I wanted to be an actor, and I am. Fortunately I’ve managed to make my living doing theater for more than ten years, and gained a little bit of fame to boot. I’m also a writer, and I seem to have carved out a niche in the arts, often referred to as solo theater, performance art, griot and, most recently, hip-hop theater. I’m lucky. I haven’t really done anything avant-garde or new. I’ve just done what the actor has done for thousands of years. I play characters and tell stories about my diverse community in New York City, and about my incomparable and ever-changing hip-hop generation: community and generation.
I never wanted to do theater to get “discovered” by Hollywood. Discovery makes me think of Columbus. The idea of some Hollywood entity “finding” me and exploiting me to make me into a “star” makes me want to commit suicide. Yet although I’m happy doing theater and affecting people in an ancient way, there is always the temptation to reach…a wider audience. And of course to make more money–money to invest in my community and generation, at which my government does such a shameful job.
So, along comes Hollywood knocking at my door. For years I had turned down offers in movies and television shows that not only ignored the realities of my community and generation but often reduced those realities to glorified stereotypes and minstrelsy. However, trying to be fair and give Hollywood the benefit of the doubt, not wanting to be a righteous socialist, I took a chance. I took several chances, expecting Hollywood to hand over some power, some money, some screen time. After all, Hollywood owes theater billions of dollars. Before there were actors in front of a camera there were actors on a stage. And before that there were actors in the bush, representing and reflecting the problems, ironies and stories of their communities. Hollywood has been stealing our actors, writers, directors for seventy-five years. Not to go off on a tangent, but it makes me want to shoot up a movie studio when Hollywood folks come to my shows in New York or Los Angeles and actually expect to get “industry comp” tickets at the door. “Oh, we’re from MTV…we’re from Paramount…Miramax.” Go fuck yourselves. You can’t pay a $15 theater ticket? A price that was deliberately made low, to give low-income youth access to theater. But you can spend $25 million on some film that has nothing to do with anyone’s community–anywhere on the planet–without blinking.
Among several Hollywood offers I indulged, I was asked to guest-star in an episode of Seinfeld. I was honored because I didn’t even have to audition. They just wanted–me. But when I got to the set, they asked me to play a Puerto Rican “pool guy” who cleans up towels and jumps around like an idiot and talks with a “funny Spanish accent.” I argued respectfully with Jerry and his crew of distinguished producers about the offensiveness of what they were asking me to participate in, about the power of their show. I argued that people in Idaho, Australia, even in government were already forming their opinions about Latinos, blacks, Asians, Native Americans from the one-dimensional image “opportunities” that existed for them in film and television. When I asked how they (and I) could traffic in these stereotypes, I was swiftly removed from the role and sent back to New York. When I wrote about the experience, I was criticized for “attacking a Jew who is innocently entertaining us with his show about nothing.” Some even accused me of being anti-Semitic. I wonder if they would have seen Jerry Seinfeld as anti-Semitic if he burned an Israeli flag, instead of the Puerto Rican flag they burned and stomped on during the last season of his show.
Back in Brooklyn, having recuperated from my futile political argument with some jaded Hollywood millionaire stars, I was asked by the director Terrance Malick to be in his much anticipated Thin Red Line. He wanted me to play a Brooklyn soldier in World War II. Again I was honored. The film was acclaimed before it started shooting. Malick hired several noted theater actors like myself to play the main roles: Adrien Brody, Tim Blake Nelson, John C. Reilly and so on. Then he hired some “real people” who had little or no acting experience to play other principal roles. And last, he was forced to hire a slew of A-list actors to bring home the box office: Travolta, Penn, Nolte, Cusack, Harrelson, Clooney, etc. So I went to Australia for a month and shot some great scenes with some amazing actors. After a year, Terrance Malick had made an extraordinary film with Adrien Brody as the lead. Yet when he showed the five-hour masterpiece to the executives at Fox, they refused to release a film of that length. I’m sure that Malick had counted on them to respect his vision. I mean, he’s a living legend in film, and they had given him an astounding budget and six months to shoot (unheard of in Hollywood these days). Well, the executives at Fox didn’t think they would get their money back with a five-hour movie, and they made a business decision. They had Malick splice together all the scenes with the stars in them, and cut out the scenes with the unknown actors. The best scenes. The release print was roughly two and a half hours. The scenes of more than ten actors who spent six months in the jungle of Australia were removed from the film, including Adrien Brody–who was the central character. That’s why, if you’ve seen the film, it makes no sense. So much for art, even on a $53 million budget.
