When you’ve made it to the ranks of Division 1 and professional basketball, you’ve surely learned how to hustle. And that work ethic has carried over to Deon Taylor’s other career, as a filmmaker: Black and Blue, which Screen Gems releases on October 25, is his second wide release this year, following the studio’s The Intruder in May. And another film Taylor has already wrapped, Fatale, was just sold to Lionsgate.
Black and Blue, Taylor’s seventh theatrical feature, leaps fearlessly into one of the most divisive issues confronting modern America: the tension between minority communities and neighborhood police who are often viewed more as a trigger-happy threat than a trusted protector. Naomie Harris, Oscar nominee for Moonlight, stars as Alicia West, a rookie cop in New Orleans who suddenly finds herself fighting for her life after she inadvertently captures fellow officers’ murder of a drug dealer on her bodycam. Tyrese Gibson from the Fast & Furious franchise plays a convenience store manager who becomes her reluctant sole ally.
Taylor was immediately drawn to the combination of action, suspense, and substance in Peter A. Dowling’s screenplay. “I got the script from [Screen Gems senior VP of production] Eric Paquette, who said, ‘You should read this, it’s a really good vehicle for you.’ As I turned the page, I was going, oh man, what a great canvas! The action was so fun, and the fact that I had never in my life seen a black female actress play a police officer in the leading role—I couldn’t think of one. And I said, man, this is right up my alley. I love the action. I love the thrill. I love the suspense, I love that it really puts me in the driver’s seat like all the action movies that I love. And then I fell in love with the fact that the movie had a heart, it actually had a pulse. Unlike a lot of the films we get today where you’re being injected into so much fast-paced, full-throttle action, but you don’t get a message. And I said, man, this is a cool movie because you actually get something.”
That something is a reflection of what’s happening in so many struggling neighborhoods. “There’s so much going on right now in our world, it’s like you can’t even keep up with the headlines, you know?” Taylor says. “But one of the things that has been consistent is the split between police officers and people in communities. Just as an African American filmmaker, I’ve really been vigilant in the streets and marching and pushing and helping. Part of my whole makeup is that I’m a philanthropist—we do outreach programs and I’m really in these places people talk about. And I thought the movie was incredible—first, the commercial ability for it to be a Training Day or a Sicario and to have all the great action and excitement. But what I am most proud about is the core of the film—it’s a human movie, it’s about right and wrong. It’s not about the judicial system and how many different ways can you analyze a body camera. It’s about the fact that she sees somebody on this side of the law kill somebody, and wrong is wrong—she takes a stance. Here’s a cop running from other cops and then she tries to go to the community and the community is like, get outta here. I just love the moment in the movie where she says I’m so tired of them versus us. She wants to blur the lines. There shouldn’t be a blue line, it should be a line where community is involved.”
Taylor says part of the solution is “bringing police officers on who can really see through what type of clothes you’re wearing or what skin color you are or what your hat says or what your hair says. We have some brilliant police officers in our communities, and we also have some guys that have a tendency to just want to have wealth and power.”
Taylor grew up on the rough streets of Gary, Indiana, and later moved to Sacramento, California, where he played high school basketball. He received a full scholarship from San Diego State University, where he excelled as a Division 1 player, and later forged a career as a professional basketball player in Germany from 1998 to 2003.
“While I was overseas,” he recalls, “I just had this craving to write a screenplay and to get into the film business. And I had no real resources, no one I could call on. No one I knew was in the film business. I went on this journey for almost three and a half years, trying to get a movie made. I would just fly back and forth to Los Angeles with a backpack on, meeting everyone in the world that you could possibly meet and being told no at every stop. So I decided that I would make my own film, I would raise my own money. And during that process, I ended up meeting Robert Smith, and he changed my life.”
Smith is the founder and CEO of Vista Equity Partners and the country’s wealthiest African American, with a net worth of about $6 billion. This past May, he made headlines when he announced his plans to pay off the entire student-loan debt of the 2019 graduating class at Morehouse College.
“At the time he wasn’t the giant he is today,” Taylor says of his initial encounter with Smith. “He was a young, up-and-coming, vibrant businessman who was worth a couple hundred million dollars. And he said I haven’t met very many people who have the passion you have or the will to not quit. And I told him I don’t know any other way. I come from a really crazy place where we don’t make it out, and I’ve made it out. I come from a place where we don’t dream, and I’m a dreamer and I want to make this work in my life. And he got behind me, and 13 years later we’re still together and we have an incredible company together [the production company Hidden Empire]. We both understand that it’s about what you do to affect and help other people, not about yourself. And I try my hardest to make movies that deal with people overcoming adversity. So no matter if I make a comedy, a fun movie, or a horror movie, the main story line is always going to be about adversity. How do we win? How do you beat evil? And that’s my life, man.”
Smith and Taylor’s Hidden Empire is also behind “Be Woke,” a Webby-nominated web series encouraging young people to vote that has enlisted such celebrities as Jamie Foxx, Kim Kardashian, will.i.am, and Congresswoman Maxine Waters.
