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.
The trio, who cite Aaron McGruder, Looney Tunes cartoons, The Simpsons, Spike Lee, Chris Rock, Martin Scorsese and Robert Townsend among their heroes, use hip-hop as both business model and bottomless fount for their cultural references. In their short The Corporate Negro, hip-hop — its rhythms and vernacular — is the steady hum running through the film. Dre plays the title character, pumping rap in his convertible Benz on his way to work, Ebonically macking female passersby like a pimp, and then slipping into crisp professional inflections when paged by his secretary. Turning to the camera and curling his lip, he delivers the following soliloquy as the appropriate images flash onscreen:
“They don’t know me, mayne. I’m the corporate Negro. I have the job, the house . . . the car. I’ve got my heart [CUT TO: thin, long-haired, café-au-lait beauty], my ho for my debauchery [CUT TO: darker-skinned, thicker sister wailing in the throes of sexual ecstasy], and y’all know we get an honorary white girl with this package [CUT TO: bored white woman lying beneath a thrusting Dre]. And I have authority over white Ivy Leaguers who make six-figure salaries.”
Clad in a tailored business suit, he glares at the camera to emphasize his point. From there, the audience is volleyed riffs on interracial office politics, relationships between Negroes perched on various rungs of the corporate food chain, and the many roles that black folk play on a daily, if not hourly, basis, with the shifting and changing of masks being reflexive. It’s a satiric look at bicultural schizophrenia, at the tensions, contradictions and similarities between the demands of corporate poses and nigger realities. “Corporate Negro was something we came up with,” adds Dre, “because in the media, cats are either Carlton [the whitewashed cousin from television’s Fresh Prince of Bel Air] or they’re Jay-Z. I’m not either one of them.”
“With Corporate,” continues Jason, “we wanted to make a corporate dude whose lifestyle was as sexy as a rapper’s. That’s why he’s bragging about all the material things that his lifestyle affords him. And then, it takes a twist. The ending came about when we were still shooting. We were like, wouldn’t it be fucked up if we just ended it with, ‘At the end of the day, despite all your accomplishments, you still a nigga.’”
“What’s interesting to me,” says Dre, “is that I’ve played the film for people in my office, and a white gay colleague came up to me and said, ‘I completely relate to that story.’ An Asian dude in the office said, ‘It’s the same for us.’ I think that being very specific with the story actually opens the door for lots of different people to see their story or situation as well.”
The name PSTOLA, a variation on the Spanish word for pistol, flows into the group’s tag line: The Sure Shot Guerrilla Film Co. The outfit formed in late 1999, shooting its first film, Profile of a Jank, in 2000. Jason and Dre both grew up in Oakland, becoming friends in high school, but their parents broke up their clique after what Jason refers to as the group’s “nonstop fucking up in school.” Dre was sent to private school. Jason was shipped to his father in Inglewood, where he befriended Deon. After his father died a few years ago, Jason used the money he inherited to buy filmmaking equipment, taking the first steps toward realizing his childhood dream of making movies.
“By that point,” he says, “digital technology had advanced to the point where the consumer could own the means of production, so it became affordable. I took the money and copped the XL-1 and the G4. Then we acquired some software and were in the game.”
The game includes bringing childhood and neighborhood friends along for the ride, which is only fitting since their lives and antics are the inspiration for much of PSTOLA’s work. There’s Ben Watkins, whose paradoxical good looks encompass both pretty boy and nerd and who wrote and directed Quest To Ref, about an inner-city sports geek who takes it upon himself to referee playground pick-up games (“Six hundred and seven games that I’ve refed — only one fatality. That’s a record that I’m proud of . . .”), which PSTOLA produced (and which played Sundance). Watkins also stars in the trio’s The Adventures of Aaron Willows in Cyberspace, about a Negro simp who tries to get his freak on through Internet hookups. The ghetto hookup also extends to include Terry Boyce (the outfit’s Dirt McGirt/Big Baby Jesus/Ol’ Dirty Bastard), who wrote, directed and plays all three roles — the mama, the good son and the titular bad seed — in the droll, painstakingly detailed J.R.
“Our ideas come when we sit around like we’re sitting right now,” says Jason. “A lot of our friends are natural comedians and storytellers — like Terry, who did J.R. He would come in this room and entertain us with that story, actually acting out all the parts — the mother, the brother and himself. We were like, ‘Hell, we can shoot that. You’re acting, bruh. That’s a short story.’ And that’s how we approach it.”
