When Brooklyn Was in Vogue

In Brooklyn Boheme, Spike Lee, Chris Rock and others celebrate the New York City borough's rich artistic legacy.

Nelson George, Chris Rock and Diane Paragas

In his song "Brooklyn," Mos Def sings, "Sometimes I feel like my only friend/Is the city I live in/Is beautiful Brooklyn."  

Brooklyn, N.Y., especially the Fort Greene and Clinton Hill area, has been the muse for the many black and Hispanic artists who once made the borough their home. The new documentary Brooklyn Boheme, directed by Nelson George and Diane Paragas, showcases the journey of how these neighborhoods became, as Spike Lee states in the film, "Brooklyn's equivalent to the Harlem Renaissance." 

The Root attended the world premiere of Brooklyn Boheme, which was the opening-night event of the Urbanworld Film Festival in New York City in September. The red carpet saw the likes of Lee, Chris Rock and Mario Van Peebles, while a long line of moviegoers eagerly waited for the film's first screening. What they found was worth the wait: an evocative trip down memory lane, and a concentration of talent rarely seen today. 

These Brooklyn neighborhoods have an artistic legacy going back to the 1930s, when Richard Wright composed his classic Native Son on a bench in Fort Greene Park. Over the years, as drugs and crime crept in, real estate prices dropped, many white families moved out and black and Hispanic families moved in.

Despite their troubles, the neighborhoods grew and thrived. The artistic community there peaked in the 1980s through the beginning of this century. In the film, author and activist Kevin Powell reminisces about seeing Wesley Snipes using a pay phone there, how Erykah Badu once lived above a storefront on Fulton Street and how Mos Def used to freestyle on the street corner.

Director George moved into the area in 1985 and, over the years, formed deep and lasting friendships with Lee, Rock and other artists in the area. George, who narrates the film, gives an insider's view of the artistic community.

Spoken-word poet-musician Saul Williams recounts how Badu once ran into him on the street and sang the beginnings of what would become "Bag Lady," the top 10 single off her 2000 album Mama's Gun. The film visits the legendary Brooklyn Moon Cafe, where once upon a time on any given Friday night, Rock or Mos Def hosted open-mike nights and Common, Badu or Tabil Kweli performed.  

The film also celebrates the artistic collaboration in the community. When Lee lived at 132 Adelphi St., he conceived and edited his breakout film, She's Gotta Have It, which George helped finance. Lee stationed his production company, 40 Acres and a Mule, at the firehouse at 124 DeKalb St. In the film, when George asks Rosie Perez, another resident of Fort Greene, to describe the time she spent at 124 DeKalb, she becomes emotional when describing the first reading of Do the Right Thing

Collaboration and Community

That same sense of collaboration and community was also behind the film's creative process. When George decided to make the documentary, he approached Paragas to join him as co-director. Paragas told The Root that she was inspired to work on the film when George told her, "We have this opportunity to mark history while these people are still alive."