Streets Is Watching
Local Novelist Thomas Long Hits The Big Screen
Arundel Mills' Muvico Egyptian 24 buzzes with the noise of children. Giggling and yelping, they're all over the entrance hall dying to sneak a peek at any of the three kid-friendly flicks being shown. Some gawk at the giant Ratatouille display. Others drag their exhausted parents through the cluttered lobby.
As sugar-fueled and giddy as they all are, none is as excited as 34- year-old Thomas Long. The Morgan State University graduate once envisioned himself as a social worker who would go on to law school. In 2004, though, he wrote A Thug's Life, a novel about a pair of West Baltimore drug dealers in the middle of a major squabble. He sold the screen rights to it last year. And on this clammy late June evening, he is about to watch the premiere of the direct-to-DVD movie adaptation, 4 Life, on a big screen with celebrity guests, radio personalities, and fans.
"I became a writer because I'm an avid reader and I like street fiction," the stocky Long says. "I've read a lot of street fiction and I saw that a lot of it wasn't authentic. I thought to myself, I can do this better, so I just sat down and did it."
His swagger is earned. Without getting into specifics, Long says that he made it through rough enough times to depict Baltimore street life accurately. He was also being lucky enough to end up in college and learn the technical know-how to tell stories about the things he's seen. "I lived in Baltimore all my life, and I've done stupid stuff and been around a lot of things in the 'hood," he says. "So I know about everything that's going on in the streets, believe me."
The Baltimore native says he bounced around several high schools, from Poly and Forest Park to Northwestern and Walbrook, typically ending up being asked to never return. Again without wanting to go into specifics, he says his youth was packed with the mistakes "every kid makes" during the mid-'90s in Baltimore, and although Long is not proud of the trouble he got into, looking back, he's glad about what he saw and learned. "I believe the things I was exposed to and saw growing up is what helped me to get a better grasp on the Baltimore culture," he says. "And it's why my books feel more authentic to people who read them, especially to people who read street fiction. They can tell what I do feels realer."
"Street fiction," as he calls it, is also known as urban fiction or hip-hop/ghetto/street lit, and is kin to the works made famous by Donald Goines and Robert "Iceberg Slim" Beck in the 1960s and '70s in books such as Whoreson and Trick Baby: The Story of a White Negro. They feature rigid tales of violence, sex, drug dealing, prostitution, pimping, and the personal consequences and pitfalls that come with the underworld of black inner-city life.
Long's book is clearly and admittedly inspired by those progenitors--it's also evidence of the genre's simultaneous growth and stagnation. Today, it's as easy to find a brand-new urban fiction title as it is difficult to find a good one. Luckily, A Thug's Life is one of the better ones, even if it's not outstanding. The story--about a pair of drug dealers separated by a jail cell who want different things out of life--is well-worn. Nothing surprises about the characters or the clichéd outcomes of their personal tales: someone's baby-mama gets shot, someone is stripping her way through college, someone else is a back-stabbing piece of shit.
The book is especially hard-hitting, but the film is just OK, and similar stories were done better by Boyz N the Hood and Menace II Society--which are so good it's almost unfair to compare them. And yet, 4 Life is almost inadvertently brilliant in its familiarity. As a movie, it's something we've seen a bunch of times already, and that's what makes it feel very real: Drug dealers do turn on each other, become paranoid, and believe their best friend is a rat and want him dead. And people do get beat up and kidnapped and shot over this. This shit happens every day in Baltimore.
The theater begins to fills up with 4 Life cast members, including the smoking-hot Elise Neal, along with a few cast members from The Wire (there in support of stars Wood Harris and J.D. Williams), and some 92Q DJs and personalities and about 45 caller No. 19's who won tickets. There's a legitimate feeling of excitement in the air. Sure, it's a direct-to-DVD feature screening as a promotional device, but the crowd still hums as the celebrities file into the theater. It's a genuine world premiere.
