In the world of strange jobs, the occupation of film director is a particularly curious one. For every year of filmmaking (and editing and promoting) and frantic activity, there’s bound to be a year or two of relative quiet. Charles Stone III is neither the newest hot filmmaker on the block like Hustle and Flow‘s Craig Brewer nor an exalted and thoroughly over-extended veteran like Spielberg, Scorsese or Soderbergh. Instead, Stone, the director of Drumline and 2004’s Mr. 3000, is another guy looking to parlay his strong youthful work into a lengthy feature career.
With no new feature on the near horizon, Stone will have time to speak on Duke campus this Friday, Jan. 13 and ponder another strange fact of our existence: Black History Month. That month is February, of course, but for all practical purposes the observance of Martin Luther King’s birthday is the kickoff, at Duke and elsewhere. Also appearing this weekend is Harry Belefonte, who will speak at 3 p.m. Sunday at the Duke Chapel as part of the university’s King festivities.
Stone admits to some mixed feelings about Black History Month and plans to address them in his presentation at the Richard White Lecture Hall, a talk that will include clips of his work. “I’ll be discussing my work and how it’s perceived in a world where things are so divided and marginalized,” he said in a recent telephone interview from his home in the Clinton Hill section of Brooklyn.
“An example [of this marginalization] is me being referred to as a black filmmaker rather than a filmmaker. And that goes into what we call Black History Month. There are pros to having this period to study and celebrate, but it’s not American history, it’s black history. It’s like white people are saying, ‘Y’all have a month to do whatever you want.’”
Stone, who is the son of retired UNC journalism professor Chuck Stone, has made a total of three feature films, beginning with a Harlem drug trafficking tale called Paid in Full. This led to Drumline, released the same year, which explored the world of marching band competitions in Southern historically black colleges. He followed that film up with Mr. 3000, a complex and thoughtful baseball comedy with Bernie Mac.
In his films, Stone tries to leaven the didactic burden of events like Black History Month by navigating between the specificity of the black experience and the generalities of the human experience. “My characters go through challenges that are universal, even when I make a black film with an all-black cast that you can discuss during Black History Month!”
One might imagine that, with a solid track record, Stone would have two or three features lined up for the next couple of years, and a regular table at Elaine’s. However, the reality is a little more quotidian for the 39-year-old filmmaker. Stone currently has projects “in development.” There are a couple of novels he’s adapting, but nothing’s firmed up enough to publicize, he says.
While lining up his next feature, Stone has had time to make a short film called The Bet, which is on the festival circuit. Even if The Bet picks up some prizes, it will have a hard time topping a two-minute short Stone made in 1999 called True. That short, about four black men and their favored greeting, came to the attention of a Chicago ad agency that counted Budweiser among their clients. Before long, Stone remade his film as a commercial starring himself and his friends, and kicked off a national catchphrase. You know the one: “Whassup.”
In the course of Stone’s struggles to get another green light, he’s received a crash course in studio economics. The edgier, more adventurous material he would like to make needs to be budgeted under $20 million and handled by independent financers. When the budgets rise above $20 million, the studios look to reduce their risks. Hence, most all-black movies being made by Hollywood are such recycled fare as Big Momma’s House 2 and Barbershop 2.
Stone is no fan of the kind of “black movies” that Hollywood is willing to make. “The barriers have been broken. There are opportunities for filmmakers of color, but the challenge is: Can you make a film that is not a hyper-sexualized comedy or that involves athletes or urban gangsters?”
More surprisingly, Stone has learned that if he were to find financing for an all-black “event” film with a budget north of $80 million, there is only one African-American actor who is considered bankable enough to bring in the all-important foreign box office revenue.
“I would have to cast Will Smith,” Stone says.
Charles Stone III will appear at 7 p.m. on Friday, Jan. 13 at the Richard White Lecture Auditorium on Duke’s East Campus. The event is free.
Charles Stone III will not be the only filmmaker contemplating the arbitrary tyranny of racial classification at Duke University this weekend. In an eight-minute digital video called Famous Irish Americans, filmmaker Roger Beebe ponders the common birthright of Eugene O’Neill, Tip O’Neill and Shaquille O’Neal. Although the film is funny, it is most assuredly not a joke.
Beebe, a onetime Triangle art film stalwart, will return to the area to screen his work at three different venues in Raleigh and Durham, including Duke University’s weekend conference in tribute to Professor Jane Gaines, founding director of the university’s Film/Video/Digital program.
Although Beebe reports that Famous Irish Americans is his biggest crowd-pleaser, it is also his most atypical work. For starters, Beebe prefers to work in film–particularly the luminous (and discontinued) Super-8 Kodachrome stock. Furthermore, his other works tend to be less didactic. Instead, they implicitly and explicitly evoke the work of Robert Frank, Gary Winogrand and Lee Friedlander, all photographers of the atomic age whose Western photographs captured the banalities, cruelties and beauties of imperial America.
In his most recent project, an elegant, elegiac film called Save, Beebe considers an abandoned gas station from a multitude of perspectives. “SAVE” is the name of the derelict establishment, and the titular sign is the kind of urban landscape feature we’ve learned to ignore as we drive through disused commercial districts. But in Beebe’s film, the “SAVE” sign acquires the dignity one ordinarily would assign to an old poplar tree, struggling for life against the ravages of time and the elements.
Beebe lived in Durham from 1994-2000 while he pursued his graduate work at Duke. While studying, he also curated the Flicker Film Festival for several years before he left the area to take a teaching position at the University of Florida. He’s completed several shorts since relocating, but he’ll be showing at least one of his Durham-era films, A Woman, A Mirror. It’s a meditation on women and mechanical flight composed of stock footage of Amelia Earhart, flight instruction materials and a dance performed by five women.
On Friday, Jan. 13 at 8 p.m., Roger Beebe will be at the Kirk Adam Gallery (107 W. Hargett St., Raleigh, 601-3131, www.kirkadam.com). Tickets are $4. Saturday night Beebe will join other Duke alumni filmmakers as part of the conference entitled Lookalikeness: The Moving Image and Its World (www.duke.edu/literature/lookalikeness). Beebe will reprise his show on Sunday at 7 p.m. at Durham’s 305 South (305 S. Dillard St., 682-2594, www.305southdurham.com). Tickets are $5.