Sign up for our free newsletter
When Bruce Brown drives through Anacostia, the outing is akin to a homecoming king riding a float down Main Street. People who recognize the filmmaker wave to him and shout, “Bruce!” and he honks his horn and waves back. While in his old neighborhood, Brown scans the streets for familiar faces and revisits old haunts. He passes through the scenic make-out spot of his youth, rides past homes that he has lived in, and otherwise takes in the sights and sounds of Southeast.
If Brown were a wealthy Hollywood director, his trip through the old neighborhood would be cliche—perhaps even ending with a ceremonial ribbon-cutting to dedicate some youth center or movie theater named after him. But Brown is not a big-time movie director.
The 39-year-old filmmaker has not only failed to make it to Hollywood—he still hasn’t produced a film that breaks out of the confines of his old neighborhood.
Both of his films to date depict the essential dilemma of Southeast—the struggle of residents to cope with violence and poverty while surrounded by power and wealth. 1997’s Streetwise, his first film, examined the Southeast of the late ’80s and early ’90s, when crack-related violence made every corner the potential scene of a shootout. The movie screened for a few months at the AMC Rivertown theater in Prince George’s County and can now be found in about 20 video stores in the District.
Divided City, which premieres next month, explores the neighborhood in the midst of urban renewal.
Brown considers his work part of the “urban action” genre that sprang up in the early ’90s—movies such as Boyz N the Hood and New Jack City. ‘Hood movies explore poverty, racism, and the lure of the street; they are often criticized for violence and a narrow depiction of black life. Still, Brown doesn’t shy away from showing even the most unflattering aspects of his neighborhood. He is fiercely proud of it, lumps and all.
“People just see the murders, but these people had names—some of these people were innocents,” Brown says. “It was all about economics: making money, getting ahead. Everybody just wanted to do better. That’s what it all comes down to.”
But the Washington that Brown loves and that has provided him with titillating characters and a familiar back lot is undergoing a major transformation. Modern-day Anacostia is filled with $200,000 condominiums, sit-down eateries, and increasing racial and economic diversity. Each time a new structure is erected, the late-20th-century topography of Southeast is further obscured. Brown’s childhood stomping grounds are starting to resemble a suburban planned community, rather than the war zone that has informed his work thus far.
So life on the streets of Southeast is a bit less cinematic than it was in Brown’s younger days. Sure, the drunks still linger by the liquor stores on Martin Luther King Jr. Avenue, and hoopdees still roar up and down Good Hope Road. But the ‘hood no longer feels quite like that hellish place that the media formerly referred to as the “inner city.” It would appear that the filmmaker is gradually losing his set.
And Brown himself has left for Prince George’s County.
None of that matters to Brown. If Anacostia morphed into a gated retirement community with a golf course, the filmmaker would still be laboring to extract a movie from it.
“I’m a Washingtonian forever,” he says. “No matter where I go or what I do, home for me will always mean Southeast D.C.”
At the premiere of Streetwise, a woman in the audience fled the theater just after one of the violent scenes. In the lobby, Brown stopped the woman and asked why she was leaving.
“She told me that she had been to too many funerals of young people in this city, and that it was too hard for her to watch,” Brown says. “She told me congratulations, that she enjoyed the film, but that she was going to head home.”
The woman had no idea how close to home the violence really hit.
As Streetwise opens, a teenager runs through a back alley near Good Hope Road SE, trying to escape a gun-wielding rival. When the gunman closes in, the two exchange words and a tussle ensues. Watching the struggle is a child, about 10 years old, played by Darryl Hall. When a single shot is fired, he covers his ears and runs away.
Hall never got a chance to see his big-screen debut—he was murdered in January 1997, a victim of the Simple City street war that was terrorizing the Benning Heights neighborhood of Northeast Washington at the time. Then 12, Hall was abducted and killed while walking home from school. His tragic murder prompted the warring sides to begin negotiating a highly publicized truce just months later.
