Keep The Faith, Baby

Doug McHenry is a rare breed - a black movie producer.

I met him at 2PM at the Four Seasons hotel in Beverly Hills, January 30, 2002.

"You're going to pay for this?" says McHenry when we meet. "Otherwise we could go down the street to McDonalds. Ok, I've only got 40 minutes."

My heart skips a beat but I keep my composure in the face of footing the bill and lacking the time to do a proper interview.

Doug speaks and gestures in an extravagant way. The words pour out and my mind must race to catch up with his idiom.

McHenry graduated from Stanford with an Economics degree in 1973, and from Harvard with an MBA/JD in 1977. He then passed the California Bar and went to work for producer Peter Guber's Casablanca Records as head of business affairs. Doug's next boss was film head David Putnam.

"I grew up in Danville, in the San Francisco Bay Area," says Doug. "Near Berkeley. It was a neighborhood you don't find much in Los Angeles - an integrated neighborhood. You had working class Catholic white families. My dad was in the Army. Right around the corner we had a Buddhist temple. I went to an integrated boarding school called Athenia. It was 50% black."

Luke: "You're the first black movie producer I've met."

Doug: "A lot of the [black] guys I know who went to Harvard are with the big corporations. They're either the affirmative action officer or in finance. Everyone who was smart did finance. I wanted to work for a Washington law firm but the people lie so much there."

Luke: "They lie just as much in Hollywood."

Doug: "It's different. Politicians say that I am going to make my life better with health care to create a more humane society. Hollywood says this is the fucking product, you either buy it or not. I don't promise to make you healthy. I don't promise you Social Security. I don't promise to defend the country or defend the schools."

Luke: "So the movie maker has no moral responsibilities."

Doug: "Not true. We have a moral responsibility to not bore the client. I've made 13 movies. I've never lost money because I never bore the client. My movies have cost up to eight million dollars and all of them except one have done at least $20 million domestic box office. And we sell a shit load of records.

"Working for Peter Guber was exciting. I didn't want to be stuck away in some affirmative action office. Casablanca was a small lean company. They didn't give a shit what color you were. There were four owners, one of whom was black. The music business is probably the most integrated business next to the beer commercial."

I see white people giving us the eye when McHenry loudly uses expletives.

The Vietnamese waitress comes over. I order the black bean soup for $7:50.

Doug: "I will take the soup as well and the Cobb salad. You've got something in it like avocado. Now, where is it on the menu? Could you find it for me."

The waitress points it out on the menu.

Doug: "Please, could I have some escarole in there in addition to the green romaine? No red romaine. Butter lettuce. No anchovies and put some chicken in it. And no papaya and no avocado. If you send me something that is a mistake, I will eat it anyway. Thank you."

McHenry was fired from his executive position with a movie company in 1984. "I'd never been fired in my life. And I don't like the feeling. I'm good at what I do. Fuck that. I will never work for anyone again. So I bit the bullet.

"Mom and dad want you to have some security. When you choose to do what you and I do, you've got to jump off and glide. It's scary. I was running out of money. I was three months behind on my rent. I'm rolling pennies for four days to get $180.

"My partner for 17 years, George Jackson, died last year of a stroke. We were trying to sell a picture of hip hop rap. We got in our raggedy car in 1984 and we go down to the Long Beach Arena. It is rowdy with radical white kids, Latino kids and all kinds of black people. There was electricity and excitement that something unbelievable would happen. It was the first rap fest. Run DMC, the Fat Boys, Houdini... And we said, 'We're making a movie of this shit.' We met [promoter] Russell Simmons, Rick Reuben, Jive Records. And we hang with them. And we write up a proposal and go around the studios.

"If you go to a movie executive's office, and you look around, there's no fucking stereo. There's no CD player. If you ask him what the number one song in the country is, he doesn't know. Mark Canton was the only guy with a fucking stereo in his office.

