AllHipHop.com: Your film that changed me was actually Above the Rim.
Its the only reason I ever played ball in school. However, its not a
basketball movie. The relationship of Kyle and his mother made the
movie much greater than the basketball. What commentary were you trying
Barry Michael Cooper: Benny Medina, Jeff Pollack and I wanted to come
up with a story that was a-typical but typical. The beauty of it is and
you made my year saying it, is its more than just a basketball movie.
There was a very warm relationship between Kyle and his mother. To
Duane Martins credit, he understood that without a father, he had to
be almost a companion. Because of how his mother sacrificed for him, he
knew he had to give back. Thats important to convey to the audience.
When Benny and Jeff hired me to do the script, I wanted to make it a
very soulful piece. I remember when Roger Ebert did the review, he said
that family was the thread between Above the Rim and Sugar Hill.
It was really important to tell that story. You need that [fatherly]
love to nurture you. Kyle wasnt a perfect kid; he got got up in the
mythology of Tupacs [character Birdie]. That was one of Tupacs
greatest roles. Gridlockd was hot, Juice, he killed it.
Birdie was a special role. That graveyard scene, which Jeff added after
I turned my script in to Tupacs credit, when hes in there talking to
Leon, You werent there; I had to step up! Its almost as if to say youre not being there added to the ingredients of making me this Ghetto Frankenstein; dont you dare talk down to me like that!
AllHipHop.com: That film brought Tupac back to New York. Great,
wonderful things came of that, and terrible things came of that all
with Above the Rim forever changing it
Barry Michael: 1994 was a very surreal experience. I was the first
Black screenwriter to not only have two movies in one year, but
released a month apart. Sugar Hill came out on February 25, 1994 and Above the Rim came out March 23, 1994. It was 30 days between these two movies. It affected me, in good ways and bad ways.
I really got caught up in the Hollywood scene. I’m working on a
collection of my work over 25 years–my investigative journalism,
essays, an excerpt from my novella The Diary Of Nino Brown: The Untold
Story Of A Street Legend, and a few other pieces–titled The Day New
Jack City Burned 2 Tha Ground (Smoke Got In My Eyes). It’s almost my
travelogue from the Village Voice years through Hollywood to the present.
I talk about how the original Pookie was not Chris Rock, it was Martin
Lawrence. Martin Lawrence came in and auditioned and tore everybody up.
The guy filming it had to stop; he killed it. He had the role. When his
mentor Robyn Harris died from sleepapnia, I dont know if its true or
not, but legend has it that Martin Lawrence had a nervous breakdown.
Chris Rock actually gave a horrible audition; hes known to not give
good auditions. They gave the role to him.
The first day of shooting was on Woodcrest and 166th Street, where its
him and Ice-T making the drug transactions, saying The Lords Prayer.
Chris killed it. He and Wesley could have nominated! After he did that
scene, Mario [Van Peebles] and I applauded. Hes a brilliant comedian
and social commentator, but as an actor give Chris Rock that script,
and hell get it hes gonna get an Oscar before its all said and
[The log] is just a look back to see what Benny and Jeff did. I gotta
give credit to [Dr.] Dre and Suge Knight to the soundtrack of Above the Rim.
What it did to take West Coast music outta here wow. People asked, “How
do you feel?” I’d say, “I’m numb.” I’d go from chilling it the cubicle
at The Village Voice to the next day chilling in Quincy Jones’
basement in Bel-Air with the late Hal Ashby. To see all of that, and
look back on it now, I had to put it all in a book. This is what The
Day New Jack City Burned 2 Tha Ground will include, a collection of my
essays, stuff I’ve done for The Voice, Spin, a piece I did on R. Kelly for America magazine, and a few other pieces.
AllHipHop.com: What else do you having popping right now?
Barry Michael Cooper: I did a film called Blood on the Walls.
I have re-edited it into a 14 part webiseries to play online, and
Webisode 1 is playing on I-Film right now. I shot an un-aired pilot for
UPN in 2003 called Streets Incorporated that me and my partner,
Joe Marrone in Philadelphia who helped create Kurupt’s Antra Records
are doing online. It was so good, but so scary that UPN didn’t air it.