Another of Taylor’s valued collaborators is veteran cinematographer Dante Spinotti, his D.P. on Traffik (2018), Black and Blue, and Fatale. “When you’re blessed enough to have the opportunity to work with someone like Dante … you’re talking Michael Mann—that’s the best of the best. When you think of films like L.A. Confidential, The Insider, or Heat … to have a legend behind the camera with you is nothing short of amazing. Black and Blue is a movie where if you turn the sound down, you could understand the film. You would be able to watch the movie from beginning to end and go, oh, I know exactly what’s going on and what she’s fighting for. Dante is one of those prolific storytellers with the camera—that’s his genius. Every day on set, it’s me, six foot three, former basketball player that’s hyper-energy, and a 73-year-old Italian man. And people are like, you guys are brothers. We call ourselves the odd couple. I love him to death. When we’re not working, we’re having dinner together or trying to see a movie together. It’s a real relationship.”
Taylor’s next film, Fatale, features The Intruder star Michael Ealy and Hilary Swank in the Fatal Attraction–like story of a married man who comes to regret his impulsive one-night stand. Lionsgate has announced an October 9, 2020, release date. “When you talk about Hilary Swank,” Taylor says, “you quickly realize it’s not a mistake that she has two Oscars. How she approaches film, how she sits down with the script, how she articulates what she thinks, how she builds a character—she’s doing so many different things in the movie, and you don’t even realize the mechanics until you watch playback. And then I rolled right into working with Naomie and they are like spitting images of each other. They’re pros, they’re all-stars. That’s what they do. It’s just a beautiful thing when an actress walks on set and not only does she know all of her lines, she knows everyone else’s lines. And they’re taking the time to understand all of the ad libs that they can do, all of the beats that that character can deliver.”
Taylor continues, “I feel like film is just like athletics. It takes that same mental mindset, it takes that type of energy, it takes that much practice. And here I am now as a filmmaker, 40-plus years old, and I just told a buddy of mine I gotta get better. I gotta learn more, I gotta do more, I gotta figure out how to tell better stories, I gotta figure out how to move the camera [better]. If you’re not doing that, then you’re lying to yourself and you’re lying to the film business. When you look at how prolific, incredible, some of our greatest storytellers are … it took time for Clint Eastwood to be that good, and part of why Clint is so great is because he’s like a seasoned wine. He understands that less is more. Spike Lee understands that when I pull you on this [dolly] down the hallway, you’re not really walking but you’re moving visually. I’m telling the story within a story. And you get that much closer to being great when you work with people like Hilary and Naomie.”
Taylor says his basketball background has been a tremendous boon to both his filmmaking career and his overall work ethic. “The basketball aspect of it is me working relentlessly on the court, drilling myself when practice is over, doing another hour or two hours’ worth of work. I’ve applied that to film learning, making sure you’re around the right coaches, people that could actually help you get to the next level. That’s Dante, that’s being around someone that has light years more experience than me and shutting up and listening to them tell you why things are the way they are. Why is the light that way? Why does the camera move that way? ‘Deon, that’s a great idea, but how about we do it this way?’ I’m taking constructive criticism, right? In basketball a coach yells at you, ‘You didn’t do that right. You needed to go left and you went right.’ It’s the same exact thing on film. ‘Hilary or Naomie, I really thought this was a great idea, but it was wrong when I watched it back. You should have went that way.’ Having no ego—it’s a team sport. I apply that to film. If you ask anyone that’s been on any movie set with me, it’s the most lively, funnest movie set you’ll ever be on. We play music. I ask questions. We say quiet and everyone’s quiet. We do a scene. I ask the people that’s holding the lights: What did you think? The guy that’s holding the light or the P.A. that’s picking up trash, if I say, ‘Hey, man, come here, watch this thing’ and they don’t like it, then chances are the audience is not gonna like it. Because he is the audience.”
And Taylor wants that audience to be inside a cinema. “One of the most amazing things you can do is to see a movie in a theater. The theater has the ability to transport you to other worlds. It’s a time machine. And that’s why it will never go out of business, no matter what platforms are built. Yeah, it’s fun, man. You can download and stream and watch a movie on your phone. But there’s no business like the movie business, and watching a film inside of a theater, the dark room, the cool seats, the popcorn, the screen that’s the size of a building, where you actually have to turn your phone off and go to that world. Part of growing up in an inner city for me was the treat of having enough money when my mom was able to take us to the movies. That was like the biggest thing all week. The fact that you pay your money, you sneak in some candy [laughs], and you transport to another world. Seeing Stallone on the screen in Rambo and Arnold in Conan, and Eddie Murphy—there’s no experience that can be higher than that. No matter how great a movie is, it can never equal the value of seeing it in a theater versus seeing it in your living room. So that’s why it’s important to go see Black and Blue. The movie was shot for the theater. The movie is shot for you to sit back, drink a Coke, and experience a run-chase film with a heart.”