When Brooklyn Was in Vogue

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."


Needing to raise more money for the film, George and Paragas utilized Kickstarter.com, an online funding platform. On his director's statement on the website, George wrote that his motivation behind the film was "to capture the excitement and spirit of the brilliant artistic community I was so proud to be part of." The project inspired 200 strangers to donate $10,000 in just 15 days. 

These funds went primarily to the film's opening aerial shots, which give us a bird's-eye view to appreciate the beauty of these neighborhoods but also to acknowledge their changing face: Taller buildings and an almost-finished sports arena reflect the neighborhoods' development and gentrification.    


In the film, when George and Rock visit Rock's first home in the area, a kind white woman who has just moved into the apartment invites them inside. She shyly admits that she had heard that Rock once lived there. As they walk through Rock's old home, Rock recalls with humor how a burglar once broke in. The tale highlights just how much the ethnic and class makeup of the community has changed.

There are still remnants of the way it used to be. The Brooklyn Moon Cafe still holds its famous open-mike nights. Each year, artists in the area host the Fort Greene Festival; last summer featured Perez as the guest host and Mos Def as the headliner. But these days Mos Def is certainly no longer freestyling on the corner, and Lee long ago sold the firehouse that once housed his production company. 


At the Q&A that followed the screening, George admitted that he once contemplated leaving the neighborhood, but he came to realize that change is inevitable — especially in New York City. He echoed what Kweli says in the film: "I either embrace history or I'm run over by it."

In the film, Powell discusses how before he moved to the Fort Greene-Clinton Hill area, he was disappointed to find the cultural scene of the Harlem Renaissance long gone. The experience of watching Brooklyn Boheme, which won runner-up for Urbanworld's Audience Award, touched a similar chord among many attendees.


During the Q&A, a man in the audience asked George how he could find a similar artistic community in the up-and-coming Brooklyn neighborhood of Bed-Stuy. Always one to encourage a sense of community, George asked all the Bed-Stuy people in the theater to raise their hands. He then instructed those people to "go introduce yourself to this man." George said to the audience with a smile, "The entire history of American pop culture is built on communities … I'm always searching for the next community."

The next screening of Brooklyn Boheme will take place Nov. 9 at the DOC NYC film festival at the IFC Center. Currently looking for distribution, the movie is touring the festival circuit nationwide and internationally.


Celena Cipriaso has written for The Root, CNN.com, Draft and Bitch.

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