Readers of my film posts will recognize a familiar refrain when I say that my home state of Nebraska has contributed an unusually large number of influential players to the film industry, especially considering the small population of this Great Plains locale. My blog contains articles about many Nebraskans in Film and more are coming. The following story profiles Omaha native Monty Ross. He’s someone you’ve likely never heard of, yet he has enjoyed a major career alongside one of contemporary cinema’s most successful and outspoken filmmakers, Spike Lee. I’d known about the Ross-Lee association going back to the late 1980s, when I was active in Omaha as an alternative film programmer. I even made a half-hearted attempt then and once again in the ’90s to bring Ross back to his hometown for a program. It never happened. Another decade passed before I finally did contact him, this time for an interview and profile for The Reader (www.thereader.com). I loved telling his story because it’s one that was little known even where he grew up. No one’s brought him back here to honor him, and such recognition is long overdue. Whatever part I can play to make that happen I pledge to do. If and when it does happen I will finally be satisfied that Omaha and Nebraska did right by him. It’s a sore point with me that this city and state do not do nearly enough to embrace its remarkable heritage of Nebraskans in Film, and giving Ross his proper due would be a good start.
Monty Ross Talks About Making History with Spike Lee
©by Leo Adam Biga
Originally appeared in The Reader (www.thereader.com)
Spike Lee’s cinema joints rocked the American cultural landscape in the 1980s and 1990s. Collaborating with him on these explosions was Omaha native Monty Ross, a co-founder of Lee’s 40 Acres and a Mule Filmworks and a longtime producing partner. After an extended leave of absence to make his own projects, including the well-received 2002 Showtime movie Keep the Faith, Baby, a biopic on Civil Rights champion Adam Clayton Powell, Jr., Ross is back in the 40 Acres fold as Special Projects Director for the New York-based production company.
Ross, who spoke to The Reader by phone from his 40 Acres office, has contributed to the emergence of a modern black cinema with broad appeal. With his help Lee took up where Sidney Poitier left off in legitimizing blacks as bankable film artists. Just as the popularity of Poitier’s films opened doors for generations of African-Americans in Hollywood, so too did the success of Lee’s pics. Where Poitier’s directorial work (A Piece of the Action, Stir Crazy) diffuses race, Lee’s embraces relevant themes ideologically and dramatically aligned to the overtly social-political black consciousness of filmmakers Melvin Van Peebles, Gordon Parks and Charles Burnett. While those directors could not break the glass ceiling imposed by the mainstream industry, Lee’s managed to do so by straddling the independent-studio line, thereby affording his movies the kinds of budgets, casts, prestige and buzz his predecessors’ movies never enjoyed.
And Omaha’s own Monty Ross has been there for it all — as actor, production manager, co-producer, vice president of production, adviser, friend and I-got-your-back-Brother. For the acclaim and controversy over Lee’s brazen films, for Nike spots that made Lee a cult figure, for music videos that tapped the hip-hop scene. He’s been about as close to Lee as anyone on this sky-rocket ride, which after sputtering reignited with the 2006 release of Inside Man. Lee’s new HBO documentary on the human rights failing that attended hurricane Katrina, When the Levees Broke, premieres on the cable network August 29, the one year anniversary of the disaster. It’s sure to stir passions the way Lee’s early work did.
Ross is now and always has been part of the cultural-creative pot Lee’s joints get stirred in.
“The blood and sweat he pumped into that company often goes unnoticed,” film producer Lashan Browning has said of Ross, “but he was the heart of it all.” Lee said as much in a Moviemaker Magazine piece. “He was very important. People may have read about Spike Lee, but it wasn’t just me, it was Monty Ross,” Ernest Dickerson (cinematography), Wynn Thomas (production design), Barry Brown (editing), Ruth Carter (costume design) and “my father” — jazz musician Bill Lee (score). “This is a team we have.”
Until now Ross never shared his story with Omaha media of how he came to be part of this small inner circle. It’s a tight, loyal crew together two decades now. Ross goes all the way back to Lee’s thesis project, the student Academy Award-winning short Joe’s Bed-Stuy Barbershop: We Cut Heads. Ross played the lead.
Wearing specs, Ross resembles Lee. They talk alike, too, sans the Brooklyn accent for Ross. Married to still photographer Carol Ross, with whom he has one child, Austin, Ross knows he’s fortunate to be an intimate and colleague of a film pioneer.
