This year marks the 20th anniversary of Blue Hill Avenue. The movie tells the story of four friends who meet in adolescence in 1970s Roxbury, and fall into a life of drug dealing and street crime. Led by an elegant (and ambivalent) leader, Tristan — played by Allen Payne, who’d rocketed to fame in New Jack City — the close-knit group progresses from selling marijuana in their neighborhood to dealing crack cocaine.
Though Boston has been relentlessly depicted on screens large and small, Blue Hill Avenue reflects a city largely absent from movies like Black Mass or Mystic River. It often appears on lists of “hood classics,” alongside films like New Jack City and Menace II Society.
Made on a meager budget and mostly shot in Canada, the film was the brainchild of writer-director Craig Ross Jr., a Malden native who went to film school at New York University. After a stint back in the Boston area — where he made a living as a videographer for weddings, legal depositions, and the occasional bar mitzvah — Ross moved to Los Angeles to launch his directing career. Blue Hill Avenue, inspired by a story he’d heard when he was growing up, followed Cappuccino, a film-noir based on a story by Eric Jerome Dickey.
When it was first released, Blue Hill Avenue racked up awards at events like the Acapulco Black Film Festival and the Urbanworld Film Festival, which seemed to position it to become a cult hit, and maybe something more. Its Boston premiere at the Roxbury International Film Festival sold out so quickly that a second showing had to be added.
After that promising start, however, the movie wasn’t picked up by a distributor for several years, and a large-scale release proved elusive — the film was never even distributed in the city where it was set. “It’s the best Boston movie no one’s ever seen,” Payne says, “or that not many people have ever seen.”
But it went on to a long life on cable television, earning its status as a classic in the genre of urban gang movies. The Globe Magazine spoke with Ross, Payne, Angelle Brooks, and a number of other key cast members to tell the story of Blue Hill Avenue in their own words.
Interviews that follow have been edited and condensed.
Blue Hill Avenue’s road to the screen began in Los Angeles in 2000, when Ross cobbled together $1.2 million in financing from a group of independent producers. Ross set his screenplay in Boston, but quickly discovered filming here would be a problem.
Craig Ross Jr. (writer/director/editor): I went to Boston first, but at the time the unions were running everything. And even with favors from people, I couldn’t get the unions, the Teamsters, [costs] down low enough to do it.
Brandon Hammond (Young E. Bone): We shot it in Canada and tried to find places that looked like Boston. I’ve always wondered what people in Boston think when they see it.
LaTamra Smith (Nicole): I was amazed how [the Canada locations] resembled some of where I grew up in Boston, because of the brownstones and some of the hills.
Ross originally planned for his friend Aaron D. Spears, who’d been in Cappuccino, to play the role of Tristan. But things took a turn when Hollywood star Allen Payne got a look at the script. Ross would soon have news to break to Spears.
Ross: At the last minute my casting director says, Allen Payne has heard about your movie. He wants to talk to you.’ I’m like, ‘Really?’ He said, ‘Yeah.’ Allen Payne, 10 years prior, was Gee Money in New Jack City. He kind of had that crack, that audience. So we sat down and talked.
Allen Payne (Tristan): I thought it was a well-written piece. I was curious as to how it could be executed at the budget. Then Craig showed me [Cappuccino] and told me what the cost of that film was. And he said, ‘I can do this. I can do this in this time frame, I can do this at this cost.’ And I said, ‘Oh, well I’m in. I’ll do it.’
Ross: So I was like, I got to go with it. Aaron was one of my best friends and he understood. He was like, ‘You know what, as long as I can still be in it, I’m cool.’
Aaron D. Spears (Money): I wasn’t going to get the part based on me being a newbie. So I auditioned for Money.
Spears got the role, and many more after that, including as a popular recurring character on the CBS soap opera The Bold and the Beautiful. Ross also needed actors to play his quartet of friends as teenagers, setting up a casting call at the Boys & Girls Club in Dorchester. He found several local talents, including one — Dana Bair (Young Simon) — who hadn’t even intended to audition, as he recently explained on a Zoom reunion organized by Hammond.
Dana Bair, on the Zoom reunion call: I heard about the casting on the radio. My girl, who is my wife now, was into acting, and I said, ‘Yo, you need to go down to Blue Hill Ave. to the Boys & Girls Club for this audition.’ So she goes down there, and I think she was reading the part of Diane [Fauteux]’s character [Young Martine], and the casting director was like, ‘Are you here to read, too?’ And I was like, ‘Nah I’m just here to support my lady.’ ‘Are you sure?’ I was like, ‘You know what, I’ll do it.’ So she handed me the script and I went in and, as they say, the rest is history.
Ross: One of those kids we found was Pooch Hall, who went on to star in The Game and now is on Ray Donovan and all that. Pooch and I remain really, really good friends, and are business partners now on other projects.
