by Steven Boone
Two summers ago, I stumbled upon the set of Brooklyn's Finest, a crime thriller written by a local but produced by a major studio. I was impressed by the gargantuan production's effort to involve residents in the filmmaking but yearned to see a film actually made by the kind of kids who were acting as extras and assistants here.
I had no idea that Openmindz, a renegade bunch of Brownsville visionaries, was doing just that.
Bullets Over Brownsville, written and directed by Damon Diddit and Natural Langdon, has resurrected the 'hood movie-- whether Ho'wood or anyone else working in that genre yet knows it or not. The film leaves an epic impression on the big screen, in the high-art, high-octane manner of De Palma's or Scorsese's crime films. Not since Hype Williams' dazzling but too-slick druglord saga Belly has a 'hood movie showed such stylistic and thematic ambition.
And it has done so without a dime of Ho'wood money. The shooting budget: "Let's just say less than a semester's film school tuition,” says producer Anthony Richards.
The following e-interview (after the incendiary video below) won't tell you how they pulled it off, but I hope other young filmmakers in the so-called 'hood who happen to stumble across this page take it as a call to tell their own stories without compromise. There are no more excuses, young ones-- but I bet you know that better than I or even the BOB crew, because you were born in the age of digital democracy...
Brooklyn's Finest vs Bullets over Brownsville from Openmindz productions on Vimeo.
Who is this movie for?
DAMON DIDDIT (WRITER-DIRECTOR): In the beginning we weren't sure, because you subconsciously do it mostly for your age and/or ethnic groups but after multiple movie screenings with a wide range of age groups and nationalities, Bullets over Brownsville is for anyone who wants a compelling, thought-provoking story told from a unique perspective.
NATURAL LANGDON (WRITER-DIRECTOR): The movie is for everyone. We believe the content in the movie is universal. The target audience is youth 13 and above that lives in the inner city.
KHALIL MAASI (PRODUCER): The movie is for any one who is concerned or has been affected by the issues of violence anywhere in the world but particularly in urban areas.
VAUGHN "VONJEFF" JEFFERSON (PROJECT MANAGER): This movie is for the audience who have concerns about what goes on in the inner cities and social issues that people are dealing with within neighborhoods such as Brownsville, where crime, violence and drugs exist.
ANTHONY RICHARDS (PRODUCER): Anyone who wants to see it, anyone with an Open Mind (pun intended). Anyone willing to sit down and see a compelling story about people and a neighborhood they may or may not know…
For years I have been ridiculed by black filmmakers and theater professionals I've interviewed when I brought up the subject of so-called chitlin circuit plays and 'hood movies. The question was, "If y'all are so upset at the lack of attendance at your high-art films and classic negro stage plays, why not try something different? Why not make your own chitlin circuit-type play or 'hood movie, but bringing your artistry, intelligence and soul to it?" The general response was, "Impossible! And we're sick of the 'hood. There is nothing left to say in that genre. It's all been done."
What do you have to say to that?
DAMON: Negative. It's never all done when you have a unique perspective on telling a story. If that's the case then we should be creating NEW genres because comedies, action and drama films are all recycled storylines and themes...that's all been done! What we must do is continue reaching out to ALL audiences using ALL technologies available to us today and start promoting directly to the people. The most challenging and expensive part of pushing a product has always been advertising so we still have ways to go. But if you believe and the people believe then the support will be there.
NATURAL: Everything has been done before there is nothing new but we all see things a little differently and have a unique way of revealing information. The hood as a strong rich history culture and way of life that many disenfranchised the world can either relate to or want to relate to. Think we should have all types of movies the represent different sides of Black culture. The chitlin circuit has always supported black art when no mainstream money is available. We are a global market, so let's make the world our chitlin circuit via Internet and in our neighborhoods.
VONJEFF: It has not all been done for the simple fact we all have seen the corruption that exists in "hood" films, but have we ever seen why? Have we ever seen a clearcut depiction of what the issues are? Have we seen how they exist? BOB shows the cause and effects of what exists in the 'HOOD'.
ANTHONY: For those that say they is nothing left in that genre, they just have not thought of a different angle or twist. Most so called “Hood Movies” suffer from poor production quality, poor story line and no promotion. With these straight to DVD films, the few good ones get lumped in with the bad ones, and you are placed in a category. The last movie that Dee And Nat did was called P.O.E “Process Of Elimination” and was distributed by Image Entertainment. Even though it got a distribution deal, I don’t think it was handled correctly. I remember seeing it bootlegged on the streets, before Image released it. So who did that! As for so-called Chitlin Circuit, it served its purpose. In the past it was the way to get your art out there. I think new model is a hybrid distribution model, where you will combine all new technologies and still physically take your movie around to theater screenings or any place that will have you. So chitlin circuit might not be dead, maybe it just got renamed.
I was struck, when watching Bullets Over Brownsville in the theater, and later when watching your video comparing Bullets Over Brownsville to Brooklyn's Finest, how indistinguishable it is from Hollywood product, in terms of what I'd call production value. Except that Bullets Over Brownsville, which has a budget maybe a fraction of Brooklyn's Finest, is more visually striking. What's up with that?
DAMON: Well, the time has come when talent mixed with skill and today's technology equips the DAVID's with the tools to finally challenge and/or beat GOLIATH. It just reconfirms that Hollywood will eventually loose their monopoly to the smaller independent filmmaker who tells a more compelling story with less resources.
NATURAL: With time effort know how and vision coupled with new technology everything thing is possible. Damon Diddit used a lot of great editing and effects that helped the movie reach a level of quality that is hard to create on a no budget movie along with all the care and style that was displayed through out the movie.