In 4 Life, Dayvon (Wood Harris on auto pilot) and Ty (Weeds' Page Kennedy) run a West Baltimore drug gang called DFL (Dogs for Life) and are as close as brothers. But when Ty winds up in a jail and Dayvon decides he wants out of the game, Ty suspects Dayvon of having had something to do with his incarceration and cooks up a revenge plot.
Even with this accomplished cast, some of the novel's heart was lost in translation by first-time filmmakers Tony Austin and Hakim Khalfani. The dialogue feels a little stiff. Missing is the natural voice of Long's narration--replaced by clunkier dialogue or awkwardly long sex scenes--one of the elements that elevated A Thug's Life above its genre trappings.
"It's a combination of things. A lot of the things in the movie are real and really happened," Long says of the novel's moments of verisimilitude. "But if it didn't happen, it's at least realistic, like it could've happened."
After the screening, fans, photographers, and reporters were treated to interview time with Neal (Williams and Harris were no-shows) as Long chilled and soaked up the scene along with co-producers Austin and the massive former Baltimore Raven Adalius Thomas. Baltimore native Austin spent eight years as an executive at Def Jam and is now president of the Russell Simmons Music Group and has earned a reputation as a go-getter who makes shit happen. And Long wanted to get his book in Austin's hands.
Austin recalls their first meeting. "So I was in Bally's gym working out on the treadmill" he says, holding back laughter. "And I see I got this guy stalking me. He's named Thomas Long, but I didn't know that at first. So I get off the treadmill and I'm all sweaty looking for a towel, and this big black dude is like, `Hey, man, you work for Russell Simmons, right?' and I'm like, `Man, what the hell you want from me?' And he gets all nervous and shaky, like, `Hey man, I-I-I got this b-b- b-book . . . '"
The three men laugh like friends hanging out and breaking each other's chops. "Nah, but seriously, [Long] told me, `I want you to read this book,'" Austin continues. "And I said, `Man, you're right on time'--because I was thinking about starting this company and start turning books into DVDs. I took the book on a flight from B-more to L.A., and it was so good that I couldn't put it down. By the time I got to L.A., there were only a few pages left. We kept in touch, me and my lawyers got together, I got together with Thomas, we formed Watch Me Now Films, and made the book our first project."
Much like Long, Austin admits he wasn't all that great of a student and says he flopped around between Dunbar and Douglass high schools before forfeiting his graduation when a cousin, music business executive Kevin Liles, sparked his Def Jam career. "He basically brought me into the business" Austin says. "I started as a driver, then I became an A&R [rep], and now I'm doing this. I been in the business for a minute, so I watch and I study and I like the direction we're going in right now. They say it's not what you know but who you know--and I know everybody."
Such as the other producer--sticking out like a 6-foot-7, 270-pound football player in a movie theater. Thomas, now a linebacker with the New England Patriots, says that he loved the book, too, and is excited to be branching out beyond sports. "The key to a good portfolio is to diversify," Thomas says. "Everything I do is with a helmet on, and I just wanted to take the helmet off for a little bit and venture off into different things.
"Everybody thinks all football players are just dumb jocks, and that's not true," he continues. "There are a lot of smart guys out there, and I consider myself an intelligent person. All this is new to me, but I like it--I just read the book, I believed in it, and just went forward. I trusted everyone involved and it just felt right."
That trust in the material speaks a great deal to urban fiction's appeal. There's little difference between Donald Goines and Iceberg Slim and, say, Nas and the Notorious B.I.G.--and it's probably the reason why, regardless of the occasional critical dismissal, urban fiction's target audience swarms bookstores to buy them. They're forceful, straightforward stories usually written by people who may be better storytellers than writers, but they are people whose lives are reflected in the stories.
In fact, these novels may be satisfying an urge that hip-hop used to. As the evening winds down and people start wondering where to meet up before the official after-party, Austin, Long, and Thomas walk and talk about how current hip-hop is more about producing radio singles and ringtones than thought-provoking street commentary. Maybe urban fiction can fill that void. "I think it's the same thing," Long says. "The books are just hip-hop on paper without the music. It's painting a realistic picture of what's going on in America's cities--and really, whatever gets people to read is all good, because I got a lot more books coming."
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