|Photo by Wild Don Lewis|
The concept for Fronterz came out of thin air. Garth Belcon, a young actor/writer from New York and a regular face around Sunset Junction, was sitting in Café Tropical one day with his friends Courtney Jones and Reno Wilson, commiserating about the enervating, distressing, depressing hunt for movie work especially for black actors who dont rap.
We were just sitting around over coffees, talking about how the rappers were taking all the work, recalls Jones. We look up, and right outside theres a billboard for Half Past Dead, with Ja Rule and Steven Seagal. Were just like, Man, this is horrible. And then Reno says, Has there ever been a movie about actors who turned rapper to get acting work? We laughed. We were like, Yeah, ha ha ha . . . Hey!
That night Belcon went home and wrote a nine-page treatment. We were in pre-production the next day, he says. No lie. We were actually going, Okay, lets figure it out. Heres how were going to do this movie. We dont know where were getting the money, we dont know whos going to be in it, but were doing it, damn it. And we just pounded it out, and away we went. Two and a half weeks later, we were shooting.
Eleven months after that, the film was finished, completed for around 180 grand with the help of various friends and relations, the editing house King Cut, and a hell of a lot of good luck. Its the kind of project that seems to attract goodwill. As featured actor Ted Danson puts it, Fronterz has that My dads got a barn lets put on a show! vibe.
In the film, scripted by Belcon but partially improvised, three underemployed, classically trained actors reinvent themselves as rappers: Malikai Cameron (Belcon) becomes Pimp Mississippi Messiah, Tracey Baker (Wilson) is Lil Problem, and Ron Lewis (Dennis Pressey) goes by Big Spoon. As the rap group Large Money Mercenaries, they cop every stereotype of MTV hip-hop the jewelry, the booty video, the walk and talk in pursuit of acting jobs. (The actors write and perform all their own raps and theyre actually pretty good. Snoops producers, Marc In the Dark DAndrea and Dave Shaw, are our music producers, notes Jones, and he says these guys are as good if not better than most of the stuff he hears.) Along the way, the group contends with painfully uncool music and film executives, played by Danson and Henry Winkler, who fumble to cash in on a fad they dont particularly understand. (Danson claims he had no idea how to play a record exec, but his coked-out slickster is hilarious.)
In a dig at the whole urban genre, some of the scripts offered to the faux rappers have names like Bitta Chocolate, The Adventures of Doo Doo Brown and Soul Patrol. Thats true to life, says Belcon. It can never be just Love and Roses, its got to be Money, Love and Chocolate Roses. I swear to God, there was a script that came out a couple months ago called Soul Plane like Airplane! but with brothers.
My friend in New York is a brilliant actor, adds Pressey, and he booked a recurring role on a series. There was a holdup at NBC; he got called into rehearsal, and theyre like, We had to give the role to someone else. They wouldnt tell him who. And then he saw in TV Guide that Eve got the role. Its just epidemic.
Co-producer Miles Presha jumps in: How come theres no rock stars getting in movies?
Its okay if people pop up once in a while, Pressey continues, but Busta Rhymes in Finding Forrester, Busta Rhymes in Narc? I mean, I love his music and all, but hes not a qualified actor. If it were an actor working off Sean Connery, it would have been a different feel. The work is being compromised. Its an insult. You put 20 years of training into this, and [the rappers] just walk in. If theyre brilliant and dont need to go to class, fine, but theyre not. They suck.
In poking fun at hip-hop and Hollywood, Fronterz is a good-natured critique of the ways both rappers and black actors get packaged by the media. And much like This Is Spinal Tap, its satire is loving at heart. Were not haters, insists Pressey. We love hip-hop.
The film is also spiritually linked to Hollywood Shuffle, which skewered racial stereotypes in 80s Hollywood though the Fronterz filmmakers are not jazzed about the inevitable comparisons. Hollywood Shuffle [was about] how black actors were being offered shitty roles, says Presha. But now, actors are frustrated not only because they get offered shitty roles, but on top of that, all those roles are being taken by rappers who arent even actors in the first place. You have to take more steps back in order to get work.