Hopping a ride with urban cowboys

Special to The Times

The two-minute-long opening shot of "Biker Boyz" unfolds at midnight on an abandoned street and wends seductively through a crowd of leather-clad men and barely clothed women. Pulsating to the sound of revving engines and a hip-hop beat, the sequence is veiled in drifts of tire smoke and a spectrum of candied blues and blacks as opulent and unfamiliar as the interiors of a hip, subterranean Oz.

This is the world -- thriving, fantastic and almost unknown -- of the African American motorcycle clubs, and the film, which opens Friday, rides us deep into its edgy and sensuous heart of darkness. "I had no idea that this world existed," confides the film's co-writer and director, Reggie Rock Bythewood ("Dancing in September").

"I started going to some of these underground events here in L.A.," Bythewood recalls. "Huge crowds of people come out and watch these racing events. I'm standing around looking at them with the leathers and the chaps and the boots and the swagger. These guys felt just like cowboys. I didn't even know that people could ride like that and the idea of filming it as a western really took hold of me.

"And then I thought about it and I said, 'Well, yeah, it's not the fastest draw in the West. It's the fastest rider in the West. It's the King of Cali [slang for California]. It's the young gun going up against the fastest draw in the West."

Laurence Fishburne, who was Bythewood's first and only choice to play the film's central character, Smoke, the King of Cali, notes that "the first two people you see in this movie are Djimon Hounsou and Terrence Howard, who are great beauties. They are beautiful black men, all decked out in leather. They're all man, masculine, testosterone. Serious machismo."

"Have you ever seen anything like that on film?" Fishburne asks during a recent interview. "And from the moment that you see them, you know exactly where you are in the world. And it's not a bad place. But it's a little dangerous; it's a little sexy."

Adapted from a New Times article of the same name by journalist Michael Gougis, the DreamWorks film depicts the world of African American street bikers as a clandestine, strictly hierarchical society at the extreme margins of urban life, where speed and bravado reign supreme. In existence since the early '70s and made up of hundreds of clubs across the nation with names like the Chosen Few, the Valiant Riders and the Soul Brothers, the most formidable racers, termed "gunslingers," achieve the status of fighters or rock stars.

Supported by "crews" arrayed in their club colors, top guns vie at triple-digit speeds for trophies (women and helmets), and bragging rights against all comers, in illegal street races staged in the dead of night on the shadowy streets of cities -- including many in Southern California, from San Bernardino to San Diego -- much like the drag racers depicted in last year's hit "The Fast and the Furious." DreamWorks is hoping the $20-million film, which is opening on nearly 2,000 screens, will attract a crossover audience and become a sleeper hit similar to "Fast and the Furious."

These contests, as dangerous as they are thrilling, draw hundreds of enthusiastic fans in the know. Producer Stephanie Allain ("Boyz N the Hood") optioned the story, which was initially adapted for the screen by Craig Fernandez ("Puerto Vallarta Squeeze").

The project was then picked up by writer-director Gina Prince-Bythewood ("Love & Basketball"). Prince-Bythewood brought it to her husband, Reggie, who reset the story in its present format as a modern-day action-western.

On city streets and back roads in more than 40 locations across the state, Bythewood and cinematographer Greg Gardner photographed the film's eye-boggling street stunts and races without the benefit of special effects.

"Greg and I watched films like 'Road Warrior' and 'Mad Max,' " Bythewood recalls, "and we're, like, 'Man, these guys just did these stunts and shot it. They weren't in front of a green screen,' and so we thought, 'Let's make the movie like that and shoot it in a style that will make the audience feel they are part of the action and not spectators.' "

That idea quickly became the film's mantra.

"We kept saying: Put the audience on the bike or put the audience in the crowd. Once we decided to do that, it posed very interesting challenges for us. So we built rigs, specially designed to get the angles and shots that we wanted."

Actors who can ride

Much of the cast of the film, Fishburne, Hounsou, Orlando Jones, Salli Richardson-Whitfield and Kid Rock, portraying Dogg, one of the few non-black bikers whose skills are respected by the blacks, were selected both for their skills as actors and as bikers. The project reached Fishburne, a bike enthusiast for 10 years, in Australia, where he was wrapping production on the two "Matrix" sequels.

"I belong to a motorcycle club called the Guggenheim Motorcycle Club, whose members are largely billionaires and movie stars," Fishburne explains. "The idea that someone was interested in making a movie on the culture of black motorcyclists that exists in this country was fantastic to me. The film exposes and illuminates a community that has existed for a very long time in our country, very quietly going about its business. That in itself is a very revolutionary act.

"Most of the people who are involved in these clubs have backgrounds in the military or work as police officers. These are hard-working, God-fearing, taxpaying, law-abiding black folks who have created these clubs."

Fishburne's character is loosely based on the real-life exploits of Manuel "Pokey" Galloway, president of the Valiant Riders club of Pasadena. Galloway, who says there are about 35 clubs in Southern California, emphasizes that black clubs cultivate an image of service and pride within their community, rather than the motorized terror embodied by some of the well-known outlaw gangs. "You do have outlaw clubs out there, but we're governed by bylaws. We have rules and regulations. And you've got to remember, the majority of us out there are 9-to-5 individuals."

Impromptu street races do take place in more remote parts of Los Angeles, but Galloway notes that "we're not tearing up the streets of L.A. and all that. No way the police are going to let us do that.... Nobody wants to go to jail. I definitely don't want to go to jail for racing up and down the street and can't go to my job on Monday."

The film also explores the bonds of family and brotherhood that bind these clubs together, and takes a close look at the clash of generations that has emerged in recent contests, with the older, mostly African American riders mounted astride plush, re-engineered American Harleys (a.k.a. "couches") and bound by strict codes of protocol and honor, facing off against the younger, multiethnic upstarts from "the hip-hop nation" hunkered down on candy-colored, hyper-fast Japanese bikes (a.k.a. "rice rockets") and bound only to one another and the spirit of the ride.

The supremacy of Fishburne's Smoke is challenged by a gifted phenom named Kid. Bythewood says, "A lot of people first suggested this rapper or that rapper for the role, but what I was really looking for was somebody who could really hold his own as an action star but who had enough chops to be in a scene with Laurence Fishburne." Derek Luke, who had not yet garnered critical acclaim for his breakthrough role as Antwone Fisher, won the role.

Because the film involves issues of African American family life and culture, Bythewood, who also co-scripted Spike Lee's "Get on the Bus," endeavored to write his script against stereotype. "I wanted to make a PG-13 film that had the edge of an R-rated film. It shouldn't be a big deal, but we've made a black film where there are no drive-bys and where nobody is drinking 40-ounce bottles of beer. That's what Gina did in 'Love & Basketball,' and here I'm doing the same thing but taking on an edgier world."

Joining the cast of appealing African American men is a cadre of strong women -- Lisa Bonet, Meagan Good and a radiant Vanessa Bell Calloway -- who anchor the family saga at the core of the film.

"Vanessa Calloway is the heart of this movie," says Bythewood, who intentionally employed feminine voices to soften the film's potent cocktail of testosterone and adrenaline. "I've never really been accustomed to being around weak women," Bythewood explains. "My mother is a tough woman, and my sister and wife, and it never occurred to me to make these women docile or weak or stupid, mainly because that had not been my experience."

Characterizing the subversive appeal of the film, Fishburne concludes: "This is about all the unsung heroes of black America who were pioneers. The old school, the old heads. That's kind of what my character represents -- that generation that went to the movie theater when 'The Wild One' came out and didn't see themselves in that movie. This is the black western that we never saw, that was never allowed to get made."

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