Speaking of budgets, a few years ago I had the honor of working with the acclaimed writer/director Darnell Martin on a series pilot for ABC, whose weekly-series budgets run anywhere from half a million to $2 million–a week. We were excited because the development executives (in Hollywood they’re called “creative people”) were excited about our work and about the idea of developing a multi-ethnic weekly series about teenagers in urban America that didn’t condescend to its intended audience like Dangerous Minds had the year before. We even stripped down some of the grit to make it suitable for network television. Ms. Martin and I didn’t enter into this with the “goal” of making it big in TV. We genuinely thought that we were being given the responsibility and the opportunity to say something important to a wide, young audience, and we took it very seriously. We also had plans to hire youth and work with community-based organizations, so that the diverse communities of America could see themselves represented respectfully on television, in all of their complexity. Something that the networks are only now beginning to “discuss” with the NAACP and other organizations.
Anyway, Darnell and I spent a year working on the project, which was called Point Blank. ABC promised to shoot it that season. But just before the green-light decisions were made, we were told that there were too many nonwhite central characters. That although the creative people at the network liked it, the bosses up top who were selling ad time thought it was “too specific.”
ABC is not the only studio guilty of this “too specific” shit. The list of offenders turning down pitches and ideas specifically because they are “too specific” reads like a who’s who of Hollywood. Paramount, NBC, CBS, Warner Brothers, Universal, New Line, Miramax–even publishers from Bantam to Grove think like this. I was told by a supposedly progressive thirty-something editor, “People who read don’t want to read that stuff.” “America is mostly white people, Danny, and they don’t wanna watch that,” a former executive at Paramount told me once. It’s got to be a conspiracy.
Well, if America is mostly white people (whatever that means), then, I thought, maybe I could infiltrate their bizarre formula by making a film with a white central character. My friend G. Belcon and I spent two years writing Whiteboys, a tragicomedy about a white kid in Iowa named Flip-Dogg, who is obsessed with gangsta rap music and gets all his images of African-Americans from TV, like most people around the world do. His obsession is so great that he wants to be black, or at least his TV definition of “black.” I was shocked to find out that Fox Searchlight, Fox’s subsidiary and so-called indie distributor, was going to finance it at a budget of $5 million.
I remember asking the executives at Searchlight if Rupert Murdoch’s conservative politics would affect the way our film was treated. After all, the film is not candy-coated. It asks some deep questions about identity and the media. The executive, Lindsay Law (what a great name), assured me that the budget was so small “it won’t even cause a blip on the radar at Fox,” and we could do whatever we wanted and we’d have their unconditional support. I should have smelled the bullshit flying out of Lindsay Law’s mouth, but we were on the phone. A few months later, the film actually got made. But Searchlight kept stalling the release, saying that it had poor exit polls, that they couldn’t tell if it was a comedy or tragedy (oh no!), that they didn’t know how to market it. If you don’t know how to market a film in 1999 about a white kid in Iowa obsessed with hip-hop, then you shouldn’t be in the film business, should you?
