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When 10-year-old Super 8-toting Bruce Brown took up filmmaking, he and his colleagues—pals from his neighborhood—drew their inspiration from TV. “We’d take the camera out and do The Six Million Dollar Man and Starsky and Hutch episodes. We didn’t think, “Hey, we can’t play white men.’ We were Starsky and Hutch,” Brown says. “We would apply our own story lines and watch TV to compare our camera movements. When the camera shifted too much, we acquired a tripod, and then our images were so close to the real thing it was incredible. We were serious about our filmmaking; everybody on the block knew we were making movies.”
Now, once again, everybody on the block knows that the considerably older Brown (he’s 30) is making a movie. But this time, Brown, who is currently filming his debut feature, 24:7, here in D.C., is a little more sophisticated. He’s working from his own script, the kids who used to help out have evolved into a paid staff of seven full-timers plus 10 free-lancers, and that old Super 8 has been replaced by professional equipment—equipment paid for by the savings from his daytime dishwashing job and free-lance video work.
Few who’ve encountered Brown along the way doubted that he would get this far. As a teen-ager, he’d hang outside the Tenleytown offices of WRC-TV, begging anyone who passed to bring him inside. “Finally,” recalls Brown, “Jim Vance came by. I said, “Jim, can you take me in?’ He let me in and, man, it was like having roaches, they couldn’t get rid of me.” Eventually, Brown says, Mike Queen, then a cameraman for NBC’s Meet the Press, started bringing Brown to work with him every Sunday morning. “I would stand behind him and watch as he maneuvered the camera for this live national show, and he made no mistakes. I had the opportunity to watch in the control room while the director very delicately handled things. I was totally fascinated. That’s where I developed my attitude. I saw what they did and decided that I couldn’t accept anything less.”
At 16, Brown formed his first production company while simultaneously attending Anacostia Senior High and the Lemuel Penn Career Development Center in Northeast. He rented out his equipment and services, taping music videos, weddings, fashion shows, and workshops. Back then, Brown says, every day, he’d think: “I’ll get there one day. I’m preparing to get there, so make room for me.”
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Now, “there” is where Brown’s at: Running his own Hyattsville-based production company, TeleVideo & Film Inc. He says that TeleVideo grossed more than $250,000 in 1992, and his production calendar attests to that—it’s booked solid with religious broadcasts (TeleVideo produces most of the Sunday religious cable programming in this area), as well as video productions for AT&T and Fannie Mae. Still, Brown says, he has had to defend himself against detractors who allege that he is a “drug dealer turned good.” Says Brown, “I’ve never even smoked a cigarette, I don’t hang out, and I’m not flashy. Folks look at what I’ve achieved in an industry where [blacks] can barely get a job—in an industry where I’ve achieved ownership—and they don’t understand how or why.”
“I didn’t go to the university to become a filmmaker, so I can’t even stand in line for a job. They say that I shouldn’t even be able to direct, but I write, direct, and operate the camera,” he says. “I’m building a tunnel while others are standing in line not getting their films made. I looked and evaluated everyone that I could. “Why,’ I asked, “is one person so great and another so unsuccessful? Why the difference?’ ”
“It’s a matter of faith—believing you can do it. The plan I came up with was a simple one. I could…compete by controlling the means. I own the facility, I own the equipment, and whatever I decide to do, I do. My equipment holds the value. The value to do.”
And what he’s doing is 24:7. Slated for January ’94 release, the film was shot on location in the D.C. area, mostly in the Southeast neighborhoods where Brown was raised. Depicting the relationship between an African-American matriarch and her three sons, 24:7 identifies the challenges and struggles the family faces as it battles for survival in an area overrun by poverty, despair, and senseless violence.
The story, Brown says, gives “a sense of what’s really going on, as opposed to “Five Hundred Killed in District.’ All we ever know or think of that 500 is 1, 2, 3, 4, etc….The only way that we basically become conscious of anything else, is if [the death toll] reached some crazy number like 800 the following year. Well, what about the previous 500? Why aren’t their deaths a major problem, a big deal? What this film does is bring those statistics to life.”
Blaming the rampant violence on some “other” is a luxury that Brown does not afford himself. “These pushers are in a state of denial,” he says. “They consider themselves hustlers, but there really is no distinction—they are not dealing with the reality of this situation. They aren’t dealing with D.C. General Hospital, with the crack-addicted babies, with the sister or brother they just did that do. They become intoxicated by the power they think they possess, they shoot, they kill. Man, it’s a generation of madmen being created.”
But, of course, not all that generation is lost. Brown is also working on a documentary companion to 24:7 that details the process of developing and completing low-budget films; that video resource, he says, will help out prospective young filmmakers. And, Brown notes, he’s found “a wealth of talent” in D.C. “Since I couldn’t exactly go to Central Casting and say, “I need a Southeast-looking boy/girl,’ my talent comes directly from the community,” he says. “The talent in this region, it’s incredible.” (That talent includes that of his “collective management team”: Howard grad Michelle Dwyer is 24:7‘s producer, and George Washington Universityalumnus Paul Willis is assistant director.)
Brown is still looking for a distributor for 24:7, but he’s also already at work on new scripts and envisioning the day when he can walk onto a motion picture lot bearing his name. That lot, he figures, would be located not in Hollywood but in Upper Marlboro, and its location would serve as a testament to the way the film industry has excluded blacks. Are Brown’s plans a little too lofty? Not really: “I don’t have anything to lose. A person who loses is the person who thinks they have something. I could lose everything tomorrow and in two years have it all back. If this model is wrecked, I’ll go back and rebuild it—rebuild it quicker than before.”
Rebuilding is a subject Brown frequently thinks about, and he often talks about rebuilding his community: “The community giving back to the community—that’s what we’re supposed to do. I especially have an obligation to the young brothers and sisters in Southeast. I am committed to keeping my phone lines open so they can have access to me. They keep me on the top, so I have to keep them afloat….How am I not obligated?”