By Brittany Turner AB '10
Reginald Hudlin AB '83 is a television and film writer, director, and producer whose film MARSHALL, about the first African-American supreme court justice, premieres in theaters October 13. His Harvard VES thesis film, House Party, was the basis for the breakout teen comedy that launched his career in the 1990s. Since then, Hudlin has directed and produced films like BOOMERANG, BEBE’S KIDS, and DJANGO UNCHAINED, and TV shows like THE BERNIE MAC SHOW, as well as a number of live awards specials and events. For three years, he served as President of BET Entertainment, overseeing the successful AMERICAN GANGSTER series, among others. Hudlin is also a lifelong comic book lover, and wrote many of the BLACK PANTHER series for Marvel Comics, as well as an award-winning run of SPIDER MAN.
Q. What made you want to get involved with MARSHALL and tell this story in particular?
A. I was always a Thurgood Marshall fan, always felt that he was one of the most underrated heroes in American history. I thought this would make an especially good movie because it’s a part of his life that we don’t know—we know about him as a judge, and fighting Brown vs. Board of Education—but this is a case that’s very lurid—sex, murder, mayhem, racial tension—and the audience doesn’t know the outcome. It had the makings of a really good legal thriller.
Q. Can you tell me a bit about your background and what inspired you to get into the entertainment industry? How did your VES concentration at Harvard help prepare you creatively for success in your career?
A. I knew I wanted to make movies since i was a little kid. And once I found out Harvard had a film major, it just seemed like the best opportunity. A lot of people learn how to make movies, but I thought having a great education would help you figure out what to make movies about. And I think that’s still true. The craft of filmmaking is important, but how you see and process the world is the most important part of being a good filmmaker.
The film program at Harvard was very documentary-oriented. Anything involving artifice was frowned up. In my year, there was a bit of a rebellion—there were more fiction films made than ever before. But, I think being grounded in reality is a good thing. I think too many filmmakers make movies about movies instead of movies about real life.
Q. How was your experience as President of Entertainment for BET different than one as a creative (writer/producer/director)? Did you prefer one experience over the other?
A. My experience as an executive was vastly different from being creative. But that said, I thought being a creative person made me a better executive, and having been a executive makes me a better creative. I really recommend that everybody switch jobs and be on the other side of the desk. It helps you learn how to be a better partner.
The most memorable series we did during my tenure at BET was American Gangster. I knew I wanted to do a bio series there— something with a twist on it. And I realized that every major city has an infamous crime figure, so let’s profile them. A lot of people thought this was going to be very exploitive and glamorize criminals, but we were very honest and insightful about the conditions that created them and their effect on the community. The series lasted for three seasons, turned out to be critically acclaimed, and got a huge viewership.
What’s tricky about it is when you make a movie or a TV show, the final verdict is in the hands of the audience. They like it or they don’t like it. However, in the world of corporate intrigue, the criteria of judging your work is a lot more amorphous. The hardest part for me was managing up. I think it’s very good to learn every aspect of the process, so I’m very grateful for my time as a executive. I’m better at being creative, though.
Q. Can you talk about your experience writing comics like BLACK PANTHER vs. writing for film?
A. There’s no budget and no casting for comic books. You can do anything! The catch is there’s no music and no sound effects. You can’t rely on facial expressions as much. Someone can’t nod their head, they have to say something But those are interesting tradeoffs, and ultimately when you learn a new medium you get better at your previous medium.
I love comics and grew up reading comics, so it was just me doing what I love. That’s kinda my thing. When I first started doing it, people thought it was weird. (Same thing with TV.) There’s a lot of snobbiness. But I just like telling stories, and focus on the best format for each story I want to tell. I still have my Marvel rejection letter from middle school.
Q. What advice would you give to up-and-coming writers/producers/directors? What advice do you wish you had been given?
A. #1: make stuff - write, direct, use your iPhone. If you can’t make a movie, direct a play. Or write a play. The more you keep making stuff the better you’ll get at it.
I would have told myself not to put ceilings on yourself. You don’t always know that you’re doing it, but you put limits on how far you can go and what you can do...you really have to constantly check yourself and say, “Am I stopping myself from doing the biggest, coolest, possible thing?”
MARSHALL photos courtesy of Reginald Hudlin