They Came From Within
Producers George Jackson and Doug McHenry stand out from the current wave of African-American filmmakers in Hollywood - they came up through the studios. With New Jack City they had their first hit. Now they're following up with House Party II.
It worked, Spike. By design or by the logic encapsulated in the bumper sticker homily of New Age man ("Shit Happens"), it worked. Because now when I look in the mirror, staring back at me is a superfluous man, an image of self-contempt and inertia. I see not a soul on ice, but one thawed and spoiled. I see a stammering, backtracking field mouse unable to talk to hep cats. I hear myself reworking Honkette Doris Day's "Que Sera, Sera": "Will I be racist? Will I be patronizing? Here's what Spike says to me..." I thought I was fine until you came along.
I booed The Birth of a Nation. I lost my lunch watching C. Thomas Howell looking like a Coppertone orgyist instead of a black person in Soul Man. I rooted for the Bulls in the championship series. Okay, I lied about the Bulls. But you have made conversation with black filmmakers no less daunting than the rope ladder climb at the county fair. It looks easy until you take that first step and suddenly find yourself on your ass. I, in my titanium whiteness, am your hand-wringing monster, Spike. You pulled the switch that sent the 10,000 volts of hyperconscience screaming through my arhythmic body. And so, as I venture into a hot corner of the Warner Bros. lot, you will be my racial guardian angel. You are my Henry Higgins, as in Say The Right Thing, as in The Psyche of Spikey makes a Honky out of Mikey. Speak to me, Spike. Get my mind right!
With the rose tint all but sucked out of the stucco, Producer's Building #2 has to be one of the most rundown structures on Bugs and Daffy's whole lot. And you have to ask if these are indeed the offices of New jack City and House Party II producers Doug McHenry and George Jackson, because the door is unmarked, although, unlike the other doors, this one is wide open, spilling noise out to the parking lot. Inside are two peeling, faux wood desks that look like they were once a bargain on someone's front lawn. A Martin Luther King "I Have a Dream" calendar hangs askew from its tack on a louvered door missing slats. The carpet's spots look like they've been there since the last time Langston Hughes was in town. An old coffee maker stands in the corner, facing the wall like a disobedient child.
The conspicuousness of the squalor here is pretty remarkable, especially since these guys just had a $50 million hit. Frankly, I've never before met a pair of producers who were too busy or too unpretentious to bother with appearances. I'm wondering what Spike's offices look like. But shoddy decor or not, the three-room suite Jackson and McHenry work out of is crackling with energy. And someone is having fun here, because the laugh track is louder than a TV set in a retirement home.
"I LOVE LUCY!" Doug McHenry booms, when I start out by pointing at the statuette of the high priestess of cross-eyed comedy on the middle of his desk. "It's cooler to have Desi, but I gave Desi away." McHenry turns to yell through the door, "GEORGE, YOU READY?" We're waiting for George Jackson to get off the phone in the other room.
Meanwhile, a female photographer and her assistant are busy packing their gear.
"We hate to see the women go," Doug teases them. "So, where you girls going now? You goin'to deal with MARIO, right? You're going to see MARIO, aren't you? Yeah, Van Peebles gets all the glory." Doug is referring to the director of New jack City.
One of the women spots something in a trash bin. Dredging up a hosiery egg for Doug's appraisal, she smiles. "Someone's got a funky attitude."
"Yeah, well, it ain't me--this is George's office. GEORGE! GET IN HERE!"
When the women have left but George still hasn't arrived, Doug leans back, facing me with a 70-millimeter smile, his balding, polymer-shiny scalp in the cradle of his fingers, prisonerstyle. I have just asked him about his request for a black interviewer. In my mind, I'm seeing Spike form that tiny, condemnatory lemon shape with his lips.
"We heard that you actually were black," he says, having fun with me. "Seriously, we don't know anything about black interviewer requests. HEY GEORGE!"
Something between a shriek and a howl sounds from the other room and precedes George through the door. It seems the man has just managed to get a date.
"I'm happy. Put it in print! I'M HAPPY! She said yes!"
"She's gonna go with you, then," Doug congratulates him.
"She's gonna go with me. Wow. She's not my girlfriend yet," George admits, "but if I have anything to do with it, she'll come around."