"If you ask a movie exec what is the number one TV show, they don't know. They don't understand that it is all the same thing. When a creative idea starts as a Broadway play, as a magazine article, as a book, as a screenplay or this... You want to run this creative idea through all the proper distribution channels. Mark Canton knows about rap. We were the first people to put rappers in a movie.

"I fly to New York to meet with Parkway Records and they take us to meet Morris Levy. I didn't know who he was but he's this notorious record underworld giant. Ultimately, all these record things are owned by this guy Morris Levy who started [the club] Birdland with his brother. Levy's brother was assassinated. Levy went to jail and shit. [He died in 1989 after being sentenced to prison for federal racketeering and extortion.] I had no idea that my life was on the line with some mobster gangster. There's just something about just going for it. You understand what a wonderful business this is is."

McHenry produced his first movie, Krush Groove, in 1985. "In this movie based on the life of Russel Simmons, hot young record producer/manager Russel Walker has all the hottest acts on the record label Krush Groove records. The acts include Run-DMC, Dr.Jekyll and Mr. Hyde and Kurtis Blow. When Run-DMC has a hit record and Russel doesn't have the money to press records he borrows money from a drug dealer/loan shark. At the same time Russel and Run are both competing for the heart of Sheila E." (IMDB.com)

Doug, a Congregationalist Christian, takes a break to say grace before eating.

Luke: "Tell me about New Jack City."

Doug: "We've always wanted to do a gangster movie. We loved The Conformist, Third Man, the Dutch angles and shit, the fucking monochromatic colors. New Jack City is about a dark gangster who is not dumb. The lead character Nino Brown (played by Wesley Snipes) is dark, handsome. A motherfucker on screen.

"This shit called crack was going around. Before that, it was heroin and cocaine. There was a guy from my home town of Oakland who was on the cover of California magazine. They called him the MBA gangster. He studied all the loopholes in the [drug] law. For example, you can't get busted for selling drugs unless there's a hand-to-hand transfer. So he took over these projects and you'd go up to one end of the project and place your order. Then you'd all the way round to pick it up. So there was no hand-to-hand transfer. So we thought of a him [for a character in the movie]. And then the third guy came from a story in Washington D.C., where this 21-year old guy was busted and found with $10 million cash in show boxes.

"We had a hip-hop cop. There'd never been a hip-hip cop. The hip-hop sensibility is identified with the street and the bad guys but we made him a good guy. And the bad guy was cool. He had the suits and shit, the bodyguards, the champagne. And the man with the baggy pants and shit like that, the cop, is [rapper] Ice T.

"A hip-hop cop sounds like a contradiction in terms but it sure did fucking work. You can be cool and be a good guy. You can be of the hip-hop generation with a hip-hop consciousness that focuses on the real bad guys and leaves the guy with two rocks [of cocaine] alone.

"When I produce a movie, I produce the music at the same time. The idea of rap being a bridge between R&B choruses was mine. I flew in Queen Latifa and in ten minutes she does a rap bridge for 'Money, Money, Money.' And R&B has never been the same. The picture grossed over $50 million domestic and sold over four million records and a shit load of cassettes.

"It was time that Warner Brothers was having all kinds of failures. We were their first hit that year. We got a ring. It was Bob Daley and Terry Semel, who ran WB at the time, and the president of production. They bring us in and serve us champagne and say that we have a deal there for the next four years. And then we didn't make one other fucking picture for them."

Luke: "Have you used cocaine?"

Doug: "No comment. I've seen others do it. I've seen it on TV."

Luke: "How well do you know the hood?"

Doug: "I'm comfortable under the freeway underpass. That hood could be Nebraska. I love people. You could put me in the middle of Afghanistan and I'm going to get along. I love people. I'm sincere with them and I treat them with respect. When I'm in the hood, I don't speak [black urban lingo]. I speak the way I'm speaking to you. I don't talk down to people. People know that. Fuck that.

"I've made four movies this past year, about 40% of the [black] marketplace.

