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.