||This biographical article needs additional citations for verification, as its only attribution is to IMDb. (May 2010)|
|Born||June 18, 1973|
|Occupation||Film director and writer|
Rick Famuyiwa, born on June 18, 1973, is an emerging Nigerian American Hollywood writer and director of films such as The Wood (1999), Talk to Me (2007), and Brown Sugar (2002). His most recent film is the comedy Dope (2015). Famuyiwa’s films mainly explore themes of racial diversity and acceptance of oneself and others, especially within communities of color. In the majority of Famuyiwa’s films, friendship plays a central role to the characters’ development and progression throughout the film. Additionally, thus far, nearly all of Famuyiwa’s feature films have dealt with the institution of marriage in one form or another. It is helpful to note also that Rick Famuyiwa’s upbringing in the racially eclectic Los Angeles suburb of Inglewood has had a tremendous impact on his cinematic works and point of view as both an individual and artist.
Famuyiwa is a graduate of the University of Southern California (USC) and has Bachelor of Arts degrees in Cinematic Arts Film & Television Production and Cinematic Arts Critical Studies, both granted by the USC College of Letters, Arts & Sciences in conjunction with the School of Cinematic Arts. Rick Famuyiwa is part of the Director’s Guild of America and it is his passion to make African Americans a greater, more respected part of the cinema industry.
Rick Famuyiwa grew up in the southwestern Los Angeles, California suburb of Inglewood. Son of Nigerian immigrants, Famuyiwa is a first-generation Nigerian American. Reflecting on his time growing up in Inglewood, Famuyiwa recounts, “The thing you gotta understand about L.A. is that everything is suburbia. Los Angeles isn't set up like San Francisco or New York. People come to L.A. and they expect to see a ghetto like the projects, but that's not the way it's set up. Inglewood, in particular, is the furthest thing from a ghetto. It's a middle-class community, but it's gotten a bad rap over the years...because of Grand Canyon and Pulp Fiction and other films.” Influenced by his upbringing in a heavily African American and Latino community, Famuyiwa’s films explore key themes of racial diversity and acceptance of oneself and others. Famuyiwa continues about his hometown, “I would be lying if I said there isn't a negative element in the city, but I would say it's no different than any other city. You come across gangs and you come across negative things -- but it's like everywhere else, if that's what you gravitate toward and that's what you want to do, you're gonna find trouble no matter what you do. But we were never into that. My group of friends were never into that.” Ultimately, Famuyiwa’s upbringing in the racially eclectic Los Angeles suburb of Inglewood would have tremendous impact on his later cinematic works and point of view as both an individual and artist.
After high school, Famuyiwa attended the University of Southern California (USC) and double majored in Cinematic Arts Film & Television Production and Cinematic Arts Critical Studies. During his time at the University, Famuyiwa worked intimately with film professor Todd Boyd, who would later help write and produce his first feature film. In 1996, prior to graduation, Famuyiwa created a 12-minute short film entitled Blacktop Lingo that garnered critical positive feedback and led to his invitation to the Sundance Filmmaker’s Institute. In 1997, during his time at the Sundance Director’s Lab, Famuyiwa perfected his craft and put the finishing touches on The Wood, what would later be his first feature film. In 1999, Famuyiwa married his wife Glenita Mosley whom he met at the University of California, Los Angeles.
The Wood (1999)
Rick Famuyiwa’s first feature film was a semi-autobiographical account of his upbringing in Inglewood. Working at the Beverley Hills Niketown while formulating the script, Famuyiwa wanted his first film to be reminiscent of what he knew best—his family and his friends. Famuyiwa and his family had moved to Inglewood while he was in junior high and The Wood, which Famuyiwa wrote and directed, reflects select experiences he had with his close friends and family.
During his time at the Sundance Director’s Lab, Famuyiwa perfected the film’s script and identified close to half of the cast, Omar Epps and Taye Diggs included. The predominantly African American cast was composed of then up and coming actors of the time. The cast ultimately included Omar Epps, Taye Diggs, Richard Jones, and Tamala Jones among others.
In the film, the characters played by Omar Epps and Richard Jones struggle to bring Taye Diggs’ character back to consciousness after he unexpectedly becomes intoxicated a couple hours before his own wedding. While attempting to sober him up and bring him back to reality, the three friends from junior high reminisce on their times as adolescents in “the Wood,” an affectionate abbreviation for their hometown of Inglewood.
