"Black Americans seem to think that their vision of race is the only one that matters. In Canada and England, they don't have our history and so they view race differently," says Nelson George, a cultural historian and filmmaker who candidly explores race, sex, parenting, gentrification, internet dating, the current whereabouts of Tupac (he's in Cuba!), and other hot-button issues in his voyeuristic web series, Left Unsaid.
George, someone I have known and whose work I've followed for a decade now, has mastered every kind of creative medium as though life is some endless Exploratorium -- songwriting for Kurtis Blow, a play for Q Tip, directing an Emmy Award-winning film starring Queen Latifah, novels, non-fiction, memoirs -- and has fallen in love with producing for the web. The Internet's seemingly limitless possibility is a match for his energy. "Think about it!" he exclaims with a childlike enthusiasm. "Cigarettes and Coffee is a web series! It's these two people sitting at a table. It's a web series!"
Using multi-character storylines a la Altman and the conversation-driven heightening of Jarmusch, George wrote, directed, shot, and produced Left Unsaid, with the help of longtime collaborator Nicole Nelch, to ask in the age of over-sharing, when 10% of the world's population is on Facebook, what are you leaving off your profile?
In Left Unsaid, the answers come out at a luncheon, hosted by a rich divorcee recently relocated to Ft. Greene, Brooklyn, who invites women in the neighborhood she finds interesting, based on their Facebook profiles, over to her home for a party. Once the vino gets flowing and joints passed, the confessions, eye-rolling, diatribes, conspiracy theories, and advice-giving are unstoppable. George, the writer of the hip-hop movement, came up with other once nameless African American artists--including Spike Lee, Chris Rock, Erykah Badu, the Marsalis Brothers, Lorna Simpson--in Ft. Greene, the location and very much a character of this contemporary love letter to a place and time.
"Ft. Greene is this really interesting petri dish of gentrification. Ownership of the community is overwhelmingly white. It's a white neighborhood but it's not a white neighborhood...The blacks haven't been pushed out totally," says George.
Once upon a time in a disruptive decade known as the eighties, in Ft. Greene, George gave some money to his friend Spike to make his first movie, She's Gotta Have It, which launched the indie film movement in America, did a favor for his friend Russell Simmons by helping some obnoxious young comedian by the name of Chris Rock write a screenplay, which led to their collaboration on the classic CB4 and then the hair weave industry docu-comedy Good Hair in 2009, wrote The Native Son column for The Village Voice, and at the age of 26 convinced a publisher to let him write the first biography on The King of Pop, which he followed-up this year with Thriller: The Musical Life of Michael Jackson.
"I've been a historian of culture. I've seen the evolution of things, of music, of cinema, of how these things are used," he says, speaking of the digital revolution that has built and destroyed industries. "It's one thing to be a young artist, but someone like me who grew up with old media, its really fun for me to think about how the world is being reinvented and ways old middle-aged guys like me can be a part of it," he says with a smile. "That's the fun of being a creative person right now. All the people who said you have to do it this way, fuck 'em. You don't have to do it this way."
One way George is harnessing the creative freedom of the web is by finding his collaborators online. He used music from DJs he came across on MySpace in his 2007 Emmy Award-winning HBO film Life Support , based on his sister Andrea's life living with HIV, starring Queen Latifah, that he wrote and directed. In Left Unsaid, he tapped the musical Brooklyn duo Knewdles and SOS after discovering the MC and violinist on Facebook.
As for the roster of talented actresses who grease his web series script with some improv, they came into the project after George quaintly bumped into many of them in the neighborhood. Chyna Layne, who portrayed Rhonda in the Oscar-sensation Precious, is hilarious as she heatedly argues in the episode Alive in Cuba that Tupac is alive and well on the communist island, a theory put forth by George's twenty-two year old niece Leigh Amber Barrett. George chose to focus on an all-woman ensemble to explore his feelings about women while recovering from a break-up and because, in his family, he's surrounded by women.
"In the best of all possible worlds, I'll be working with these actresses for the next 20 years. We'll have this little community and come back and do this. The conventional wisdom is, you can't do that," he says, adding: "We'll see."
Other performances to watch include the sensational British actor Donna Maria, writer-activist-actor Tigist Selam, Everyday People star Bridget Barkan, and ballet-dancer-turned-actor Lisa Ferreira who says in the must-watch episode A Real Sista that she's been discriminated against more by people of her own color. In response to Megan, a Londoner played by Maria, shrugging off race as a a non-issue where she's from, actress Charisse Woodall, playing the gentrification-bashing Brooklyner Keisha, scoffs back, "Did the President do some bailout on racism? Must have missed that press conference."
Premiering Left Unsaid as a feature at the Black Film Festival in Miami in June, George received criticism that it's too Brooklyn-centric, something he said he did purposefully, with nods to Havana Outpost, Ft. Greene Park and other neighborhood mainstays, to create a time capsule before the Ratner arena wreaks havoc. "Once the arena is built, that will change things, in a bad way. I'm trying to enjoy this moment," he says.
Continuing with his media-pioneering, George has set his sights on the iPad, by working with a behavioral technologist to figure out how to format his script 79, about a seminal year in hip-hop focusing on his friend Kurtis Blow. He wants to include HD pop-up images for keywords and incorporate actor performances into e-books. "Independent film is in its big crisis - monetizing through subscribers and branding - I think that's where it's going to go," he says of his projects. He's also producing a play he wrote about the final redemption of Miles Davis starring Q-Tip as the jazz legend, and he's the spokesperson for BlackAtlas.com, a global travel web series for, as George puts it, The Obama Set.
Just like his old friend Spike recently debuted a Brooklyn-branded Absolut vodka, George advocates being diversified, saying, "Anybody who is staying afloat these days is not doing one thing. People complain about it. Justin Timberlake is making movies and doing commercials. He makes more money on that than touring."
"You can sit at home and do your thing, but it's not what the zeitgeist is about to me," he says. "The multi-hyphenated experiences are what the 20th century is about, and it's been going on for 30 years."
George is screening three episodes of Left Unsaid on August 10th at The National Black Theater in Harlem.