Working on what could be best described as a modest upwardly mobile budget, the independent African-American drama “Nikita Blues” is showing some healthy signs of breaking through Hollywood’s reconstituted Jim Crow ceiling fraught with presumptions that that only comedic noir cinema can be profitable.
A P-13 film about an African-American coed’s struggles toward maturity in Southern California, which sandwiches her between adult expectations and peer pressure, “Nikita Blues” premiered to critical acclaim May 11 in 50 theaters primarily in the Midwest and the South out out of 200 it was granted openings in (it is currently playing in Chicago. Detroit, Louisville, Ky., Louisiana, and Alabama). The film was originally scheduled to premiere in only 21 cities, but theater owners clamored for additional copies of “Nikita Blues” to be shown in more theaters after screening it. A tight advertising and promotions budget caused delays for “Nikita Blues” in other parts of the country, and prints of the film are shipping to independent theaters as servicing for a video version begins this weekend in the Blockbuster chain.
The commercial promise of “Nikita Blues” is tied to its champagne creativity and resourcefulness on a beer budget. “Nikita Blues” was shot in 35 mm stock on a pay-as-you-go basis so that the film would achieve an impressionistically cinematographic feel without sacrificing quality. The film’s distributor Foremost Entertainment, which specializes in production and distribution of quality low-budget urban films, is targeting screens where audiences are eager for the kind of sensitive but amusing themes found in “Nikita Blues.”
“We’re [virtually] doing our own distribution,” Mark Bush, one of the film’s two executives producers including his partner Detroit cleric Wayne T. Jackson, said during a Q&A session after a screening of “Nikitia Blues” in the jaded Hyde Park neighborhood on Chicago’s South Side. Bush is no stranger to creativity and resourcefulness, having grown up next door to Hyde Park in the Robert Taylor Homes—once considered the world’s largest housing projects—and earned a degree at Boston University to currently become a founding partner and chief marketing officer for the Silicon Valley digital startup company SongPro. “We decided that instead of going with a big distributor and go to a lot of different theaters trying to get people to spend money, we’d go to theaters that black folks were going to and spending money.”
From a more artistic standpoint, “Nikita Blues” is laced with major weight talent that shaped the production because they believe in the picture. Essence Williams, best known for her roles in such television sitcoms as “Smart Guy” and “Saved By the Bell,” plays the titled role of confused and impressionable Nikita Williams. Veteran stage and television star Roz Ryan, who plays Nikita’s loving and God-fearing but domineering bigoted mother Mildred, is also one of the film’s investors. Mari Morrow—with acting experience in a variety of sitcoms, action shows, and soap operas ranging from “One Life To Live” and Baywatch” to BET’s “Oh Drama”—plays Nikita’s assistant principal Beverly Fox, who vociferously confronts the teen after discovering that the teen is aggressively pursuing a school-girl crush on the English teacher she is engaged to. “Nikita Blues” is scored by Grammy and Rolling Stone award-winning jazz musician Stanley Clarke, who also scored such films as “Romeo Must Die” and “Boyz In The Hood.”
Even more key to the film’s creativity is the balance of nonpreachy symbolism and light humor Detroit-originating writer and director Marc Cayce, a graduate of the University of Southern California School of Cinema/Television, brings to the screenplay. While pursuing her overaged love interest Mr. Jackson (played by newcomer Kenny Lee), steals clothes from an urban apparel store she works at and sells them at school, and attempts to keep both activities hidden from her mother. Through a series of turning points—her best girl friend’s attempted rape by the white half of a salt-and-pepper armed robbery duo representing the struggle between good and evil, her own attempted rape by the same man, the confrontation with Ms. Fox, getting fired after her homegirl shopping network is reported by a rival female co-worker, and an confrontation with her mother who painfully discovers both secrets—Nikita learns the true meaning of love, friendship, and spirituality. Cayce first produced “Nikita Blues” as a short and expanded it to feature length by last year after the film was selected as a finalist in the 1999 HBO Short Film Competition.
Ryan acknowledged during the Hyde Park screening’s Q&A that she had some initial concerns after receiving the script from Cayce that her role could potentially turn stereotypically like the matriarch role in Lorraine Hansberry’s “Raisin in The Sun.” Ryan has often delivered post-modern interpretations of similar roles.
“I told Mark, ‘Whatever you do, don’t have me frying any chicken in the kitchen,’” Ryan said. “So [for the scene where Nikita and her mother have a heart-to-heart talk] they had me sitting down at the table making a cake. We’re 20 years past that [blind Christian faith in “Raisin”], we’re dealing with reality now. There’s different hypocrisy in different churches, and she [Nikita’s mother] draws attention to that with what she was doing. ”
The pace of “Nikita Blues” is somewhat sluggish at the beginning and it is unclear that Nikita’s mother is bluffing a 911 phone call to extract good obedience from Nikita during the confrontation scenes from the living room to the front yard of their home, where the teen runs head-on into Mr. Jackson’s approaching SUV. Remaining action bakes up smoothly after that into a believeably human drama leavened with naturally paced humor and rapid development of Nikita’s character.
Learn more about what’s cooking with “Nikita Blues” by checking your local theater listings and visiting www.nikitablues.com.
MARK FITZGERALD ARMSTRONG
11706 SOUTH THROOP STREET
CHICAGO, IL 60643