The Wood is based loosely on the real-life experiences of Famuyiwa and his best friend Oakland firefighter Geoffrey Blackshire. Commenting on the film, Famuyiwa states, “It's not a complete autobiography of me. I mean, kind of a small portion of it is real and I just made that up bigger. It's definitely based on me and my best friend.”
It was not easy for Famuyiwa to make The Wood a reality, especially when it came time to share his work with the world. Being a first time feature film director, the finding of a production company that would back up his work and support his dream was not something to be taken lightly or easily come by. Historian Melvin Burke Donalson asserts, “The overall history of narrow screen images of blacks resulted directly from the lack of decision-making power behind the camera. In both the creative and business aspects of filmmaking, blacks have traditionally had a minimal involvement as studio executives. In the motion picture business, which thrives on closed social networks, family affiliations, and venture capital, Hollywood powerbrokers have easily excluded blacks from the inner circles of creative development, financial planning, production, and distribution. Consequently, to those Hollywood powerbrokers, blacks were not capable or worthy of assuming the responsibilities and power given to a film director.”
The film was produced by MTV Films and was released on July 16, 1999. Speaking of his partnership with MTV for The Wood, Famuyiwa states, "[MTV Films] had the best concept and could deal with it better because it was young, [it had] the music and they wanted to make a film with predominantly African-American characters.” The Wood was produced for an estimated cost of $6 million and went on to gross over $25 million at the box office in the United States alone.
Brown Sugar (2002)
Rick Famuyiwa’s second feature film holds many similarities to his first. A recurring theme of flashbacks to one’s childhood is exhibited in this film and Famuyiwa once again employs the use of a predominantly African American cast, in fact, some of the characters in Brown Sugar also played roles in The Wood.
In Brown Sugar, lifelong friends Dre, played by Taye Diggs, and Sidney, played by Sanaa Lathan, cross paths and although each has their respective responsibilities and obligations to their significant others, they ultimately find that their affections for one another extend beyond platonic friendship. Additionally, hip-hop music plays an intricate part in the film as both Dre and Sidney are connected through their passion for the music genre and culture that emanates from it.
Brown Sugar was released on October 11, 2002. The film was marketed extensively by distributor Fox Searchlight Pictures and made $10 million in its opening weekend, ultimately grossing close to $28 million nationwide.
Talk To Me (2007)
Talk To Me was not actually a film that Rick Famuyiwa directed—he co-wrote the film with the film inspiration’s son, Michael Genet, and close friend Kasi Lemmons ultimately directed the film.
In the film, influential 1960s African American radio personality Ralph “Petey” Greene and his contributions to American popular culture and the Civil Rights movement are chronicled. The film explores the construction of race and race relations during this volatile period of American history.
Talk To Me was released on August 3, 2007. The independent film grossed $400,000 in its opening weekend and nationwide, the film made close to $5 million.
Our Family Wedding (2010)
Rick Famuyiwa’s most recent film is the comedy Our Family Wedding starring Forest Whitaker, America Ferrera, Carlos Mencia, and Lance Gross. Famuyiwa first became attached to the project two years prior, in 2008, when the presidential campaign was in full swing. With Barack Obama possibly becoming the first African American president, Famuyiwa was interested in making a film that would be reflective of the exciting, changing times. Recounting on the film, Famuyiwa expresses, “At the time the entire debate seemed to be around Hispanics voting for an African-American president. We’ve all seen these projections of how society is going to look in 50 years. We’re all going to have to deal with each other culturally. It felt like a great opportunity to tell that story without being preachy.”
Famuyiwa wrote and directed the film and similar to The Wood, the film explores the institution of marriage but takes it a step further by incorporating competing, or at least differing, racial and cultural backgrounds that evolve throughout the course of the film. The New York Times critiqued the film saying, “Like weddings, wedding movies have their traditions: the dress is white and, usually, so are the characters. Fox Searchlight’s Our Family Wedding, which opens this Friday, subverts that custom…”
In Our Family Wedding, Famuyiwa’s upbringing in Inglewood’s heavily African American and Latino community shines through as the influence for the film’s basic premise. In the film, two college students, portrayed by the characters of America Ferrera and Lance Gross, decide to get married and must break the news to their family and loved ones. Fererra’s character and family represents the Latino cultural interests in the film while Gross’ character demonstrates that of the African American family. Commenting on his film, Famuyiwa states, “Wedding films are always about the differences between people but they haven’t quite dealt with African Americans and Latinos.” While playing to stereotypes and common rhetoric, the film transcends these boundaries and strives to provide an overarching message of acceptance despite racial and class differences that so often hinder everyday life.
