At MTV's Video Music Awards later this month, four of the five productions competing for the top prize will be from the world of hip-hop and R&B.
That's no biggie, considering that for years mainstream hip-hop music videos have been barreling through popular culture, helping to sell records, influencing fashion and cluing in Madison Avenue. But another part of that music revolution has been quietly taking place behind the camera.
Bryan Barber, director of OutKast's nominated video "Hey Ya," is black.
So is Philip G. Atwell, director of D12's "My Band."
And the director of Usher's "Yeah," Little X, yep, he's black, too.
There has never been a best-picture nominee list in the movie industry with that kind of race ratio. In the past 15 years or so, the industry has been a boon for ambitious black filmmakers -- opening doors, supplying steady work and, for a lucky few, putting them on a fast track to the Hollywood big time. Antoine Fuqua ("King Arthur," "Training Day") and F. Gary Gray ("The Italian Job," "Friday") started out directing videos.
"Historically, I've seen more African American directors break into the music video industry through hip-hop and urban music, and that's a good thing," says Scott Edelstein, a former head of music video production for HSI Productions, the company that once repped Hype Williams and still houses Paul Hunter, the two most seminal names among black hip-hop directors.
The money is coming in, the directors are commanding respect, and their near-rap-star status gives many of them social luxuries not unlike the livin'-large set designs of their videos. But like most boons, this one can come with a price -- and behind those velvet ropes, some say, may lie a velvet coffin.
But the velvet can be pretty plush.
Just last week on MTV's "Total Request Live," which works like the box-office report for music video audiences, two of the three most-requested videos were from black directors: Benny Boom's Nelly video "My Place" and Chris Robinson's Usher video "Confessions II."
Robinson, who grew up in the Baltimore area making hip-hop videos with his dad's home video camera, says the most rewarding work he might ever do may be in music videos. He credits the hip-hop community for giving him that shot.
"With the Nas video," he says, referring to "One Mic," in which Nas takes on police harassment and civil upheaval, "I run into all kinds of cats in Harlem, Toronto, L.A., and they all say they felt 'One Mic.' They appreciated the art of it."
Many black directors and hip-hop artists instantly find a creative kinship because they often have similar experiences growing up, Robinson says. "I can interpret these lyrics by Nas because I can understand that experience without putting a filter on it -- I understand the metaphors, the story, the images."
"Something can be said about knowing your community," agrees Little X. He uses Francis Ford Coppola directing "The Godfather" as an example. "Knowing a lot about his [Italian American] culture brought something to that film. When you know the community, some things just don't need to be discussed."
Black video directors have also set a new creative standard in the industry. In the mid-'90s, directors such as Williams and Hunter trailblazed a sharp, energetically polished style that had nothing to do with the party over here or the struggle over there. Missy Elliott's "The Rain," D'Angelo's "Untitled" and Busta Rhymes and Janet Jackson's "What's It Going to Be" all helped raise the creative bar. Their style would become a staple of MTV and BET prime time for years to come.
"Hype brought the medium a look and feel and an attitude that just stood out," says Peter Baron, vice president of label relations for MTV and MTV2. "You'd see one of his videos and you'd say, that's a Hype Williams video. And if you were an artist and couldn't afford Hype or if he were too busy, you simply went to one of his proteges."
Today's crop of black directors would certainly argue that they've developed their own video style -- people such as Tim Story, Jessy Terrero, Eric White, Malik Sayeed, Kevin Bray, Nzingha Stewart and more. They're known throughout the industry, with big reputations and often big production budgets to match. In the music video world, hip-hop production budgets usually trump other music genres. In that sense, these directors aren't the Spike Lees of the video industry; they're the James Camerons and the Michael Bays.
And that means some of them are getting a chance to make a run at feature filmmaking. Terrero directed "Soul Plane," and Hunter did "Bulletproof Monk."
"The feature film world knows what's happening on MTV and who the flavor of the month is," says director Boom, and that's why many black music video directors will get that feature film shot. (One shot, however, may be all you get -- after Williams's 1998 film "Belly" flopped, the director has had a difficult time getting another chance. Edelstein calls the situation "director's jail.")
But as Fuqua, Gray and Tim Story can attest, one shot may be all you need. Story directed "Barbershop" and went on to direct "Taxi," starring Queen Latifah and Jimmy Fallon, which is set to open this fall. He has started production on "Fantastic Four." "There was a time when the Spike Lees and Albert and Allen Hugheses came into [feature filmmaking] directly from the film school route," says Stephen Hill, senior vice president of programming and talent at BET. "The new jacks are coming from music videos."
Movies, of course, remain the holy grail for almost any music video director. But as the black directors wait for their Hollywood shot, they say there are more immediate obstacles to overcome. Taking that intermediate step in their careers isn't always easy -- whether it's directing rock videos or selling hand soap in TV commercials.
