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Hughes brothers carry on a tradition at Cannes

CANNES, France -- Bouncing along the Croisette, the seafront boulevard in Cannes, Allen and Albert Hughes are in a good mood. The twins are on their way to a panel discussion featuring the top independent American filmmakers at the film festival. Their first feature, "Menace II Society," plays here in a few days and will open all over America on May 28. Major studios are bidding for their next project. They have just turned 21.

There is a theory that the inexpensive home video camera will produce a new generation of movie directors--self-taught kids with inate talent, who don't wait for film school or big-bucks financing, but simply launch their own careers by making low-budget films. The Hughes brothers are the latest proof that the theory is becoming a reality.

They were raised in Detroit and then in Pomona, California. They were not poor but they sure weren't rich. Their mother, Aida, bought them a video camera when they were 12. Like a lot of their friends, their favorite movie was Brian De Palma's "Scarface," with Al Pacino as a hard-boiled drug dealer. "We watched it a hundred times," Albert says. But while some of their friends took the route in the film, and became drug dealers, the Hughes twins took it as an inspiration to make their own movies on home video.

"We made sequels to all of our favorite movies," Allen remembers, walking in the Cannes sunshine. "We made 'Terminator II' years before Schwarzenegger did. We made 'Scarface II,' starring our friends. We used our mother's white flour as cocaine. She'd come home and we'd have flour all over the place. 'That better be a good movie,' she'd say."

By the time they moved to California, the brothers were editing, scoring and dubbing their home movies, lifting music from sound track albums. They made a video called "The Drive-By" which attracted the attention of the local cops, when one of their actors used a real sawed-off shotgun. But the video also attracted the attention of a Hollywood agent, and while they were still in their teens the brothers were making music videos--30 of the before they were 19 years old.

Then came their first feature, "Menace II Society," which is an astonishingly assured and powerful work, one of the year's best films. How do you get to be "natural" filmmakers before you turn 21? By making movies since you were 12.

These days at film festivals, every year seems to introduce talented young American film directors. Spike Lee paved the way with his "She's Gotta Have It" in the mid-1980s. He was in his mid-20s.

Then came Matty Rich, with "Straight Out of Brooklyn." He was 18, and made his movie with credit cards and money borrowed from his grandmother. Two years ago, John Singleton's "Boyz N the Hood" was a sensation. Singleton was 22 when he made it, and had talked his way into a scholarship at the USC film school by volunteering as a crew member on student films from the time he was 15 ("By the time I finally enrolled, the dean almost thought I was already a student"). Robert Rodriguez, from a Texas family of ten, used his father's video camera to make nearly 200 films. One of them, "El Mariachi," which cost $8,000, is in current release from Columbia.

Audiences like it as much as movies costing 1,000 times as much. Now here are the Hughes twins. They share directing duties: "I handle the lights and the cameras and the technical stuff," Albert told me, "and Allen works with the script and the actors. It's a good arrangement, except we have to split the salary, and yet we both have to pay the union dues."

Looking at the film for the first time a few weeks ago, I felt in the presence of great assurance and confidence. I hadn't met the twins and didn't know their story or their ages, but I knew I was looking at a film by people who knew how to make movies. The story--written with their childhood friend Tyger Williams--involves a young black man named Caine, whose father is a murderer and drug dealer, and whose mother dies of an overdose.

Raised by his God-fearing grandparents, he gets into trouble early. In high school, he's a dope dealer with a pager on his belt. One day he and a friend go into a Korean-run grocery store for a couple of beers, tempers flare, and the friend shoots the grocer and his wife dead. He also grabs the videotape from the store's surveillance camera, and in one of the most chilling developments in any recent urban movie, shows the tape at parties, freeze-framing the moment of the grocer's death.

Caine is not intrinsically bad. But he has come from a world that offers him every opportunity to become, indeed, a menace to society. There are those who care for him--a high school teacher, a best friend who is a Muslim, a girl friend whose former boyfriend was Caine's mentor until he went to prison. Caine's daily life turns into a series of violent confrontations--with other gang members, with romantic rivals, with the cousin of a girl who says Caine made her pregnant.

The dominant tone of Caine and his friends is of a violent macho style that protests too much. "These are kids who feel they have to compensate for being raised without fathers," Allen says. Everything is a matter of "respect," or more often, not being "disrespected." In their world, to respect someone is to fear him; respect comes not from any accomplishment, but simply from the willingness to kill those who "diss" them. Caine lives in a world of guns, dope and promiscuity, and although his teachers, friends and grandparents try to talk to him, we can clearly see that their world simply has no substance for him--it is words, not reality.

The movie paints a bleak picture. It does not hold out much hope, and indeed the Hughes brothers point out that for every kid in a similar situation who somehow survives--like the young hero of "Boyz N the Hood"--there are five who die, or are in prison before they are 21. The movie puts a face to angry, violent young black men in the inner cities. Some critics--Newsweek's David Anson among them--have expressed reservations about the film because they feel it may fuel anti-black feelings. "If you hate blacks, this movie will make you hate them more," Allen told a journalist at Cannes. "But true liberals will get something sparked in their heads."

The choice of "Caine" as the hero's name sounds a couple of echoes. "Cain" is the Biblical figure who killed his brother. But "Kane" is the hero of the first film by Orson Welles, who made his own first film at the age of 25. I suspect both figures were involved in the naming of the film's hero.

The Hughes brothers and I arrived at the American Pavilion, where I was going to moderate the panel of young American directors. As is often the case, much of the talk was about money, not art. One director on the panel--Tom Fucci, who made "Don't Call Me Frankie," talked about financing his film with over-extended credit cards. "How did you get to Cannes?" I asked him. "I got another credit card."

Asked about small budgets, he smiled: "I made my movie with $32,000 in seven days. Anything sounds like money to me." Another director, Tony Chan, who made "Combination Platter" in a New York Chinese restaurant, said he raised his budget with loans from family and friends. Allison Anders, who made the independent hit "Gad, Food and Lodging," and whose new "My Vida Loca" is about the young female gang members in her Los Angeles neighborhood, said money somehow finds itself when it is needed for her low-budget efforts: "Frankly, I worry more about whether I'm ever going to have another relationship."

At a time when the typical Hollywood feature is budgeted at $28 million, something exciting is happening when young directors in their teens and early 20s, many of them from disadvantaged backgrounds, find a way to make their own movies and find acceptance in the marketplace.

I remember interviewing Francis Ford Coppola in 1967, when he had just made "Finian's Rainbow." The successes of "The Godfather" and "Apocalypse Now" were far in the future; he was a kid just out of film school, plowing through a briefcase of film catalogs, telling me enthusiastically: "It's all gonna change. The day is coming when you won't need a $100,000 camera and a studio to make a movie. They're gonna invent video camera that people can actually carry around. They'll be affordable. People will be able to make their own movies! You wait and see."

Mr. Coppola, meet Mr. Lee and Mr. Rich and Mr. Singleton and Mr. Rodriguez and Ms. Anders and Mr. Fucci and Mr. Chan and the brothers Hughes.

Roger Ebert

Roger Ebert was the film critic of the Chicago Sun-Times from 1967 until his death in 2013. In 1975, he won the Pulitzer Prize for distinguished criticism.

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