says Michael Harpster, New Line’s marketing co-president. “But the MPAA doesn’t hang out on the same streets as those guys do.”
Though at times crude and raunchy, “House Party” makes a point of dealing with issues of sexual responsibility, teen-age drinking, male-female relationships and family values. Drugs are nowhere to be seen. Some critics took Spike Lee to task for the same alleged omission in “Do the Right Thing,” and “House Party” has been similarly questioned.
Reggie Hudlin, however, defends his depiction of urban black kids who just say no.
“It’s not sanitized,” he says. “It’s based on my own experiences growing up.” Then, he adds: “I’ve yet to see John Hughes taken to task for not having crack vials in his films.”
The media, Reggie feels, has created an inaccurate stereotype--that all black kids are anti-social dopers.
“Since there are no films about black teen-agers that don’t portray them as crazed drug addicts, I thought: Why not make a film in which we portray what most black teen-agers are--which is not crazed drug addicts.”
New Line Cinema is about to spend about $4 million on prints and advertising to reach just that target audience as the company releases “House Party” on 500 screens in nearly 100 markets on Friday. Major cities without sizable black populations--Denver, Seattle and Boston among them--are being excluded during the initial break. New Line executives will wait to see if word-of-mouth builds a broader audience before investing in a wider release. Meanwhile, a single from the film, “Fun House,” is out, and a Motown sound-track will be released Monday.
Harpster, New Line’s marketing co-president, says his research on black viewing habits and the sales patterns of black films tells him that the “core audience” for “House Party,” black teens, is virtually certain to pay back the film’s costs. Foreign theatrical and video potential is considered very limited. Crossover to non-black theatrical audiences would be gravy.
Harpster concedes that it can be “a little awkward” discussing “niche marketing” strategy in such strict racial terms. “But people have different media patterns,” he says. “That’s just a fact of life that marketing people keep in mind.
“We’ll start slow, let it build. We’ll support this film with prints and advertising at least through the first three weeks. The whole trick on this film is to see if it crosses over. We’re trying to walk a middle road, so we’re poised (to break wide) if it does cross over.
“It just wouldn’t make much sense to be high profile in Des Moines at first. But in a couple weeks (after the initial break), we will be in Des Moines, and we could do very well there.”
That cautious strategy at first angered the Hudlins, who vented their frustration with New Line in Anne Thompson’s L.A. Weekly film column earlier this year.
New Line marketing executives subsequently called a meeting to explain their marketing rationale, and the rift is now healed. “They allayed all our anxiety at the meeting,” says Warrington. “I want to acknowledge that New Line has completely involved us in every aspect (of the campaign). We’re very happy with New Line.”
“The important thing is that it’s apparent to all parties that ‘House Party’ will cross over,” Reggie adds. “We’re counting on positive word-of-mouth being the strongest form of advertising.”
There’s an issue much larger than box-office grosses and net points riding on the shoulders of this small, imperfect teen comedy.
It has to do with Hollywood’s unmet responsibility to be more open to persons of color, on both sides of the desk and the camera, if democracy in the film marketplace is to replace “institutional disenfranchisement"--and if the influential images Hollywood shapes and sends out across the world are to be more humane, balanced and realistic.
“We all feel that the success of movies like ‘House Party’ create more opportunity for all black film makers,” Warrington says. “There’s a whole non-commercial marketplace now--museums, public forums, public TV--and that’s where the next wave of black film makers will come from.
“All they need is the financing.”