Our Family Wedding was released on March 12, 2010. Produced by Fox Searchlight Pictures, the film made nearly $8 million in its opening weekend and overall, $20 million nationwide.
In the majority of Famuyiwa’s films, friendship plays a central role to the characters’ development and progression throughout the film. In The Wood, the male bonding between the three childhood friends is the main focus of the film. Commenting on the lack of male bonding depictions in African American Films, Famuyiwa says, “So just in general, if it's a man in the film, he's gotta be tough, he's gotta be carrying a gun, he's gotta be saving the world, and you rarely get to see that. But especially if you're talking about African American films. You never see that. I mean, you see the opposite, with Black women bonding, but you've never seen that for men.” Although The Wood was not revolutionary in its depiction of African American male bonding, it did provide audiences with an angle and message in cinema seldom seen elsewhere.
Additionally, thus far, nearly all of Famuyiwa’s feature films have dealt with the institution of marriage in one form or another. Often, marriage in Famuyiwa’s films coincides with race relations and the evolution of relationships that must grow and mature to accommodate each character’s specific needs and dreams.
Fighting for the Arts
Rick Famuyiwa is part of the Director’s Guild of America and it is his passion to make African Americans a greater, more respected part of the cinema industry. Speaking of the pivotal role directors play in the cinema industry historian Melvin Burke Donalson writes, “Of the many creative people who collaborate on a motion picture, the director is regarded as the pivotal individual who governs the aggregate elements for completing the final film. In contemporary American cinema, the director serves as both the guiding force behind a film’s effective content and box office success. Films, consequently, have been called a director’s medium.” In 2003, Famuyiwa served on a panel of directors for a discussion conducted by the Directors Guild of America African American Steering Committee. In the panel, emerging African American directors Kasi Lemmons and Gary Hardwick joined Rick Famuyiwa as they discussed the challenges and opportunities faced by African American directors in the cinema industry. Reflecting on his own experiences of securing funding and support for his films, Famuyiwa believes that there are still many stereotypes and barriers to break down in the industry in order for African Americans to be accredited the respect they deserve.
There is a need for a paradigm shift in the way African Americans are perceived and portrayed in the cinema industry. Melvin Burke Donalson elaborates on this unsavory reality saying, “Many of the black urban films were in fact shaped by white writers, producers, and directors, often excluding African American filmmakers from the process. But despite the lack of control over depictions of their own people, a few black directors managed to chart out some movies that offered alternative ways of appreciating black culture.” Rick Famuyiwa, a young director of his generation, is actively working to create more opportunities for African Americans and shine the spotlight in their direction. Fellow filmmaker Gary Hardwick elaborates that “even though you have this notion that directors have all this power, it's a different thing to be a black director, and a different thing still to be a first time black director and have everybody assume that there are so many things that you cannot do. They see everything that can and will go wrong." The plight of African American films, directors, actors, screenwriters, and all other parties involved is that they are constantly relegated to a secondary, subpar consideration that is unwarranted and unfair.
A common belief and reality for African American filmmakers like Famuyiwa is that films with a majority black cast and direction often face obstacles in securing funding and support for such projects. Famuyiwa explains that there is a formula to be followed in order for anything to happen for a black director like himself saying, “Make it under $10 million, put this much into marketing, make 25 to 35 million dollars and we'll walk away with a profitable film. And as long as you can deliver scripts that are under $10 million with no effects, that you can shoot in 30 days and get back 'X' amount, I think you can always have a steady stream of a certain kind of film.” That particular, steady stream of film that Famuyiwa refers to is the kind that he and directors with likeminded visions attempt to transcend and instead, hope to inject depth and prompt critical response in the projects they pursue.
