Martin, Darnell 1964–
Darnell Martin 1964–
Darnell Martin, writer and director of 1994’s I Like It Like That, attained a momentous first in the entertainment industry with her debut film: she became the first African-American woman to make a movie with the sponsorship of a major Hollywood studio. Martin’s film, a tale of love and hardship set in the South Bronx, won critical plaudits, but she has faced difficulties in building her subsequent career.
Born on January 7, 1964, Martin was the daughter of an unconventional set of parents: she rarely saw her African-American father, an attorney, when she was growing up, while her mother, of Irish heritage, was often busy performing with her African fire-dance troupe. Martin and her two older sisters grew up in various New York neighborhoods, including Morrisania in the South Bronx, and there were times when the family had to depend on public assistance. Morrisania in the early 1970s was a rough area, but as the future filmmaker told New York Times journalist Jan Hoffman, “When you’re a kid you don’t think drugs. You just notice that everyone seems kind of laid-back and tired.”
Martin’s mother tried to pave a way for her daughters out of Morrisania. Once, she found a job selling commodities and moved the family out of the boroughs and into Manhattan. She sought a scholarship so that Martin could attend the Barnard College School for Girls, and another time she was able to send her to a Greenwich, Connecticut, boarding school. It was there that Martin first read William Faulkner’s 1932 novel, Light in August. In it, an orphan named Joe Christmas is accused of being part African American even before he is born, and that rumor follows him for the rest of his lonely, isolated life, culminating in a shocking act of violence. She explained in an interview with Kate Meyers of Entertainment Weekly that the novel had inspired her deeply. “That a white man from the South, from a different period and a different social structure than I, could write something that was more close to me than anything I have ever read in my life says we’re all … human.”
At Sarah Lawrence College, Martin studied theater and literature, and decided to pursue filmmaking for her graduate education. She was rejected by all the film schools to which she applied, and instead took a job as a technician in a film laboratory in Manhattan. At other times she tended bar and worked for a camera-rental business. Through the film lab job, however, she met cinematographer-director Ernest Dickerson, best known for his work on a number of Spike Lee films. Dickerson helped Martin land a job doing second-assistant camera work on Lee’s 1989 movie Do the Right Thing, as well as for an Anita Baker video. Still formally untrained, Martin was hired for commercial and video work, but only made it into New York University’s (NYU) film school when Lee, an alumnus, made a phone call on her behalf.
At a Glance…
Born on January 7, 1964, in NY; daughter of Marilyn (a dancer) and an attorney; married Giuseppe Ducret (an artist). Education: Sarah Lawrence College, BA, 1960s; New York University Film School, MA, 1990s. Religion: Christian Scientist.
Career: Technician at film laboratories in New York City, 1980s; Do the Right Thing; second assistant camera person, 1989; film director, screenwriter, film producer, 1992-; television director, 1993-.
Memberships: Writers Guild of America.
Awards: Directing fellowship, Sundance Institute, Utah.
Addresses: Office —c/o Columbia Pictures, 3400 Riverside Dr., Los Angeles, CA 90027.
Martin’s NYU student film, Suspect, was showcased in the New York Public Theater’s Young Black Cinema event in 1992, and helped win her a fellowship in directing at actor-director Robert Bedford’s prestigious Sundance Institute in Utah. She had already begun writing I Like It Like That while at NYU, originally calling it “Blackout,” and her timing was fortuitous. She took the finished script around to the studios, who were suddenly eager to take on work from young, untested African-American filmmakers. The box office success of movies like Boyz in the Hood, with their urban themes and already-known musical stars, awakened studios to the profit potential in courting a new generation of visual storytellers, and Martin was the first female among this first wave of black filmmakers to achieve success.
The road to making her debut feature film was not an easy one, however. New Line Cinema initially offered Martin $2 million to make it, which meant she would have had to shoot the entire movie in just seven weeks. As she recalled in the New York Times, at the time the offer came through she was out of money. “I was about to be evicted, and I was eating spaghetti and oil for dinner,” she told Hoffman. “But I thought ’If I shot that film in seven weeks, it wouldn’t be a good movie.’” She turned it down, and then Columbia TriStar Pictures offered her $5 million. The finished product, which starred newcomers Jon Seda and Lauren Vélez, earned strong reviews when shown at the 1994 Cannes Film Festival, and also did well at the box office.
