Why you should care
Because this former street artist tells stories from the inside out — and people are responding.
It was April 16, 2014, when fresh-faced director One9 and his writing/producing partner Erik Parker experienced the ultimate welcome-to-the-big-leagues moment. Minutes earlier, the newcomers had walked the red carpet at the prestigious Tribeca Film Festival in New York City, where their acclaimed hip-hop documentary Nas: Time Is Illmatic — a meticulous exploration of the making of Nas’ genre-defining, culture-shifting 1994 album and of the turbulent, tight-knit Queensbridge housing projects that produced the enigmatic wordsmith — had been given the coveted honor of opening.
Backstage at the Beacon Theater, anticipation for the buzz-heavy movie was intense, recalls One9. “I remember one of the Tribeca people telling us, ‘Listen, you guys are going to introduce the film,’” he says. “‘But before that, Bob is going to come out and say a few words about you.’ And I was just thinking to myself, ‘Wait, who is Bob?’”
Seconds later, a figure strolled up to the gobsmacked pair. “Bob” was Robert De Niro, Hollywood royalty and co-founder of the Tribeca Film Festival. “I’m like nervously saying, ‘Hello … ’” the 45-year-old tells OZY from an LA studio where he’s finishing a project he hopes to unveil at the Sundance Film Festival in January. “And De Niro goes, ‘Please, please, call me Bob. You guys made a very powerful film. You got a big future ahead of you.’ Erik and I started looking at each other like, ‘Man … it doesn’t get no better than this!’”
John [Singleton’s] exact words were, ‘Make the film that the media is scared to make.’
And then things got a lot better. In September, One9 and Parker attended the 2017 Creative Arts Emmy Awards and scored a nod for Outstanding Documentary or Nonfiction Special for L.A. Burning: 25 Years Later, an A&E film that aired in April. Executive produced by Oscar-nominated director John Singleton (Boyz n the Hood, Poetic Justice and FX’s Snowfall), the film is an unflinching chronicle of the explosive 1992 Los Angeles riots, sparked by the acquittal of four white police officers charged in the brutal (videotaped) beating of unarmed African-American motorist Rodney King. A number of men and women who witnessed or took part in the horrifying and bloody chapter of civil unrest are given a voice in this 25th-anniversary documentary, which adds a painfully personal tone to an event most people across the country watched from the safe and sanitized distance of TV news reports.
L.A. Burning was the only film out of a crowded field of high-profile projects re-examining the riots to earn an Emmy nomination. “John’s exact words were, ‘Make the film that the media is scared to make,’” One9 says, noting that Singleton personally reached out to the pair to direct the project after being struck by their near-obsessive attention to detail in Time Is Illmatic.
One9, born Michael Baluyut Silverman, admits to being a huge fan of industry heavyweights like Martin Scorsese and Spike Lee, but he was never the hardcore movie geek who devoted countless hours to, say, breaking down Akira Kurosawa’s camera work in Seven Samurai. The two biggest influences on his filmmaking? His father, a jazz aficionado who pushed his imaginative son to ad lib stories and create his own characters, and a passion for graffiti. “I was able to express myself in a very raw, artistic way and tell a story just by spraying literal words on a wall,” One9 says.
From tagging walls to telling stories that try to make sense of our time, One9 has come to embrace his status as a respected documentarian after starting out in the trenches shooting television promos in Washington, D.C., where he grew up, to working at BET’s Rap City. It was there, in 1998, that he met his future collaborator Parker, who suggested they team up to film a 10-year-anniversary DVD about the making of Nas’ seminal debut album, Illmatic. “I was learning about editing,” remembers One9. “I started shooting experimental videos. That was my foundation for filmmaking.”
— One9 (@One9___) August 26, 2017
But the project languished for lack of funding, and it would take more than a decade and a game-saving grant from the Ford Foundation to turn Time Is Illmatic into a reality. When a reluctant Nasir Jones was shown an early rough cut of an interview with his jazz musician father, Olu Dara, he signed on. One9 and Parker were officially in the filmmaking business.
Flash-forward — One9’s latest work, an innovative short film series titled MEN: The Dreamer, follows the unconventional life of Alexander Smalls, an international opera singer turned celebrated New York–based restaurateur. No sooner did it pick up a Diversity in Storytelling Award this past summer at Denver’s annual SeriesFest than the Chocolate City native made his move to the narrative film world.
But for every James Marsh (the director behind the 2008 Academy Award–winning documentary Man on Wire who went on to helm the 2014 Oscar-winning Stephen Hawking biopic The Theory of Everything), there’s a slew of cautionary tales. Take Joe Berlinger, an Academy Award– and seven-time Emmy-nominated filmmaker who returned to making documentaries after being tapped to direct Book of Shadows: Blair Witch 2, the universally savaged sequel to the landmark 1999 horror flick The Blair Witch Project.
“That’s a hurdle we have both faced,” Parker admits, who praises One9 for his evolution as a storyteller. “It’s a little bit more difficult for documentary filmmakers to make that transition to narrative. Because if you have never directed actual actors before, it’s very hard to prove to a producer that you can direct a scripted film.”
One9 doesn’t seem overly worried. “Right now I’m working on a second film short and my first feature film,” he says without giving up many details. “Before this, I never wrote a script before. This is all new for me, but I’m ready for the challenge.”
After making two acclaimed films that look back 20 and 25 years, One9 is looking ahead. Who knows? He may just find himself directing Bob someday.