“It seems like every film that I do, someone is killed during shooting,” Brown says, shaking his head. “Talk about realism. I said to myself, ‘I have to stop making these films.’”
The story line of Streetwise unfolds like the family history of many of Brown’s childhood neighbors. It follows three brothers growing up in Southeast: Donte, the oldest, is a drug dealer trying to oust the neighborhood’s reigning kingpin; Eric, the middle brother, is a reluctant participant in his brother’s business; and Michael, the youngest, has shunned joining his siblings in favor of rapping.
In Streetwise, Brown plays up the distinctions between the fleeting wealth of the street players and the prosperity of official Washington. As the brothers’ illegal business becomes profitable, the ruin is replaced by the gleam of new cars and jewelry. Brown offers shots of D.C. landmarks as they appear from Southeast—twinkling and distant.
Streetwise pulses with realism, but it is hard to determine whether it is a result of careful planning or the accident of an amateur auteur. Whether intentional or not, the film portrays a tedium unique to the life of a drug dealer. There are plenty of moments of action, but, as in life, the minutiae of selling drugs take precedence—making phone calls, bagging up rocks, driving to make a pickup, sitting on the hood of a car talking to a friend.
Brown peppers the screenplay with a confusing number of cast members. It can be difficult to follow that many players, but the chaos conveys the feeling of a real neighborhood and the wide circle of people affected by drugs. Certain characters seem superfluous at the beginning of the film, but simply by being killed off later, they illustrate the need for even innocents and peripheral players in such places to look over their shoulders at all times.
Punctuating the slow moments and the myriad subplots are the violent shootouts that provide the action.
“At the time when [Streetwise] is taking place, [D.C. was] the murder capital of the country,” Brown says. “We were bagging hundreds of bodies a year, easily. I wanted to show some of the incidents that were going on and bring them up front where people can say—’Whoa—this is really going on in D.C.’”
The real-life murder of Hall adds fuel to Brown’s argument—shootings do take place in Southeast—but even if the onscreen mayhem isn’t fabricated for ticket sales, it still titillates.
“The violence in the film is true to form—but it also adds some entertainment value,” says Brown’s childhood friend and production manager, Byron Woodfork, who also grew up in Anacostia. “But people can relate to it. I can safely say that if you show the movie to anyone, they can relate to the characters—if it’s not them personally, it’s someone that they know.”
Brown, though, appears bent on counterbalancing brutality with his own brand of public-service filmmaking. In Streetwise, he intersperses shoot-’em-up scenes with warnings of scourges that affect urban communities. The most out-of-place digression in Streetwise is a mock interview in which a doctor discusses HIV/AIDS.
For what seems like an eternity, the movie delves into the biology of the disease, how it is transmitted, and ways to prevent its spread. When characters in the film deal with the topic, it feels more natural and less like a lecture to be tuned out. But the interview segment is awkward—there is no attempt to integrate it with the rest of the film, not even the classic ploy in which characters in the film watch an enlightening report on television.
Brown says he grapples with trying to give audiences cautionary tales while still providing enough action-movie gunplay to keep
“Some people say, ‘Bruce Brown does ‘hood movies.’ I look at them as socially conscious films,” he says. “I like to bring something extreme that’s kind of social so you’ll walk away and be a little more conscious about people around you and other cultures. I do 50 percent for the audience and 50 percent for me.”
At least Brown has a light touch in showing death: The virtual autopsies of other action films are absent—usually all that is seen is a gun being fired and a body dropping to the ground. Blood appears occasionally, but there are no end-of-life convulsions or gory head shots.
Many filmmakers who depict the violence of their youth are producing autobiography. Not Brown. Far from a gun-running thug, Brown grew up as something of a nerd. Surrounded by parents, teachers, and 13 older siblings who kept him on the straight and narrow, Brown never participated in the street life that permeates his films.
“Growing up in Southeast, people always ask me, ‘How did you make it out? What makes you different?’” he explains. “I tell them, ‘Look, my next-door neighbors were Frederick Douglass [the museum] and [the Rev.] Willie Wilson.’ C’mon—that’s not bad. When you walk past that house or open up your history book and there he is, it’s easy to know what you have to do.”