Doug takes in his partner's euphoria with the satisfaction of a father who's just watched his son poke one over the fence. "It's not an official deal. But his heart--look out. I know from which I speak."
George throws himself into the chair opposite Doug and our official interview is finally ready to begin. Spike or no Spike, I know where I want to start. See, there are two ways to make it in the film industry, whether you admit to fighting the good fight or not: from the inside or the outside. More than occasionally, the choice is not yours to make. My man Spike made it the latter way. But Doug McHenry and George Jackson made it by the former method, which requires not so much a light skin as a thick one. If you've managed to succeed within the system, as both Doug McHenry and George Jackson have, you've undoubtedly done so shedding your blood, sweat and tears on projects catering to and championing white, middle-class values. Midnight Express, Hollywood Knights and Foxes--these were the films McHenry helped create during his tour of duty, which began as an assistant to Peter Guber. And there's a better than even chance that Ice-T and Wesley Snipes didn't sprawl in front of the TV to catch "The New Odd Couple" or "Laverne & Shirley," shows that George Jackson worked on as a producer-trainee for Garry Marshall.
"You guys were involved in a lot of cracker projects, sort of," I say, by way of opening up this topic. My observation is met with a silence that would make it possible to hear a spider spinning a web over the unused coffee maker.
"Cracker?" Doug questions, "What's 'cracker'? I don't understand." But George does--so does Doug, but watching me turn a whiter shade of pale must be irresistibly enjoyable--and finally bails me out.
"I think it's important to understand where Doug and I fit, in terms of the new tradition of what an African-American filmmaker is. I can almost put my finger on that tradition: One guy who does the writing, the directing, the acting; who comes from an independent film background and who raised money, or stole money, or somehow creatively put together a package, made a small film that was successful commercially, or critically, then went on and built a career as a one-man band." I don't have to be told we're talking Spike here, and Robert Townsend.
"Now Doug and I," George continues, "come from a radically different background. I worked for the president of production at Universal Pictures as part of a Lew Wasserman outreach program to executives. Call it affirmative action, call it whatever you want to, but if your phone don't ring, you can call it zero. The bottom line is that some white man in a position of authority said, 'We need to hire more black people in the film industry--' "
"Not more--one," Doug wryly amends.
"Right, one. As a result of that, I found myself working for the president of production of a major motion picture studio. Doug and I worked inside major studios in which hundreds of millions of dollars were expended on making movies. Our experience and background, therefore, are very different. We have a comprehensive, almost post-graduate school education in the film business."
"We're not saying that one is better than the other," says Doug, "just that it's a different experience. We can bring a different perspective to the black experience, having worked with Oliver Stone, Adrian Lyne, Alan Parker, David Puttnam."
After balancing his frame on the hind legs of his chair, Doug leans forward, hopefully having shaken off the nausea brought on by my cracker remark.
"There is a very strong theme in the black community that we have to rely on our own resources and not blame everything on racism."
"That is very important," George agrees, "because there are a lot of us who rest on the fact that, okay, society is racist, what's the use?"
"Right. The problem for us is compounded by the fact that Hollywood is actually built more on nepotism than racism, although both evils are definitely at work."
"When Doug and I got here, we knew that the odds of us ever taking a fucking Polaroid in Hollywood were slim and mother-fucking next to none, let alone making movies. But to Doug's credit, because he got here before I did, his experience has helped us enormously. So, in response to what you said--"
"Yeah. All Doug was doing his job. And he was trained by some of the best guys in the industry, young mavericks who now run this business. We've used our vantage point from the inside to scratch out a niche for ourselves."
And for others. When George was head of Richard Pryor's production company at Columbia, he engineered Robert Townsend's first studio deal. And it was George for whom Reggie Hudlin (who, along with his brother, Warrington, created the gold mine House Party for New Line) wrote his first screenplay, through a partnership George had with A&M Films.
So, I'm listening to Spike's voice steadily undermining my phrasing at every turn. Only one person addresses the Black Question--he wears Air Jordans and has a thing about ice cubes. You do this, you may as well get that graffiti bandit running around L.A. to spray paint HONKY across your forehead. But even with Spike's voice running through my brain, it takes me less than a quarter of an hour to disappoint everyone.
