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Comedian Red Grant is standing at the counter of Ben’s Chili Bowl. He’s yelling, “New York’s got Sylvia’s! L.A.’s got Roscoe’s!” He punctuates each sentence with a wild swing of his right arm, causing musician Casey Hollingsworth, the man he’s yelling at, to lean slightly away. “And D.C.,” Grant continues, “has got Ben’s Chili Bowl!”
Filmmaker Chuck Wilson stands smiling on the other side of the counter. “I love it,” he proclaims, and then turns to Grant. “Can you remember that or write it down or something? I want to use it.”
Although it’s closed for business, Ben’s is full of people. It’s after 9 p.m. on a Sunday, but if you glance outside the windows in the front of the restaurant, as well as those that run along the side overlooking the Ben Ali Way alley, it looks as if the sun is in full morning bloom. “Look alive, people!” instructs a man behind the counter. “Remember, you haven’t been sitting here all night. It’s your first meal of the day.”
Ben’s Chili Bowl, the venerable greasy spoon on U Street, has long existed inside its own wrinkle in time. But this evening is different. Flush from a deal with Wu-Tang International, the production arm of the Wu-Tang Clan’s hiphop empire, Wilson has filled the restaurant with a clutch of actors and a truckload of cables, cameras, and lights—all in an effort to put a wrap on his short film, Breakfast at Ben’s. The “sunshine” coming through the windows is fake.
Wilson is a stout man of 32, clean-shaven save for a thin line of hair at the tip of his chin. He grew up in Rockville, and spent what must have felt like an eternity at the University of Virginia, first as an undergrad, then as a law and business school student. In the mid-’90s, he blossomed into a screenwriter and filmmaker while working as a law associate in New York. Upon returning to D.C. in ’97, the non-pork-eating polymath started hanging out a lot at Ben’s, lured in by its turkey bacon.
“I kind of fell in love with the place,” Wilson explains while working on a Ben’s turkey dog the evening after his shoot. “My father brought me here when I was a little kid, and for some reason—probably because I lived in the suburbs—it always stayed with me as one of my fondest childhood memories.”
The filmmaker relaxes back in his booth and surveys the scene to his left, one that’s remained relatively unchanged since Ben’s opened in 1958. There isn’t an open seat along the Formica countertop, and beyond that, the griddles are popping with half-smokes and burgers. A plate of salmon cakes and eggs appears before a nearby patron. “I’ve realized how special this place is to D.C.,” Wilson says. “The history. The fact that it was a silent movie house before all this.”
Breakfast at Ben’s is based on an 18-page script that Wilson churned out in a one-day fit of inspiration. The story concerns Jamar, a young black man played by Los Angeles-based actor (and former Howard student) Will Rowel. Jamar is a product of the inner city who’s grown to become a NASA engineer. A wannabe do-gooder, the young man volunteers to mentor a disadvantaged child. The narrative turns on Jamar’s initial meeting with the child at Ben’s; his disappointment that the little girl isn’t black serves as the story’s central conflict.
Issues of race- and class-based identity permeate Wilson’s film projects. He started writing scripts after spending one summer at New York University’s film school and another working as an assistant to Spike Lee during the filming of Crooklyn. His first feature-length screenplay, entitled Trife Life, deals in part with a black, middle-class Brooklyn family who makes their money burying ghetto casualties. He’s currently working on an untitled comedy—”The Graduate-meets-golf story,” he calls it—that centers around a black golfer who gets seduced by an older white woman and eventually falls in love with the woman’s mulatto daughter.
Wilson downplays his post-grad studies and subsequent tenure in the legal field because he thinks it pegs him as “not creative,” but the fact remains that the filmmaker, not unlike some of his characters, straddles realms. He’s an ambitious artist as well as an active operator. He met Lee through the director’s wife, who was a fellow law student at UVA, and the high-powered lawyer he worked for in New York now counts Wilson, in addition to Lee, among her clients. Jersey Films has hired the budding filmmaker to write the golf story as a comic screenplay. And after years of pushing Trife Life at various production companies, he eventually got the screenplay in the hands of Wu-Tang’s RZA through a friend, leading to the deal with Wu-Tang International. RZA signed on to score the film, and rapper/actor Mos Def, whom Wilson met at a local record signing, is slated to be the movie’s star.
All of which brings us back to Ben’s. The short film came as part of Wilson’s deal with Wu-Tang, and it represents his first major directing endeavor. He knows that short films don’t normally lead to quick Hollywood fame, but he feels like he’s on to something. Maybe, he says, he could expand the story into a full-length film someday. Or develop it into a television show.
Referring back to Grant’s earlier rant, Wilson mentions Sylvia’s and Roscoe’s Chicken & Waffles, both signature African-American eateries in their respective cities, and says, “This is ours.” Both of us have finished our meals, and Ramsey Lewis is playing on the jukebox. “I look at Atlanta,” Wilson says. “Cats are doing films down there. Chicago, same thing. New York. L.A. And we got some shit, too, you know? If we’re going to start talking about D.C. and doing some local shit, I think through Ben’s you can look at D.C. and, to some extent, you can look at the country. And that’s something that’s very important to me.”
Ben’s Chili Bowl, 1213 U St. NW, (202) 667-0909.
Tucked under a downtown Marriott, Regatta Raw Bar is a little too transient-filled to cultivate an interesting microcosm of the city. And it doesn’t try to do so. The crew decor and displays of iced bivalves are meant to conjure images of points north; the seafood menu simply offers a respite from humdrum restaurant fare. Crab-and-barley soup, thick with tomatoes and lump meat, does just that, although my blackened halibut wrap is a watery mess. If you go during weekday lunch, stick to the buffet.
Regatta Raw Bar, 775 12th St. NW, (202) 661-8925. —Brett Anderson
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