Lecture: California State University at Los Angeles 8/29/09
I graduated from Cal State Los Angeles in 1973 with a B.A. in Speech Communication. I did not attend graduation; I was not interested. Racism, although politically incorrect but de facto, made me disdain the teachers and many of the students at this school.
A few years prior Cal State Los Angeles had been one of the most integrated schools in the country – even the faculty. Then, one day in 1973, over half the black personnel were fired. It was backlash for the gains blacks had won in the student revolts of the late 60s.
In 1973 ”Superfly” took all of the naturals away and replaced them with Jesus perms and jheri curls. I realized the power of film to change social behaviors, a la Marshall Mcluhan.
We had gone from Gutenberg’s galaxy of print to the electric age. Information was no longer merely linear. I had one foot in both ages, and I was a part of a dying breed. No human beings, hereafter, would have my generation’s perspective. Raised to value print but graduated with an M.A. in Secondary Education – emphasis on educational technology.
I went to school to learn skills to solve the problem of failing black schools. My strategy for overcoming racism was to work twice as hard; be twice as productive. I was doing theoretical research by studying trends in reading and math scores; I was doing practical research by subbing in South Central Los Angeles secondary schools.
I eventually became a full-time teacher, and after teaching for five years, I realized the problem was not the skill, but the will to read. The canon of literature in the English curriculum was no longer relevant to the students’ life experiences. Huckleberry Finn and Of Mice and Men with their objectifying references to Black Men as n*gg*s were no longer effective, especially for the most dynamic and powerful group of kids, the gangsters who had begun to reject literacy and create their own value system where words were purposely misspelled, letters written backwards or upside down.
So, I began to collect data on gangs (over 500 gangsters) and write a book.
Unfortunately, gangsters did not read, so I had to motivate them with a movie. In the Electric Age movies have become the new novels.
I realized that “CRIPS” were going to be a huge concern, so after I wrote the seminal book on “CRIPS”(titled, South Central L.A. CRIPS, I knew, eventually, Hollywood would come to me. Not being able to handle rejection, I knew I needed a commodity that would let me bargain from a position of power.
I completed my novel in the mid-1980s, became the Crips expert for CNN, and was featured in the L.A. WEEKLY and on several radio and television stations. I was approached first by a Quincy Jones rep who was very arrogant, but, then, I was approached by a director, Stephen Anderson, who was a UCLA film school grad and had done lots of research on gangs. He had even made a short film, “Hearts of Stone,”that was nominated for an Academy Award, about Crips and Bloods, using some of the dialogue from my book.
He was very respectful and convinced me that he could get Oliver Stone to produce the movie, so I signed a six-month option for one dollar which everybody thought was crazy, but I was convinced and anxious to get the movie out because the body count in Los Angeles had gone over 1000 yearly in 1990, and I felt time was critical.
· Sure enough we got Oliver Stone on board, and he bought into the social aspect of the project. Columbia TriStar Pictures put up 1.2 million dollars and we made the film. I made all of the actors and producers read the book and tried to get to buy into my vision.
· Of course, after I signed, I lost most of my clout, so the movie was R rated rather than PG-13 like my book. I was eventually banned from the set of the movie, but the spirit of the story was kept, and I was 90% pleased with the film.
· Columbia TriStar put the film in turnaround which means they cooled on the project. Oliver Stone was able to sell the film to Warner Bros., however, and they sent me, the director, and the star of the movie, Glenn Plummer, on a three city tour to screen the film before releasing it on 1200 screens. This was 1991, and Warner Bros. decided on a summer 1992 release.
· I objected wanting to release it immediately. Of course, I was overruled. Unfortunately, April 29, 1992 was the beginning of the largest civil unrest in American history and South Central became a name that symbolized mega violence. Theater owners began to think there might be violence at the theaters, so they cooled on the project by the time of its summer release, and Warner Bros. scaled back the release to 77 theaters. Although the per screen average gross was pretty high, the box office gross was barely enough to cover the cost of the film.
· This was the beginning of the video store boom, however, and after a five-month theatrical run, “SOUTH CENTRAL” made approximately $4 million in the first week of its video release. It did well in pay-per-view, cable, and, eventually, (after some of the language was overdubbed) on regular TV. It still comes on BET and other cable channels, intermittently, 20 years later.
· More importantly, the culture of gangbanging has changed. No longer is reading anathema. On the contrary, several gangsters (Tookie Williams, Monster Cody, Ice T, et al) have written their own books, and the 1000 gang murders a year have dropped to early 1970 pre-Crip levels, less than 100 in 2011. The black gang war is effectively over.
· I no longer am trying to negotiate Hollywood, although I have written two books since. I do not particularly like the Hollywood culture, but filmmaking is fascinating, exhilarating, and much more accessible since the technology has advanced (digital cameras, etc.), so I would encourage students who have a unique story to tell to pursue your dreams, ardently.
· I, personally, believe film should be more responsible because of its awesome power to change social behaviors. I think great film, great art holds the key to solving our greatest social problems.
· Socially irresponsible film: Super Fly; Colors; Menace to Society; Scarface, et al, has fingerprints all over the gang murder epidemic of the past four decades.
· Minorities now have the power to make their own stories. We should make better ones and, thus, create a better society.