I have to say this about Joe Marrone: this guy is not only one of the
best criminal lawyers in Philadelphia, but he is a real visionary. He
is the guy who really resuscitated Kurupt’s career after he left Death
Row in the late ’90s, and to be honest, he kept Dr. Dre in the public
eye until Dre blew up once again with Eminem in 1999. Joe also helped
my career during that time when I was pretty much blacklisted at the
studios and no one wanted to hire me. He hired me to direct Dre and
Kurupt in Ask Yourself A Question back in late 98, and we created Streetz, Incorporated
for UPN back in 2003. He is about to come up again with two important
artists coming out of Philadelphia. Jamie Knight–who is as sexy as
Beyonce, but a musical genius like Lauryn Hill, and Philly Swain, a
rapper who was on the Takedown label who might change the game the way
Jigga did with Reasonable Doubt. Keep an eye out for Joe’s label, PhillieTown, because I think it’s going to make a lot of noise this year.
AllHipHop.com: So youre using the Internet for Blood on the Walls?
Barry Michael Cooper: Blood on the Walls
is my twisted, roman a clef about my life after the celebration and the
bon bon vie of being this young, Black Hollywood screenwriter. The
bottom fell out. In the film, the protagonist is this guy named Cooper
Michaels, who had this fantastic career, blowing up as this journalist
in the ’90s, goes on to write a television show called Filthy that stars Dr. Dre and Kurupt. It’s like a New York Undercover.
This guy lives the Hollywood life. He has a family in Baltimore, but
he’s out there with the broads, and he gets caught up in crack, and the
bottom falls out. The show has its run and he has nowhere to go. All he
has is this crack habit on his back. He comes back to Baltimore,
becomes a journalist again. He investigates a murder/suicide that’s
world news. As he’s piecing together the case, he’s piecing the ruins
of his life also. That’s playing online, yes. I did it in 2005. It was
an official selection in the 2005 American Black Film Festival in South
Beach, Miami and John Hopkins Film Festival in Baltimore in 2006. I
wanted more people to see it, and I wanted to test the waters of this
online thing. I cut it up into a 14 part webiseries. A few more sites
online, including The Village Voice and City Paper are interested in airing it–so soon, anybody around the world will be able to watch it.
Really, its my love letter to Hip-Hop. Its Hip-Hop-driven. Its about
a guy who came out of the era of Starski, DJ Hollywood, Spoonie Gee,
Cold Crush, and seeing Hip-Hop in its infancy all the way into now.
Its a story of redemption. Its all of those great things. Its a
moment in time about a guy thats trying to come back from the dead.
Its a character study, its a detective story, and its a story of
redemption. Its shot as this raw documentary. Im a fan of John
Casavetes, Jonas Mekas, Andy Warhol. It took four months to edit, and I
did all of the editing. It was like film school for me. The story had
been in my head for four years. If people stick with it from webisode 1
through 14, theres a real payoff.
AllHipHop.com: We look at Hip-Hop, and there was always competition
between the boroughs, most notably Queens versus The Bronx. In the
early 90s, when Spike Lee was making films that covered many aspects
of Brooklyn life, you were making Harlem as cinematic as ever. In the
film world, or Black Hollywood, was there friendly competition?
Barry Michael Cooper: [Laughs] Youre a very perceptive dude. Its
funny that you asked that question, because Spike is overlooked. After
his banner year last year, Spike is on the level with Spielberg,
Coppola, and George Lucas. Hes in the pantheon of the Top Five
Filmmakers. Spike and I always had this mutual admiration, going back
20 years. He used to read my writing. He asked me to do the
introduction to the book The Making of Do the Right Thing.
Weve always had these very friendly, but spirited and competitive
debates about Brooklyn and Harlem. He says theyve got better
basketball players and fighters. I say, Yeah, but were better dressed
and more well-read. [Laughs] Subconsciously, I guess it was like that.
Not long after Above the Rim came out, Spike shut everything down with He Got Game.
I think on some level we always went back and forth of course, he
won, hands down. I can’t say enough good about the person he is, the
man he is.
People have not recognized what he has contributed to American cinema.
Forget the fact that he this mantle of an angry young man, and Malcolm X,
so on and so forth look at the filmmaking technique. Look at the
attitude throughout the entire corpus throughout American filmmaking,
period. The anger was shtick. He wasnt that angry. He knew that as a
Black filmmaker in a racist business, which is Hollywood, If Ive got
to use this mask, Ill use it. He did. Im putting this in my upcoming
essay on Spike. When you look at everything from Joes Bed Stuy Barbershop: We Cut Heads to Levees, itll make your head spin. Levees
is one of the greatest American films in the last 30 years! It is a
requiem of America in five parts. I hope its a clarion call for all of
us to come together; thats what hes saying in that film.