Spears: We auditioned as a group and would always do the car scene. There were four chairs, and I remember Craig pulling me aside and saying, ‘Raise the stakes. Make it real!’ We ran it again, and it got heated. I remember Allen Payne stood up. You can’t stand up in a car — you feel what I’m saying?
W.B. Alexander (Young Tristan): I was a teenager, I was kind of salty. I didn’t really want to go to this audition. It was my senior year of high school and I played football as well. My mom called and said, ‘You have an audition.’ My coaches used to call me ‘Hollywood.’ They said, ‘Hollywood has an audition.’
Veteran actor Marlon Young (Family Matters, The Hard Times of RJ Berger) joined the film in the role of Twinkie, a pimp and tough guy with a surprisingly complicated psyche. Ross gave Young the space to create Twinkie as he saw fit.
Young: So the stereotype of the pimp is that he’s this flamboyant, womanizing type of guy. But I wanted him to be more realized than that, so I based his life on fear. I think that’s all we have — we live in love and fear.
With his cast in place, including experienced actors William Forsythe, Clarence Williams III, and Michael ‘Bear’ Taliferro (who passed away in 2006), Ross headed north, where he could make his budget stretch.
Ross: We had $1.2 million, but at the time the dollar went further in Canada, so we had $1.7 million Canadian. We went to St. John, New Brunswick, because it looked like an Eastern town. It doesn’t look like Boston, but it looks like an Eastern town.
Percy Daggs III (Young Money): I’d just had orientation in college and then, boom, I had to go. And when I got to Canada, the first thing I thought was, Damn, it’s cold.
Young: We went to Canada and I asked Craig, ‘How do you see this character?’ and he said, ‘Do whatever you’re going to do with him.’ I had like six weeks to prepare. My ex-wife is from near [Boston]. So I tried to do justice to the accent as well.
Angelle Brooks (Martine): I was a series lead on a show called V.I.P. I was shooting that during the week, and they would fly me up to Canada on the weekends to shoot a scene or two for Blue Hill Avenue. I was doing a comedy all week and you had to have all that energy. And the guys on the set, they were cool, they were mean, it was violent, it was dark, it was manly. Imagine hearing a good jazz piece, and here comes the tambourine. That was me.
Spears: I fell in love with Canada. They didn’t lock their doors. Even watching the news — the news was positive. I never experienced that. Going to the mall — people spoke to us, just because. I never experienced that. It was a hell of an experience.
Hammond: I’m the youngest, I was 16. Because I was a minor I brought my mother. She got to be known as like the mom on the set. My mom got to cook her famous jambalaya, and everyone called her Mamalaya.
Spears: At the beginning, everybody was swarming to the stars. Everybody knew Al from New Jack City. Being around people like William Forsythe and Clarence Williams III, we were just sponging. By the end, everybody was hanging with us.
Payne: It was a lot of fun. Michael ‘Bear’ Taliferro was a very good friend of mine. And a lot of the brothers who played the younger versions of us, to see them at the beginning of their careers and to watch them go on and become successful actors — it was a lot of fun to have that experience.
The tight budget meant an even tighter production schedule: Ross and the cast had only 32 days to shoot the movie. But the nervous younger actors — and their director — had a veteran to look to in Williams, a Hollywood fixture since the late 1960s, famous for playing Linc in The Mod Squad. He played the drug kingpin Benny, Tristan’s mentor-turned-rival. (Williams recently died at age 81.)
Spears: First day of shooting, there were like 100 executives. All of them sitting there in chairs. Craig was like, ‘They’re ready to replace you, because y’all are newbies. You need to bring it.’ They had their big-block old cellphones to call whoever they needed to call up to Canada to replace us.
Daggs: It was a challenge because we only got three takes for everything. Just being aware of how important it was to get it right, quickly.
Brooks: Because of the time constraints and the budget constraints, you’d have to shoot whatever was facing the direction where the camera was set up, all parts of the scene there, and then they would do camera and light resets and then we’d shoot portions of the scene that were being shot in that angle. So the big blowout scene that Allen and I had, it was very, very difficult. The big blowout was first. And then we had to go back to being loving when he enters the room. We didn’t shoot it the way the audience saw it.
Alexander: We had actors in the older roles that we really looked up to. They put the pressure on us, and that was dope. It made us rise to another level.
Daggs: It was my first film. Clarence Williams III was in this film. Allen Payne was in this film. We locked in really fast.
Young: All the actors were excited to do it, even actors who had been around for a while. Clarence Williams III could have done this in his sleep. But he decided to bring all the machinations that make him this great actor to this role in a small film, which I thought was great.
Payne: He’s a phenomenal talent, someone I regard in the highest.
Ross: When we were shooting, Clarence was like a clinic. I mean he was getting on us about the way we were shooting. He’s like, ‘Do this, do this, do this.’ I did everything he told me to. He was only on the movie for like three days, but I learned so much from him about filmmaking in those three days.
