Why you should care
Datari Turner learned that starting over can put you on the path to success.
Datari Turner had it all. He was 23, living in a $5,000-a-month apartment in New York City, and his face was plastered on billboards for Ralph Lauren, Tommy Hilfiger and Sean John. For the Oakland native whose path had veered from college football to modeling, he was living the dream — until it came crashing down.
Just a year later, in 2003, he was broke, owing to bad investments and being ill-prepared for a money-soaked lifestyle. So he packed up, returned home to California — renting a tiny studio in L.A. — to grapple with where his life was headed.
Sure, he’d made it as a model — his work for Abercrombie & Fitch was the first time the company used a Black man in a campaign. But he was uncomfortable in an industry fixated on looks and youth and, he recalls thinking, “I didn’t want to be remembered as a screensaver.”
It’s here that the highlight reel of Turner’s life jumps ahead to today, when the 39-year-old producer of the TV hit Growing Up Hip Hop has more than 30 feature films to his credit. He’s premiered six movies at the Sundance Film Festival in the last seven years, his television work includes original content for WE tv, BET, TV One, Starz and Oxygen, and he recently signed a deal with the largest independent studio in the world, Entertainment One, to develop new programming.
“People are good at more things than the world allows them to be,” he once told a reporter.
On this brisk afternoon, Turner is giving interviews at Sundance about his 2018 film, A Boy. A Girl. A Dream. His model good looks — 6′2″, chiseled features, beaming smile — have several journalists assuming he’s an actor, especially when most seasoned film producers are much older, and much whiter.
Hollywood might as well have been in Dubai, even though it was only six hours away.
Born to a lower-middle-class family — his father had a government job and his mother was a supervisor of the Acorn housing projects — Turner says Los Angeles was utterly foreign to him as a kid. “Hollywood might as well have been in Dubai, even though it was only six hours away,” he says. An All American in high school, what he knew was football. If Hollywood was La La Land, “what was realistic for me was to play for the San Francisco 49ers.”
Turner was recruited by a number of Division I colleges before accepting a full scholarship to Oklahoma State University. But a broken collarbone freshman year sidelined him and he headed home to figure out a Plan B. He was approached about a model search competition, entered on a whim and won, inking an exclusive contract with the Ford Agency and getting whisked away to New York to be “the face” of several major brands. And then everything unraveled.
His love, other than sports, had always been film, so Turner found himself buying books on screenwriting. His first effort, Video Girl, was based on his experiences modeling, and he hand-delivered the script to every production company he could find. It was optioned by Mosaic Media Group for release after the OutKast-helmed Idlewild, but after Idlewild bombed at the box office, Mosaic shied away from producing another African-American film. Video Girl was shelved, and Turner was back at square one.
Except the project had introduced Turner to Meagan Good, who would become his production partner, and he’d seen that to get movies made, he had to do it himself. Good admits that she had “a preconceived notion of [Turner] because of his modeling past,” but she was also “blown away” by his script. “I took a chance to work with Datari,” she adds, “and I’ve never looked back.”
Using his modeling contacts, Turner reached out to industry insiders for advice on getting projects made. First up: a call to Damon Dash, a producer and co-founder of Roc-A-Fella Records, to discuss an African-American version of The Apprentice. Dash bit, and The Ultimate Hustler premiered on BET in 2005. Soon after, Turner signed a deal with TV One and created a string of successful shows for the network, including Lisa Raye: The Real McCoy and I Married a Baller.
He was selling projects and making money, but he couldn’t leave Video Girl behind. It would take seven years, but in 2010 Turner’s passion project finally came to life, starring Good and Academy Award nominee Ruby Dee. The following year he produced Another Happy Day, featuring Ellen Barkin, Demi Moore and Oscar winner Ellen Burstyn, and Salvation Boulevard, with Oscar winners Marisa Tomei and Jennifer Connolly.
Since then, Turner has been careful to avoid the stereotypes that many Black films fall into, rehashing the same, subtly racist, narrative. Whether the overarching theme his projects explore is finding love or keeping the faith, he makes sure they drive home a positive message. “You have to ask yourself, ‘What do you want to tell the world?’ ” says the producer who speaks often of “legacy.” And his commitment to eschewing Black stereotypes with a positive spin is having a growing impact on a Hollywood grappling with how to incorporate more alternative voices.
Still, Turner has yet to produce a movie that gets more than a limited release and breaks into the mainstream. But being a Black filmmaker producing films for and about Black people brings limitations.
“The biggest barrier he faces as an African-American producer is access,” says Gil Robertson, co-founder and president of the African-American Film Critics Association. “You need access to capital, competent writers and directors who can creatively realize your vision, and decision-makers who can create pathways for your projects to be seen by large groups of people.”
Access and a big platform — these were the reasons Turner insisted on bringing his latest film to Sundance. Could there be a personal message in a film he has said is about getting back on track and believing you can make a difference?
“What I realized when I lost all of my money at 21 is that you have to run the long race to be successful.”