Nelson George and Diane Paragas’s documentary Brooklyn Boheme charts the stunning explosion of prominent black film, comedy and music in the adjoining Brooklyn neighborhoods of Fort Greene and Clinton Hill in the 1980s and ’90s. Through man-on-the-street interviews with such former residents as Spike Lee, Chris Rock and Talib Kweli, George creates an intimate portrait of an artistic community that permanently shaped American culture.
“I think that...the more time that passes, they’re gonna say, ‘This is gonna be Brooklyn’s equivalent to the Harlem Renaissance,’” filmmaker Spike Lee states in Brooklyn Boheme, referring to the 1980s and ’90s in Fort Greene. Although the Harlem Renaissance flourished during the Great Migration of black Americans in the early 20th century, Brooklyn’s outpouring of art and creativity was produced by the generation of African Americans who grew up in the wake of the civil rights movement and felt empowered by its promise of equal opportunity. The two neighborhoods functioned as creative enclaves for young, talented and upwardly mobile black Americans, and many became some of the most acclaimed artists of their eras.
The Harlem Renaissance placed jazz and racially minded lyric poets like Langston Hughes and Claude McKay on a world stage. The Brooklyn Boheme movement continued to carry that torch, producing mainstream comedians like Chris Rock and spoken-word poets such as Saul Williams, along with underground hip-hop artists like Talib Kweli and Mos Def. A sense of closeness defined both communities. Boheme spotlights artists’ anecdotes of running into one another on the street and stories of biking just a few blocks to sell a script.
Of all the artists and performers interviewed for Brooklyn Boheme, perhaps none is more emblematic of the eponymous artistic movement than writer and filmmaker Spike Lee, who spent much of his childhood in the Fort Greene section of Brooklyn. Despite achieving breakout success with She’s Gotta Have It (1986), Lee remained in the neighborhood. During the 1980s he collaborated with numerous artists also living in Fort Greene, including Latina actor Rosie Perez, comedian Chris Rock and jazz trumpeter Branford Marsalis. In 1986 Lee bought an abandoned fire station on DeKalb Avenue; he based his production company, 40 Acres and a Mule Filmworks, there, where it remains today.
Spike Lee has significantly shaped the cinematic representation of Brooklyn in American popular culture. Many of Lee’s films are shot on location, using Brooklyn streets and buildings as essential sets for his stories. And from his first film as a graduate student, Joe’s Bed-Stuy Barbershop: We Cut Heads (1983), to the Oscar-nominated Do the Right Thing (1989; also set in Bedford-Stuyvesant) to Red Hook Summer (2012), most of Lee’s films are set in Brooklyn neighborhoods.
During the 1980s a wave of young black jazz musicians moved to Brooklyn, including Branford Marsalis, Donald Harrison and Terence Blanchard—all of whom hailed from New Orleans—along with saxophonists Steve Coleman and Greg Osby. Marsalis came to New York at the urging of his brother, trumpeter Wynton Marsalis, who was already living in the city and performing regularly. In 1983 the Marsalis brothers moved to a brownstone at 374 Washington Avenue, in Fort Greene. Branford Marsalis played in Wynton’s band for several years and collaborated with Blanchard on the soundtrack for Spike Lee’s Mo’ Better Blues (1990). Lee and Blanchard lived within walking distance of the Marsalis residence. During their time in Fort Greene, Marsalis and Blanchard met regularly for stroller walks with their infant sons.
In Lee’s short film “Horn of Plenty” (1986), Branford Marsalis plays a struggling jazz musician who tries to earn money for his family by busking on Fulton Street—an iconic Fort Greene thoroughfare. In the film, Marsalis plays in front of an abandoned building with his son in a stroller next to him. In a later scene, several boom-box-bumping retro-rappers steal all the money in his saxophone case.
Although Spike Lee doesn’t play an instrument, he grew up in a highly musical household. His father, Bill Lee, is a well-respected jazz musician who recorded with Aretha Franklin and Bob Dylan. Bill Lee’s music has significantly influenced his son’s films, and he composed the scores for She’s Gotta Have It (1986) and Mo’ Better Blues (1990), which tells the fictional story of struggling jazz trumpeter Bleek Gilliam.
As a child, Branford Marsalis saw Bill Lee perform with a band called the Descendants of Mike and Phoebe. Marsalis didn’t meet Spike until 1986, when the director unexpectedly knocked on his door and invited him to the premiere of She’s Gotta Have It. That same year, Lee directed a short film for Marsalis’s album Royal Garden Blues. In turn, Marsalis appeared in “Horn of Plenty” (1986), a short film Lee directed for Saturday Night Live, as well as Lee’s second feature, School Daze (1988). But their signature collaboration was Mo’ Better Blues, for which Marsalis played all the saxophone parts. Marsalis’s sax also turns up in Lee’s video for Public Enemy’s 1989 hit “Fight the Power,” the hip-hop anthem that features prominently in Lee’s crossover film Do the Right Thing.