Plus, the allure of the streets was less in the Anacostia he remembers from the ’70s—the only drugs on the street were marijuana and, occasionally, PCP. “There wasn’t as much temptation, because there weren’t that many successful criminals in those days. I didn’t have to really focus myself away from the streets. It wasn’t hard to say no, but it was always there,” he says.
Brown preferred to busy himself with movie-making. At 9, he was already producing re-enactments of his favorite TV shows at the time: The Six Million Dollar Man, Starsky and Hutch, “basically the whole ABC lineup,” he says. Woodfork, whom he met during a snowball fight, helped with production, and other neighborhood kids served as actors.
“Everyone wanted to be Dr. J or a running back,” says Hilton Overton, Brown’s ninth-grade English teacher at Douglass Junior High School. Overton was so impressed with Brown’s ambitions that he gave him money out of his own pocket to buy film. “He was the only student I had that was talking about being behind the scenes. And he wasn’t just talking about what he was going to do—he was doing it.”
In high school, Brown took film classes at the Lemuel Penn Career Development Center and, with Woodfork, began hanging around the local Channel 4 broadcast house, on Nebraska Avenue NW.
“You didn’t have public access, there were only about three production companies in the whole city, and I can’t even think of any black folks who were on the technical side at that point,” Brown says. “[Former Channel 7 newscaster] Paul Berry, [Channel 4 newscaster] Jim Vance—those people were my role models, so I used to hang around Channel 4, in the doorway, waiting for people to come out like, ‘I ain’t going nowhere.’”
One young producer at Channel 4, Alexis Revis-Yeoman, saw the young men’s determination and let them hang out on the set of the television show she was working on, a kid’s program called Stuff.
“They asked me if they could hang out and see how TV operates,” recalls Revis-Yeoman. “For two kids in their teens, it gave them firsthand experience.
“Bruce is not the shy type—he would ask questions. He was very inquisitive,” she continues. “Most young guys were interested in football or running down little girls, so for two young men to take such initiative, it was very interesting. We taped from 6 until 10:30 on Friday nights….I’m mad that I can’t hang out, but they were up there absorbing it all.”
After graduation, Brown began videotaping fashion shows and weddings and occasionally washing dishes until he was able to secure a position at a local audio-visual company. He started his own production company in 1988 and began reading all the movie-making books he could get his hands on. As his company began to provide steady income and Brown was able to hire employees, he took advantage of the free time and profits and returned to making films—he began working on Streetwise in the summer of 1992.
In his filmmaking exploits, he reconnected with both Overton and Revis-Yeoman. Revis-Yeoman, now the chief operating officer and part owner of a marketing and public-relations firm, is a client of Brown’s video company. And Overton, after retiring from the school system in 1991, came to work with his former student as an office administrator and script supervisor. With Overton and Woodfork, Brown has created his own Dream Team—the men are friends as well as business associates.
“The teacher and his two students working together after all of these years,” says Overton. “Periodically, during filming, someone will ride down the street and say, ‘Hey Bruce! Hey Byron! Hey Mr. Overton!’”
Overton would like to see Brown branch out from urban action films, but, as a former Southeast resident himself, he agrees with his two former students that the level of violence Brown put into Streetwise is right on the mark.
“However raw and violent, it is an accurate portrayal of what it must have been like to live there during that time,” he says. “I’ve talked to him about making different films. I asked him ‘Have you ever considered making a Soul Food, something less violent?’ But these are stories he is compelled to tell, and it’s not glorified. No one will walk out of the theater and say, ‘I want to be like him when I grow up.’”
Brown is consumed by the little things. When he passes through Anacostia, he points to all the geographic markers that time has either transformed or obliterated. Like the woods by his childhood house, which have yielded to a condo development, and the stores on Martin Luther King Jr. Avenue that he says are boarded up because their owners can’t comply with historic-preservation rules.
