CRENSHAW : Black Films on the Marquee

April 18, 1993|ERIN J. AUBRY

The video rental shop, a modest storefront nestled in a row of several set back from busy Martin Luther King Jr. Boulevard, wouldn't seem to pose much of a threat to such video goliaths as Blockbuster or the Wherehouse.

But Video Charles has an edge on the competition: It has more than 2,000 black-oriented selections, many of which are hard to find anywhere else in Los Angeles.

A wealth of classic Hollywood fare can be found in the store, including "Green Pastures," "Cabin in the Sky," "The Emperor Jones," and "The River Niger." The selection includes filmed performances by the Alvin Ailey American Dance Theatre and opera singer Leontyne Price, documentaries of historical black figures such as the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr., and lectures by many others, including black historian John Henrik Clarke.

"Video Charles has by far the biggest selection of black films anywhere, from current to old stuff," said Muhammad Nassardeen, a frequent customer for six years. "He has everything. I come a little ways from Inglewood to get here, but's it's worth it."

For owner Charles Allen, 50, opening the shop in 1984 was a triumph of entrepreneurial will. He came to Los Angeles in 1978 with 40-odd dollars in his pocket and the painfully fresh memory of a failed marriage. With only a vague notion of one day opening a business, Allen first worked as a janitor, then as a deliveryman for a man who owned a TV shop and rented videos on the side.

When renting videos--a sideline that eventually became the Video Station chain--began to outpace TV sales, Allen became the owner's right-hand man, traveling across the country to supervise the carpentry and other work involved in opening 200 stores. But two years of being on the road was enough.

"I loved it at first, living in hotels, having an expense account and a better salary," Allen said.

But when the Video Station's owner became embroiled in legal problems, Allen decided it was time to start his own business.

After taking out a second mortgage on his house and charging credit cards up to their $10,000 limit, he opened Video Charles at 3738 King Blvd., the former presidential campaign headquarters for Jesse Jackson.

Ironically, Allen opened with no black titles in a location that was a symbol of black political pride at that time.

"It kind of hit me when one customer looked around one day and said, 'You don't have anything black.' I had kind of unconsciously lost my identity."

When he started stocking black films, Allen said customers followed. He now has 2,000 black videos for rent--roughly a third of his stock--and says he keeps on collecting them just for fun.

"I want to be able to say that I'm the only one in town with a particular film," he said with a grin.

Customer Vicki Lowe said Allen's titles provide more than nostalgia or entertainment. "(Allen) has a lot of films that promote positive black images," she said. "They show people, especially young people, an alternative to the violence they usually see on screen."

Allen also wants to manufacture and distribute black educational films. He said teaching young people about career opportunities in the film business is at least as important as keeping black films in circulation.

"I can train young people in skills they can take with them wherever they go: telemarketing, sales, film editing," said Allen, who works with a local Little League team and funds a memorial scholarship at Dorsey High School for his stepson from his second marriage who was killed in a gang-related shooting.

"The fact is, you can make a dollar in your own community and make a profit at the same time."

Los Angeles Times Articles