Lane, Charles 1953–
Charles Lane 1953–
In the early 1990s Charles Lane enjoyed the kind of success that would not have been possible two decades earlier. With two full-length films to his credit and multi-picture contracts with both Island and Touchstone Pictures, Lane was riding the crest of a new wave in black filmmaking.
During the “blaxploitation” period of the late 1960s and early 1970s, major film studios looked to the stereotyped “machismo” of black superheros like Shaft and Superfly for guaranteed box-office sales. It was only after the success of controversial director Spike Lee’s early films in the mid-1980s that the studios began to open their doors to black filmmakers and a new realism took hold. Charles Lane applauded that trend and the diversity of artistic vision it encouraged in an interview with Ebony. “The Black experience,” he said, “is very rich, very multilayered. We need different voices.”
With increased access to mainstream film production, black filmmakers like Lane embraced the medium and began to speak in their own voices. “The films coming out now,” Lane told Ebony, “are made by Black people, directed by Black people and they come from the heart. They come from the heart of Black filmmakers who are in control of their medium to a large degree. We are writing, directing, producing and casting. That didn’t happen in the 1970s.”
The son of a mail clerk and a cleaning woman, Charles Lane grew up in the public housing projects of New York City’s South Bronx. He discovered his calling as a child, he told Premiere, when he “started watching films, mostly on TV.” By the time he was in junior high, Lane was already writing scripts; by high school he had made his first film—a spy spoof—with a Super-8 camera his father had given him for Christmas. In 1973 Lane enrolled at the State University of New York at Purchase, where he became a full-time student of film.
While at Purchase, Lane took on two projects that demonstrated a social consciousness he would retain throughout his career. In 1976 he explored the plight of the homeless in his 36-minute silent short film Place and Time —a work that was honored with a Student Academy Award. It was also at Purchase that Lane began to work on Skins, a comedy/satire about an interracial romance that he described in an interview with the Off-Hollywood Report as “a passionate love of mine.”
Born December 5, 1953, in New York, NY; son of Charles and Albertha Lane; married, wife’s name Laura; children: Nicole Alysia, Julian. Education: Attended State University of New York at Purchase, 1973-80.
Filmmaker and actor. Directed film Sidewalk Stories, 1989; signed multi-picture contracts with Island and Touchstone Pictures; directed major motion picture True Identity, 1991. Serves on the boards of the Black Filmmaker Foundation, the Independent Feature Project, and the National Black Programming Consortium.
Member: Directors Guild of America, Screen Actors Guild, Writers Guild.
Awards: Student Academy Award, 1976, for Place and Time; Rockefeller Foundation grant, 1979; Prix du Public, Cannes Film Festival, 1989, for Sidewalk Stories; Don Quijote Seria, 1989; best film and best director awards, Sweden Film Festival at Uppsala, 1989; Guggenheim Award, 1990; best director award and public prize, Festival of Comedy at Vevey, Switzerland, 1990; first prize for best film, Wurzburg Film Festival, Germany, 1990; grand prize and critics prize, International Festival of Humor, Chamrousse, France, 1990; inducted into the Black Filmmakers Hall of Fame, 1990; CEBA award, Pioneer of Excellence, 1991; NAACP award, 1992.
Addresses: Management —Bobbi Thompson, William Morris Agency, Inc., 151 El Camino Dr., Beverly Hills, CA 90212.
Both films employ a formula on which Lane would later come to rely: combining comedy and social commentary for maximum dramatic impact. That method wasn’t always his approach, he told American Film. Prior to Place and Time, Lane considered himself a “dramatist,” interested only in “serious issues.” Then, inspired by the work of groundbreaking director Alfred Hitchcock, he came to understand “the power of visual filmmaking and certainly the power of comedy and satire.” That, he explained, “is why I like to mix social issues and comedy these days.”
Hoping to leave college with a feature film to his credit, Lane secured a Rockefeller Foundation grant in 1979 to film the first 20 minutes of Skins. He spent the next ten years writing and editing scripts, taking on odd jobs, and borrowing money from friends while he tried to finance the film. Skins was very difficult to sell, Lane told the Off-Hollywood Report, because “it’s a problematic piece about racism…. I still have all the rejection letters from places I sent the script.” Some described the film as “passe” and others said it was “volatile stuff.”
In 1989, after a chance meeting with an indigent man, Lane was inspired to resurrect a character he’d created for Place and Time —a homeless street artist. Coming home from a Sugar Ray Leonard fight, Lane was approached by a man who, he thought, was soliciting a hand-out. But, “instead of asking me for money,” Lane told Premiere, he “asked me who had won the fight. We got into a long conversation about boxing—this guy was a real fan—and I could just feel my heart melting. It was very cold out that night, and I was thinking about how I had a place to go, how my wife and daughter would be there waiting, and suddenly the force of this man’s situation just hit me.” And so, the “Artist”—the voiceless, nameless protagonist of Place and Time —was reborn in Sidewalk Stories.
