Producer H. M. Coakley

Producer H. M. Coakley was born on Saint Thomas in the Virgin Islands. He grew up with his brother in Pasadena, attending public school.

"I felt like an outsider," Coakley told me at his Beverly Hills apartment, February 13, 2002. "I stayed to myself. I've always wanted to come to California and get involved with the movie business. I did well in school. At age 17, I went to Howard University on a scholarship. It's a predominantly black college in Washington D.C.. I majored in Physics. It's hard to convince your parents that you want to get into the arts. You had to find something [to study] that they could relate to. I put my dream to be a filmmaker on the backburner. I graduated in three years.

"I got into a lot of graduate schools and I ended up at UCLA to work on my Ph.D. in Physics. My instructor had just won a Nobel Prize for Physics. So he handpicked his class. I was the only black guy in the class. Everybody was so in awe of the professor and I'm sitting there thinking, I'm not sure that this is what I want to do. I should be more into this. I should be like everyone else. But I was bored. Even though I enjoyed problem solving, and I enjoyed Physics, it didn't seem like 20 years down the road I would be happy. So I started soul searching.

"I reverted back to what I wanted as a child - to work in the movie business. I wanted to tell stories. As a kid on St. Thomas, I used to make up elaborate stories that I'd tell people. So I started hanging out at the film school at UCLA and I was completely sold on this is what I want to do. The day I decided to do this, I gave myself a name. Until now, I was known as Herbert. On this day, I gave myself a name to remind me that on this day I decided to go after my dreams.

"A friend of mine was taking a class in Zwahili. And she suggested Mwalimu. It means teacher, instructor, leader. That's what I wanted to do with film. I've always been interested in teaching.

"I left UCLA after a year and returned to Howard where I studied Physics and Film at the same time. I couldn't do that at UCLA because the program is much more rigorous. Everybody who met me at Howard called me Mwalimu and nothing else. I finished my Masters in Physics at Howard while taking a full load of film courses. Then I applied to film schools. I got accepted to Columbia to do an MFA in Film.

"I went to Columbia as a directing student and discovered producing in my second year. Eric Bross asked me to produce Ten Benny. He said he had $125,000. First day of production, we find out Eric only has $25,000. So we shoot all day and raise money all night. We shot for 30 days in New Jersey in late 1995. We got the film produced for $160,000 and it became my thesis film at Columbia. In 1996, we got the film into the Sundance Film Festival and that launched my career.

"I moved to Los Angeles and began producing music videos. I also produced Eric's 1998 movie Restaurant. We launched a lot of careers like Jesse Martin, now on Law & Order. Elise Neal now has a TV show.

"I was director of production for IFP (Independent Feature Project) West for a year. It was too corporate for me. I now have my own production company with my fiance Camille Irons, Rockstone Pictures. We want to make movies for and by people of color. We hope to start shooting the slasher comedy Holla in April."