Ultimately the truth surfaced by pure serendipity. A journalist friend of mine was flying first class from LA to New York and happened to sit next to someone from Fox’s parent company, NewsCorp, who had a copy of Whiteboys under his arm as he sat down. Newscorp supposedly never meddles in Fox’s film divisions. My friend naïvely asked him about the film and why he had the script–at which point an entire menu of Fox’s censorship practices was revealed. Although Whiteboys wasn’t violent by Hollywood standards, it contained scenes with white youth and violence in the same scene, and it was being reviewed by the NewsCorp folks to determine whether the film might garner protest, in the wake of the mass shooting in Littleton, Colorado. In addition, there was concern that white communities would be offended by the youth portrayed in the film. Hollywood never seems to question whether it offends black Americans by mocking them, or Latin Americans by clowning them, or Asian or Native Americans by ignoring them. But how dare we offend white Americans. What a crime that would be.
Ultimately we missed our scheduled summer release, and although Fox had to release the film contractually, they did it under such cover that not even my family or friends knew when or where it was playing–and we live in New York City! Fox then used “poor box office” to justify its closure, and that’s that. They might as well have shelved it, but then they would have gotten sued. Well, they’re getting sued anyway, so fuck ’em.
But hey, Hollywood’s not all assholes. There are some good people. Yet I wonder if they stand any chance. Recently a friend of mine at a major studio called me and said, “Listen, I just got a senior development job here. I’m gonna make sure your stuff gets on the air. It needs to be seen by all America. You have such a diverse audience, and it’s completely sellable to any advertiser. They’ll eat it up.”
I told her that I was willing to sit down and discuss a deal, and that although I knew it was network TV and there were guidelines to be adhered to, they couldn’t censor my ideas, and the project was the project, period. No replacing black male leads with skinny blonde white girls. No replacing sociopolitical themes for minstrelsy or inanities or themes “about nothing.” But before she could even set up a “meeting,” her bosses started to worry, “Well, wait a second–we know he’s hot and we love his work, but what exactly is it that he wants to do? What if we think a white character is more appropriate?” They canceled our meeting. And this is supposedly the free-thinking world. No censorship and a rainbow of multiculti love? Where’s my meeting? I guess I’ve learned, you can only get your ideas across to a mass audience, whether it’s news, TV or film, if they are Hollywood’s ideas. If you allow the creative people at the studios to butcher, dilute and censor your ideas, then you can participate in the entertainment industry.
These “creative people” never went to writing school, acting school or storytelling school and have no idea what is happening in the communities of North America, let alone the world. But they sure know how to sell some Nikes, boy. I used to think these creative people in Hollywood weren’t creative at all, that they were mere sneaker salesmen and popcorn saleswomen. But they are more creative than us artists. Because they generate a product that is so condescending, so stifling, so pacifying, that we sit there and watch billions of dollars of ads and think nothing of it. Matter of fact, we don’t think anything at all. They are master creators of passivity. And they didn’t even go to school for it. Actually they did: business school.
Maybe I should just be happy that I have the opportunity to even be in the room with these esteemed Hollywood people. Maybe I should do anything they ask me to do, blackface and all. Maybe I should stop making a fuss and not speak out anymore. It seems that every time I ask a question, challenge an idea or stand up for a principle in Hollywood, the more I get labeled as “political” and “difficult to work with” and the less they want to be in “business” with me. Maybe that’s a good thing. But why should I complain? I’m making a living. I not only have my foot in the door, but every major movie and TV studio knows my work. They all come to my shows, repeatedly. Most come late, but they come. Like flocks of late and clueless vultures begging for comp tickets.
You led me on, Hollywood. You flash your cash and power and say, “This could be yours too.” But you lead us all on, every day. It’s your very job to lead us on. To the next commercial. At the end of the day, are we all just salespeople? And why should I expect any less from the same companies that make us think Republicans and Democrats are two different parties, and that there are a few alternate psychos to vote for? And they don’t even allow the approved alternate psychos in the debate. I should expect them to be fair? To me? What did I do to deserve to be treated fairly by Hollywood? It’s not like I own some big company. I don’t even own my house. What was I thinking? Of course, I could be just some bitter, confused, frustrated, complaining, out-of-work actor…who’s not even out of work. I think I’ll go turn on the tube and think about voting for one of the parties that our democratic media tell us are valid, and then I’ll watch Seinfeld, and then I will do nothing.