By Michael Goldstein
By Dennis Romero
By Sarah Fenske
By Matthew Mullins
By Patrick Range McDonald
By LA Weekly
By Dennis Romero
By Simone Wilson
Photos by Wild Don Lewis
“What kinda jobs are two niggas wit art degrees gonna get in these economic times?”
Sitting in the bedroom-cum-workspace of Jason Van Veen’s Inglewood home is to both glean the inner workings of PSTOLA, the guerrilla filmmaking collective he co-founded in 1999, and to peep the outfit’s myriad influences. Countless CDs, books and videos crowd the room. African art and a huge Bob Marley poster flank a computer desk that is cluttered with papers and magazines; weights rest heavily on the floor, and a skateboard and snow skis are propped against the closet door. An old but working turntable sits beneath a Jamaican flag. While Van Veen, 32, lounges on the floor, his hands clasped beneath his head, Andre “Dre” Brooks, 32, perches on the edge of the bed, and Deon Johnson, 30, sits quietly in a corner chair.
Dre, who graduated from Howard University with a degree in finance, is an executive recruiter of finance and accounting professionals for Ryan Miller & Associates. He is clean-shaven and close-cut, rocking expensive corporate drag: tailored suit, blue shirt, tie and very nice shoes. While the roles and responsibilities within the group blur (all share writing and acting chores), Dre is more or less the producer. Deon, light-skinned with good hair pulled into a braid that falls down his back, sports a white T-shirt and baggy blue jeans. The Silent Bob of the trio, he studied animation at the Art Institute of Santa Monica and handles graphic design, designed the Web site (www.pstola.com) and is co-cameraman. Jason, who holds a degree in communications studies from Cal State Dominguez Hills and works for the Watts Labor Community Action Committee (WLCAC) as a videographer and editor, is the most talkative of the trio. PSTOLA’s primary screenwriter and editor, he flosses a hybridism that encapsulates the group’s aesthetic and agenda: His thin but muscular forearms are heavily inked; his long hair is parted down the middle and braided for an effect that could either be Piru or Leimert Park boho, depending on what clothes he’s wearing, which today include an oversized brown T-shirt and baggy, below-the-knee jean shorts.
Based on received popular wisdom that Negroes of a feather flock together, these three shouldn’t even be on the same block, let alone in the same room. The sum effect of the various sartorial and hairstyle choices isn’t one of conflict, however, but rather a crackling dynamic. For all their differences, it’s the substantive points of connection — and reflection — that make the trio and their films work.
“We came together as three silly-ass niggas that enjoy making one another laugh,” says Dre. “We’re really trying to take audiences on a ride through black culture because they — black people, white people and everybody else — never really get to see us as the complex people that we are. We know cats that, if you saw them on the street, you’d think they were just die-hard thugs.”
“But in reality,” chimes in Jason, “they’ll be some of the most intelligent cats you’ll ever meet. They’ll be almost geeky with some of the shit that they’re into, studying insects and shit like that.”
“Black people, especially, get into this monolithic thing,” continues Dre. “We don’t see — especially in entertainment — much diversity. We see set images that are kinda etched in stone.”
“Use rap, for example,” says Jason. “Most people are followers. For you to deviate and march to your own beat takes a lot of courage; most people just want to be part of the status quo. So, whatever is hot now, that’s what all the rappers are gonna conform to. They’re not gonna show any other dimensions for fear of being called out: ‘You ain’t hard; what you doing ain’t no real rap. That ain’t no real street shit.’ I think there are a lot of people hiding, not showing who they really are. They’re walking the streets in uniform, following codes. Pull them same cats off to the side and they might admit to liking the Bee Gees and Barbra Streisand — music their friends would laugh at.”
The fact of both Hollywood’s and America’s resiliently fucked-up racial politics makes PSTOLA refreshingly bracing. There’s a caustic brilliance contained in its small but potent body of work. With Van Veen, Brooks and Johnson as architects of an outfit that also includes a handful of other writers, actors and directors, the collective has made nearly a dozen hilarious, self-financed short films that have shown in national film festivals, and are also available on its Web site. They blend ’hood-rat savvy, social commentary and art-school geekiness into a multi-tiered “black sensibility” that goes far beyond the false divides of sellout vs. race man, corporate vs. ghetto, and boho vs. thug that keep playing out in both real lives and the media. Forget the guns-&-ho’s, straight-to-video bullshit that litters inner-city video stores; this is hip-hop cinema. Think of them as Wu Tang with digital cameras. But they’re retro hip-hop, determinedly old-school in their unapologetic racial consciousness, in the no-shame-in-their-game low-budgets they work with, and in their gleeful irreverence toward sacred cows of mainstream, underground and Negro cultures. And the PSTOLA posse enthusiastically embrace early hip-hop’s DIY business ethic; only, cyberspace is the trunk from which they’re hawking their wares.
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