The filmmaker’s stewardship of the old Anacostia stems from his obsession with authenticity. Brown wants to portray the neighborhood correctly, so that no moviegoer can go home complaining about how the director has lost touch with the streets of D.C. Though this attention to the genuine is endearing, it often ends up hijacking Brown’s work.
In Streetwise, for example, the camera pays so much attention to the surroundings that it’s sometimes hard to follow the plot. During key scenes, those familiar with the city may find themselves trying to figure out the name of the street where the scene is set or if the restaurant in the background is still around.
But the biggest concession to accuracy that Brown has made is his choice to cast novice local actors, rather than experienced out-of-towners, in almost every major role. He lets his crew of D.C. natives ad-lib and change dialogue as long as they accomplish certain things in the scenes—accent and cadence are more important than faithfulness to the script, he argues.
“He has his own style of getting with each individual—just in casual conversation he’ll say, ‘You know, in this scene, I’d like you to do this,’” says Leonard Smith, a friend of Brown’s who acted in Streetwise. “He lets us be creative—he doesn’t try to harness us, and so he’s able to capture things that we do off the top of our heads.”
Some of the performances in the first film stand out. Taraji Henson, who went on to a starring role in John Singleton’s Baby Boy, is impressive as Tammy, a woman who sleeps with drug dealers to get nice things for her son but neglects him in the process. Kurt Matthews and Kim Persons, in the roles of Donte and female hustler Mercedes, give strong performances as well.
Other performances are less inspired. Tim Taylor, who plays Eric, the narrator of the film, often takes pauses before delivering lines and displays only a small range of emotion.
In Divided City, Taylor again plays the role of Eric, to better effect. His lines come off more fluidly, and he appears more comfortable in front of the camera. The same dynamic applies to other returning actors from Streetwise, all of whom seem to have grown into their roles in a changing Anacostia.
Some of the newcomers, though, bring down the level of play. Giovanna Williams, as investment banker Porche, flubs lines about stocks and dividends; Mark Hyde, as racist drug supplier Marconian, seems uneasy when ogling a woman in a strip club. He barely masks an expression of embarrassment—as if he’s afraid his mother might be watching in the wings.
Brown says that he accepts criticisms of the performances of some of his beginning actors; he is still more concerned with look and sound.
“Sixty percent of the people that were in the first film weren’t formally trained actors,” Brown says. “They were people that looked the part and I said, ‘I can direct them.’ If you can show up on time and are willing to take direction, I can make it work.”
“I’d rather have someone tell me that they didn’t like a particular performance than deal with people telling me, ‘Oh, you hired a bunch of people from New York, and they don’t sound like they’re from D.C., but they’re good actors,’” he says. “You just have to decide which of the evils you want to sleep with.”
Few other films have attempted to explore east-of-the-river Washington. The most recent and notable attempt was Marc Levin’s 1998 film Slam, in which a Southeast man jailed on a minor drug charge discovers his gift for poetry.
The film won the Grand Jury Prize at the Sundance Film Festival and received critical acclaim, but Brown isn’t a fan—they didn’t pay enough attention to the small stuff, he says. He acknowledges that Saul Williams, the star of Slam, is a talented actor and poet, but contends that the actor’s thick New York accent and style detract from the role.
“The guy had one of his pants legs rolled up! I’m from D.C., don’t insult me like that—we don’t do that here!” Brown says of Williams’ fashion choice. “I was pissed off—we don’t play that! We’re not going out like that!”
There is one movie in particular, however, that inspired Brown to pay special attention to the wardrobe, speech, and locations used in his films. Blaine Novak’s 1986 film Good to Go, an attempt to explore Washington’s go-go scene, is often held up as an exceptionally off-target portrait of the city.
“We don’t have gangs in D.C.,” says Brown of the movie’s central drama. “Go out and kill someone for you? Go out and kill him your damn self—there are no weak-minded people here. They want it all, they want it now, and they want it all by themselves. Good to Go ended up being a gang movie.