Eventually becoming the toast of the prestigious Cannes Film Festival, Sidewalk Stories was the work that launched Lane’s career. Dubbed “Chaplinesque” by critics, after silent-film actor-director Charlie Chaplin, the black-and-white silent film explores what has become a timely issue by skillfully tempering a hard-hitting realism with gentle comedy and a nostalgic flavor.
Sidewalk Stories recalls Chaplin thematically as well as stylistically in telling a tale reminiscent of the great director’s early films. Often compared to Chaplin’s The Tramp, Sidewalk Stories depicts a diminutive New York City street artist whose survival is a matter of sheer grit. The Artist’s “hum-drum” existence is revitalized when he finds himself the surrogate father of a young innocent. Lane, a man of slight stature, cast himself as the protagonist and his two-year-old daughter Nicole Alysia as the child.
An example of what Lane called “guerilla filmmaking” in an interview with the New York Times, Sidewalk Stories was filmed in a record 15 days in order to make the Cannes Film Festival submission deadline. Produced on a shoestring budget of $200,000—provided by Lane’s lawyer and executive producer, Howard Brickman—the film relies on Bill Dill’s stark black-and-white cinematography and its inventive use of silence to convey its message. The film’s silence, Lane told Premiere, is a metaphor for homelessness “consistent with these people not having a voice.”
When Lane sent an unedited version of Sidewalk Stories to the Cannes selection committee, they said it was “the best film they had seen,” he told the Off-Hollywood Report, “but couldn’t guarantee entry in the festival because the film was unfinished.” Rising to the challenge, Lane completed it in time for the festival, working “like the devil” with his editor, Ann Stein. At the directors’ two-week competition, Sidewalk Stories was received with thunderous applause and a 12-minute standing ovation. Lane left Cannes with the prestigious Prix du Public.
The instant success of Sidewalk Stories led to contract offers from both Island and Touchstone Pictures. Lane settled with Island Pictures on a three-film deal that included the distribution of Sidewalk Stories. Touchstone proposed a two-picture arrangement, beginning with the feature-length film True Identity. Released in 1991, True Identity was adapted from Andy Breckman’s sketch “White Like Me,” which was originally conceived for a segment by comedian Eddie Murphy on NBC’s popular television show Saturday Night Live; Lane directed the film from a screenplay that Breckman had expanded to feature length.
A comedy about personal identity and race relations, True Identity is the saga of a black actor who dons whiteface to escape a mobster’s death threat. The prospect of directing the film appealed to Lane for a number of reasons. “I like several levels of storytelling,” he told the Chicago Tribune, “and this had witticisms, room for visual comedy, room for physical comedy and, most importantly, it had at the core a subject matter that is of interest to me—race relations, pigmentation and perceptions and misperceptions.”
A fully established filmmaker by 1992, Lane began work on several projects. The Blue Hour, a contemporary adaptation of the Greek myth of Orpheus and Eurydice [in which Orpheus, whose musical gifts could tame wild beasts, descends to Hell to bring back his dead wife, Eurydice] and Inertia, an “action-comedy-romantic-thriller” incorporating elements of Skins, were both in production by the spring of that year. Of other plans, Lane told Contemporary Black Biography (CBB), “I hope to be able to continue to make films—each one better than the last.”
American Film, August 1991.
Ann Arbor News (MI), February 19, 1992; March 9, 1992.
Black Film Review, Volume 5, Number 4.
Chicago Tribune, August 23, 1991; August 25, 1991.
Detroit Free Press, February 19, 1992.
Detroit News, July 20, 1991.
Ebony, November 1991.
Emerge, January 1992.
Los Angeles Times, August 23, 1991.
New York, November 6, 1989.
New York Daily News, November 3, 1989.
New York Observer, November 6, 1989.
New York Post, November 3, 1989.
New York Times, November 3, 1989; November 18, 1989; August 23, 1991; March 1, 1992.
Newsday (NY), November 3, 1989.
Off-Hollywood Report, January/February 1990.
People, September 9, 1991.
Premiere, December 1989.
Voice, November 7, 1989.
Wall Street Journal, November 2, 1989.
CBB spoke to Charles Lane on March 16, 1992.
"Lane, Charles 1953–." Contemporary Black Biography. . Encyclopedia.com. (October 16, 2018). http://www.encyclopedia.com/education/news-wires-white-papers-and-books/lane-charles-1953
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