When veteran actor Tim Reid got sick and tired of being sick and tired of the negative images of African Americans he saw on the silver screen, he decided to go behind the camera and produce “positive feature films” for the African-American community.
Reid, the television star, makes his directorial debut with “Once Upon A Time … When We Were Colored,” a film shot entirely on location in North Carolina in only 28 days. The film opens this month with a limited theatrical run before being released on video.
Its premiere in April 1995 was one of the highlights of Reid’s fifth annual benefit weekend in Norfolk, VA, which raises money for the Tim Reid Scholarship at Norfolk State University. Reid, who earned a B.S. degree in business management from Norfolk State in the late 1960s, also serves on the university’s board of trustees.
The former businessman and solo comic got his big break in show business in 1978 as disk jockey Venus Flytrap on “WKRP in Cincinnati.” He then did several seasons as “Downtown” Brown on the show “Simon & Simon.” Although he did not have as much control over the show as he would have liked, he considers his Emmy nominated role on “Frank’s Place,” an acclaimed but short-lived television series he co-produced, his creative zenith.
Today Reid juggles acting in a lead role in the sitcom “Sister, Sister” with running United Image Entertainment, his independent production company in Los Angeles.
The following is an interview with Reid conducted by Black Issues In Higher Education news editor B. Denise Hawkins.
What most influenced your decision to launch United Image Entertainment in 1990?
The thing that influenced me to start a production company was the lack of power and control I had in working in television on shows like “Frank’s Place” and “Snoops.” Like most people sitting in movie theaters, you get tired of seeing images of Black Americans that are so dysfunctional, so negative, so one
Many Black filmmakers and moviegoers alike find themselves in a similar position–wanting to see and produce a different genre of Black film. In reality, however, how many people can do what you have given the expense of such a venture?
Money is just an excuse. Like else in life, if you want obstacles you can find them anywhere you look. The only difference that separates me from you or anybody else is that I have more than 20 years of experience. I have been a producer since 1980. You have to have the passion to do anything, but you also have to have a certain amount of experience and knowledge and that comes from being there, seeing it done and paying attention. Money is a means of exchange, it is not the all and all of dreammaking. I never have let money get in my way even when I was poor. You just have to do what you have to do to get things done.
How did your partnership with Butch Lewis and Robert Johnson come about?
Bob Johnson and myself were friends … way back when BET [Black Entertainment Television] was struggling and trying to raise the issue of needing more money from the cable system. I went down on his behalf and spoke before the cable convention. He really appreciated that. We talked then about forming this kind of company — over a period of a year we decided to do it. A year into it, Butch Lewis, the entertainment promoter, became a partner.
Is the formation of an independent film company the only real avenue for people of color to achieve parity and control in the film industry?
No, it’s not the only way, but it’s the only one I found open to me. There are certainly a lot of Black filmmakers who have studio deals and are making movies — the only difference is that they don’t have ownership in them like our company has. BET is one of the financiers of most of the films we’ve done. The [film] negative is partially owned by members of the production company, which is more akin to what Hollywood is used to doing. When it comes to us, they usually put money on the table, we get a percentage of things, but we very rarely have any control over the negative and that’s the big difference.
For decades the film industry has been known as a closed or semi-closed society when it comes to people of color. How would you respond to that assessment?
It depends on what level. It’s certainly opened up in terms of the number of Blacks in front of the camera and to some extent behind the camera. But where it’s still a very closed shop is in the area of control and power and that is financing and distribution and really controlling the images that are going to be made. All of us, including myself, have to go to the system and compromise and pitch to get our story told. And it has to be o.k’d by the same system that has been partially responsible for the images being negative in the first place.
The battle still continues … to get the images the way we’d like to see them. That much hasn’t changed. My dream is to be totally in control of the images and not have to ask, but to finance [the films] them my self. It’s not an issue of money, but the control of money.
How has Hollywood and the film industry operated in terms of hiring and promotion? Does affirmative action exist in the film industry?
Affirmative action doesn’t exist in the filmmaking industry anymore because the filmmaking industry has used the political landscape to avoid doing what it didn’t want to do in the first place. There aren’t that many people of color in control in television, very few and only a handful in film. The only place we see any real power and control is in the music industry and that was fought for and gained through independence. It was the independence of people like Babyface and LA Reed and Motown …. and then the industry had to pay attention … that’s how they got their power base.
For some reason, we in the film and television business, think we can do it by coming in and tap dancing real hard and think that people will give us what we need. But that will never happen. The only way you’re going to get pure equality is to have equality and power. If you don’t bring any power in the door, you aren’t going to be given any.
In the last two decades film degrees have increased by nearly 300 percent and by the year 2000 some project that nearly 90 percent of all first-time directors will have attended film school. You have been able to amass more than 25 years of experience in the entertainment industry as a writer, actor and producer without formal academic training in film or cinema education. Given the practical experience you have gained, what difference could a film degree have made in your career?