“You had the 8th and H Crew dressed like New York guys walking through Georgetown,” he continues. “Snatching gold chains off of people’s necks, shooting at the police, busting windows, smoking love boat—people were looking at the screen with their mouths wide open.”
Of course, Washington audiences continue to pack theaters to see movies that, although set in unfamiliar places, deal with issues of common interest, but Brown thinks that by virtue of setting, his films more effectively drive home messages about the dissolution of the black family, the scourge of drug use in the inner cities, and the stigma attached to living in the projects.
“For the first time, we’re seeing this from an angle, a perspective, that’s not Hollywood,” Brown says. “I’m trying to keep a D.C. flavor. I’m not trying to sell out to a New York feel or a down-South feel. I’m trying to really stay here and capture the true essence of D.C.”
Part of the reason Brown is able to cast whom he wants, shoot what he wants, and otherwise tell stories the way that he wants is that he’s not answering to anyone.
“I’m not a dependent filmmaker—I’m an independent filmmaker,” Brown says. “I could be more dependent, but then I’d be censored. Nobody is going to give you money and let you say whatever you want to say. They’ll give you their money and say, ‘This is what you can say.’”
Autonomy, however, isn’t always all it’s cracked up to be.
From his offices at Bruce Brown Filmworks in Lanham, Md., the filmmaker handles all the menial chores of his calling, from paying the bills to tidying the bathroom. There is no studio to pick up the tab for expenses, no accountant to take care of budgets and books so that the creative guy doesn’t have to bother with them.
Brown has decided to distribute Divided City himself, through Bruce Brown Filmworks, instead of shopping his movie around to various studios. The movie will likely show at a few local theaters—Brown is still lining up screens—and he hopes to secure a video deal, as he did with Streetwise, once the movie has completed its run.
Although there is considerable work involved in releasing the movie through his own company, it is easier than convincing studio executives that a film so unapologetically linked to a particular neighborhood can be transcendent.
“One of the first distributors I took the film to said, ‘Well, it doesn’t look like they’re struggling too much. It doesn’t look like the ghetto.’ I said, ‘You tell me: What is it supposed to look like?’” Brown says. “Then he said, ‘Well, the main character—Eric—he doesn’t convince me that he’s someone involved in street life.’ I said, ‘Just because he’s out there doesn’t mean he wants to be! It’s not like they have a cookie cutter and they start producing these little drug dealers.’”
And, of course, the inner city of Brown’s films doesn’t fit Hollywood’s image of what an inner city should look like.
Housing projects in D.C. aren’t gigantic skyscrapers where people are stacked on top of each other floor after floor. Projects here are single-family row homes and garden-style apartments that look more like the dwellings of middle-class families.
The language in the film can be difficult to follow for those unfamiliar with the local lexicon. If you don’t know slang words like “joe,” “young,” “cuz” and “jount,” Brown isn’t going to hold your hand through it. His tactic is immersion rather than instruction.
D.C.’s atypical ghettos and Brown’s refusal to toe the line have marginalized him. And like many outcasts, Brown takes pride in the rejections of studios, local film festivals, and certain movie theaters.
“When [Streetwise] was in theaters, I was put out at [AMC] Rivertown,” Brown says. “They wouldn’t give me Union Station. I said, ‘OK, that’s fine. You won’t give me Washington, but I’ll take D.C.”
Operating independently has caused Brown other problems as well. Streetwise was originally titled 24/7: The Movie. The movie had already screened at theaters in the Washington area when a large film studio released a movie titled twentyfourseven. To obtain a video-distribution deal, Brown had to change the name of his picture.
“Those are some of the things you have to put up with, but at least I was getting enough money from that deal to make another film,” Brown says. “You can’t be worried about what’s behind you—you have to see what’s before you.
“I wasn’t going to get an Oscar or anything,” he continues. “I’m just this guy with his six cans limping up and down the East Coast getting my ass whipped most of the time, but winning enough to continue.”
