The screenwriter of the classic street-ball flick, Above the Rim, looks back 20 years later.
Barry Michael Cooper!
BARRY F'N MICHAEL COOPER!
The loud knocking on the door to my suite at the Mondrian served as a sonic axe, chopping into the DLS region in the middle of my head, that neighborhood of the brain housing those unruly tenants of conscience, guilt, and regret. I felt guilty. I regretted drinking an entire bottle of Cristal the night before, because the hangover had me in a serious headlock jawn. It was 10:30 in the morning. I took me a minute, and then I recognized the nervous, wired, and intense voice connected to the angry, Five-Oh like door knocking and shouting.
It was director Jeff Pollack.
I told him through the door to calm down, let me throw some clothes on. I jumped into my favorite Hugo Boss hoodie and Levi’s 560 jeans, mashed my ashy feet into a pair of black Gucci loafers, and slowly opened the door.
Am I going to have to choke this dude out? I asked myself. That wouldn't be easy, because Jeff was trained in the martial arts. I only made it to a yellow tip as a 13-year-old practitioner of Shotokan "hard style" karate at Harlem's Minisink Town House. But I wasn't one to back down, either. From Harlem to Hollywood, the street is defined by how a man crosses it.
When I opened the door, I saw Jeff almost in tears. He said to me, "You broke our hearts, Barry. You broke my heart and you broke Benny's heart." I looked at Jeff like he had four heads. Yes, I had a hangover, but dude was talking crazy.
"What are you talking about, I broke your heart and Benny's heart?"
He said to me, "That script you wrote about the dirty cops and dirty politicians and drug dealers in Baltimore, Thirsty? The one you promised to me and Benny? Well, George Jackson said you gave it to him and Doug McHenry to take to Lisa Henson at Warner Brothers."
I just looked at this guy. The surrealist nature of the moment had jarred me into stone-cold soberness. "So this is not about my story notes yesterday on Above the Rim?"
Suddenly, Jeff's tears dried up, and he smiled that matinee-idol/surfer dude smile of his. "Absolutely not! We loved your story notes! By the way, Benny is downstairs in the car. We're taking you to brunch at the Bel Age." He then gave me a hug, and left.
Welcome to Hollywood.
That was the fall of 1991. Between 1988 and 1994, I would write eight scripts. Three of them would make it to the big screen: New Jack City, (1991), Sugar Hill (1994), and Above the Rim (1994). Of those three, Above The Rim was the only screenplay that I did not create as an original story. Instead, I was brought in as a writer for hire.
Hollywood's Golden Black Epoch, 1986–1997, was an amazing decade, with African-American filmmakers (writers, directors, producers, actors, and actresses) of every major and independent studio in Hollywood collaborating on great work. I was blessed to be a part of that. After the success of New Jack City, I was in demand as a hot screenwriter. My agency, William Morris (currently known and WME), allowed my family and I to eat pretty good for a few years. One of those meal tickets was the New Line Cinema production of Above the Rim, starring the late, great Tupac Shakur, Leon, Duane Martin, the late, great Bernie Mac, Tonya Pinkins, Marlon Wayans, and the late, great, David Bailey.
I met Benny Medina—the legendary talent manager, film/television/record producer—through the trailblazing and talented producer, the late, great, George Jackson, during New Jack City's pre-production phase. It was Benny (the V.P. of Warner Brothers Records during that time) who brought Above the Rim to my attention.
It was a story written by his childhood friend and business partner, Jeff Pollack. Benny avoids publicity, but he is one of the most powerful men in entertainment, responsible for igniting the careers of Will Smith, Sean “Diddy” Combs, Jennifer Lopez, Tyra Banks, and many more. Benny is also a brilliant visionary and forecaster of trends in music and film. The sitcom The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air was loosely based on the friendship of Benny and Jeff Pollack, and it was Benny who knew, before anyone else, that Will Smith had megastar potential.
The road to writing the script for Above the Rim began in the summer of 1990, a few weeks after New Jack City had wrapped production.
I was hanging out with the brilliant Allen Payne. We grew up across the street from each other in Harlem, but I didn't know Al back then, because his family moved to the South Jersey/Philly area when he was in high school. One night, me, Al, and some of his crew from 149th Street were coming from the Powerhouse hip-hop club on 26th Street in Chelsea.
Once we hit 116th and 7th Avenue, the crew chief's black Ford Bronco was being followed by a blue-and-white. By the time we got to 131st and 7th, the kid driving pulled over, got out, said something to the two white and beefy cops. Then they got in their patrol car and drove off. With a dry smirk, the money-makin' kid said, "I can't stand a thirsty-ass cop."