The lack of scenes in Boston nagged at Ross. He found a way to include area landmarks such as Sun Pizza, Jeremiah E. Burke High School, and A Nubian Notion.
Ross: I was like, I can’t shoot this whole movie and not show any Boston. So I just took me and my [director of photography] and I think one other actor and we flew to Boston and I did things where I didn’t need sound. It was all daytime stuff. Because we didn’t have light, we didn’t have anything. And so we went and did just some pickups, just so Boston folks would be able to see that it was at least a little bit of Boston.
After the film was finished in 2001, Ross hit the festival circuit. He badly wanted — and got — a slot at the Roxbury International Film Festival, then in its third year (this year’s festival runs June 17-26). The movie debuted to a sold-out crowd at a Northeastern University auditorium, where extra seats had to be brought in for the overflow.
Ross: That was awesome. I was a little nervous about [the screening]. It was going to be very evident to Boston people, especially Black Boston people who grew up right there in that neighborhood, that we didn’t shoot it there.
Smith: I was excited. I was looking around at everybody just to see how they would react. I felt proud being in the environment with the energy. I had to prepare [my mom], to let her know that there were some scenes where she would be seeing me without any clothes on.
Lisa Simmons, head of the Roxbury International Film Festival: I remember there being such a buzz about this movie! It was like the first movie that was about Boston that had some grit to it. And I think that people were really excited about seeing it. And for us to be able to bring it was exciting. It completely sold out in, like, two days. We had to have a second screening, because we couldn’t get everyone in the first screening.
Ross: They actually ate it up, so I was like, ‘All right, thank you.’ So it was a good feeling to actually be there and show the film [at the festival].
Daggs: The first time I saw my name in the credits, I cried.
Smith: I was proud to be a part of that movie. I’m from Roxbury, Mattapan — I grew up all through Blue Hill Ave., ran those streets. I’m just glad Boston has a film that depicts Boston from an urban perspective.
Simmons: I just know there were a lot of people who thought, Wow, I’ve never seen my life projected on a big screen. And who felt validated.
Dominga Martin, an audience member who’s now a Boston-based filmmaker: Even though Blue Hill Avenue was about the drug era, [Tristan] was a middle-class kid growing up who just happened to get caught up in the streets. And he was torn. That screening was the first time that I got to see people that I knew, who were good kids but just trying to survive. It inspired me so much. Just to be in a theater with big dreams of being a director and to see Blue Hill Ave — where I drove through as a kid — on the screen was more than impactful. It showed me that things can happen.
The film won the award for audience favorite at the festival, but its drug-and-crime focused plot did have its critics.
Ross: In the beginning, I got some feedback from people in Boston saying, “OK, look, this is not the best light to be showing us.” In hindsight, I can totally see that making it the first movie about a certain area, naming it [for] that area, and it being about drug dealers, probably isn’t the most responsible thing for that area.
Payne: The people I know who saw this movie didn’t have a response to it based on any social effect or impact on the Black community. [They] reacted to its creative integrity and how well-crafted the film was, and how impactful the performances were.
Ross: I got some feedback from people saying, ‘You don’t like women. The way you treat women in this movie.’
Brooks: It’s definitely not a chick flick. It’s a tough-guy flick. The way women were portrayed, it was what it was. We had strippers, we had the crying mama, and we had the loyal stand-by-my-man wife, which was my character. You couldn’t take that and do it today the same way.
Simmons: It was 2001, those were the films that were coming out of the independent and Hollywood world. Things have certainly, absolutely changed. There’s so much diversity now, and there’s not this monolith of Black films that are focused around gangs and violence.
Smith: I didn’t think it depicted females in a negative light outside of reality — what I grew up seeing and what my mother experienced and my grandmother experienced.
Simmons: I don’t remember that backlash, and maybe that happened in the Q and A after the screening. What I did hear a lot of was, ‘There’s no way you can get from Simco’s to Dudley Station in two minutes!’
When Lionsgate finally gave the movie a limited theatrical release in 2003, reviews were mixed. Variety panned it as a “dourly serious film,” but others saw something special. “Craig Ross Jr.’s Blue Hill Avenue departs dramatically from the standard ghetto drug action picture,” read a Los Angeles Times review. “This is a demanding, intelligent film of considerable complexity.” Cast members say they weren’t concerned that their characters were stereotypical, because Ross had written them with sensitivity.
Hammond: On the surface, they’re gangsters and they do some bad things. But what I love about the story is that they were three-dimensional characters and they had nuances.
Daggs: I went to church with gangsters. I grew up with gangsters. Gangsters were my friends, gangsters were my cousins. I was two steps from being in a gang at one point in my life. I made a different choice, but these were people that I loved.