Brown has tried hard to incorporate the federal housing policies and real-estate boom that have turned Anacostia on its head into his films. In an opening scene in Divided City, Eric, one of the few characters from Streetwise who survived, is released from jail. When friend Alex, who once bought her drugs from Eric but is now a big-time dealer herself, picks him up, he asks her to take him for a ride through the old neighborhood.
They jump in her Infiniti and head for Sheridan Terrace, a housing project off Suitland Parkway that features prominently in the first film. When they arrive, all they find is the large cement wall painted with a mural that used to encircle the project and a fenced-off grassy expanse. Eric grabs the chain-link fence and stares in disbelief at the space where his home once stood.
“Oh yeah,” Alex says to him. “I forgot to tell you—that shit is gone, man.”
Like the characters in Divided City, Brown is constantly amazed by the changes Southeast is undergoing. He marvels at the sinkhole that was once the Frederick Douglass projects and will soon be the luxurious Henson Ridge development. Wellington Park, the complex where he grew up, looks similar to the way it did when he was a kid, but now there are huge iron gates meant to keep people out, or maybe keep them in—he’s not sure.
To Brown, the changes seem to be happening particularly fast, because he no longer lives in the neighborhood. In 1997, he moved to “little D.C.,” as he calls P.G. County, to be closer to his office. He is defensive about his move to the ‘burbs and insists that he is as qualified as ever to tell the city’s story.
“My parents still live in Southeast, so I’m here on a regular basis,” he says. “I have brothers and sisters there, more nephews than you can shake a stick at—after 25 years of that level of exposure, there is no way you can escape being a part of that.”
Brown wants Divided City to corroborate that claim. The movie focuses on Alex and Mercedes, small-time dealers from Streetwise who are now running the drug game in Southeast. They are pitted against both out-of-town dealers, who want a piece of the action, and white developers, who are trying to flip drug money to buy real estate in Southeast and build luxury properties.
“The black folks in Divided City are being swindled. They’re sitting on prime real estate,” Brown says. “They used to tell us that it was swampland, and now all of a sudden, it’s prime. People aren’t holding on to their property, because they’ve been in hell for 20 years. If someone asks you if you want a weekend pass out of hell, what do you say?”
Divided City is a stylized portrait of the changes taking place in Anacostia. The focus has shifted from desperate men slanging dope on street corners to high-rollers who make deals in the backs of limos and never dirty their hands with drugs or money. Because Brown can no longer troll the streets of Anacostia and observe open-air drug markets, the figures are largely constructs of his mind. Knowing that the characters aren’t so firmly grounded in reality makes enjoying the onscreen slashings and slayings a guilt-free experience.
The most noticeable way in which Divided City reflects the changing Anacostia is its inclusion of white people. Both Brown’s first film and the Southeast of Brown’s youth were almost entirely racially homogeneous. “I grew up in a 100 percent black area,” he says. “I’ve never had a white next-door neighbor. Not that I wouldn’t want one—it just never happened.”
Now, with new neighbors, there are new dangers. Instead of having to worry about being hit by a stray bullet while walking to the store, Anacostia residents have to worry if the influx of middle-class residents will create a different struggle for survival.
“We’ve never really tried to get off of the plantation. How can we all be in one city and be so divided at heart, by power and place? The reason they can tear down the projects is because now ‘the projects’ is a mentality. They’re not hanging you anymore—they’re hooking you,” says Brown.
In Divided City’s final scene, Alex decides to leave D.C., using the profits from some money she has invested, and start a new life. Her friends criticize the decision, but Southeast has changed and she is ready to leave.
The character’s flight is parallel to Brown’s own.
“People say we’re stuck over here,” Brown says. “They really believe that they can’t go over to the other side of the city, or that there aren’t opportunities outside of the city. I shouldn’t have to spend my whole life on Stanton Road to prove that I’m a Washingtonian. My dreams carried me farther than Stanton Road, but that’s where my roots are at—that’s where I’m from.”
“Besides,” he continues. “You never really leave—you never leave the place you originated from.” CP
Art accompanying story in the printed newspaper is not available in this archive: Photographs by Darrow Montgomery.