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Directing a hip-hop breakthrough

MTV video nominees show that the color barrier is crumbling, but there are still few blacks behind the camera, and getting there is tough.

August 21, 2004|Tommy Nguyen | The Washington Post

At MTV's Video Music Awards next weekend, four of the five productions competing for the top prize will be from the world of hip-hop and R&B.

That's no biggie, considering that for years mainstream hip-hop music videos have been barreling through popular culture, influencing fashion and clueing in Madison Avenue. But another part of that music revolution has been quietly taking place behind the camera.

Bryan Barber, director of OutKast's nominated video, "Hey Ya," is black.

So is Philip Atwell, director of D12's "My Band."

And the director of Usher's "Yeah," Little X.

There's never before been a best-picture nominee list in the movie industry with that kind of race ratio.

In the last 15 years or so, the music video industry has been a boon to ambitious black filmmakers: opening doors, supplying steady work and, for a few, putting them on a fast track to the Hollywood big time. Antoine Fuqua ("King Arthur," "Training Day") and F. Gary Gray ("The Italian Job," "Friday") started out directing videos.

"Historically, I've seen more African American directors break into the music video industry through hip-hop and urban music, and that's a good thing," says Scott Edelstein, a former head of music video production for HSI Productions, which once represented Hype Williams and still houses Paul Hunter, two seminal names among black hip-hop directors.

Social status as a price

The money is coming in, the directors are commanding respect and their near-rap-star status gives many of them social luxuries not unlike the livin'-large set designs of their videos.

Like most boons, however, this one can come with a price, and behind those velvet ropes, some say, may lie a velvet coffin.

But the velvet can be pretty plush.

One week this month on MTV's "Total Request Live," which works like the box-office report for music video audiences, two of the three most-requested videos were from black directors: Benny Boom's Nelly video "My Place" and Chris Robinson's Usher video "Confessions II."

Robinson says the most rewarding work he might ever do may be in music videos and credits the hip-hop community for giving him that shot.

"With the Nas video," he says, referring to "One Mic," in which Nas takes on police harassment and civil upheaval, "I run into all kinds of cats in Harlem, Toronto, L.A., and they all say they felt 'One Mic.'

"They appreciated the art of it."

Many black directors and hip-hop artists instantly find a creative kinship because they often have similar experiences, Robinson says. "I can interpret these lyrics by Nas because I can understand that experience without putting a filter on it. I understand the metaphors, the story, the images."

"Something can be said about knowing your community," agrees Little X, citing Francis Ford Coppola directing "The Godfather."

"Knowing a lot about his [Italian American] culture brought something to that film. When you know the community, some things just don't need to be discussed."

Black video directors have also set a new creative standard. In the mid-'90s, directors such as Williams and Hunter developed a sharp, energetically polished style that had nothing to do with the party over here or the struggle over there. Missy Elliott's "The Rain," D'Angelo's "Untitled" and Busta Rhymes and Janet Jackson's "What's It Going to Be" all helped raise the creative bar. Their style has become a staple of MTV and BET prime time.

"Hype brought the medium a look and feel and an attitude that just stood out," says Peter Baron, vice president of label relations for MTV and MTV2. "You'd see one of his videos and you'd say, 'That's a Hype Williams video.' And if you were an artist and couldn't afford Hype or if he were too busy, you simply went to one of his proteges."

Today's black directors would certainly argue that they've developed their own video styles -- people such as Tim Story, Jessy Terrero, Eric White, Malik Sayeed, Kevin Bray and Nzingha Stewart. They're known throughout the industry, with big reputations and often big production budgets to match. In the music video world, hip-hop production budgets usually trump other music genres. In that sense, these directors aren't the Spike Lees of the video industry; they're the James Camerons and the Michael Bays.

And that means some of them are getting a chance to make a run at feature filmmaking. Terrero directed "Soul Plane," and Hunter did "Bulletproof Monk."

"The feature film world knows what's happening on MTV and who the flavor of the month is," says Boom, and that's why many black music video directors will get that feature film shot. (One shot, however, may be all you get -- after Williams' 1998 film "Belly" flopped, he has had a difficult time getting another chance. Edelstein calls the situation "director's jail.")

But as Fuqua, Gray and Story can attest, one shot may be all you need. Story directed "Barbershop" and went on to direct "Taxi," starring Queen Latifah and Jimmy Fallon, set to open this fall. He has started production on "Fantastic Four."

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