Watch PSTOLA’s shorts in chronological order and you witness the evolution of its skills; you also get the visual equivalent of a rap CD. The autobiographical Guerrilla Tactics clips, wherein the guys illustrate their frustrations about and solutions to everything from raising funds to getting into film festivals, serve as between-song skits. The truly sublime What You Drinkin’ Mank, and Double Barrel Gangstaz BBQ, which both star Gerald “Slink Capone” Johnson as a hardcore, Jheri-curled thug with a jones for Starbucks and gourmet food, are your raw, underground tracks. J.R. and Quest To Ref are the heavyweight guest-star appearances. The crossover pop track is Aaron Willows, probably the most accessible work for bougie Negroes and film-festival programmers; it also contains a far-too-brief but crackling cameo by Jason and Deon (PSTOLA’s Meth and Redman) as porn stars. (Aaron Willows is scheduled in this year’s Pan African Film Festival.)
Then there’s the out-of-the-box classic, Profile of a Jank, narrated by Maverick (Jason), a bespectacled quasi-nerd who grew up with the shady title character. It’s worth noting that Maverick, who’d be a quivering punk or the butt of endless jokes in a typical ’hood flick, is neither in Jank. He’s based on real-life types whose nuanced blackness and maleness defy the conventional boxes of modern urban film. He’s from the ’hood, knows it intimately and is a natural part of the landscape; he’s respected precisely because he calls bullshit when he sees it. ‰
“In any other film,” says Jason, “Maverick would be depicted as a buster. And that’s exactly why he had to be put out there for the public, to show this type of cat in a more complex way. It’s like, we need this representation; it hasn’t been shown. These guys exist and they’re interesting. More interesting than the bullshit Hollywood is feeding you. It’s the same with Corporate Negro. We just haven’t seen these guys.”
In Jank, Deon stars as Demetrius Cole, a generically angry, illiterate high-school basketball prodigy who’s pissing away his true gift because he wants to be the next Tupac. Picking fights with strangers on the street (pounding them while keeping a toothpick frozen in the corner of his mouth), attacking teachers and other students, selling bad weed, and hanging out with his equally janky girlfriend, he’s a densely drawn character. As presented by PSTOLA, Demetrius is neither the product of fetishized ’hood dysfunction, nor is he the object of NAACP nose-in-the-air disdain. You have to look to F. Gary Gray’s Friday to find another such modern ’hood character sketched with similar finesse — recipient of both strained affection and bitch-slap comeuppance. The humor doesn’t come only from punch lines and sight gags, but from subtlety of observation.
One of the best moments in the short is so deceptively simple that it’s easy to miss all that it conveys. Demetrius is on a pay phone, trying to convince his girl to let him come over for a blowjob. She’s not having it, and his desire seems only halfhearted in the first place. The camera catches him absentmindedly bombing the phone booth as he tells her, “Hey, when I come over there, don’t be actin’ stupid like last time either.” Forget the tumultuous nature of their relationship that’s captured in the line, or the distraction bordering on indifference that’s suggested by his body language. (Blowjob, Xbox, whatever.) Deon’s line reading bounces from Baltimore to Detroit to Philly to Compton. It’s pitch perfect in its capture of Every Thug Wannabe. Deon trumps Ja Rule, DMX and the slew of record industry thugs-turned-actors who are allegedly bringing street authenticity to the big screen. The naturalness of his delivery shames their contrived performances of blackness, and simply is. He’s tapped the reality that has, ironically, been smothered by hip-hop’s moronic mandate of “keepin’ it real.”
Hip-hop is many things, of course, but it’s now very much a jigaboo parade. It’s no longer for or about black people, but about Negroes cooning to a beat and video camera because that’s what gets suburban white kids (and record company CEOs) off. It’s perfectly, if accidentally, summarized in a comment made by Toni Morrison in a recent issue of the literary magazine Black Issues when she observes that so many staples in the canon of Negro literature have actually looked right through black people and been pointedly addressed to white folk. (She asks of the classic, Invisible Man, “Invisible to whom?”) In popular culture, the ubiquity of blackness that’s been achieved primarily through rap and hip-hop is often trumpeted as proof of cultural and political triumph, as if visibility is all that matters, regardless of the terms. In truth, Negroes are being served up, but rarely served.