I had never heard the term “thirsty” before. A week later, I had written a script titled Thirsty about a white narcotics detective in Baltimore who was extorting drug dealers and blackmailing dirty politicians, for his own financial and political gain.
A few months later I showed the script to Benny, who flipped and told me, "This is better than New Jack City! This puts you on another level. Let me and Jeff set this up at a studio, and you'll be able to direct it, too." I said bet. What I failed to tell Benny and Jeff was that I said the same thing to George Jackson and Doug McHenry a few weeks later, after George chided me for going to Benny and Jeff before going to him. I told George that both parties could be producers; it's done all of the time.
I was wrong, because Warner Bros. wasn't trying to hear all of that, and passed on the script. Hence the angry door knocking of Jeff Pollack at the Mondrian in the fall of 1991.
The good thing that came out of that situation is that Benny and Jeff wanted me to write Above the Rim. Jeff based it on the story of an All-American high-school standout from Queens N.Y., who had lots of potential, but the streets almost swallowed him whole in the early 1980s. I told Benny and Jeff that the story was in my wheelhouse. I practically spent all of my summers as a teenager at the Rucker Basketball Tournament in Harlem on 155th and Eighth Avenue, watching marquee NBA players like Nate "Tiny" Archibald, Dave Cowens, Charlie Scott, and of course, Julius “Dr. J” Erving balling on the blacktop. The games at the Rucker drew crowds of 3-5,000 people in the bleachers, on the ledges of the middle school adjacent to the playground, and lining the 155h Street viaduct overpass that connected the hillside of Edgecombe Avenue with the valley of 7th Avenue.
I also told Jeff about guys who never made it to the pros; iconic players like Carlton "Mr. Moto" Green from the Colonial Houses, Joe "The Destroyer" Hammond (who once dropped 50 points on Dr. J, and then left the game at halftime). Guys like Alonzo "Super Kid/Black Lonz" Jackson, from 115th and 8th Avenue, the land of heroin kingpin Leroy “Nicky” Barnes. Alonzo was Allen Iverson before Allen Iverson. Five foot ten, mad ball handle, a standing vertical leap of almost 44 inches underneath the basket, and a temper so vicious, he threatened to kill his coach when he sat him on the bench.
Tupac was a magnet for attention, and the polarity of his persona created a lot of interest in the film.
Besides the game, there were the half-time, half-court shows of Apollo Theater emcee and Holcombe Rucker Park official Sandman Sims, and the mind-boggling dance routine of Smokey the Freak at the King Towers Tournament on 115th Street in East Harlem. There were the stylish street kingpins like Chick (a dead ringer for Wesley Snipes) who coached the Chick's Jewelers team, and fly Freddie Myers from Money Earnin' Mount Vernon, who coached Milbank in the Rucker. Freddy used to stunt on the crowd, draped in his silk embroidered Jupiter of Paris shirts (the predecessor of the same gilded, paisley design shirts that Puff and Biggie rocked under the Versace label two decades later.) Jeff Pollack was a sponge, absorbing all of the atmosphere I described to him, so much so, that he cast real life Rucker basketball land Harlem street legend Richard "Pee Wee" Kirkland as an adviser in the film and in the role of Georgetown scout "Phil Redd.”
I walked Jeff through the basketball drills of the teams I played for, like CYO powerhouse Resurrection Church team on 150th Street ("Rez" produced some the best b-ballers back in the '70s, like All-Americans Alfred "Butch" Lee, who went on to get a ring with the L.A. Lakers in 1980), and the basketball drills we used to do at the indoor courts at Colonial Park on 149th and Bradhurst; the three-man weaves, the duck walks, the wind sprints around the court, the backboard bank-shot exercises.
Jeff even flew to New York and went to a few of the games at the Rucker and the City Wide tournament at the Col. Young Park on 145th and Lenox and took notes. Jeff was an intense guy who could be gruff and confrontational. I can remember he and I almost coming to blows one afternoon in the lobby of the Regency Hotel on 61st and Park Avenue, because I changed a few pages of Kyle Lee Watson's dialogue. I asked Jeff, "Yo, are you serious? I worded the dialogue the way people people talk uptown. This movie is set in Harlem, not Bel-Air. That's why you and Benny hired me—to make it authentic." Jeff calmed down, and we talked it out. And that's what I respected about him: his passion and honesty in wanting to be true not only to the film he saw in his head, but the subject matter on the script's pages.
