There isn't any reason why commercials directing should have anything to do with race, but with so few black directors in the business - who comes readily to mind besides Paul Hunter? - the arrival of Chris Robinson, with a string of hip-hop video hits behind him, makes one wonder if he can escape the marketing ghetto politely filed under "urban." In his favor, surely, is the fact that he's at an A-list company like Partizan, where, as far as Robinson and Partizan executive producer Steve Dickstein are concerned, race will not be much of an issue. "Look at Tarsem," says Robinson. "He's an amazing director. I'm not sure what race he is. Who cares what race he is?" Adds Dickstein, "We never had directorial categories here, like automotive or tabletop. We just have directors. I look at Chris as a director who's black - not a black director. There's a depth to his work that transcends any genre. "
"It'll take time to be judged as just a filmmaker," admits the 31-year-old Robinson. "We're still dealing with that in our culture in America, learning to judge people by the merit of what they do. Make no mistake, before anything I'm Chris Robinson the black man. That's just a truth, and I'm very proud of that. But if you put the reel up, it should be, 'Hey, that's a good filmmaker,' or 'That's a funny filmmaker.' Not, 'That's a black filmmaker.' "
If you put the reel up, Robinson's work is impressive indeed. Nevertheless, he comes out of the largely segregated world of hip-hop video, and his first commercial, for And 1 and Fallon/Minneapolis, starring NBA wunderkind Kevin Garnett, is more or less a hip-hop video, with beats by none other than Timbaland. Which is partly why Robinson got the gig. He's the kind of guy who's on a first-letter basis with people like P. Diddy, and, as he puts it, "I could just pick up the phone and call Timbaland."
"It's true this whole And 1 thing came about because of a certain credibility Chris has with rappers and musicians, but the idea, which is bold in its expression, is told with an amazing sense of humanity and emotion," says Dickstein. As Robinson explains, "If you put classical music behind this commercial you'd still have a story about Kevin Garnett's psyche and his journey from being a kid in South Carolina who was in trouble with the police and whose mom burned his jersey 'cause she didn't want him to play basketball. It's a story about his life - but his life happens to have a hip-hop soundtrack to it."
As does Robinson's, of course. He grew up in Baltimore and later moved to California where he enrolled at Foothill Junior College and played nose guard on the football team. It was there that he "got bit by the film bug," he says. "I always wanted to have a camera in my hand." He started making small-time videos for friends and eventually got a break with Profile Records, then home to Run DMC, for a video for a rapper known as Smooth Da Hustler, around 1993. "When I came in, the groundwork really wasn't set for hip-hop videos," he recalls. "The guys that I looked up to were Mark Romanek, David Fincher and Jean-Baptiste Mondino. But my biggest influence at the time, just to be a filmmaker and believe that it could be done, was Spike Lee. He's a shining example that you could actually do it." Hip-hop video-wise, "after Hype Williams raised the bar, ever since it's been on," says Robinson. "This is what we aspire to, the mini movie. To those artists who want to be innovative, we can say, 'Come on, let's do it.' Everybody's pushing the envelope now. They want more."
And they're getting it. To those of us with only a casual hip-hop acquaintance, who tend to stereotype it as a tediously repetitive boast-and-bling thing, Robinson's videos are a pleasant surprise. He's got dialogue, humor and plenty of snappy narrative and great-looking film. Standouts on the reel include P. Diddy's "Bad Boy For Life," in which Sean Combs and his retinue move into a house in the white suburbs and scandalize the neighbors, only to be scandalized in turn by tattooed white skate punks. The Busta Rhymes/P. Diddy collaboration "Pass the Courvoisier" lives up to the mini-movie moniker with a perfectly controlled blend of humor, action and style. Cypress Hill's rap-metal "Trouble" is a brilliantly evocative tale of a man facing his many inner demons. Moreover, Robinson can jump genres with ease, well beyond the R&B clips he's done for Alicia Keys, Ginuwine and others. He not only shot the recent Dave Navarro "Hungry (Empty Girl)," with Carmen Electra as a robot, but, as unlikely as it may seem, he did Mandy Moore's teen-fluff hit "Candy." "I got a little diversity happening," he laughs.
May it keep on happening. "We're looking at work for him right now that's outside the urban market, because people are recognizing him as a talent, not as a black talent," claims Dickstein. Robinson himself is cautiously optimistic. "When you can really be judged just on the content of your character, it'll be a different world we live in. But the world is changing for the better, slowly but surely. Everything else follows suit."