Commercials stand second to movies in the filmmaking hierarchy. Though not as culturally sexy as music videos, commercials pay better, and since the advertising industry isn't as economically vulnerable, there's a more reliable stream of work.
"But commercials are especially tough for us to break into, so it's hard to build that reel," says Boom, who has also directed videos for Mobb Deep, Kelly Rowland, Ja Rule and LL Cool J. Outside of the few projects that try to tap into the youth market, Boom says the more conservative commercial industry is largely inhospitable to music video directors, especially those with resumes heavy with hip-hop. Some ad agencies see a disconnect between images of black kids dancing in a steamy basement party and the products the agency is trying to sell to a broader, middle-America audience.
"Every director gets pigeonholed, no matter what color he is," says Robinson, who adds that he'll get offers to direct TV commercials when it involves hip-hop music. "But it's much more difficult for me to get a commercial for Aflac."
"People just don't think outside the box," says Little X, the director behind Nelly's "Hot in Herre," Wyclef's "Pussycat" and Alicia Keys's "How Come You Don't Call Me." "While I think what's going on is not overtly racist, something can be said about people not being able to put different ideas together more often."
Karen Kenney, a Boston-based senior producer for the Arnold Worldwide advertising agency, which has McDonald's as a client, doesn't agree that having a hip-hop music video reel is a detriment to getting a job directing commercials.
"There's a lot of factors," she says. "It depends if they have a good rep, depends on their shooting style, and we're always looking for up-and-coming directors."
She does concede, however, that the commercial industry can be more conservative than Hollywood.
"Our perimeter is much smaller," Kenney says. "Commercials are such a specific piece of work, whereas in film there's more space to be more unique or creative. As much as we're trying to push the envelope, we're really trying to push the envelope with our clients," as opposed to the viewing audience.
One way directors can make themselves more attractive to advertising agencies is to make their video reels -- a resume in the filmmaking world -- more diverse. But that has its own challenges, say Robinson and Boom. Robinson, for example, has one rock video in his reel -- Dave Navarro's "Hungry" -- though he says he has tried to land more.
Boom, who describes himself as a huge rock fan, doesn't have any. He remembers trying desperately to land jobs with groups like Audioslave and Three Doors Down a few years ago. "Some of the best treatments I've ever written were for rock songs," Boom says. "I'm not trying to blame anyone, but the blame can't all be on us. It's not a fair game.
"And I'm not saying that hip-hop video directors are having a hard time breaking into rock videos -- I'm saying black hip-hop directors are having a hard time breaking in. You got [white] hip-hop directors like Francis Lawrence and Dave Meyers out there, but they're crossing back and forth quite easily."
Little X agrees that white directors have a much easier time directing black music artists than the reverse situation. Part of the reason is that there are more hip-hop and R&B music videos that get produced each year, so there are more opportunities for every director to have a go at it. But there is also, according to Little X, that old white-is-right mentality among some black artists. Some simply feel more comfortable when the responsibility is in white hands rather than black ones.
Edelstein says he's aware of the imbalance, too, but the cause isn't racism. Video commissioners "want to see what they're looking for, and it's hard for them to imagine a director doing something other than what they've already done," he says. "It really depends on the director's reel and the imagination of who's watching that reel."
"It's not easy, but it does happen," says Lorin Finkelstein, a commissioner for the RCA music group. He notes that he recently chose Bryan Barber to direct a video for Eve 6, a Los Angeles rock band, based solely on Barber's hip-hop work. "Bryan's early hip-hop videos did not look like the typical clips. All of the elements that fans identify with were there, but they were presented in a fresh way."
Creativity is a key weapon against being stereotyped, says Stewart (Common's "Geto Heaven," Floetry's "Wanna Be Where You Are"), one of the industry's few black female directors. It was creativity within the hip-hop and urban music genre that probably helped her land her first white-guy rock video a few months ago, she says. She was hired to do Dashboard Confessional's "Hands Down."
"Even when I do a Res or Bilal video, it looks a bit different than other black music videos out there," Stewart says. "I'm not drawn to things that are super bright or girls drinking champagne, so I'm not the person to call if you want that stuff."
She says even her early work for 50 Cent and Noreaga was shot with a more gritty, unpolished look.
"If you want to start directing different kinds of artists, I definitely think it's a detriment to do hip-hop videos in the regular style."
Little X, Boom and Robinson say they know the importance of having a diverse director's reel -- "Every day I try to get work that will make my reel more universal," says Robinson. But they also say it's undeniable that there's a strong perception in the music video industry that sees east is east and west is west.
When the two worlds do meet on that rare occasion, as they did last year when Little X directed white singer John Mayer's "Clarity," it sometimes throws everyone for a loop.
"When I was sent his music, I said, 'What? John Mayer wants me to direct his video?' And then when he heard that I took the job, he was heard saying, 'What? Little X wants to direct my video?' So lines are being crossed. It just needs to happen more often."