Franklin, Carl 1949—
Carl Franklin 1949—
Describing the work of his favorite directors—Akira Kurosawa, Martin Scorsese, Charles Burnett, Francis Ford Coppola, and others—in an interview with Sheila Benson for Premiere magazine, Carl Franklin noted a common preoccupation. “They’re not so much interested in the action of the film,” he observed,” as they are in the response of the characters to the dramatic action—whether it takes them closer [to] or further from God. If that doesn’t sound too pretentious.”
Franklin has earned accolades in his own work for focusing on character over plot gimmickry, exploring often dark material with both compassion and flair. Though he arrived at directing after spending many unsatisfying years as an actor, he was able to use his understanding of the actor’s perspective in making his well-received features One False Move and Devil in a Blue Dress and the acclaimed television series Laurel Avenue. Actor Denzel Washington, who starred in Devil, described Franklin to Patrick Goldstein of the Los Angeles Times as “a history professor trapped in a movie director’s body. You know he’s always going to get deep into things.”
Franklin was raised in the northern California town of Richmond; he never knew his father, who died before he was born. His stepfather, meanwhile, was frustrated and frequently abusive. “It was a scary situation,” the filmmaker told Goldstein. “He was very loving, but when he drank he was a different person. It was worst on the weekends. If he was drunk on Friday night, he’d beat my mother up and it would go on all weekend. As a kid, it made me very terrified because these grownups twice your size are yelling at each other. It felt like the end of the world.
Richmond itself was a rough place to grow up; Franklin noted in an interview with the London Observer,” You had to have friends to fight with you and back you up because you’d pass through areas controlled by certain gangs and it was just too dangerous to go by yourself.” Nonetheless, he survived to stand up to his stepfather and become the first member of his family to pursue a college education.
Franklin earned a scholarship to the University of California at Berkeley, arriving in the midst of the social and
At a Glance…
Appeared in productions of Cymbeline, Tirnon of Athens, and Twelfth Night Hew York City, early 1970s; appeared in film Five on the Black Hand Side, 1971; appeared on television seriesCarifce, Fantastic Journey, McClain’s Law, and The A-Team; appeared in productions of Saint joan and in the Belly of the Beast, Los Angeles; made short film Funk; directed features Nowhere to Run, 1988, Eye of the Eagle 2, 1989, Full Fathom Five, 1990, and One False Move, 1991 ; directed television film laure/ Avenue for cable channel Home Box Office (HBO), 1993; adapted screenplay for and directed Devil in a Blue Dress, 1995.
Addresses: Home—Los Angeles, CA. Studio— Tri-Star Pictures, 10202 West Washington Blvd., Culver City, CA 90232.
political ferment that rocked the 1960s. Yet despite his exhilaration at the burgeoning Black Power movement and other progressive causes, he remained largely an observer. “It was like a dream to me,” he noted to Los Angeles Times contributor Goldstein. “I wasn’t really sophisticated enough to join a particular movement.” Though initially attracted to history as a major, Franklin was drawn into the theater arts department during his junior year.
In 1971 Franklin followed the call of the stage to New York, where he appeared in small roles in producer Joseph Papp’s famed Shakespeare in the Park productions. “He had us dressed up as birds and stuff—I was a cockatoo, I think,” Franklin recollected toL. A. Weekly contributor Ella Taylor. “One guy said he didn’t expect us to get any work out of that unless they were casting for Disney on Parade. “
Other small roles followed. Franklin gradually became more established and began earning larger parts; he has said that his finest moment onstage came in the play In the Belly of the Beast, presented by the trailblazing Los Angeles theater the Mark Taper Forum. Prior to this, he’d come to L.A. with a girlfriend and had gone along with her to a film audition. The film, Five on the Black Hand Side, was a “blaxploitation” action picture in which he was cast without even reading for a part.
Franklin later made the transition to television, co-starring on the series Caribe, but he found this work generally unrewarding. Indeed, even a high-profile role on the hit 1980s program The A-Team didn’t raise his spirits. “That was a real bad time for me in my life,” Franklin said in the Village Voice. “I’d gotten divorced from my first wife, I was redefining myself. Acting itself wasn’t fulfilling me.” He described his A-Team character, Captain Crane, as “kind of a movable prop. I knew I didn’t want to act anymore.”
