A conversation with cinematic groundbreaker Craig Rice

Courtesy of Craig Rice Craig Rice

In the Twin Cities, when comes to being artistically sound, completely serious about culture, and important to sustaining African American cinema, we’re talking filmmaker-producer Craig Laurence Rice. Not since the late firebrand legend DeJunius Hughes (Twin Cities International Black Film Festival founder) has there been so successful a cinematic groundbreaker this side of immortal icon Gordon Parks.

Rice gives emerging directors like E.G. Bailey (New Neighbors) and Brenda Bell Brown (Sing Blues, Thank You) a strong lead to follow.  Indeed, his most noted triumph to date is as executive producer-director of Half Past Autumn: The Life and Works of Gordon Parks (HBO), which was Emmy-nominated and screened at the Museum of Television and Radio.

In a well-accomplished career, Rice is associated in varied capacities from the front lines as a crew member to directing to head executive honcho with, among other credits, Purple Rain, Graffiti Bridge, Million Dollar Idea and Laurel Avenue (HBO).  He’s directed award-winning commercials for Nike, Target, Kraft, and Partnership for Drug-Free America and done videos for Prince, Patti LaBelle, and Sounds of Blackness.

Teaching at MCAD, he advises screenplay students, ‚Äú‚ÄėYou‚Äôre a writer. Just write stories. What makes professionals professional, in film or in pro football or whatever, is that you get paid to not drop the ball.’‚ÄĚ He is the senior programmer for the Minneapolis St Paul International Film Festival which wraps on April 28.

He recently spoke to the Minnesota Spokesman-Recorder (MSR), discussing aspects of his craft and career as well as the festival, the annual centerpiece of The Film Society of Minneapolis St. Paul which this year’s 17-day run numbers 158 new feature films and 100+ shorts representing 79 countries.

Dwight Hobbes (DH): What’s your history with this yearly event?

Craig Laurence Rice (CLR): I’ve been with the Minneapolis St Paul International Film Festival for six years.  Programming primarily Minnesota-made features, documentaries, but also looking for African American [entries].  It’s been around for 37 years and is primarily an independent and international festival, so it’s got a different feel than festivals that are geared toward a Hollywood type of genre film.

I also look at films because what I do with the First Thursday [series] at the Capri Theater is more urban based. I’ve been doing that for three years through the Film Society. We just showed Quest, about a Black family in Philadelphia.  We showed I’m Not Your Negro last fall.  We were one of the few programs to show [Ava DuVernay’s]13th.  I got that from Netflix and we showed it for two nights so people who didn’t have Netflix could see it.  I’ve shown Cooley High.

In May, we’re showing No Vietnamese Ever Called Me Nigger from 1993, a documentary that was put away for a number of years because it was controversial. It was found and we’re showing that about how the Civil Rights Movement and the Vietnam War movement sort of joined forces.  We have a number of filmmakers coming in and have films from all over America.

DH:  You worked early on with director-screenwriter John Sayles and actor Joe Morton before they got established.  How was that?

CLR: Brother From Another Planet was such a different kind of film.  Not made in a traditional way.  It’s kind of how John Cassavettes worked.  [He was] one of the first directors to create this kind of filmmaking.

DH: The actor?

CLR: Yeah.  He directed about half a dozen films.  We did it the way he did. A low budget, raw way of [working]. I was assistant director on the second unit.  There was no soundstage at all.  We shot on location, on the street.  Run and gun, you know?  When John Sayles, Ernest Dickerson, and I were talking about making this movie, it came out of that style.  It was real, on the streets in Manhattan, in Harlem, in apartments, bars.  We just went out and did this film.  Sometimes it would just be me, Ernest, John and Joe, and one other person. I could drive.  Nobody else drove.  So, we’d get in a station wagon, go out and shoot.  No sound equipment, because [Morton’s character] doesn’t talk.  We’d just go out, guerilla-style.  That was new.

DH: You’re from the Twin Cities?

CLR: St. Paul in the Rondo neighborhood and lived in South Minneapolis.¬† In my 20s, because of Al Pilgrim at the Film Society, who I met in my teens, I wanted to be involved in film.¬†¬†I was a bass player first in groups and stuff like that. In the early ’70s, I switched and went to college, the University of Minnesota, MCAD.¬†¬†Got a scholarship to UCLA.¬†¬†Lived in L.A., in New York, and then moved back to do Purple Rain.¬†¬†Prince and I knew each other from my being a musician; we got along and he hired me.

DH: How has it been working on locally shot national flicks like Untamed Heart with Christian Slater, Marissa Tomei and Rosie Perez, Joe Somebody and so on?

CLR: I believe in Minnesota.  It’s one of the greatest centers in the country and not just for filmmaking but music, too.  Gary Hines [of Sounds of Blackness] and I grew up as neighbors.  You know, it’s incredible creative energy.  I’d like to see, obviously, more African American films being made here.  Hopefully, I can do more of that.

Tickets for the Minneapolis St. Paul International Film Festival are $14 for the general public; $11 for Film Society members, and $8 for Youth under 25 and Students w/ID at St. Anthony Main Theatre, Uptown Theatre, and Capri Theater in Minneapolis plus select screenings at Minneapolis Institute of Arts,¬† Metropolitan State University’s Film Space in St. Paul and the Marcus Wehrenberg 14 Theater in Rochester.¬†¬†Tickets are available online at mspfilm.org, or at box offices.