Hollywood has been infected by the stupidity of mainstream hip-hop and its latter-day pandering to hoary white preconceptions and fantasies of blackness. (Think of Queen Latifah’s caricaturish, ’hood-rat shuffling — “Who dat? Who dat?” — for Steve Martin in the noxious Bringing Down the House.) The guys in PSTOLA, even while working in the amped realm of racial satire, never become grotesque and never skimp on detail. They also never devolve into mere metaphor. They’re nimbler, smarter and wittier than that. As with hip-hop before it went pop, they’re not concerned with whether or not Suzy Suburb (be she black, white or anything else) gets their references or humor. They don’t look through black people in order to reach a white audience.
Ironically, as a result of their you-come-to-me approach, they’re more likely to get the crossover crowd. They’ve already won a cult following that includes producer/director Reggie Hudlin, Cedric the Entertainer, director John Singleton and producer Stan Lathan. Though reluctant to discuss specifics, they say a deal for a DVD compilation of their films is in the works. (They’re also in postproduction on a new short, Coon-free America.) They’ve formed a partnership with artist-manager-turned-film-producer, Paul Stewart, who’s been in the entertainment industry for 15 years, having discovered and worked with artists such as Pharcyde, Warren G. and Coolio, and who supervised the music on the films Poetic Justice, Men of Honor, Barbershop and 2 Fast 2 Furious. Now dubbed the fourth member of PSTOLA, Stewart wears the hats of co-producer/PR rep/manager.
“Their work struck me as something totally fresh, street-savvy but super intelligent. Our plans are to take the Hollywood spots previously held by bamboozled filmmakers. We want to do features and TV, and plan to take advantage of the straight-to-DVD market as well. I see PSTOLA carving out their own niche, much the way the Coen brothers, Kevin Smith and Christopher Guest have.”
As the interview winds down, there’s a knock on Jason’s front door. It’s his neighbor and childhood chum, Nikki, armed with a pitcher of margaritas. Kisses all around because it’s her birfday, and they give a fuck ’cause it really is her birfday.
“Y’all just go on with your interview,” smiles Nikki, sitting on a corner of the bed and proceeding to pour the drinks. Her arrival, and the goodies she’s brought, set the mood and stage for an impromptu example of a PSTOLA creative session at work.
Relaxed, Jason begins to reminisce about the days when there were real-life white people in the neighborhood, when kids could safely gather in the park a few blocks away from his home and it was a breeze to walk from his house to the local convenience market. “But I woke up one morning and there were so many muthafuckas dressed in red, it looked like the cover of the ‰ first Ice Cube album.”
He and Nikki chuckle and shake their heads incredulously over a childhood friend who turned to gangbanging with the claim that he had no choice. “Nigga, get a job!” yells Jason, who then goes on to detail the browning of the “black” neighborhood. “Man, I was at the basketball court one day and these Training Day eses roll up, pushing one homeboy in a wheelchair — and his ass was clutching a prison basketball — and I’m standing there like, ‘Okay, how long can I stand here shooting hoops before I break, without my ass looking like a punk?’ ”
“See,” interjects Dre, “that’s why I live in Culver City.”
The room cracks up.
“The thing that I love about Dre,” laughs Jason, “is that he’s a snob.”
“Hella snob,” interjects Deon.
“Yes,” concedes Dre, “I’m hella snob. Once the rappers discover something and start rapping about it, I move on. No more Grey Goose for me ’cause I’ve heard too many references to it in rhymes.”
A distant pop-pop-pop sends Jason riffing on Halloween and New Year’s Eve celebrations in his once quiet neighborhood. “Man, niggas be firing off M-80s and shit, and no I am not exaggerating for effect. Real M-80s. And that shit starts, like in June — Happy Fourth of July! That shit would not pop in a white neighborhood. Cops go on vacation and shit around here. Just straight pull out and don’t look back.”
“Culver Ciiiiiity,” sings Dre, invoking laughter.
“Yeah,” nods Deon sagely, “but is [living in Culver City] worth getting your ass pulled over by the cops every five minutes?”
“Why yes, son,” replies Dre in a nasal, over-enunciated delivery, “I think it is.”
Dropping the Oreo inflections and sliding into educated Negro modulations, he adds, “The trick is to not be angry when you’re pulled over, but to be deeply hurt. Like white people.” The room roars in laughter, and he continues. “You gotta act like you’re just disappointed that they would even think to pull you over. But never angry, never belligerent.”
“You gotta act like you Tom Bradley’s nephew,” pipes in Nikki, “like you might have read a book in your life and might actually know something about your rights.” Deon slaps his hands together and folds over in laughter.
Someone turns on the radio, and an oldies station is playing the Spinners’ “Could It Be I’m Falling In Love?” I mention how much I love PSTOLA’s skewering of the cult of Tupac in Profile of a Jank. What they’ve done is nothing short of sacrilege against the black Elvis, a figure who’s been refined and honed by death into saint status, with all controversy and dissent shorn away.