Chris Rock grew up in Crown Heights and Bedford-Stuyvesant, but as a teenager he heard about the art scene blowing up in an adjoining Brooklyn neighborhood. “Fort Greene was just this weird spot,” he recalls. “It was the place where you could order food and they would deliver it to your house.… They wouldn’t deliver in Bed-Stuy.”
Although inspired by comedians like Eddie Murphy, George Carlin and Bill Cosby, Rock cites the writer and codirector of Brooklyn Boheme, Nelson George, as a primary influence on his socially critical comedy. The two met in the 1990s when Rock moved to Fort Greene, where George was already living. George provided Rock with a deeper understanding of race relations in America, while introducing the young comic to other black intellectuals, including literary critic and scholar Henry Louis Gates Jr. The brownstone Rock purchased became the studio where he practiced new bits for what ultimately evolved into his hit HBO comedy special Bring the Pain (1996). Next to the microphone stand in Rock’s living room stood a rack of his favorite comedy albums, the covers of which appear as an introductory homage in Bring the Pain, just before Rock takes the stage.
Dave Chappelle’s Block Party documents a time when much of Brooklyn had gentrified, but the Bedford-Stuyvesant neighborhood was, according to rapper Mos Def, “still, like, the Stuy. That shit has been like that forever.” The film jumps between Brooklyn and Ohio, where Chappelle extends concert invitations to his neighbors, including a smattering of middle-aged whites and Central State University’s marching band. At one point Chappelle goes onstage and performs a mock spoken-word poem while playing the congas. “Five thousand black people singin’ in the rain,” Chappelle sings, “nineteen white people peppered into the crowd.”
Chris Rock created another Brooklyn block party when he directed the video for the Red Hot Chili Peppers’ single “Hump de Bump” (2007). Rock filmed it on the Los Angeles set (a replica of Decatur Street in Bedford-Stuyvesant) of his television show Everybody Hates Chris, but the influences from Block Party are evident. For example, “Hump de Bump” features a full-scale marching band and a crowd with a comparable black-white ratio. That’s because Rock agreed to direct “Hump de Bump” on the condition that the Chili Peppers would be the only white people in the video.
Like Mos Def and several other performers in Block Party, Talib Kweli is from Brooklyn. Kweli, however, was raised in an upper-middle-class household by a mother who is an English professor at the City University of New York and a father who is an administrator at Long Island’s Adelphi University. Similarly, Dave Chappelle’s mother was a professor of African American studies at Howard University in Washington, D.C., and his father was a music professor at Ohio’s Antioch University. Chappelle and Kweli have cultivated ghettoized personas in their artwork and public life that belie far more educated backgrounds. The pair knew each other while Kweli was in college. The rapper claims he disliked Chappelle because the comedian was dating Kweli’s crush. Several years later the two entertainers ran into each other at a De La Soul concert. Recalls Kweli, “We bonded over that girl.”
Kweli performed numerous times on Chappelle’s Show (2003–2006), and Chappelle appears on two tracks from Train of Thought (2000), the first record by Reflection Eternal, Kweli’s collaboration with producer Hi-Tek. Chappelle does impressions of Nelson Mandela and Rick James, which precede his now legendary turn as James on Chappelle’s Show.
Rapping on “Memories Live,” Talib Kweli pays tribute to the Brooklyn Boheme movement: “I chose my direction like Spike Lee / To speak my life through mics, and I never take it lightly.” Kweli appears in Brooklyn Boheme as a standard-bearer for Brooklyn’s hip-hop underground, which includes artists such as Mos Def, Erykah Badu and dead prez. Many of hip-hop’s roots trace back to neighborhood joints like Fort Greene’s Brooklyn Moon, at 745 Fulton Street, where spoken-word performances packed the houses in the 1990s. An establishment Kweli cites as having “a special position in my heart” is the Joloff Restaurant, which until 2012 was also located on Fulton Street but has moved to Bedford Avenue several blocks away. During the premiere of the series Blacksmith TV (2007), Kweli says Joloff is “like a second home for artists.” In the span of 10 minutes, Kweli runs into several hip-hop artists at the restaurant, including M-1 from dead prez and acclaimed singer-songwriter Meshell Ndegeocello. In Brooklyn Boheme, Kweli relates the filmmakers’ disbelief at the serendipity. “They were like, You didn’t call these people? And I’m like, Nah…what you seein’ is exactly how it used to be.”