Class Action

With 'Justice,' a pair of Twin Cities civil rights lawyers raise the bar for African American filmmaking

The case would not be resolved for five years, a period that included fiery protests at Minneapolis School Board meetings, NAACP infighting, and a heap of criticism lodged against the plaintiff's attorneys. Though the eventual settlement allowed thousands of students from lower-income families to be placed in the schools of their choice, Shulman contends that some school district officials in Minneapolis and the suburbs have appeared reluctant to enforce it.

Given the couple's close involvement in contentious issues, it's perhaps not surprising that criticism would have followed them into filmmaking. In addition to Hughes's complaints, the directors have been reproached for allegedly sidestepping local African American acting companies, and for failing to include enough black people on the crew.

Craig Rice, head of the Minnesota Film and TV Board, and Robin Hickman, who worked with Rice on Half Past Autumn, his Emmy-nominated documentary about Hickman's uncle Gordon Parks, say they were not invited to participate in Justice after having expressed their interest in the project. Like Rice, Hickman expresses support for Justice and its message, but says she wishes that Shulman and Almonor had made a more conscientious, grassroots effort to incorporate the Twin Cities' African American community into the production.

Approaching the bench: 'Justice' co-directors Jeanne-Marie Almonor and John Shulman (with Allen Hamilton at right)
Courtesy of Jujitsu Films, LLC
Approaching the bench: 'Justice' co-directors Jeanne-Marie Almonor and John Shulman (with Allen Hamilton at right)

Almonor notes the hundreds of African American actors and extras on the set as part of the film's strong community base, adding that she and Shulman don't see the production wholly in terms of race. "If you have a problem with us," she says, "we will confront you and ask you what it's about. But do not disrupt what we're trying to do. We don't have time for that. We are not Minnesota Nice."

For an example of ideal grassroots filmmaking, Hickman points to the landmark HBO miniseries Laurel Avenue, which director Carl Franklin and producer Paul Aaron made in the Rondo neighborhood of St. Paul in the early '90s.

"The process of making Laurel Avenue should have been a documentary in itself," says Hickman, who was the film's location manager and is a native of Rondo, where she now bases her own multimedia group, Soultouch Productions. "It was so powerful, and the impact on the community so great, we're still waiting for [Franklin and Aaron] to come back here and make another film."

Laurel Avenue, which follows a weekend in the lives of an extended family, offers the most progressive, dynamic representation of African Americans in any film made in the Twin Cities, and was justly celebrated by critics nationwide. Yet due to the relatively small population of black people in the state, and to the even smaller number of black Minnesotans trained in film, there wasn't a Twin Cities African American production with the scope of Laurel Avenue in the entire decade until Justice came to town.

"It's purely because of the dollars," explains Rice. "In the Twin Cities--all over the country, in fact--film producers just don't see [African Americans] as economically viable. They make comedic films with black people, but few of them take a chance on true drama."

Guenveur Smith--who has made seven films with Spike Lee, in addition to working with John Singleton and Mario and Melvin Van Peebles--identifies the dearth of worthy projects for African Americans as a national phenomenon. "We rarely get that element of social change in entertainment media, where we're inundated with mindless material," he says in between takes in the Warehouse District. "It's a breath of fresh air to get a piece [like Justice] that's so ambitious in its political perspective."

Guenveur Smith has a history of taking on projects with roots in African American activism, from his explosive role in A Huey Newton Story, which he wrote and performed for the stage (and adapted for Lee's recent film of the same name), to his more subdued part in Lee's Get on the Bus. He also has a history with Minneapolis, having worked at the Guthrie Theater performing the plays of Ionesco, Pinter, and Shakespeare in the early part of Garland Wright's tenure as artistic director. Before moving to the Twin Cities in the mid-'80s, Guenveur Smith caught Prince's Purple Rain in a Greenwich Village theater and met the then-unknown Spike Lee in the lobby. Two years later, having set up shop in Minneapolis, the actor sat mesmerized through two consecutive screenings of Lee's debut feature She's Gotta Have It at the Uptown Theatre and resolved to find out more about the provocative director. It didn't take long: Less than a year later, Guenveur Smith had landed a small part in Lee's follow-up film School Daze. That was 1987, and he has been working regularly with Lee ever since.

 

Though Purple Rain and its sequel, Graffiti Bridge, remain the most widely recognized African American films to come out of the state of 10,000 longings for national recognition, the small but rich legacy of black filmmaking in the Twin Cities stretches back much further.

Growing up in Rondo, Rice greatly admired the area's famed one-time resident Gordon Parks--the prolific photographer, writer, composer, filmmaker, and poet to whom Rice paid tribute with his documentary Half Past Autumn. "There was never a single moment in my life when I didn't know about Gordon Parks," says Rice. "When I was five years old, I wanted to be a filmmaker, but I didn't think that black people could become directors. But when I saw [Parks's] Shaft, it was a big turning point. I decided that I wanted to--and could--make films."

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