Notes from a Festival Programmer: Why The F*ck I Do This...Partially Inspired by James McBride's Useless Rant

It’s 1993. Georgia Tech is kicking my ass. The line said at orientation “look to your left, look to your right, only one of you will still be here after freshman year” is echoing loudly in my head. I refuse to let this school beat me. So far, Tech is doing more than a good job. I’m thinking I shouldn’t have rolled over and let my high school math teacher sophomore year convince me to switch to another class so I can maintain and raise my GPA. Bored and unfocused as I may have been, maybe failing her class would have woke my ass up. Going for the easy A, okay easy B, got me a decent GPA, but it didn’t prepare me for the rigors of a place like Tech.

I need an outlet, a place to go.

That turns out to be weekend trips to Blockbuster and holding up in my dorm room for 12 to 16 hours straight watching movie after movie. Some of the movies are period pieces and Black & White classics I saw countless times on TCM when I was a kid, featuring some of my favorites like Cary Grant and Lauren Bacall. Others are the few independent films that had made it to Blockbuster’s shelves.

My girlfriend is estactic at first. It’s young stupid love for both of us, so cuddling on a blanket laid out on the floor, watching movies for hours is fun. But, after a while she asks me how many times can we sit and watch a movie filled with White people in 19th century England? She wonders why we have to sit through another independent film with no names, and production values so cheap, it’s obvious the art direction budget would barely decorate a closet, let alone an entire 90 minute feature.

Jump ahead. Ga Tech has indeed beaten me. I’m mentally bruised, working at Best Buy and gun shy about school. But, I’m still watching 12 to 16 hours of film. Only now I’m doing it with my boys and our friends.

We’ve earned a reputation for selecting an eclectic mix of films. It’s usually the core six or seven guys, but some nights we’ll somehow pack 20 to 30 people into apartment W-5. We’ll go from watching DOLEMITE to LADY AND THE TRAMP one evening and in another burn through as many Jackie Chan films as possible. Once we hear someone hasn’t seen FLETCH or missed seeing FEAR OF A BLACKHAT, we know on Monday what sections of Blockbuster we’re going to hit up on Friday. And more than occasionally we’ll throw in someone like Pedro Almodóvar. Which will prompt some of our boys to look at the rest of us like we’re nuts when a transvestite shows up on screen. However, as the cute girl I’ve strategically placed myself next to, but still haven’t really started talking to, is having a good time, it doesn’t matter.

By this point, I’m writing poetry. Bad, shitty poetry. But, I’m pretty good with dialogue and creating characters.

We’ve seen CLERKS. After Tech TV played MALLRATS ad nausem, it’s something my boy Ric wanted to see because he liked MALLRATS. He’ll find the first 10 minutes boring, However, after the 10 minutes after that transpire, he’ll stop the tape and wait for me to get home from work. “Chuck, 20 minutes in and I knew you’re going to love this one.” At the time, he was right. These were cats just like us and talked just like us. It didn’t matter that we were a bunch of Black guys from Georgia, New York and Florida and not White guys from New Jersey who loved hockey

Then we watch SWINGERS a few months later. It clicks for my boys. “Chuck, why can’t you write a script about us. CLERKS, SWINGERS, that’s us.” And so on a note pad go the first ideas for a film we wanted to call “Nigs”. Quite possibly the most politically incorrect and unmarketable title possible.

There was me and my boy Ric*, the funny guys who rarely if at all ask for the girls number even after we’ve spent all night talking to them. There’s my boy Hal who has the pretty eyes and corny jokes and even cornier cartoon imitations women can’t get enough of. There’s Twain, the former player who has shifted hard right into wanting to be married and has started regularly going to church again. There’s Ali, the man who, not trying to be funny, can make an observation so deadpan it will have us laughing for hours. “Is she wearing her wrinkly ass prom dress,” will live in infamy and a little bit of retrospective shame. We all go in.

I turn our long night debates about how SUPERMAN II is a near perfect guide on how to live life (never give up being Superman just to please someone else, neither of you will be happy...and you’ll get your ass kicked) into scenes.

I replicate our 2 a.m. IHOP 60 second poetry battles--which we were doing almost 2 years before LOVE JONES.

I try to remember every geeky metaphor and line we’ve ever created for dialogue and to mine them for plot ideas. “I feel powerful, like I just added 6 inches to my dick.” “Theories don’t pay the bills.” “He’s like Hank Aaron with that thing. Never show that to your girl.” It’s obviously going to be raunchy and we’re aiming for an R rating.

I also include moments like our group almost being ripped apart over women. And how we were starting to drift a part.

Some of us had already moved back to our hometowns. Some out of frustration, some because they realized it was time to move on to the next thing.

Others were getting high paying engineering jobs in places like Seattle and the middle of Alabama, but hating every minute of it. Some like me, even with the writing, even with the interest in film, still had no idea what the hell they wanted to do. We were in our mid-twenties.

We were young Black men trying to figure out how do do things their parents didn’t have the opportunity to do. Learning that there were hidden pitfalls and obstacles we weren’t prepared for. We were young Black men trying connect to each other as men and not just boys who could hold conversations constructed entirely of movie quotes.

That’s the script I ultimately started writing. A story of five black guys growing up and the amazingly smart, funny and equally capable women in their lives with the occasional dick joke.

I never got to really finish that script, there’s a 6th or 7th draft sitting on a hard drive somewhere. However, considering a better version of my SUPERMAN II monologue shows up 7 years later in KILL BILL II, and my big scene with the main character playing ball against his girl shows up 3 years later in LOVE AND BASKETBALL, it’s going to need a major overhaul. It’s a reminder that eventually, someone else is going to do it, so it might as well be you.

But, that’s why I fucking do this. I’m always trying to recreate movie nights at W-5. And I never forget about five dudes in an apartment pointing at a screen saying we want that too.

Oh. And I still owe my boys a “Nig” script. Just not called “Nigs”.

*And it was really me. Ric eventually learned how to ask for the number. Ask him about the time he put in a position when I had no choice but to ask for the number while we were cruising Peachtree St. Not my finest hour. Only “let me show you my little dog” probably beats it as most memorable Chuck on Peachtree moment.