EXCLUSIVE: Xenon Pictures COO Steve Housden Talks DOLEMITE & Rudy Ray Moore BIOPIC
While many are crediting films such as BLACK PANTHER as a symbol of change happening in Hollywood, it likely would not been a reality without the groundwork set by the Blackspoitation era that happened decades before. With that said, I had the opportunity to speak with the COO of film distributing company Xenon Pictures, Mr. Steve Housden, to discuss some of the films from this era that they have available to audiences, such as DOLEMITE and SWEETBACK. Read the transcribed interview below....
BT: Could you discuss a bit about how you came across these iconic films and ended up distributing them?
SH: Sure. I would say it we would need to start with Leigh Savidge, who started the company over 30 years ago -a time otherwise known as the early days of [video] rental stores….(Changing topics)
....which is funny to think about as just yesterday, Blockbuster [Video], decided to close final 2 of their last 3 stores.
BT: Yeah, I recall…It's hard to imagine that we live in a time where these stores are no longer around. I vividly remember going to Errol' video store! (Laughing)
SH: Yeah exactly! In fact, even before Blockbuster, there were all these "mom & pop" stores….
BT: Right, right.
SH: …stores which Xenon [Pictures] was selling [its films] through. In time, Salvidge was getting regular calls from these stores saying, "Hey, I got a lot of customers coming in requesting films other than TOP GUN…" Of the various iconic [blackspolitation] films, the one being requested the most was DOLEMITE. Therefore Salvidge tracked the film down and found the supplier - someone who was distributing the film on VHS - and started buying the film wholesale from him. However, one day Rudy [Ray Moore] eventually shows up in our in our office and tells us, "Those guys [that you're buying the film] are not paying me!"
SH: Upon hearing his story, it really did seem like those people had been ripping Rudy off; therefore we cut ties with that distributor and dealt directly with Rudy, because we respect independence more than anything...
BT: Of course.
SH: ….and we really hate people who rip off filmmakers -artist who put their heart and soul, all of their money, likely all of their family & friend's money. So we again did a deal directly with Rudy-which, of course, resulted in a lawsuit with the third party distributer, but we resolved it. Since then, Rudy has been with us many, many years since. However, since joining us, he has stuck by his policy of keeping on year at a time contracts. (Laughing)
BT: Well, that makes sense. Especially considering experiences working with the previous distributor.
SH: Absolutely! We completely get that - as frustrating as it was. We continue to do it each year in order to earn his trust...
SH: Additionally, we purchased - during that time - more pictures of his. We had to wholesale-since they were with another distributor - Rudy's other films, such as PETEY WHEATSTRAW and DISCO GODFATHER. We ended up buying the copyright from both the distributor and Rudy on those pictures; however, we did continue to give participation to Rudy- particularly for clips. Hilariously enough, The Jay Leno Show would use a lot of clips - especially from the films HUMAN TORNADO and DOLEMITE - for various humorous segments.
BT: Alright, awesome…
SH: Afterwards, we then went after Melvin [Van Peebles] since he had the critically-acclaimed SWEETBACK['S BADASSSS SONG]. However, the first day we called him, and I'm sure you can believe this, Melvin just said, "F%&K YOU!" and hung up! (Laughter)
BT: (Laughter) I bet!
SH: Yeah. (Laughter)
SH: (Smiling) Eventually, we [at Xenon Pictures] smoothed things over with him, and we've been friends with him ever since. He's [aside from Rudy] one of our favorite people as well.
BT: Absolutely, Absolutely. Now, to comment further on that spirit of independent film that you had mentioned earlier, especially with these iconic blackspoitation films, are there any of them that hold a special place for you?
SH: You mean of the ones that we distribute?
BT: Yeah, out of those.
SH: Oh yeah! Well, I mean DOLEMITE you just can not put a candle to. It's an incredible picture. SWEETBACK is an incredible picture in a completely different way. However, I will say that one of Melvin's [films] that I really love more than any of these movies [that I mentioned] is THE STORY OF A THREE DAY PASS or LA PERMISSION. It is an INCREDIBLE film, but by no means falls into the Blackspoitation category. However, I will say that I don't feel that any of our filmmakers that we work with would ever use that term. Rudy certainly didn't like it - the term "Blackspoitation"-because he was making these films as a black man for a black audience. It was never a studio coming along saying, "I got something for these people." Rudy knew what his audience wanted.
SH: Now I realize that the term has taken on a different meaning. Now it describes a genre…
BT: Right, right..
SH: Yeah, yeah.
BT: So, with that being said, in this day and age that we're living in - where we are now seeing Hollywood or the film industry embrace diversity a lot more - are there any specific tropes that you're seeing in films (such as BLACK PANTHER, perhaps) that originated from Blackspoitation films?
SH: That's an interesting question. At the moment, nothing really pops into my mind, since many of the trope or elements that worked for films DOLEMITE and SWEETBACK that may not apply these days. For example, SWEETBACK was the first time an African American character took on a cop. I mean that was a film which addressed that issue of cop relations with Blacks in a very direct way. The same can be said of LEGEND OF DOLEMITE, in which Rudy has stated, "Instead of us [Blacks] being kicked in the ass, it's us kicking [cops] in the ass."
BT: Right, right.
SH: Now, speaking as someone who has been f%&ked with by the police enough times in my life, I TOTALLY get that!
BT: Alright, awesome. Lastly, I understand that there is a biopic with Eddie Murphy about the life Rudy Ray Moore? Is there anything that you can comment on - obviously, without going into spoiler territory - regarding what folks can expect from it?
SH: Yeah! I actually don't know about it, only that Scott Alexander and Larry Karaszewski are the biopic geniuses. They are the EXPERTS. Also, they are big fans of Rudy - they definitely looked up to him as an independent filmmaker. With all that in mind, I know it - the biopic - will be great. In working with Netflix, it should be a great fit as it is a vehicle which affords people a great amount of latitude. So again, I definitely believe that it will be fantastic.
BT: Alright, alright. Well Steve, thank you so much for your time, I really too appreciate it! I look forward to seeing what else Xenon Pictures has up its sleeve going forward!
SH: Excellent! We will keep you posted!
Interview by Brandon Troy
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