A film degree wouldn’t have made any difference at this end. [But] maybe it wouldn’t have taken me 20 years to get here. The thing that I have in my favor is 20 years of practical experience. If I had gone to film school perhaps I could have condensed those 20 [years] down … I would have had more technical and instructional in formation and technique, then it would have only taken me a few years to gain the actual experience that I needed.
I’m an advocate of education. I do have a degree, it just happens to be in business and marketing, which by the way has helped me tremendously in filmmaking. Actually, that’s what’s been the thorn in the side of a lot of people I do business with.
Did your undergraduate experience at the historically Black Norfolk State University influence your acting and filmmaking career?
Yes it did. I wouldn’t be where I am today if I hadn’t gone to Norfolk State and a Black college. When I came out of high school I was an underachiever, I didn’t have good grades. I couldn’t have gone to a college other than at a place like Norfolk State. I needed someone, not to nurture me, but to give me a strong hand, to really guide me. I was slick. I was a street kid who really knew how to maneuver and do things to get by. And when I got to Norfolk State, those Black men and women who were in class didn’t tolerate that. Those were the days when, like in my movie, “Once Upon A Time … When We Were Colored,” people who were colored had now become Negroes. They knew the old ways. They didn’t let me slide one bit. I think they were harder on me than anybody has ever been and I thank God for that.
Black colleges still do that, probably not as much as they used to. I’m on the board of trustees at Norfolk State. I have a scholarship there that’s for people such as myself … people who otherwise wouldn’t have gotten a shot. We have two students who are graduating this coming year–hard-to-place kids who wouldn’t have had a chance, but they’re getting ready to graduate. I know that the system still works.
At a time when hard-edged films about African-American life in urban America seem to capture the attention of corporate entertainment executives and moviegoers, why did you choose to produce what you have called “a bittersweet love story” set in the segregated South, to launch your directorial debut?
If you look at the things I’ve done like “Frank’s Place,” I’ve always gone against the grain in a sense. I’m sick of the dysfunctional images that come across our movie screens that show us being one-dimensional, angry, violent people, loveless, hostile … it’s very damaging to the psyche of our young people. If I do have any power, I’m going to use it to try to reverse that trend. I try to look at where the crowd is going and right now the crowd is going into the hood … I figure I’ve been in the hood. Now I’m trying to get people out of the hood and a lot of the mentality of the hood.
I wanted to do something in the opposite direction so I chose that [“Once Upon A Time … When We Were Colored]. I knew these people, I knew the richness of my culture, I know that history, so I want to tell that story.
Is there a place for both genres of Black film to exist?
It’s obvious that there is a place for the other, but what doesn’t seem to be a trend is basically the kinds of films that I am doing. What I have to do is make my place. Nike commercials, Reebok commercials, they even sell McDonald’s hamburgers with certain urban antiheroes; guys who can jump high and run fast, but they don’t show anyone who can think. They don’t think people are really interested in that. Well, I think they’re wrong. And if people aren’t interested, I want to make them interested.
What I want to do is go against the grain. That doesn’t mean that all of the movies that I’Il make will be goody-two-shoes. Oscar Micheaux, who was one of my heroes, did 40 or 50 films back … when it was 10 times more difficult than it is for me, but he still made movies and he made them about crime, about Black cowboys … starring Paul Robeson, Dorothy Dandridge. I want to recreate that kind of energy in my company because to me that’s what’s important.
Your alma mater, Norfolk State, is a long way from the bright lights of Hollywood, but it was there that you chose to premier “Once Upon A Time … When We Were Colored.” Why? What type of reception did the film receive?
It was about respecting my roots. I wanted them to see it first. I wanted people to see what I’ve done thanks to them. It was sort of like completing the circle. It got a wonderful reception. What’s not to love about it. It’s about our history.
Many industry leaders consider getting the nod and blessing of the Sundance Film Festival in Park City, Utah, the difference between the successful high-profile launch or the failure of an American independent film. Sundance rejected your new film “Once Upon Time … When We Were Colored.” Why?
They said they rejected it primarily on their own personal taste and dislike for the theme. They don’t like soft movies. It’s more like a Black foreign film than it is anything they’ve ever seen. They’re saying these aren’t Black people I know anything about so I don’t want to see it.
They always say we don’t know if Black people will come to see films like that. What they’re really saying is we don’t know if white people will come. Black people are 25 percent of the movie-going public, a big percentage that I’d like to have.
Its almost frightening to realize that one industry can wield such power over what the public sees and understands, especially about other cultures.
That’s the nature of Hollywood. That’s the thing about the naivete of young people who come out here thinking that this town is about creativity. This town is about power and the creation of images. Without that, there would be no Hollywood. That’s the rule and not the exception. You have to figure out ways to get around that.
What likely impact will the decision of the Sundance Film Festival have on the launching and distribution of “Once Upon A Time … When We Were Colored” as it opens this month?
It will make it more difficult, but that doesn’t mean that it’s not going to happen.
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