I thought Benny and Jeff's casting of Tupac Shakur as Birdie was spot-on. He had made an indelible mark in the collective pop consciousness as a sociopath in Juice, and as a thoughtful poet in Poetic Justice. He was also playing the role of the real-life Outlaw Immortal in the role of "2Pac," in the lurid headlines of the New York Post and the Daily News. Tupac was a magnet for attention, and the polarity of his persona created a lot of interest in the film.
The rest of the cast was strong, too. I thought Bernie Mac gave a surprisingly moving performance as the downtrodden former basketball star, Flip. Leon was great as the brooding and mysterious Thomas Sheppard, as was Wood Harris as the menacing Motaw. Tonya Pinkins was magnificent as the matriarch Mailika, and the talented Marlon Wayans was impressive as the comic, and ultimately tragic Bugaloo.
I remember in the months before Above the Rim was green-lit for production by Bob Shaye and Mike De Luca, Jeff and Benny asked me who I saw in the role of Kyle Lee Watson. I told them hands down, Allen Payne. Al had not only proven himself as a star in the role of "Gee Money," in New Jack City, but dude could hoop, too. His crossover was strictly break-ya-ankles trying to check him. Ultimately, Jeff and Benny went with Duane Martin, who had all of that, plus hops. I was disappointed that Al wasn't cast, but Duane Martin was amazing as Kyle.
Jeff Pollack directed some of the greatest basketball action sequences of all time. The camera movement on the court at the Rucker, and the symbiosis between the players, the crowd, and the court itself, was stunning. The mesmerizing visual choreography designed by Jeff and DP Tom Priestly (who was also Francis Kenny’s camera operator on New Jack City) set the tone for every other basketball flick that would follow. Like, forever.
The only scenario that had me dumbfounded in Above the Rim was the scene where Bugaloo watches Kyle take a leak in an alleyway overpass. It's not a scene that I wrote—or even thought of, for that matter. Very strange. However, the scene between Flip and Kyle with the "boonks"—the weird, sadistic practice of punishing the loser of a one-on-one with a bruising assault of a basketball thrown at the backside withfull force—well, I did see guys agree to that. Even as a kid, it seemed like some weird rite-of-passage, to show how tough you are. To this day, I still don't get it. But for the purposes of referencing a particular era (late 70s/early 80s on a NYC basketball court) the boonks scene was a story cue for the moment Flip recognized Shep, and the reveal that they were teammates on a high school basketball dynasty.
I wasn't on the set of Above the Rim during the production, as I was in Los Angeles knocking out a few rewrites of Sugar Hill (starring Wesley Snipes, Michael Wright, Clarence Williams III, and Abe Vigoda) which had been green-lit a few months before Above the Rim.
I went to New York during the last days of production. I had been hired by EMI music executive Gary Harris to direct the video "Show You," for New Jack Soul singer Jeff Redd. This was around October 23 or 24, 1993.
I got a call from one of my agents at William Morris, who said Tupac wanted to meet me. It was the day the film was to wrap, the day of the shoot-out tournament at the Rucker. I was in the editing bay of a post-house on Great Jones Street in Soho, and caught a yellow cab all the way up to 155th and 8th Avenue, but Tupac and his entourage had just left. David Bailey, who played Coach Rollins, walked over and introduced himself. David and I caught the #10 bus in front of the Polo Grounds Houses across the street, and rode it all the way to Columbus Circle. At each stop in Harlem, the elderly black ladies gushed when they saw him.
"It's Russ Matthews!," they said, referring to his popular character from the soap opera Another World. David told me he thought Tupac was one of the greatest actors he had ever worked with. "What was great about Tupac," he said, "is that whatever was going on in his real life, he was able to take that, and make it believable on screen. Like Brando. I have never seen anything like it." David also told me, "You wrote something that will remain after you are long gone. Not many young black men get chance to do that. This is a tough business. You did something great, and I am proud of you."
As I think of that time 20 years ago, David Bailey's words take on a deeper meaning. A few days before Christmas 2013, Jeff Pollack was found lifeless on a jogger’s path near Manhattan Beach in Los Angeles. He was 54 years young. David passed away in 2004. And of course Tupac Amaru Shakur's prodigious life came to a brutal end on 13 September 1996. They are all truly missed, and GOD Rest their souls. Above the Rim gave all parties involved a chance to soar to new heights in our careers. Yes, it is a sports film, a basketball flick, but underneath all of that it is a film about the choices we make, how we arrive at those decisions, and what we are wiling to live with, once the die is cast.
Written by Barry Michael Cooper (@BarryMichaelC)
Barry Michael Cooper is the first African-American screenwriter in history to have two films released in one year, and a month apart from each other (Sugar Hill 25 February 1994, and Above The Rim, 23 March 1994.)