From ‘Purple Rain’ to ‘Dear White People’ —how Minnesota’s film industry uplifted Black stories 

Behind the scenes of the filming of “Laurel Avenue”
Photo courtesy of MN TV Film

In the summer of ‘86, Van Hayden and his friend Michele Norris attended the annual convention of the National Association of Black Journalists. That year, attendees were given an exclusive screening of a young Spike Lee’s directorial debut, a film that launched the celebrated director’s decades-long career. 

Hayden and Norris left the film amazed. “We were at one of the first screenings of Spike Lee’s first feature film, ‘She’s Gotta Have It’ and we were blown away by it,” he said. 

Hayden had followed in the footsteps of his father, a journalist who wrote for the Minnesota Spokesman-Recorder. He had been set on a writing career as well until he viewed another Spike Lee Joint— “Do The Right Thing.” After watching the Brooklyn-based director’s third film, Hayden was determined to join Lee’s production team in New York.

He wrote a letter to 40 Acres and a Mule Filmworks, Lee’s production company, inquiring about a job. Sometime afterward he received a call from a production assistant (PA) of the company who relayed that there weren’t any more opportunities available as a PA, an entry-level job in the film industry outside of union representation. 

Weeks later, Hayden received another call that informed him of an opening in the craft service department. He jumped at the opportunity. After Hayden established a reputation for hard work, Lee offered him a job with his production company.

Minnesota’s tax incentive program one year in

For many years, the film and TV industries were mainly limited to New York and California. Hayden understood that he had to leave Minnesota if filmmaking was for him. “I had to go where the jobs were, and that’s the difference now. These jobs are almost everywhere now,” Hayden said. 

He listed states like Pennsylvania, Ohio, North Carolina and others that are now go-to locations for the film and TV industry. 

Last year, Minnesota legislators passed a bill signed by Governor Tim Walz that created a film production tax credit for production companies that spend at least $1,000,000 in a taxable year for their eligible production costs. 

The state also has a rebate program that provides 20-25% of a cash reimbursement to production companies that spend at least $100,000. The rebate is funded at $500,000 each fiscal year. The 2022 program is currently accepting applications and has $6.7 million dollars in allocations available for the remainder of the tax year. 

Carl Franklin, director of “Laurel Avenue” and known for movies like “Devil in a Blue Dress.”
Photo courtesy of MN TV Film

Melodie Bahan is the executive director of the Minnesota Film and TV Board, the country’s only nonprofit film commission, which administers the state’s incentive program. She describes the work of MN TV Film as marketing the state to the film and TV industry as a location and highlighting all the things Minnesota has to offer. She sees the recent legislation as a step in the right direction.

“That rebate program was not competitive with other states. Because of that, we had our film and TV production industry just shrunk over the last couple of decades from where it used to be,” she said. “What passed, I would describe it as a really great start in our efforts to rebuild. It’s one of the smallest programs in the country, but it will allow us to be somewhat competitive.”

States like Georgia offer a tax credit of up to 30% and have seen their film industries grow to the tune of $9.5 billion in 2018. New Mexico and Louisiana are other states that have implemented tax credits to draw the film industry towards their states. 

Minnesota’s film industry wasn’t always so small in the past. According to Craig Laurence Rice, filmmaker and MSP Film Society programmer, Minnesota was once a hub for filmmaking.

“Filmmaking in Minnesota has a long legacy. It goes back to the early ‘20s when they made the first feature films here, and there were always productions here,” Rice said. “We were at one point in time…third in the nation behind production for years up until unfortunately the end of the ‘90s.”

For years, Minnesota’s chief competitor was Canada, whose rebate was at 30 cents on the dollar compared to Minnesota’s 15. With a federal rebate and tax incentive, Minnesota slowly saw itself being passed up as a film location. Soon afterward other states such as New Mexico and Louisiana after Hurricane Katrina used their tax credits to revive their economies. 

Before the state lost to its competition, it created many opportunities for Black creatives in the filmmaking space, opportunities that some believe can be brought back with the tax credits. 

Supporters of the state’s tax credit point to film projects like “Downtown Owl” as a direct result of the state’s ability to lure filmmakers to make their projects here. Though the novel in which the film is based on is set in North Dakota, the production came to Minnesota with a star-studded cast that includes Vanessa Hudgens, Ed Harris, and Henry Golding.

How Minnesota helped lead the way for Black storytelling

David “T.C.” Ellis got his start in music and film right in his hometown of St. Paul, Minnesota. He and his younger sister Suanne were two of the first Minnesota-based artists signed to Warner Bros. through Prince. Having worked closely with the late singer and musician as a recording artist, Ellis had the opportunity to play a part in his second film “Graffiti Bridge,” the sequel to “Purple Rain.”

Ellis saw firsthand how the music and film worlds were colliding to Minnesota’s benefit. “The business was really kind of bubbling. The Minneapolis music scene was real hot, and it was attracting the movie industry,” he said.

After starring in “Graffiti Bridge,” Ellis was cast in HBO’s “Laurel Avenue” (1993), a miniseries that portrayed the life of a Black family in St. Paul. The series is credited for ushering in a new wave of Black drama on television.

“I feel like the Twin Cities was really on the forefront of the work that was similar to things that came afterward like “The Wire” and real mystic documentary shows,” Ellis said. “Laurel Ave. was really, I think, the beginning of that kind of work, and I think that we should have continued with it even more.”

Behind the scenes during the filming of “Laurel Avenue”
Photo courtesy of MN TV Film

Paul Aaron and Carl Franklin, the show’s producer and director, approached Ellis to help develop the show’s bible. His songs illustrated life in St. Paul and gave insight into the day-to-day living that they hoped to portray on screen. Ellis would later go on to be cast as Derek, a main character on the show. 

Many people in the community found themselves getting a chance to step into the film world from behind the camera as well. “A lot of people who I grew up with and knew kind of got their feet wet in the industry and got a leg up,” Ellis said. Jobs in hair and makeup, wardrobe, location scouting, and more were available to local community members, some of whom launched careers after the show wrapped.

Hayden hosted a reunion for the cast and crew in the fall of 2020 to reflect back on the show’s impact nearly 30 years later. 

While Minnesota hasn’t had as many productions as it did in the ‘90s, there have been individual efforts to bring films to the state. 

The film “Dear White People” (2014) was shot in Minnesota with cast members from the community. It would go on to inspire the Netflix series of the same name. Hayden, who produced the film, pitched his home state as a location. “We shot at the University of Minnesota, at the women’s club in Loring Park, and on Summit Avenue,” he said. 

Hayden moved back to Minnesota after five years in New York and 25 years in L.A. He’s currently on the board of MN TV Film and works to create interest in the jobs surrounding filmmaking that can provide a living to people in the state. 

“These are jobs where you didn’t have to have a college education, and at the same time you could make a living off of them if you stay with it for a long enough period,” he said.