Virtually everywhere Anthony Drazan has shown his new movie, "Zebrahead," the first-time director has gotten a heated response. Some audience members end up shouting at each other. Others have left the theater in tears.
Yet the film has no sex and nudity. It shows children relating with their families and offers only one brief moment of violence, hardly a blip on the radar screen in a Steven Seagal film.
Is it possible moviegoers get unnerved because "Zebrahead" is about a white boy who falls in love with a black girl?
"I think it's still a taboo subject with a lot of people, both black and white," says Drazan, a 36-year-old New Yorker who based parts of the film on his memories of growing up in a racially mixed Long Island neighborhood.
"Whenever I screen the movie, it provokes all sorts of (emotions). I get up afterward to take questions and I feel like Phil Donahue with my microphone, getting bombarded with comments. People just go at it!"
Populated with young, largely unprofessional actors, the film focuses on Zach, a gawky Detroit high schooler who looks like the Motor City version of white hip-hop star MC Serch.
Distant from his aging-hipster father, his mother long dead, Zach finds emotional nourishment in African-American culture. He talks with the syncopated rhythms of a street kid and has turned his school locker into the local hip-hop record store. His best friend, Dee, is black.
But when Zach falls in love with Dee's cousin, a beautiful black girl named Nikki, he discovers that his easy familiarity with black culture can't erase the deep wounds of rage and prejudice.
Thanks largely to Oliver Stone, who helped get the movie made and has a highly visible presentation credit in its ad campaign, "Zebrahead" is getting a big push from Sony's Triumph Releasing Corp. arm. The movie, shot in 25 days on a shoestring budget last year, received such a warm reception on the film-fest circuit that Triumph opened it Friday in 10 cities, including Los Angeles, booking it in more than 250 theaters.
With a soundtrack due out next week on RuffHouse Records (supervised by MC Serch himself), the film has plenty of marketing muscle behind it. Whether it can find an audience remains to be seen.
"That's a lot of theaters for a little film," says a clearly apprehensive Drazan, who's already survived one serious jab--a negative New York Times review. "I just hope the studio is willing to stay with it for a little while."
A bright, introspective guy, Drazan ponders these imponderables over lunch at a popular cafe on Crenshaw Boulevard. As he studies the menu, Drazan listens with fascination to a fiery black nationalist speech, punctuated with a stream of references to blue-eyed white-devil oppressors, that booms over the restaurant's sound system.
Drazan takes it in stride. One of the key characters in "Zebrahead" is Al, an ardent young Muslim who wears Malcolm X glasses, dreadlocks and a white turtleneck--and lives in a nice white neighborhood.
Convinced Zach is a poseur, trying to get down with the brothers, Al confronts him early in the film, complaining: "You went into Africa. Took our music. Took our people. Now you're gonna take rap? Leave our music alone!"
White and Jewish, like Zach, Drazan knew he was hardly an expert on teen-age Muslims. Still, he brooded over whether his inexperienced actor, Abdul Hassan Sharif, was going over the top with what Drazan dubbed his "white-devil" act.
"I gave all the actors freedom to improvise," Drazan recalls. "I told the kids that essentially they were responsible for how their character came off in the film."
But with Sharif, Drazan wavered. Was his actor really going too far? Or was the problem with him--the white director who couldn't handle the rhetorical heat?
"I had an urge to pull him back, but then I would think, 'Is it just my prejudice or preconceptions?' " he acknowledges. "Ultimately, I let him go. I'm still not sure if I was right. He's one of the most controversial characters in the film. But with many audiences, he's often the most popular one."
Just as Drazan concludes this tale, a waiter shows up with a heaping plate of sandwiches. He cheerily apologizes to his white visitors for the strident rhetoric. "I hope you weren't insulted by all the stuff on the sound system," he says. "We don't necessarily endorse everything you hear."
As the afternoon wears on, the white-devil speeches are replaced by mellow Philly soul tunes. Having learned that Drazan is a film director, the restaurant owner proudly informs us that "Boyz N the Hood" director John Singleton is a regular customer.
He beams. "Maybe someday Steven Spielberg will come by too."
Drazan grins broadly too. After "Zebrahead" made a splash at the Sundance Festival earlier this year, guess who invited him over for a chat and gave him a development deal?
Steven Spielberg, of course.