Even so, Franklin told the L.A. Weekly’s Taylor,” [acting] made a director out of me.” He departed The A- Team and began writing for the screen, gravitating toward “creating something from nothing, and getting involved in a different part of the production line.” He began studying moviemaking at the American Film Institute and embarked on his first project, a short called Punk. The tale of a black kid pursued by a child molester, the film made a profound impression on Hollywood. This was fortunate; with two children to feed and alimony payments to make, Franklin needed work. He even lost his house mortgaging it to finance his film.
Among those taken with Franklin’s directorial gifts was veteran B-movie mogul Roger Corman, through whose low-budget ranks many a gifted filmmaker—including Coppola, Scorsese, Jonathan Demme, Joe Dante, Ron Howard, and many others—had risen. Corman enlisted Franklin to make a series of cheap action films in various foreign locales. “Thank God for Roger,” Franklin declared to Premiere’s Benson. “He financed my way through film school.” Even so, the director has been chary of naming the features he made during this period, which include the low-budget pictures Nowhere to Run and Full Fathom Five. “A lot of people felt Corman was a springboard,” said Franklin in the L.A. Weekly. “It’s like what he said to Ron Howard—’If you do a good job for me, kid, you’ll never have to work for me again.’ I don’t know how much I was influenced [by Corman’s style]. Hopefully, not artistically.”
Corman wasn’t the only producer captivated by Punk; so was Jesse Beaton, who had developed a number of adventurous independent productions in the past. “I thought Punk had a very strong vision and original voice,” she recalled to the New York Times. She was seeking a director for a gritty crime drama called One False Move and had met several young filmmakers who were more interested in “attitude” and style than character. “Then I met Carl,” she told L.A. Weekly contributor Taylor,” and I knew he would be a terrific director. He so impressed me with his intelligence and articulateness, his warmth and maturity.” She added that his being “African-American was not the issue, but an issue in the story.”
ThoughOne False Move —filmed on a $2 million budget and first released in 1991—begins with some extreme violence, Franklin has been outspoken about its moral context. “I didn’t want people getting excited seeing how neat someone can be killed,” he insisted in the Observer. “I want the audience to feel the emotional loss of life—the real violence is the loss, the violation of humanity. They’ve taken from us someone who had dreams, hopes, the same set of emotions we have.”
Franklin’s thoughtful approach to the story of three drug-dealing killers on the lam from Los Angeles to Star City, Arkansas, and to the complex undercurrents of race in the story impressed numerous critics. But One False Move scarcely earned uniform raves. A Time reviewer, for one, claimed that despite the film’s “B-movie virtues,” it was an overpraised and “modest melodrama.” Cinéaste, on the other hand, proclaimed that the production “extends film noir boundaries” and applauded Franklin’s direction in particular. Video magazine—reviewingMove’sdebut on tape—hailed an “extraordinary feature film debut.”
One False Move had a meager publicity budget, and it took a while for word of mouth to draw moviegoers to it. “In a left-handed way,” Franklin declared to Taylor,” it worked out for the best. Every time the film would open in another major market, we would enjoy another wave of success. Critics loved the idea of championing this film.” And Franklin’s ethnicity was largely unknown at the time, which meant that rather than being deluged with “urban” scripts full of gangs and drugs, he was offered “all these mainstream white projects, art films, action movies—we were getting everything.”
Franklin’s next project, however, was directing the two-part production Laurel Avenue for the cable television network Home Box Office (HBO). An ambitious and dramatically complex tale of a black family in Minnesota, it earned strong reviews. Entertainment Weekly deemed it “a TV film that transcends the family drama” and noted that Franklin’s sophisticated direction “makes this an important piece of work. “Ti m e ranked it among the best dramatic presentations of the year,” startling in its frankness yet leavened by a stubborn optimism, a far cry from TV’s usual easy sentimentality.”