“Now, I think what Tupac did was to make [the word] ‘thug’ the new ‘nigger,’” replies Jason, “where he just took that word and made it symbolize everybody who’s disenfranchised, who has been pushed to the margins and feels like they ain’t got a voice or they don’t have any choices.” He pauses. “I mighta been able to get wit that if it had come from somebody other than Tupac, but I wasn’t trying to look like I was riding that nigga’s nuts,” he laughs. “I ain’t a fan.”
“See, I knew Pac from being up in Oakland, part of Digital Underground,” chimes Dre, “so I’m more of a fan. But every time I turned around, that muthafucka was claiming someplace else. Oh, Pac from Baltimore, now? Oh, he from New York? Now, he from L.A.? Well, damn, how many places this muthafucka gon’ be from?”
“But that was his genius,” admits Jason. “He took something from all these places and upped them, so they all could claim him. And he took corny shit, like wearing that bandanna long after [that style] had fallen off, and made it work for him. I used ta think that was corny as fuck. I actually felt sorry for him when I saw him wearing that shit, but then he just rocked it, and it became iconic.”
“True,” nods Deon, uttering maybe his sixth word of the night, which sparks Jason to reveal that Jank was based, in part, on a nephew of Deon who grew up listening to gangsta rap and took the lyrics as a lifestyle blueprint.
“Yeah,” chuckles Jason, “we could see where he was headed when that nigga was 5.”
“But,” laughs Dre, shooting Jason a coded look, “[Jank] was also based on this one dude we know who had a baseball scholarship but was like, ‘Aw, man, I’m not gonna be able to kick it wit y’all.’”
An exasperated Jason jumps up and exclaims, “We were like, ‘Hey, dude, how come you ain’t out there playing ball? You got scouts jockin’ you . . .’ And he was like, ‘I wouldn’t be able to do what I’m doing now.’ And I’m like, ‘Man, what the hell are you doing now? We ain’t doin’ shit! We just sittin’ here! You wanna hang out? That’s why you sacrificing millions of dollars, a baseball career, and me living vicariously through you, and maybe getting some of your groupies? To hang the fuck out?’” He shakes his head. “Now, that nigga pulling run-outs at the liquor store. Not even credit card scams, but run-outs: the most janky, pathetic shit you could imagine. And this nigga used to be on television! He was set to do some shit. We was like, ‘He gon’ make it, dawg!’ Next thing you know, you look up and see this nigga pulling his hood over . . .” Jason pantomimes the acts of grabbing a bottle, hugging it to his chest, pulling a hoodie over his face and running out of a store, then jumping on a scooter and sliding away. Deon convulses with laughter.
On a roll, and vibing on his appreciative audience, Jason glides into a story of a ski trip where, at one point, he found himself on a lift next to a young white guy. “So, he looks over at me,” says Jason, “and goes, ‘I’m from L.A., where you from?’ So, I tell him, L.A., and he goes, ‘Oh, Compton?’” Everyone chuckles. “So, I go, ‘No, Inglewood,’ and he goes, ‘Oh, I know Inglewood. I used to buy drugs there.’”
“He don’t know Inglewood,” says Nikki. “Not our part, anyway. His ass was down at the bottom.”
“Exactly,” nods Jason. “So, I go, where are you from, Orange County?” Everyone laughs. “And he goes, ‘Yeah, how’d you know?’ And I was like, ‘Lucky guess.’ Then this muthafucka turns to me and goes, ‘You ever smoke crack?’” The room erupts into howls of laughter as Jason wraps the anecdote with, “Man, I wanted to push his punk ass off the ski lift.”
“See, he was only asking,” says Nikki, “so he could cop.” Head nods and a chorus of “Yeps” and “Hell, yeahs” follow the observation.
As music continues to play in the background, I start to pack my tape recorder and note pad. Jason comes over and leans into the recorder to make a final point.
“Our goal,” he says, “is to maybe start up a black distribution company. Maybe we’ll just be this big production house that grooms talent and puts stuff out, like Hitsville, USA [the early name for Motown Records]. We’re not just about us. We try to go out there and encourage everybody, but especially black kids. All you guys wanna be rappers and got a studio in your garage. Go pick up this shit [filmmaking equipment] and tell your stories, your way. If you can buy them Jordans, that goddamn Xbox, Play Station, cell phones and two-ways, then you can buy the means of production. You can have what we got right here.”