“Here’s this kid from Omaha, Neb. who went to college in Atlanta, hung out, met a friend from New York City, came to New York to do a film with him and the next thing you know he becomes a cultural icon. From my vantage point, getting everything prepared and making sure we dot our Is and cross our Ts, and witnessing the reaction of people, I’ve just been amazed all the way, you know, because it happened to me,” Ross said. “I thank my lucky stars every day because it could have gone so many different directions. It’s humbling and I think anybody who’s full of ego and says the opposite is full of shit to be honest with you.
“You don’t know when you write these things or when you film these things what’s going to happen. A lot of the things that happen we don’t have any control over. Sure, you can have control over the film — what you write and shoot and things like that, but one thing you do not have any control over is the reaction of people. And the reaction that Spike has gotten to his work has been phenomenal.”
He offers his own take on the strong responses Lee’s in-your-face films illicit.
“I always tell people, You don’t have to necessarily like the films and you don’t have to like Spike. People are often commenting about the stories and I say, ‘Well, there’s no perfect film, there’s no perfect filmmaker.’ Spike came along and presented his work in a way that had never been seen before from a black filmmaker. His work had a sense of being independent and commercial at the same time. The thing that matters is the reaction to his work. You can’t buy that.”
Like Lee, Ross is a die-hard hoops fan and he likens the way Lee came on the scene with serious craft and something to say and in the process revolutionized the place of black filmmakers in America to the way innovative players express themselves on the court with their ground breaking moves and skills.
“I played a lot of basketball and, you know, people have been dunking the ball since they put the hoop up but when Dr. J. did it, ‘Ohhhh…did you see that?’ People have been doing behind the back fancy passes for years, but when Magic Johnson did it, ‘Ohhhh…the no look pass!’ It’s just weird about that combination (that makes one a genius and another average) and why that happens.”
In the case of Lee’s ability to express an authentic black experience that speaks universally to people, Ross said, “Hey, it’s one in a million. It’s one in two million. Where does that voice come from?” The question may not have an answer. But it’s clear Lee‘s found a way to articulate the spectrum of black life, from its heights to its depths, and the complexities of black-white relations without alienating a large portion of black or white audiences.
The coalescing of Lee’s vision, informed by the Forty Acres team, intersected with the American Zeitgeist in terms of black identity, black pride, black rage and black power. Ross recalled when he felt the Gestalt take shape.
“I think I became aware of it when I saw She’s Gotta Have It for the first time. What I saw was Spike’s goal and Ernest’s goal and Wynn’s goal. ‘My God,’ I said, ‘We’re doing something a lot different than our predecessors. We’re thinking about it a lot different. So, when I saw that I just thought, We’re onto something. It was just a culmination of having that core of people around you who think like you do and they’re able to take your vision and take Spike’s vision and then make it happen in a way that’s visually stimulating and pleasing to the audience. Just like with a winning basketball team, we all thought along the same lines.”
Recognizing a synergy or convergence of ideas, he said, is an empowering thing.
“I think it’s like finding that diamond for your wife or your girlfriend or whatever. It’s that moment when you say, ‘Oh, wow, this is what I’ve been looking for.’ It’s a connection. That’s the way it was for the audience, too. They were like, ‘Yeah, that’s the way I want to be projected. That’s what I’m talking about.’”
Spike Lee and Monty Ross
Ross doesn’t analyze why it is he and Lee click. They just do. “I’ve always been a type of person who realizes when something works, it works, and you don’t disturb it,” he said. “You just ride it out.” The trick is to find your niche and revel in that rather than worry about props. “Once you start getting into that ego gratification and say, ‘Well, his name’s bigger than mine.’ than you’re going to lose,” he said, “because you know somebody’s always going to do something better. Once you have something that works, stick with it. That’s definitely a credo I live by.”
An Omaha North High graduate, Ross is the son of a social worker mother and hardware store owner father who divorced when he was young. Both his parents have passed. His only sibling, an older sister, no longer lives here. Ross, whose favorite haunts were a pair of North 24th Street landmarks in The Ritz Theatre (long defunct) and the Bryant Center (still there), struggled in the classroom before finding a home in school theater productions.
“I started to really feel good about myself and about being in school,” he said.
Harboring a dream to be an actor and to escape the “limited horizons” Omaha offered young blacks in the ‘70s, he went South to attend historically all-black Morehouse College in Atlanta. The contrast was stark. He left behind stagnated, segregated Omaha, where riots and other ruptures left the black community a desolate island with few black professionals to emulate, for Atlanta, a booming, integrated city with a flourishing black culture and black presence in all sectors.
