You are currently viewing From ‘Purple Rain’ to ‘Dear White People’ – how Minnesota’s film industry elevated black stories

From ‘Purple Rain’ to ‘Dear White People’ – how Minnesota’s film industry elevated black stories

Behind the scenes of the filming of “Laurel Avenue”
Photo courtesy of MN TV Film

In the summer of 1986, Van Hayden and his friend Michele Norris attended the annual convention of the National Association of Black Journalists. That year, attendees were treated to an exclusive screening of young Spike Lee’s directorial debut, a film that launched the famed director’s decades-long career.

Hayden and Norris left the film stunned. “We were at one of the first screenings of Spike Lee’s first feature, ‘She’s Gotta Have It’ and we were blown away,” he said.

Hayden had followed in the footsteps of his father, a journalist who wrote for the Minnesota Spokesman-Recorder. He had also embarked on a writing career until he saw another Spike Lee Joint – “Do The Right Thing”. After watching the Brooklyn-based director’s third film, Hayden was determined to join Lee’s production team in New York.

He wrote a letter to 40 Acres and Mule Filmworks, Lee’s production company, asking for a job. Some time later, he received a call from a production assistant (PA) at the company who informed him that there were no more opportunities available as a PA, an entry-level job. in the film industry apart from union representation.

A few weeks later, Hayden received another call that informed him of an opening in the craft services department. He jumped at the chance. After Hayden gained a reputation for hard work, Lee offered him a job at his production company.

Minnesota’s Tax Incentive Program One Year Later

For many years, the film and television industries were mostly confined to New York and California. Hayden realized he had to leave Minnesota if acting was for him. “I had to go where the jobs were, and that’s the difference now. Those jobs are almost everywhere now,” Hayden said.

He listed states like Pennsylvania, Ohio, North Carolina and others that are now hot spots for the film and TV industry.

Last year, Minnesota lawmakers passed a bill signed by Governor Tim Walz that created a film production tax credit for production companies that spend at least $1,000,000 over the course of a tax year for their eligible production costs.

The state also has a rebate program that offers 20-25% cash back to production companies that spend at least $100,000. The rebate is funded at $500,000 per fiscal year. The 2022 program is currently accepting applications and has $6.7 million in allocations available for the remainder of the tax year.

Carl Franklin, director of “Laurel Avenue” and known for films like “Devil in a Blue Dress”.
Photo courtesy of MN TV Film

Melodie Bahan is the executive director of the Minnesota Film and TV Board, the nation’s only nonprofit film board, which administers the state’s incentive program. She describes the work of MN TV Film as marketing the state to the film and television industry as a place and highlighting all that Minnesota has to offer. She sees the recent legislation as a step in the right direction.

“This reimbursement program was not competitive with other states. Because of this, our film and television production industry has shrunk over the past two decades from what it was before,” said she said. “What happened, I would describe as a very good start in our rebuilding efforts. It is one of the smallest programs in the country, but it will allow us to be a little bit competitive.

States like Georgia offer a tax credit of up to 30% and saw their film industry grow to the tune of $9.5 billion in 2018. New Mexico and Louisiana are other states that have implemented tax credits to attract the film industry to their states.

Minnesota’s film industry hasn’t always been so small in the past. According to MSP Film Society filmmaker and programmer Craig Laurence Rice, Minnesota was once a movie hub.

“Cinema in Minnesota has a long heritage. It goes back to the early ’20s when they made the first feature films here, and there were always productions here,” Rice said. .the third in the country behind production for years until sadly the late 90s.”

For years, Minnesota’s main competitor was Canada, whose rebate was 30 cents on the dollar compared to Minnesota’s 15. With a federal rebate and tax incentive, Minnesota slowly came to be seen as a filming location. Soon after, other states like New Mexico and Louisiana after Hurricane Katrina used their tax credits to jump-start their economies.

Before the state lost out to competitors, it created plenty of opportunities for black creators in the film space, opportunities that some say can be brought back with tax credits.

Proponents of the state tax credit cite film projects like “Downtown Owl” as a direct result of the state’s ability to attract filmmakers to make their projects here. Although the novel the film is based on is set in North Dakota, production came to Minnesota with a star-studded cast that includes Vanessa Hudgens, Ed Harris and Henry Golding.

How Minnesota helped pave the way for black storytelling

David “TC” Ellis got his start in music and film in his hometown of St. Paul, Minnesota. He and his younger sister Suanne were two of the first Minnesota-based artists to sign with Warner Bros. through Prince. Having worked closely with the late singer and musician as a recording artist, Ellis had the opportunity to play a role in his second film ‘Graffiti Bridge’, the sequel to ‘Purple Rain’.

Ellis saw firsthand how the worlds of music and film collided for Minnesota’s benefit. “The business was really booming. The Minneapolis music scene was very hot and appealing to the movie industry,” he said.

After starring in “Graffiti Bridge”, Ellis was cast in HBO’s “Laurel Avenue” (1993), a miniseries that depicted the life of a black family in St. Paul. The series is credited with ushering in a new wave of black drama on television.

“I feel like the Twin Cities were really at the forefront of work that looked like things that came later like ‘The Wire’ and real mystical documentary shows,” Ellis said. “Laurel Ave. was really, I think, the start of that kind of work, and I think we should have continued even more.”

Behind the scenes of the filming of “Laurel Avenue”
Photo courtesy of MN TV Film

Paul Aaron and Carl Franklin, the show’s producer and director, approached Ellis to help develop the show’s bible. His songs depicted life in St. Paul and provided insight into the daily life they hoped to portray on screen. Ellis would later star as Derek, a main character in the series.

Many members of the community have also had the chance to enter the world of cinema behind the camera. “A lot of people I grew up with and knew kind of got into the industry and got a head start,” Ellis said. Jobs in hair and makeup, wardrobe, location scouting, etc. were available to members of the local community, some of whom launched careers after the show ended.

Hayden hosted a cast and crew reunion in the fall of 2020 to reflect on the show’s impact nearly 30 years later.

Although Minnesota hasn’t had as many productions as it did in the 90s, individual efforts have been made to bring movies to the state.

The film “Dear White People” (2014) was filmed in Minnesota with actors from the community. It would then inspire the Netflix series of the same name. Hayden, who produced the film, introduced his home country as the location. “We shot at the University of Minnesota, Loring Park Women’s Club and on Summit Avenue,” he said.

Hayden returned to Minnesota after five years in New York and 25 years in Los Angeles. He is currently a member of the board of directors of MN TV Film and is working to create interest in film-related jobs that can support the people of the state.

“These are jobs where you don’t need to have a college education, and at the same time, you could make a living out of it if you stay there long enough,” he said.

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