Franklin remarked to Mirabella that while the program dealt with often sensationalized issues, he struggled to stay grounded in reality. “Drugs are a huge problem in the black community,” he declared. “Not to include that would be a stupid oversight. But if the subject of drugs is introduced in the context of a hardworking family that has managed to maintain unity, and the audience sees drugs as a threat to that unity, they get a much greater understanding of the problem.”
A fan of mystery writer Walter Mosley, Franklin jumped at the opportunity to direct a screen adaptation of the novelist’s Devil in a Blue Dress. With Demme executive producing and Beaton sharing production credit, he was able to secure a larger budget and at the same time avoid the creative constraints often encountered as a result of such purse strings. He adapted the screenplay himself, though he informed Entertainment Weekly that he “called Walter whenever there was a departure I was making, just to get feedback.” Devil follows Ezekiel “Easy” Rawlins—played by Denzel Washington—as he embarks on a rocky career as a private detective in late-1940s Los Angeles.
Franklin’s historical acumen served him well in the telling of this tale; working with a gifted team of production designers and other filmic experts, he was able to reconstruct a lost South Central L.A. It was a challenge, however. “Nothing from Los Angeles in 1948 was saved,” he reported in Entertainment Weekly. “We paid for a lot of security because we were shooting in neighborhoods that, let’s just say, weren’t the best.” In another interview with Ella Taylor, this time for Mirabelz la, he pointed out that in “Mosley’s work, you get such a strong sense of neighborhood, of history, of what black family values were. That’s what you don’t see on the screen about black people, those internal things that make us who we are.”
Again, critics were divided over the film, though most admitted that the recreation of the old locales bordered on the magical. Still, Entertainment Weekly reviewer Lisa Schwarzbaum lamented that the director “might as well be a sociologist studying ‘trends and conflicts in postwar urban Negro culture’ rather than igniting those trends and conflicts. “Kenneth Turan of the Los Angeles Times, on the other hand, hailed Deui/as “the most exotic crime entertainment of the season.” Franklin himself seemed less interested in the film’s standing in the thriller sweepstakes than in larger concerns. “I love film noir,” he told the New York Times, but “this film is really social realism married to film noir. It’s about people I know, people I grew up with.”
ThoughDeuil in a Blue Dress did not meet commercial expectations, it made a decided impression on the film community; as a result, Franklin became highly attractive to top producers and writers. He discussed in various interviews a number of projects he planned to helm, including Reliable Sources, from a script by Hollywood bad boy Joe Eszterhas, a film version of Russell Banks’s novel Rule of the Bone, and an adaptation of Alexandre Dumas’s classic tale The Count of Monte Cristo. Having established a partnership with producer Beaton, he signed a three-film deal with Tri-Star Pictures and appeared ideally positioned to pursue his uniquely humanist vision. “I always look for a universal theme to unearth,” he proclaimed to Taylor in theL. A. Weekly. “My ethnicity is a plus, a tool. It gives me ammunition in terms of the way I view the world. There are certain stories in the black community that inform us all.”
Cineaste, Fall 1992, p. 104.
Entertainment Weekly, July 9, 1993, pp. 38-39; August 25, 1995, pp. 32-33; September 29, 1995, pp. 40-41.
L.A. Weekly, September 22, 1995, pp. 20-25.
Los Angeles Times, August 13, 1992, pp. FI, F4; September 24, 1995 (Calendar), pp. 3, 79; September 29, 1995, pp. FI, F12.
Mirabella,, September 1995, p. 32.
New York Times, August 9, 1992, p. CI; October 3, 1995, pp. C1,C14.
Observer (London), April 4, 1993, Arts 2 section, p. 54.
Premiere, July 1992, p. 46.
Time, August 3, 1992, p. 75; January 3, 1994.
Video, November 1992, p. 73.
Village Voice, October 3, 1995.
"Franklin, Carl 1949—." Contemporary Black Biography. . Encyclopedia.com. (March 18, 2019). https://www.encyclopedia.com/education/news-wires-white-papers-and-books/franklin-carl-1949
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