Street lit, urban lit, or hip-hop lit—whatever you may call it—the popular and controversial genre generally focused on crime, sex, and violence set in African-American neighborhoods, will be examined in Behind Those Books, an independently produced documentary that will premiere May 27 at the Tribeca Cinemas in New York City. The film is produced by the team of Kaven Brown and Mills Miller, two young men well-known in the world of urban lit, after having written, published, promoted, and marketed urban fiction for years before becoming filmmakers.
Both 28 years old, Brown and Miller are cousins whose relationship is so close that they finish each other’s sentences. Miller, who directed the 70-minute film, is a director of music videos and films through his production company, Mills Miller Media. The film is billed as “the first and only comprehensive documentation on film of this controversial genre,” and an extended 13-minute trailer of the film went viral after it was released over the Internet, via the Behindthosebooksmovie.com Web site.
While the genre remains popular among readers, often inspiring them to write and self-publish their own books, street lit has also sparked intense debate over how the books portray the African-American community. The film’s trailer offers a lively mashup of the many opinions—from wildly enthusiastic supporters to apoplectic critics—that exist among street lit writers, readers, and publishers.
Brown, the film’s writer and producer, told PW that before the pair became filmmakers, they started a publishing company called KreativeMindz Productions. Through the company, Brown wrote and self-published his first book, Two Face, an urban suspense thriller featuring organized crime, merciless killers, and crafty lawyers. While promoting the book, the pair made so many contacts at conferences and during personal appearances that in 2006 they created an online publication, the Urban Book Source (theubs.com), to focus on urban lit. “There were no avenues then for these authors, so [the site was] a place for book reviews, author interviews, and editorials, to give the genre a voice,” said Brown, who remains the creative editing manager for the Urban Book Source.
The pair decided to make a documentary, Brown said, “because of all of the controversy that surrounded street lit—i.e., ‘it’s not real literature; the book covers are too raunchy, too graphic; it dumbs readers down,’ etc. Street lit gets the same backlash as hip-hop music: ‘it recycles violence back into the community; the language is too explicit.’ We wanted to explore the topic, to see why the authors create these stories, and let [the viewers] make their own decisions.”
The fact that many street lit authors are former convicts also taints the genre, Brown said, “but for them to come out and start their own companies is huge—they are making a living and are able to feed themselves, and now they are feeding other writers. Some kids who have never picked up a book, now do.” Brown said that while he did not think urban lit should be the only thing people read, “it is a stepping stone. Also, we wanted to focus on authors and publishers who made a substantial contribution to street lit and have inspired others.”
Miller said, “As a young man who grew up in an environment that was not conducive to good things, I definitely feel that [street lit] shows that there’s both good and bad. At least kids will now pick up a book.” But there are other authors, Miller acknowledged, like novelist Nick Chiles—who has been highly critical of street lit—“who said [street lit authors] need to write better, that the books have editing issues and that [street lit] is not good for black kids.”
Not sidestepping the controversy, Behind the Books follows the evolution of street lit through a series of interviews with insiders: authors, editors, literary agents, hip-hop artists, fans, activists, and vendors. In addition to Chiles, authors voicing their opinions onscreen include Terry McMillan, Zane, Omar Tyree, Teri Woods, Cornel West, Michael Eric Dyson, Kevin Powell, Queen Pen, Vickie Stringer, Nikki Turner, K’wan, and Treasure E. Blue. The film also takes a look at the harsh realities of urban street life that set the stage for the stories.
The team began filming in March 2007 on a budget of just under $18,000; the two “financed it out of our own pockets,” Miller said. “We didn’t want to wait for anyone to give us a green light.” The crew included associate producer Fran-chesca Ho Sang and two correspondents, Chris Howard and Al Rutherford. “Plus, Kaven and I have a side hustle as video directors,” Miller said, “and we do all the photography—so that helped us secure the financing.”
Along with the documentary, Miller noted, the pair is writing a companion book of the same title. “We’re self-publishing the book, although we’re not sure on what platform. And of course it will be an e-book.”
After the New York City film premiere, he said, “We will do an East Coast tour, then Philly and all the big film festivals—Sundance, Tribeca, Cannes—and then we will entertain ideas of distribution and networks. But for now, we will keep it independent.”