A Surprising Side of Hollywood

Big names pitch in to help young black filmmaker get his break

By , Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor

In a small square park in a crowded San Fernando Valley suburb, a film crew is spread out around the baseball backstop. A couple of kids hover in the background as two actors, a stunt man, and the director discuss the fight scene they're about to shoot between a father and son.

''Is this the way you want me to flip him?'' asks the middle-aged actor Ernie Hudson with Norris Young, who plays his son, slung over his back.

The director looks at the stuntman, then nods.

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''Yeah, that's good,'' says Rahi (Rocky) Hudson, the young writer-director of this short film called ''Swift.'' Ironically, Hudson the director is also the son of Hudson the actor. A real-life scenario that will be mirrored on the screen.

The film is about an African-American family where the balance of power is shifting between the father, who is coming to terms with the limitations of age, and his teenage son, who's learning the generosity that comes with maturity.

It's unique not only because of the sensitivity of the story line, but because of the way it's being made: with donations. In a town some people consider shallow, power hungry, star struck, and egocentric, Hudson's project has prompted generous offerings of time and money from some of the industry's heavyweights.

Spielberg producers Kathleen Kennedy and Frank Marshall, special-effects Academy Award-winner Stan Winston, and actor Phillip Poteat have donated toward the film's $30,000 budget. ''Batman'' storyboard artist David Russell is giving his time and talents to the cause. Songwriter and record producer Charlie Midnight is writing the music, donating not only his services, but also his studio.

''I truly believe this will be powerful and empowering, and will introduce a young man who will make a resounding impact on the world of film,'' says executive producer Cathryn Jaymes, who's managed and nurtured such talents as the now famed director Quentin Tarantino.

Ms. Jaymes was introduced to young Hudson by his father, who several times asked her to look at his son's work. She finally relented, out of courtesy, and was surprised to find real talent in one of Hudson's earlier shorts.

''It was remarkably imaginative and well produced and incredibly well directed,'' Jaymes says. ''I mean a very obvious directorial signature was already in place visually.''

The young Hudson, who's directorial command gives way to a nervous shyness in the face of a tape recorder, says he's determined to bring black filmmaking to a new level. He wants to do character-driven stories about African-Americans, Hispanics, and other minorities that steer clear of the stereotypes that too often mar Hollywood films.

''I want to bring humanity to the screen for black characters,'' he says. ''Most of the stories [in black films] now are the same, it's the same movie about urban black-on-black crime, crack, and gangs.''

Hudson recognizes that's part of reality, but he's also insistent that there are good, upbeat stories that can teach people about themselves and offer role models. As a teenager, he saw ''The Scott Joplin Story'' with Billy Dee Williams and it eventually gave him the determination to direct.

''I was so proud of Scott Joplin that I got a piano and tried to learn ragtime,'' he says. ''It's sad there are no more heroes on the screen, that's what I'm passionate about changing.''

But even with all of this support, which his father's connections undoubtedly helped, Hudson faces an uphill battle. Hollywood, in general, eschews the sensitive, character-driven story in favor of high-grossing action films. And even as it becomes more open-minded, Hollywood remains a fairly restrictive environment.

The Director's Guild of America's (DGA) annual survey shows the percentage of hours worked by minority directors has hovered at 5 percent since 1983, even with the success of such filmmakers as Spike Lee and John Singleton. The DGA calls that ''disgraceful.''

But Hudson remains undaunted, full of the idealism and determination that many people in his own generation have already given up.

''There's just so much that can be done, there are so many different stories,'' he says. ''That's what I'm passionate about, telling those stories. If I can't get [studio] money, I'll find it somewhere else.''

That energy has clearly proven to be attractive.

''He's the kind of person you really want to see do his life's work the way he'd like to do it,'' says Connie Zastoupil, Tarantino's mother, who is an executive producer of the film along with Jaymes.

''I think he's really dedicated to giving something back to the community, and I believe he will. That's important to me,'' she says.

Back at the field, Hudson watches as the actors wrestle to the ground, then stop, and look to him for approval. ''Let's do that again,'' he says with authority.

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