Moderator Yusuf Gad
Reginald Hudlin is an Oscar Nominated Director and Executive Producer best known for The Black Godfather, the 88th Annual Academy Awards, Marshall, and Django Unchained. He is also the former President of BET and former Vice President of the Producers Guild.
YG: You also ran Black Entertainment Television (BET) for a while. Tell me what that meant to you as an artist and more.
RH: It kind of happened at a perfect time. I was getting frustrated with the traditional movie business. There seemed to be a hard ceiling with Black filmmakers, not just myself, but all my friends as well. We were still working and making things, but we couldn’t get to that next level we all wanted to go, in terms of the projects we weren’t getting made.
So then I get a call from BET. This corporate headhunter. They said they were looking for their first President of Entertainment to head up original programming which the network had not really invested in heavily. They wanted to change that and they wanted me to do it. I said, sure. I’ve never been an executive before but it’s the biggest Black media company in the world. That seems like a great place to learn.
I take the job and I ask them what are their expectations of me, what do you want in the first year. They said to deliver four primetime shows. I said yes, and delivered eight primetime shows and I broke their rating record three times in a row while doing so. The next year, I delivered 16 primetime shows. It was a tremendous amount of success that expanded aggressively into all kinds of things. Our reality shows, our animations, our scripted programming, documentaries. We reinvented the news division that we won a bunch of awards for. We had a tremendous amount of success very quickly.
At the same time, I saw a shifting in the marketplace for a greater opportunity for movies again. Mainly because of the success of Tyler Perry and the amount of box office hits he was making. And so I said that this has been great, I’m a much better filmmaker having been an executive and it’s great to be on the other side of the desk. But I wanted to go back to what I perceived as my main day job which is to be making movies and TV shows.
YG: You also wrote comic books for a while, you still do. You were writing Black Panther before it was a global phenomenon. As a writer and creative, what do comic books give you the opportunity to do that film and television don’t?
RH: A couple of things. One, I’m just a huge comic book fan. I have thousands and thousands of comic books and I’ve been reading them since I was a kid. I always loved the Black Panther and when I had a meeting with Marvel Comics, not trying to get the rights to anything but just as a fan, this was long before the filmmaking phenomenon became a thing. I got introduced by some mutual friends and we just talked. At the end of the day, they asked what do I want to write. I said Black Panther and they said ‘you have an official mini-series - go!’
I was super excited and telling my friends that I am writing the Black Panther and they said ‘that’s great Reggie, who is that again?’ So I told myself that these first six issues need to explain who this guy is. If you’ve never read a comic book before and you pick this up, you will know who he is. I wanted to establish certain things which sometimes had been implied in earlier versions of the book. Black Panther never had an ongoing successful series of books. It always sold a few issues and then it got cancelled. So I said that in my six issue mini-series, I’m going to straighten it out.
I wanted to establish that Wakanda is this technologically and spiritually advanced country that has beaten every attempt at colonizing it over the years. And that Black Panther can basically whoop anyone’s butt. I turned in my first six issues and they said it was great and to keep going. So I ended up writing Black Panther for three and a half years, introducing Shuri, his little sister who didn’t exist before and I was doing this while writing for BET which was a lot.
Writing comic books was a fulltime job, writing television was a fulltime job but I was doing both jobs. And finally my boss said ‘why don’t we take your comic book and put it on TV?’. And I thought it was a great idea, so we did a six-episode animated series which also was very successful and I think the company shared the success with the comic book, which was a huge sell out. We actually sold more Black Panther books that Stan Lee and Jack Kirby did. The success of the book and animated series helped pave the way of success for the movie.
YG: How are you so good at picking up on trends? What is your instinct? How do you know what the next big thing is going to be?
RH: There is always a cost to pay for being first. No one knows what the hell you are talking about. When I pitched House Party to movie studios, they said teen movies are dead and Black movies no one wants to see. No one wants to see your Black teen movie. When I was getting ready to do Boomerang with Eddie Murphy, they asked how am I going to make a romantic comedy with Eddie Murphy? They said ‘he’s got the broad nose and big lips’. And I said ‘wow, that is super racist! I must be on the verge of success.’
When we were shopping Django Unchained, studio executives would wait for Quentin to leave the room and say ‘they are two things that don’t travel, Black movies and westerns. You have a Black western. How is this going to work?’ And I just said ‘are you making the movie or not?’
At every turn, these things went on to enormous success and were met with complete skepticism by almost every buyer. I am used to me saying this is the next big thing and for people to reject that idea. At the end of the day, you can either be a heat seeker or a talent seeker. A heat seeker follows what is hot right now.
This is what people like. A talent seeker sees where things are going, not where, to use a hockey analogy, not where the puck is but where is the puck going. I just use my own tastes and this is what I want. I figure if it doesn’t entertain me, how can I expect it to entertain other people. I just make what I want to make and hopefully I get the money to make it. Usually what I like turns out to be what other people like.
YG: Your movies are commercially successful but they are also very personal in many ways. They are grounded in specific experiences. How do you make a commercially successful product that is also very intimate in many ways. We are often taught that those two things don’t go together.
RH: That’s tragic that people think that because it’s just not true. I think it’s the opposite. I think it really is about love and that sounds cliché or whatever, but you’ve got to love the story you are making. You have to love the actors you are working with. Because I think that love shows on screen. If I’m working with an actor that makes me go ‘god, they are the best version of me. I just adore what they do on camera’, that shows up.
It’s like food. If your family cooks for you, you can feel the love they put into the food. They could be a good cook or not, but at least there is love there. I feel the same way about making stuff. If you start with love, that’s the thing that makes the difference.