"Do you two consider yourselves African-American filmmakers, or filmmakers who happen to be African-Americans?"
Okay, it's a stupid question. A boring question. Somebody already asked this question to Spike himself in Rolling Stone. But I have to ask it here, anyway. And Doug is both gracious and tolerant. "I think if you go back into the Harlem Renaissance, Jean Toomer, Richard Wright, Zora Neale Hurston, when they were asked, 'Are you a writer, or are you a black writer?' they said, 'Well, listen, you don't ask Sartre if he's a writer or French writer and you don't ask Faulkner if he's a Southern writer or a writer from the South.' "
In fact, I do think of William Faulkner as a Southern writer. And for that matter, Jean-Paul Sartre would proclaim his Frenchness like no character out of a Monty Python skit ever could. But I feel Spike sneaking up behind me with a gag.
"I think our perspective is that we're African-American filmmakers," Doug continues, "but don't feel as though that's limiting, any more than a Scorsese or Coppola, dealing with the Italian-American perspective, or Woody Allen, working from a Jewish-American perspective, is limited."
"There is a universality to the values and experiences that these people go through," George adds, "that we're all richer for. We've got to get away from this idea that somehow, because we come from an African-American culture and we make, among other films, movies about African-Americans, our perspective is not mainstream."
And I don't need Spike to point out to me that the proof is in the pudding: New Jack City attracted not only the young urban black audience, but a substantial number of young, middle-class whites as well. George, in heavy Don King mode, rattles his fingers to drive home the message:
"What we are engaged in now is really the advancing of cultural definitions. The horizons have to broaden."
There are only two of these guys, but it seems like an even dozen. The eight years Doug has on George are used as benign ballast against the younger partner's idealism. George brims with the Tower of Power sociology of the street. With his Fat Boys physique (he and Doug produced Disorderlies), he's a Gummy Bear from Harlem with the gentleness of a Jesuit social worker. Right now, the two partners run their business around me like a couple of tag team wrestlers. Doug's in the ring now, about to apply the keister-slam: "I think the point we're trying to make is that we're African-American filmmakers because of two reasons. One, no matter what we say, the press will always label us that way. It's the reason why black people have had more of a problem assimilating into this culture than anyone else--we're identifiable." George turns out his palms, going for the pin. "Can't hide," he says. "I walk into the room, that's it--'He ain't French.' "
At this point the receptionist comes in and hands Doug an envelope that's just arrived via messenger. Inside the envelope are two choice seats to Sunday's playoff game between Portland and the Lakers. George lunges for the tickets.
"Gimmie those fuckers. Somebody finally wants us. After years of struggle, somebody wants us. It might not last for long--we may soon be in jail or dead, because this is America--but somebody wants us!"
"And look at this!" Doug shows us a blue pass. "Special parking, too! All because somebody wants to raise money by using our names. 'Hey, these are two black guys. Let's give them basketball tickets.' Uh-huh."
Seeing the wheels turning, the files being pulled in his partner's brain, George gets a look of hopelessness on his face.
"Aww, now wait a minute--"
Doug won't have it. "I don't think we should take these tickets. Because I don't want to be compromised. You can decide. I'm giving my ticket to you, George. It's hard to tell somebody no when you're taking something from 'em, and I don't fuckin' do that. You decide. On Sunday, I'm gonna be out of town anyway."
"Hey, there's gotta be a happy compromise here," I suggest. "You guys could give the tickets to me." The two of them look at each other as if I have mistakenly released a sizable quantity of methane into the atmosphere. Doug immediately picks up where he left off before the tickets arrived.
"So, we LIKE the moniker African-American. We think it's positive. The sensitivity we've gained from our own cultural experience will enhance our ability to tell other stories. Is it ultimately important? Yes. Is it ultimately politically important? No."
"What's a real challenge for us," says George, "is to take a Wesley Snipes--we think he's one of the finest actors in the world--and Ice-T, too--to take these guys and place them with a piece of material, say, about a man. You don't say if he's white or black, just a man. The challenge is to have these guys play the role of a man, but not to have him hamstrung because of the fact that he's black. Robert De Niro played a Polish guy in The Deer Hunter. What would happen if you created that same scenario with a black man?"
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