"When you walk into a movie theater, you say, make me feel something. Make me laugh, make me cry. People have laughed and cried at stuff I've been involved in that wouldn't let me move next door and marry their daughters. For the average family that goes to my films, they've got to wait for the 15th and the 1st [for their welfare checks]. Many families can't afford a baby sitter for my movies. When I go to a theater, there are crazy characters in the aisles and screaming babies. And I don't play 'em cheap. My shit looks good.

"I shoot Wesley Snipes better than any director he's ever been with. They blotch him. They put blue light on him instead of amber. When you see Vanessa Williams in the thing I just did [Keep the Faith, Baby], she looks more incredible than in the Arnold Schwartznaeger movie and shit like that. Because they don't give a fuck and they don't know how to shoot 'em [blacks]. Blue light looks good on you and shitty on him. He should be in amber and golds and lucentas. But he's too busy shooting Sean Connery to know what to do with Wesley.

"I always try to have a point and I always try to make them look real good. And I'm proud that every picture I've produced looks stunning compared to how much it costs. That's out of a desire to give that person who can't afford that baby sitter to give them their fucking money's worth. That's my job. Not to tell them how to think. Not to promulgate or be pedantic. But make them feel something.

"I don't make movies for me. I make movies for an audience. I'll cater to an audience. I will take them on an emotional ride. You will cry and you will laugh."

I picked up these comments about Doug's 1992 movie Jason's Lyric on the internet:

Is Hollywood ready for a black Romeo and Juliet? After watching the MPAA slap an NC-17 on what he calls a "passionate love story in an urban wasteland"-the rough Houston neighborhood where this family drama takes place-McHenry thinks not. "The violence didn't bother them," he says. "They were uncomfortable (with) sexual intimacy between African-Americans," specifically some moments McHenry has since toned down to earn an R rating. But there's plenty of adult material left in the often brutal movie, which explores the effects of a father's tragic death on his sons-Joshua (Woodbine), a jailbird/gang member, and Jason (Payne), a gentle appliance-store clerk. McHenry hopes Jason will win the respect of young moviegoers. "I'm attempting to put a role model out there," he says. "He's not a rapper, a gangster, or an athlete. He's an everyday guy."

When this romantic drama opened last year, director Doug McHenry (House Party 2) charged the MPAA with sexism and racism for its objection to the original poster. Instead, he should have made a stink over Bobby Smith Jr.'s script, which has all the complexity of a coloring book.

Last winter Jada Pinkett caused a stir when she told reporters interviewing her for the steamy film "Jason's Lyric" that it wasn't her who did the nude scenes -- but a body double instead. Jada said she refused to do the scenes because the film's director, Doug McHenry who also co-produced the film along with his partner George Jackson, never directed a film before.

Luke: "What do your movies say about you?"

Doug: "The movie that's closest to me is Jason's Lyric. I decided that I was going to direct something. I read a script that had potential. I saw a lot of my background in it. I said, I have the power to do it. I don't give a shit. I'm directing this movie. And I got the money and I did it. It was Romeo and Juliet in the ghetto. It had a lot of different themes in it. The message to me was two things. Sometimes to be a hero, you have to walk away. The hero doesn't always kick the bad guy's ass. Sometimes you have to destroy the person, and sometimes you walk away. And if you truly love someone unconditionally, you have to let that person go. Because that person's destiny may not be intertwined with yours."

Doug tears up. "I'm an emotional guy. I just got done speaking with my dead partner's [George Jackson] mother who's having a hard time. I'm going to see her in Harlem on Monday. I'm having a premiere for my new film, Keep The Faith, Baby. It stars another new actor, Harry Lennix."

From Showtimeonline.com: "The true life story of politician Adam Clayton Powell Jr. (Harry Lennix) follows him from charismatic Harlem preacher to local deal maker and controversial congressman going toe-to-toe with presidents as the powerful chair of the Education and Labor Committee. His enemies ultimately use his imprudent behavior to censure Powell, but a curious reporter makes sure the record is set straight on one of the country's most influential legislators--and one of the century's greatest black Americans."