Aside from a few well-known athletes trotted out for kids to idolize, he said growing up black in Omaha “you really didn’t get that college-educated role model you could attach yourself to and get a sense of motivation from.” In Atlanta, he saw up-close black legends like Ossie Davis and Ruby Dee and sampled a “renaissance” of black artists and entrepeneurs. “It just began to blossom as a cultural center.”
He flunked out of Morehouse but was there long enough to act in plays with a then-unknown Samuel Jackson and to be noticed by an aspiring young filmmaker named Spike Lee, a Morehouse grad. After a semester or two getting his grades in order at a Dallas, Texas college, Ross returned to Atlanta to attend Clark College and after graduating he worked as an actor for the Atlanta Street Theatre, a company he’s still associated with, which gives free performances to school-age children. Soon, his path intersected again with Lee’s. It was the late 1970s and Lee was a firebrand talent on the verge of making some noise. The then-New York University film school student often visited Atlanta, where his grandmother Zimmie Shelton lived, and it’s there he and Ross hooked up again. The young director showed Ross and a small coterie of friends his films. Ross was blown away.
“Spike came down every summer he was in (film) school to screen his short films and I remember seeing the first short film, The Answer (a response to D.W. Griffith’s The Birth of a Nation), and after looking at the movie I jumped up and I said, ‘Oh, man, you got it, you got it.’ ‘What do you mean?’ ‘You are about to do something that’s really, really special. You’ve combined everything into this little short film and I can just see it speaks to what you’re always talking about.” “Yeah, man.”
By then, Ross made Super 8 films himself and taught kids the craft in a CITA program. He and Lee were two young men filled with dreams. Not unlike the stoop and street dwellers of Do the Right Thing, they riffed on things-to-come.
“It began pretty much just hanging out at his grandmother’s house and just sitting there talking about how one day we’d like to make a movie together,” Ross said.
By the early ‘80s, Lee itched to make a bold statement. According to Ross, “He said, ‘Man, we’ve got to do something that’s a little more edgy.’ He wrote a screenplay called Joe’s Bed-Stuy Barbershop. I said, ‘Let me read it.’ So I went by his grandmother’s house and we sat down and read the script together along with another friend of ours. I said, ‘Hey, man, I’d love to do the movie.’ So I came to New York the winter of 1981 and in one month we made the film.”
Joe’s Bed-Stuy Barbershop, We Cut Heads
Ross had been to the South Bronx before but not Brooklyn. It was also his first time acting for the camera, and it showed in all the retakes his scenes required.
“It was funny because I wanted to express myself a little differently. I wanted to move around, and film is very restrictive. I remember once I walked around and I said the lines and Spike and Ernest were like, ‘No, no, no, no…You gotta stand still! Film is expensive!’ So I went through that whole spiel, but I learned pretty fast. I still feel every time I watch it I could have delivered a better performance.”
Intent still on being an actor, Ross said, “I wanted to be in front of the camera, but fate would have a whole different direction for me. After Joe’s I went into the (Army) Reserves and after finishing up my Reserve training I came back and hung out with Spike.” Lee planned making his feature debut with The Messenger, with Laurence Fishburne set to star, but weeks before cameras were to roll the main investor pulled the plug when additional funding could not be raised.
Meanwhile, Ross said the production manager on Messenger had a falling out with Lee and quit. Harsh words uttered by the crew member — to the effect “You guys will never be the filmmakers you want” — inspired Ross to put himself on the line. “So I told Spike, ‘Man, you don’t have to go through that. The next time, let me be the production manager.’ He said, ‘Well, what about the acting?’ I said, ‘Duty calls. It’s something that you need and we don’t have to go outside ourselves. We’ll just make it work.’ He said, ‘You bet.’ Spike wrote She’s Gotta Have It, sent the script to me and, as they say, the rest is history.”
She’s Gotta Have It
Financed in part by maxed-out credit cards, She’s became an indie breakthrough, grossing millions over its couple-hundred thousand dollar budget and putting a gritty, sophisticated spin on black romantic comedy that resonated with folks.
The film made Lee’s career and established Ross as his right-hand man. Getting there was a crucible, but Ross endured and emerged a seasoned pro.