Ross: At the beginning there was some [criticism], but then as the years went on people started to fall in love with the movie.
When they could see it, that is. Large-scale distribution was derailed, Ross says, thanks to a long legal battle involving the producers, who Ross felt never cared whether his labor of love was widely viewed. The film never even received a release in Boston — the only other big-screen showing here was in 2004, when community groups rented a Fenway theater. As Ross told the Globe at the time, Hollywood apparently didn’t view Boston as a “viable city to market an urban product to.”
MyQuan Jackson (Wren), a Dorchester native, in a 2004 Globe interview: They’ll be able to see their mistake once the DVDs start selling. Without a doubt, if the movie came to Boston, it would’ve blown up.
Ross: You got to understand, white Hollywood swears to God they know what Black people want. You’ve got white executives that have made their careers off of making Black product. And so they’ll tell you in a heartbeat, ‘Your movie is not going to do anything for Black people. That’s not what they want.’
Brooks: For Craig’s sake, I wish it could have hit more theaters. Because he worked so hard.
Young: I had high hopes for the film and it being a film that he thought would get him much more notice in the Hollywood game. I thought this film would do that for him. That was my disappointment. It was more for Craig than for me.
Payne: Craig has his own vision. Unfortunately, sometimes Black folks that aren’t doing things the way things are already designed don’t necessarily get the favor of Hollywood. They don’t become the next big thing. What people in general don’t understand is that becoming the next big thing isn’t about being the most talented. It’s about being the most favored.
Although the film didn’t become a smash, it opened doors for Ross to direct television — including episodes of hits such as House M.D., Cold Case, and Prison Break — as well as other films. He’s now working on the third season of his drama Craig Ross Jr.’s Monogamy, and has films in development. Ultimately, Blue Hill Avenue went on to a long life on cable television, becoming a favorite on BET.
Ross: It was on BET almost weekly for five, six years. It was everywhere.
Alexander: I think we can all agree we loved it. And to now look back on it 20 years later, we always talk in our group chats about how we made a classic.
Simmons: One of the great things about films like this is that it’s just so great to see directors go on to do other things, to be successful in their careers. Craig’s been able to use that as a calling card to move forward in an industry that needs more diversity, especially in television.
Ross: What did I take away from it? I took a lot of stuff away from Blue Hill Avenue. It was a very positive experience for me, but it took me awhile to get to that. Because for a while I felt a little guilty for the reasons I mentioned earlier. Hollywood obviously was not accepting of it at all. So for a while I just felt like I had put my heart and soul into something that maybe shouldn’t have been made.
If Ross felt some disappointment, nearly every cast member the Globe interviewed recalls Blue Hill Avenue as a pinnacle of their careers. That includes Allen Payne, then and still its biggest star.
Payne: It’s really my favorite performance of mine. It was a tremendous film and I’m very proud of it and grateful to have participated in it. I’m grateful to Craig for giving me the opportunity that I had on that film.
Hammond: Two of my closest friendships came from that film. We’re all knocking on 40 and to still be super-close to these guys is something I’m grateful for. It’s a special, special film for me.
Young: It’s my most favorite role that I’ve done. And the reason for that is because Craig let me create this character, which you don’t get to do [as an actor]. The actor doesn’t always end up being free. And Craig gave me that absolute autonomy. I love him for that, and I love him for this character.
Spears: I feel like it also broadened studios’ horizons, that a movie can be made with our involvement and we know what we’re talking about. We can tell our own stories in a way people will believe.
Daggs: It’s not often as an actor that you get to tell stories that resonate — with people who look like you, directed by someone who looks like you. I’m grateful that my first opportunity in front of a camera was that experience.
Alexander: It’s given me a sense of relevancy. No matter where I go, somebody notices me from Blue Hill Avenue.
Smith: It’s always going to be relevant. The story doesn’t change, it’s just the characters change.
Hammond: If we’re being real, I thought it would be one of those straight-to-DVD things and that would be it. So to see that it’s a classic in Black cinema — the first time it resonated with me was when BET came out with a list of the top hood classics of all time. It’s my favorite film of mine. As many people as know me from Soul Food know me as Young E. Bone.
Daggs: It’s a hood classic. That’s how I think of Blue Hill Avenue.
Young: I still get recognized a lot — which is weird, because of the wig and the beard I wore. I’ll be in Starbucks and I’ll order something and someone will hear my voice. ‘Hey man, were you Twinkie?’ That happens all the time.
SEE THE MOVIE: A screening of Blue Hill Avenue will be part of the Globe’s virtual Juneteenth Film Festival. Register at bluehillavenuejuneteenth.splashthat.com. And join Craig Ross Jr., Adrian Walker, and Globe senior assistant managing editor Greg Lee for a virtual panel discussion on June 17.
Adrian Walker is a Globe columnist. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @Adrian_Walker.