Furthermore, Kasi Lemmons, Talk To Me director and colleague of Rick Famuyiwa, explains, “There is a ceiling on what black films can possibly make, because only black people will go see the movie and even if they go to see it twice that only adds up to a certain amount.” While working on The Wood, Famuyiwa experienced difficulties in generating the kind of support he would need to make the film a box office hit. In sum, it was hard for Famuyiwa to have others take him seriously at times. Melvin Burke Donalson writes, “Simply stated, the Hollywood director has traditionally been a white male, and though American narrative films date back to 1903, it wasn’t until the late 1960s that Hollywood allowed a black director to command a major film project. Two complex factors have contributed to this bleak history: (1) the history of the stereotypical screen images of blacks, and (2) the lack of a power base by blacks in the business of filmmaking.” Although the film did recuperate its costs, it did not reap the kinds of financial success that major Hollywood directors often experience. Often, it is hard enough just to find acceptance for films that feature an African American cast, let alone be directed and written by an African American.
Famuyiwa’s colleague Gary Hardwick continues about the hardships faced by African American filmmakers saying, “The way to get a film made is to take away every reason that they shouldn't make the film. Then they'll say, ‘Damn I have to make it. I'm not scared to make this movie!’ It's a very strange process because they throw up strange roadblocks, ‘What about this? What about that? This could go wrong. That could go wrong!’ You have to allay all of their fears. The process of greenlighting a movie is strange, yet, one day you just have money.” At the end of the day, Famuyiwa and directors like him are struggling against the tide of the mainstream cinema industry. They are struggling to make a name not only for themselves but earn the recognition and respect that is due them for the entire African American community and beyond.
Awards & Recognition
In 2000, The Black Reel Awards nominated Famuyiwa for Best Director (Theatrical) for his work on The Wood. Additionally, Famuyiwa’s first feature film was nominated for Best Screenplay (Original or Adapted). Later on that year, the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) Image Awards nominated The Wood for Outstanding Motion Picture.
In 2003, after completing work on Brown Sugar, perhaps Famuyiwa’s most famous work, Famuyiwa was once again nominated by the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) Image Awards for Outstanding Motion Picture.
In 2008, while working on Our Family Wedding, Famuyiwa was recognized for his work on Kasi Lemmons’ Talk To Me by the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) Image Awards. The Association nominated Talk To Me for Outstanding Motion Picture and in a pleasant surprise, Famuyiwa won for Outstanding Writing in a Motion Picture (Theatrical or Television).
- Rick Famuyiwa - IMDb
- "Sporting His 'Wood'" Interview by Rob Blackwelder. SPLICEDwire. 21 June 1999. Web. <http://splicedwire.com>.
- The Wood. Dir. Rick Famuyiwa. By Rick Famuyiwa and Todd Boyd. Perf. Omar Epps, Taye Diggs, and Tamala Jones. MTV Films, 1999. DVD.
- Donalson, Melvin Burke. Black Directors in Hollywood. Austin: University of Texas, 2003. Print.
- The Wood (1999) - IMDb
- Brown Sugar. Dir. Rick Famuyiwa. By Rick Famuyiwa. Perf. Taye Diggs and Sanaa Lathan. Fox Searchlight Pictures, 2002. DVD.
- Brown Sugar (2002) - IMDb
- Talk to Me (2007) - IMDb
- Talk To Me. Dir. Kasi Lemmons. By Rick Famuyiwa and Michael Genet. Perf. Don Cheadle, Chiwetel Ejiofor, and Bruce McFee. 2007. DVD.
- Our Family Wedding. Dir. Rick Famuyiwa. Perf. Forest Whitaker, America Ferrera, Carlos Mencia, and Lance Gross. Fox Searchlight Pictures, 2010. DVD.
- Rick Famuyiwa, Nigerian American Writer Director Of "our Family Wedding" - Nairaland
- Angelo, Megan. "Wedding Plan: Jump a Broom or Eat Goat?" The New York Times 5 Mar. 2010. Web.
- Our Family Wedding (2010) - IMDb
- Dates, Jannette Lake, and William Barlow. Split Image: African Americans in the Mass Media. Washington, D.C.: Howard UP, 1993. Print.
- Boyd, Todd. African Americans and Popular Culture. Westport: Praeger, 2008. Print.
- "Sporting His 'Wood'" Interview by Rob Blackwelder. SPLICEDwire. 21 June 1999. Web. <http://splicedwire.com>
- Rome, Dennis. Black Demons: the Media's Depiction of the African American Male Criminal Stereotype. Westport: Praeger, 2004. Print.