I Like It Like That is set in a Hispanic-American community in the South Bronx. Velez plays Lisette, who is of mixed African-American and Latino heritage. She and Seda’s Chino, a bike messenger, have three young children. During a blackout, Chino tries to steal a stereo for her and is sent to prison. Lisette must find a job and rely on her family and community for help, which proves to be a mixed blessing. Her subtly racist mother-in-law, played by Rita Moreno, brags that their Puerto Rican family has only pure Spanish Castilian blood; Lisette’s brother is a transvestite who encourages her to model. Instead she finds work at a Manhattan record company. When her wealthy white boss drives her home one night, the neighbors assume she is cheating on Chino. “Like Martin’s own childhood, Lisette’s world is crowded with rakish relatives and friends who drop by uninvited, often to deliver unwelcome messages,” noted Hoffman in the New York Times.
The record company plot line aside, music was a key element in Martin’s debut film, and she noted later that some objected, claiming it was overpowering. She defended the soundtrack in an interview with American Visions, telling writer Steve Monroe that it reflected the world in which she grew up. “In New York you have people of all cultures—black, white, Latino—living on top of each other. You hear them talking and shouting, and you hear their music all the time.” She was eager to stress elsewhere, however, that the film was certainly not autobiographical, save for the South Bronx neighborhood. Her background was far closer to that of the movie’s oldest son, Li’l Chino, than to Lisette, she told Hoffman in the New York Times. “You’re a kid trying to break up a fight between the people who are taking care of you.”
Critics applauded both I Like It Like That and its creator. Cineaste writer Alvina Quintana asserted that the movie “offers viewers its share of familiar … stereotypes, images of virtuous and loose women, machomen, dysfunctional families, drug dealing gangs, poor barrio homes, and so forth. But other aspects of the film suggest that Martin’s portrayal of the young multiracial married couple exemplifies the struggle between the visions of the past and those of the future, representing the filmmaker’s attempt to challenge outdated cultural models.” Leah Rozen of People commented on the respect that Martin seemed to have for the characters she created, noting that she “doesn’t pretend anyone in this neighborhood has it easy but demonstrates the sense of belonging that can be had there.” Writing for Entertainment Weekly, Lisa Schwarzbaum called Martin’s status as Hollywood’s first black woman filmmaker an impressive achievement, but conceded that Martin was “not the one who needs the certificate. Columbia deserves the attaboy clap on the back for having latched on to such an intelligent, confident filmmaker at the start of her career.”
Despite such praise, Martin had a difficult time with her next project. The story came out of a film class she taught for underage offenders at New York City’s Spofford Correctional Facility, and she collaborated on the project with rapper Q-Tip, once a member of A Tribe Called Quest. The result was a musical called Prison Song, which never made it to theatrical release despite a solid performance by Mary J. Blige. Since then, Martin has worked primarily in television, finding a home as the director of episodes for the bleak HBO prison drama Oz, and for spin-offs of the network drama Law & Order.
Martin married Giuseppe Ducret, an artist from Italy, whom she met when she was 17 and traveling in Europe. She was pragmatic about her success in an Essence interview with Deborah Gregory. “The only reason I am living my dreams now is because my mother raised me to believe that I could be whoever I wanted to be,” she reflected. “A lot of people aren’t that lucky.”
I Like It Like That, 1994.
Prison Song, 2001.
Homicide, Life on the Street, NBC, 1993.
ER, NBC, 1994.
Oz, HBO, 1997.
Law & Order: Special Victims Unit, NBC, 1997.
Law & Order: Criminal Intent, NBC, 2001.
Dragnet, ABC, 2003.
American Visions, October-November 1994, p. 43.
Black Collegian, October 1994, p. 8.
Cineaste, Summer 1996, p. 30.
Entertainment Weekly, October 21, 1994, p. 47; April 14, 1995, p. 72.
Essence, December 1994, p. 52; March 2000, p. 82.
Nation, November 14, 1994, p. 592.
New York Times, October 9, 1994, p. H28.
People, October 31, 1994, p. 20.
Variety, July 14, 1997, p. 34.
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