KHAHLIL: Sometimes hunger and lack of resources produces greater work.
VONJEFF: The answer is attributed to the professionalism and talent of the directors, producers, and writers behind BoB. Only they can depict and capture what the essence of Brownsville or the 'HOOD' is because they come from it. The actors in the film come from it. You can not be taught to act as these actors/actresses did in BoB, they've intensified and enhanced what they already experienced through the direction of the people behind the production. Brooklyn's Finest is filled with actors trying to bring out characters from a mental perception of what they 'THINK' the 'HOOD' is like or how we carry ourselves.
ANTHONY: Technology and knowledge even out the playing field. I think the comparison just shows the level of talent.
What happens when Hollywood comes calling for y'all to make Brooklyn's Finest Reloaded?
DAMON: Probably wouldn't be interested unless it was a way we can eventually fund the stories we're more passionate to tell. But uhhhhh...cut the check anyway!
NATURAL: We are creating our own path and if that's the story we feel we want to tell the that's what it will be. but we have so many other stories to tell and ideas that it might be best for some one else to tell that story.
KHALIL: Show me the money first... after then we can talk.
VONJEFF: We're already prepared, just make sure the budget is correct and don't interfere with our creative control.
ANTHONY: Sit down and listen to what they have to say, and decide if it make sense to your current vision or goals.
What is selling out?
DAMON: When the box office is closed, DVD’s are flying off the shelf, and my bank acct is getting bigger….just kidding. Uhhhh, the game is always to be sold not told. So, not sure if there's really a such thing as "selling out" unless the individual is not true to himself and betrays the audience or people whom invested interest in his/her work by going against what made that individual successful.
NATURAL: I think if you stay true to your self then you wont have to worry about that.
KHALIL: Tell me what is buying in first.
VONJEFF: Selling out is succumbing to or going against what you don't believe in or stand for just for the sake monetary satisfaction. Meaning you can be bought. Example: If BOB was offered a Trillion dollars for the film but the buyers want to change the lead characters for celebrities or take creative control and change the storyline for their personal liking despite the message being conveyed. If BOB took the Trillion dollars and didn't care how it would affect the people or the community, that's selling out or rather "being bought".
ANTHONY: We all have morals. Selling out is doing something absent of morals.
What is success for a filmmaker?
DAMON: First and foremost, completing the project. Anyone can start a production but the real challenge is to complete it! After that, success varies on multiple levels from great reviews to getting a lucrative distribution deal and beyond.
NATURAL: For me its going through the process each step of the way and overcoming the challenges to get the best end result possible.
KHALIL: The ability to live off of your art... just like any other artist.
VONJEFF: Success for a filmmaker is being able to continue creating more films and having the control to do it your way. Being able to employ your own staff to carry out your vision and teaching them to carry out their visions. then turning around to support them carry it out the same way they helped to carry out yours. Success is what you can do for people or how you can make a change in their life. Thats how you get our Blessings and success to continue creating more films
ANTHONY: The Best definition for success I heard is, setting a goal and working towards that goal. That’s what we as filmmakers do. If you decide to do something and you do it, you are successful. People confuse success with wealth all the time. I respect anyone who put’s a film together, because I know what that takes to do that. That person is successful.
If it were impossible to make more than McDonald's manager wages as a filmmaker, would you still do it?
KHALIL: We are doing that now.
DAMON: Yes. Because money is an after thought, it's all about doing what you really love doing in life first then everything else will eventually turn into money/resources.
NATURAL: Starting out you may not make any money so if that's your only motivation good luck. If your a visionary you will spend way more money in the beginning then you make its about the hustle and being creative and money will come. You have to be committed to making an investment in your self.
ANTHONY: Yes. Creative people face that dilemma everyday: "Should I get a job or continue with my dream?" Sometimes you need money to make your dream happen, and you need creative time to make your dream happen, meaning you don’t have time to work. There is your classic Catch-22.
What does the phrase 21st Century filmmaker mean to you?
DAMON: The next Next Wave! The next generation of filmmakers that will change the game as we know it today.
NATURAL: Taking risks, learning all aspects of the filmmaking business, telling great stories and be an Independent thinker
ANTHONY: I guess using 21century tools and techniques to make films.
Who inspired you to make films?
DAMON: Inspiration has come from many different sources. The initial reason to do it is because I felt like I can make a difference from the films that were already out there and certain stories weren't being told that needed to be heard from a different perspective. My favorite filmmakers are Stanley Kubrick, Alfred Hitchcock, Spike Lee, Robert Rodriguez and Quentin Tarantino but the list goes on.
ANTHONY: I think all filmmakers are storytellers; it is something that is embedded inside our DNA. We see an image, we hear story, or we experience something that inspires us to tell the story, in our own unique way.
What is the most valuable thing people should have learned about Brownsville after seeing this movie?
DAMON: It's really hard because there's so much information in the movie you hope the audience gets, but ultimately, a better understanding of people dealing with oppression...worldwide!
NATURAL: That there is talent in Brownsville, that people need resources and outlets to help their creative process. It's a subculture of New York but still a reflection of the hoods around the world.
KHALIL: That flowers grow through concrete... Life is a struggle but what does not kill you will make you stronger.
VONJEFF: The most valuable thing people should learn from BOB is that independent films need to be supported. Who is going to tell your story without it being watered down? Hollywood isn't reality, it's entertainment. Learn from BOB how to face these issues that exist in 'HOODS' all over the world and create social awareness instead turning our backs on them.
ANTHONY: There are other people and communities, who may or may not live like you, but if you come with an open mind you can understand their struggle and what they go through in their daily lives.