Doug: "George Jackson and I shot a scene from New Jack City at the Adam Clayton Powell government building, the tallest building in Harlem, on 125th Street. We turned each to other and said, we're going to make a movie about this man."

Doug cries. "George didn't have to die. He was 43 years old. He was in good health but he was president of Motown Records. He was in a bad domestic situation. His ex is suing George's mother for back taxes. George's mother has not seen his baby in two years because she won't let her."

Luke: "How did you handle the critical reaction to Jason's Lyric?"

Doug: "There are two communities. Reviewers don't understand black movies. They don't understand the vernacular and they don't understand the situation the actors are portraying... I don't know how anybody could not like the movie.

"Take Kingdom Come [2001] with Whoopi Goldberg and Loretta Divine. Do you think the Academy Awards people will pay any attention to these fine performances? If my name was Woody Allen, and I didn't have to raise a fucking dime, and could make anything I want because he's got a tribe of people that support his ass, I would get Academy award nominations.

"African-Americans are a minority in this industry. Being black has no biological significance at all. We're not a different species. Racism is in the interest of the majority or we wouldn't have it.

"If I want to sell cars to Britain, I better put the steering wheel on the right side of the car. If we want to tour these [black] films in Europe, we must have black film festivals. We should lead with the music. Give it four years, and you will see a sizeable increase in the foreign market for these films."

Luke: "What's it like being a non-Jew in a predominantly Jewish industry?"

Doug: "I don't know knock them. They founded this business. They took off with Edison's invention. What I find shameless is that these agents, who represent 40% black talent - such as actors, singers, dancers, athletes - are so damn liberal, and are all white. There are no black agents.

"To be a producer, it helps to have grown up in the business. It's difficult to break in. If I was white and 6' tall and Methodist, it would be tough. And it's tough for the Jewish guy who doesn't have Jewish relatives in the business. The industry is paternalistic and nepotistic.

"I don't believe that Jewish people are prejudiced against anybody else. A lot of people are jealous of Jewish people. Rather than hate people, I'd rather imitate success. If I wanted to be a great long distance runner, I'd imitate what the great runners do.

"When I was a partner in a management agency, people would say to my white partner, why are you involved with that black guy? And to the client, the white guy's ice is colder. If we both have an ice machine, the white guy's ice must be colder. That's why this whole affirmative action thing is so fucking ridiculous. I went to Stanford and Harvard. Those schools make no compunction that there are a certain amount of spots made for legacies. If my daughter wants to go to Stanford, and has 100 points less on the SAT than your daughter, my daughter's ass is getting in. I give money and I went there. Nobody talks about them getting in. Why is it a better social policy to discriminate on the basis of private donations than to train some doctors who actually go to the black community and the fucking Indian reservations?

"That's bullshit. Because people who talk about open competition, don't really want to compete. They want to keep it for them.

"The test of morality is what a person will do to his worst enemy. To the exact same extent you promise freedom to your enemy, is the exact same extent I will trust your ass in a leadership position."

Luke: "Do you think it was truly racism that caused Jason's Lyric to get an initial NC17 from the ratings board?"

Doug: "I don't know. Bruce Willis get to take a shower and show a dick. There are two kinds of racism. Racism that we all suffer from. Just like men. We all suffer from chauvinism just like women. Were you born wanting to sleep with women naked with high heeled shoes on? Where does this come from? If you like women. I don't care whether you do or not. If you have a wet dream about making love to a woman with a pair of stilettos on, that's not necessarily natural. This is chauvinism because every centerfold has a naked women with shoes. And that men have trouble with intimacy is all chauvinism. Therefore, when a white censorship board...[tape unintelligible]. One is paternalism. If they allow the poster, then the black churches say, 'If it was two white people they would never have allowed it. They think that blacks are animals. Racism, racism.' And if they don't allow the poster, it's racism. Two naked white people, we'll leave it alone. But two naked black people, that's just too strong. It will cause people to riot."

Doug picks up the check.