“It was really a hard lesson for me. That’s when I really first got acclimated to New York City. I’d just run around figuring out where post-(production) houses were. I made mistakes and I had to cover my mistakes. I had to learn about dealing with the Teamsters,” Ross said. “It was a time and experience I will never forget because being thrown in the fire like that gave me an opportunity to really learn the business, and that’s what happened.”
Like any low budget pic, She’s required crew to pull double or triple duty. “We didn’t even have a first assistant director,” Ross said. To make their days they had to cut corners and stay several steps ahead. Ross adapted to the hectic schedule, finding he was good at leading other people.
“My working style was to always make sure the next day was covered. I kind of had a camaraderie with the crew. I said, ‘Hey, whatever you guys need, let me know.’”
Caught up in the minutiae that is a film project, Ross didn’t have time to reflect on what 40 Acres had done until the end of the frantic shoot. When he realized it’d come to an end, he didn’t want it to stop. He knew it was historic.
“And lo and behold two weeks later I was like, ‘Hey, we’re out of stuff to shoot.’ This was a Saturday afternoon and I said, ‘Well, let’s just keep shooting. Let’s just make something up while we still have people here. You never know…’ And about six o’clock that evening we called wrap. It was a special moment, you know. We had completed the movie. At least got it in the can.
“I’m not one to get into anything all spiritual and weird and stuff like that, but it was a special moment. I kind of had a feeling, Oh, this could really go somewhere. I think we’ve got really great performances and we’ve got a good look. Wynn Thomas came in with the production designer and he expanded on Spike’s vision. And Ernest came in with the lighting we had and did a wonderful job.”
Bigger budgets followed on the string of much-talked about films that came in She’s wake — School Daze, Do the Right Thing, Jungle Fever, Mo’ Better Blues, Malcolm X, Crooklyn, Clockers — but really all of Lee’s work, much of it with Ross serving as producer, is rooted in those indie, low-budget early years.
True to his bottom line sensibilities Ross finds satisfaction in “the economy of resources” 40 Acres achieved on what proved to be critical-commercial hits. By contrast, he finds hard to swallow the excessive expectations of today’s spoiled young film lions, weaned as they are on techno-digital props and pop-art devices that can interrupt narrative flow and inhibit human values.
Do the Right Thing
“I hear them say, ‘Oh, I’ve got to have this crane or I’ve got to have this lens’ and all these things we couldn’t even think of….I think it really gets down to how well you use your imagination, how well you focus in on what’s important and how well you can tell the story. I think what’s missing with a lot of the young people is that sense of — Let me tell you this story. To get you on the edge of your seat and to make your senses perk up. That’s what we’re looking for. I want a good story, period. Something that’s innate in our nature is our love for a good story and a good storyteller. At the end of the day I think people still want to sit in that dark room and watch a good movie and they want a story that’s well told.”
Far from despairing over the state of motion pictures today, Ross is optimistic the influence of personal filmmakers like Spike Lee has made the term indie synonymous with not just quirky pics, but quality work made by passionate artists.
“I think when you look at what’s happening at the Academy Awards a lot of the movies that have won Best Picture have not been those big studio films, they’ve been small independent movies,” he said.
Ross took time away from 40 Acres to develop a project he felt so strongly about that a one-year leave of absence turned into seven when the project got stalled in development limbo, all of which made the film’s title, Keep the Faith, Baby, ironic.
“I always thought the Adam Clayton Powell story was a story that should be told… that his story was an important part of our history. Powell was a legendary Congressman from New York (Harlem) and I thought he was a missing link in the Civil Rights lineage from Marcus Garvey to A. Philip Randolph to Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. to Malcolm X. He had demonstrations and sit-ins. He was a lone wolf in Congress, and despite being controversial he got like 50-60 pieces of legislation passed that became the background and foundation for the War on Poverty and for a lot of the social change that Martin and Malcolm and other leaders talked about. He was the man of the hour others sought out. He was making things happen.
“I told Spike I was going to stay committed to getting the film made and he was like, ‘No problem,’ and that’s what happened. I moved out to L.A.”
Waiting for it to get made Ross produced a film (Escaping Jersey) and directed another (Reasons). After moving to Charlottesville, NC so his family could be near his wife’s folks, this prodigal son returned last year to New York and his 40 Acres home.
“I never left,” he said. One of his jobs as special projects director is to head the multi-media company’s internship program. To kids with film ambitions he says, “The sky is the limit, and it all depends on your perspective. The industry is vast with great opportunities. But before you begin your journey ask yourself this question: What is it that you would like to contribute to the industry to make it better?”