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Hopping a ride with urban cowboys

A director who knew little about African American motorcycle clubs and a star steeped in them teamed for a tale told as a western.

January 29, 2003|Emory Holmes II | Special to The Times

The two-minute-long opening shot of "Biker Boyz" unfolds at midnight on an abandoned street and wends seductively through a crowd of leather-clad men and barely clothed women. Pulsating to the sound of revving engines and a hip-hop beat, the sequence is veiled in drifts of tire smoke and a spectrum of candied blues and blacks as opulent and unfamiliar as the interiors of a hip, subterranean Oz.

This is the world -- thriving, fantastic and almost unknown -- of the African American motorcycle clubs, and the film, which opens Friday, rides us deep into its edgy and sensuous heart of darkness. "I had no idea that this world existed," confides the film's co-writer and director, Reggie Rock Bythewood ("Dancing in September").

"I started going to some of these underground events here in L.A.," Bythewood recalls. "Huge crowds of people come out and watch these racing events. I'm standing around looking at them with the leathers and the chaps and the boots and the swagger. These guys felt just like cowboys. I didn't even know that people could ride like that and the idea of filming it as a western really took hold of me.

"And then I thought about it and I said, 'Well, yeah, it's not the fastest draw in the West. It's the fastest rider in the West. It's the King of Cali [slang for California]. It's the young gun going up against the fastest draw in the West."

Laurence Fishburne, who was Bythewood's first and only choice to play the film's central character, Smoke, the King of Cali, notes that "the first two people you see in this movie are Djimon Hounsou and Terrence Howard, who are great beauties. They are beautiful black men, all decked out in leather. They're all man, masculine, testosterone. Serious machismo."

"Have you ever seen anything like that on film?" Fishburne asks during a recent interview. "And from the moment that you see them, you know exactly where you are in the world. And it's not a bad place. But it's a little dangerous; it's a little sexy."

Adapted from a New Times article of the same name by journalist Michael Gougis, the DreamWorks film depicts the world of African American street bikers as a clandestine, strictly hierarchical society at the extreme margins of urban life, where speed and bravado reign supreme. In existence since the early '70s and made up of hundreds of clubs across the nation with names like the Chosen Few, the Valiant Riders and the Soul Brothers, the most formidable racers, termed "gunslingers," achieve the status of fighters or rock stars.

Supported by "crews" arrayed in their club colors, top guns vie at triple-digit speeds for trophies (women and helmets), and bragging rights against all comers, in illegal street races staged in the dead of night on the shadowy streets of cities -- including many in Southern California, from San Bernardino to San Diego -- much like the drag racers depicted in last year's hit "The Fast and the Furious." DreamWorks is hoping the $20-million film, which is opening on nearly 2,000 screens, will attract a crossover audience and become a sleeper hit similar to "Fast and the Furious."

These contests, as dangerous as they are thrilling, draw hundreds of enthusiastic fans in the know. Producer Stephanie Allain ("Boyz N the Hood") optioned the story, which was initially adapted for the screen by Craig Fernandez ("Puerto Vallarta Squeeze").

The project was then picked up by writer-director Gina Prince-Bythewood ("Love & Basketball"). Prince-Bythewood brought it to her husband, Reggie, who reset the story in its present format as a modern-day action-western.

On city streets and back roads in more than 40 locations across the state, Bythewood and cinematographer Greg Gardner photographed the film's eye-boggling street stunts and races without the benefit of special effects.

"Greg and I watched films like 'Road Warrior' and 'Mad Max,' " Bythewood recalls, "and we're, like, 'Man, these guys just did these stunts and shot it. They weren't in front of a green screen,' and so we thought, 'Let's make the movie like that and shoot it in a style that will make the audience feel they are part of the action and not spectators.' "

That idea quickly became the film's mantra.

"We kept saying: Put the audience on the bike or put the audience in the crowd. Once we decided to do that, it posed very interesting challenges for us. So we built rigs, specially designed to get the angles and shots that we wanted."

Actors who can ride

Much of the cast of the film, Fishburne, Hounsou, Orlando Jones, Salli Richardson-Whitfield and Kid Rock, portraying Dogg, one of the few non-black bikers whose skills are respected by the blacks, were selected both for their skills as actors and as bikers. The project reached Fishburne, a bike enthusiast for 10 years, in Australia, where he was wrapping production on the two "Matrix" sequels.

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