“The Game” Re-emerges 25 Years Later…in Panama

New York Times ad for "The Game," Spring 1990
New York Times ad for “The Game,” Spring 1990

I had never heard of “The Game,” a political drama made by two of Spike Lee’s former business partners/friends, until I stumbled upon the negative review by the notoriously dry New York Times critic Vincent Canby, from April 1990. That month, the film, which wrapped in 1987, hit New York City’s Criterion Center theater, having only played once a year earlier, at Chicago’s Blacklight Film Festival. Canby argued that the movie could have been a scathing satire of racism in the political arena, but failed due to incompetent writing and direction, not to mention a lack of timeliness–the film involves, among other storylines, the candidacy of what would be New York City’s first black mayor, but David N. Dinkins had achieved that milestone the same year. (According to co-writer/co-producer Julia Wilson, several people didn’t believe that the movie wrapped long before Dinkins was in the public eye).

Curtis Brown, the film’s star/director/co-writer/co-producer, and Wilson, his then-wife, brought in “The Game” for a mere $960,000. The funds mostly stemmed from Wilson’s bike messenger/courier service, though a key contribution came, when the well ran dry at the zero hour, from a cast member’s very philanthropic wife (accountant Susan Howard).  After years of pitching the film to large studios, Wilson and Brown landed a deal with Aquarius Releasing, whom the two had to pay out of pocket to screen “The Game” at Criterion.

Canby’s heavy influence on film-goers could single-handedly destroy any small, no-name movie he chose to dismiss, and other nasty reviews (most notably from Newsday, which granted it zero stars) didn’t help “The Game’s” chances. Yet the movie stayed at Criterion for seven straight weeks; lines often formed around the block. By the end of its run, “The Game” was showing on both the theater’s screens, knocking the Sylvester Stallone-Kurt Russell buddy action comedy “Tango & Cash” to the curb.

Unfortunately, the film, despite promises from the distributor, never received a nationwide run, nor was it ever released on VHS. I’d never have found it if I hadn’t come across a random web site listing Wilson’s various achievements. (No other film she has worked on has ever come to fruition, though she wrote an off-Broadway play called “The Devil’s Departure,” which ran in the mid-1990s, and is close to finalizing a screenplay). Through that site, I accessed Wilson’s Facebook page and learned that she long ago divorced from Brown (though the two are now amicable), eventually moved back to her native Panama City after decades in New York and, coincidentally, had just arranged for a local screening of “The Game.” (It will play tonight and Saturday at 3, 5 and 7 PM, at the University of Panama’s Estudio Multiuso GECU auditorium; Wilson will be in attendance at today’s 5 PM showing). By sheer luck, one of her relatives works in Midtown New York and I was able to pick up a rather raw DVD copy of the film.

Given when it was shot, the film has what Wilson called–via a Facebook e-mail–some “prophetic” concepts, beyond the part about the black mayor. There are scenes exploring “police issues with African Americans…and the issue of the propagation of drugs” into different urban communities, she noted in the e-mail. And Brown and Wilson certainly had noble intentions in wanting to make a film “where you’d see a mixture of people both good and bad, in whatever color they came,” said Wilson during a phone interview last month from her home in Panama. “The world is not black or white or this or that. We didn’t want to make a movie with just black people. I like movies with all walks of life in them.”

So the film, while it has a few blatant stock figures, such as the classic good cop/bad cop duo–in this case, an outlandishly bigoted police officer, who wants to “send the monkeys back to Africa,” and his deeply religious, squeaky-clean partner–nonetheless has a rather complex central figure. Leon Hunter (Brown) is a sly African-American ad exec on the rise. He shows little to no emotion and will stop at nothing to get a promotion–even when he’s cajoled into backing a not-so-subtly racist mayoral candidate. He resorts to kidnapping, bribery, and corpse-stealing (long story) to get his man into office, and inexplicably shows disdain towards a serious, well-intentioned black candidate. But right before the prejudiced guy wins, Leon makes a secret tape of him cavorting with an exotic dancer (hired by Leon). He also knows the man is a closeted homosexual (another theme that Wilson said she felt was prophetic). The film is at its best when focusing on Leon’s trickery, sort of a “House of Cards” episode way ahead of its time (there are even, as in “House of Cards,” chess metaphors, as Leon the expert chess player manipulates the system to get his way; this is the main reason the film’s title was changed, per Wilson’s suggestion, from “Scapegoat” to “The Game.”)

But the film seems to end prematurely. You think Leon is going to release the sex tape, ruin the racist guy and bring in the nice guy. But…he doesn’t. What exactly is the message here? Did Brown and Wilson purposefully end the film in a cynical, unhappy fashion, or is it rather implied (from the upbeat funk song over the closing credits hailing Leon as a “bad motherfucker”) that Leon did ruin the mayor off-camera?

The answer to the first question is yes, sort of, and the answer to the second is that the outcome of the sex tape scandal was supposed to be shown on camera–in the film’s eventual sequel, which never developed.

Julia Wilson
Julia Wilson

“We had planned that if ‘The Game’ did well, we’d do a sequel,” Wilson explained. “We sensed that he made the tape so he could maybe use it one day, against the mayor. We would start the sequel with him saying that. And now he’s a partner at the advertising agency, and the black mayoral candidate is pushing for president. And Leon [arranges it so] that the racist mayor doesn’t win the presidential election, the black candidate does.”

“It was never meant to have a typical Hollywood ending,” she continued. “You don’t really want to promote unethical behavior as something to be pursued to get where you want to go. Leon once worked for the Black Panthers. His ambitions are a mixture of him getting some sort of glory for bringing down an establishment in a way that he thought was the way to do it. But he’s really no better than the people he’s purporting to be greater than.”

Canby’s review is awfully harsh. But the bad reviews didn’t plague Wilson and Brown. In fact, when I asked her about her reaction, she supplied one of the healthiest responses I’ve ever heard.

“I said, ‘Oh wait until they see ‘Game 2.’ We had a good review from Variety. And I think Canby said that Curtis was a good actor but everyone else had egg on their face. And so a lot of people wanted to see Curtis acting. And they wanted to see what the egg on the face was!”

There are several flaws in “The Game,” but most of them can be blamed on the minuscule budget or the aforementioned lack of explanation for certain plot points, given that a sequel was in the works. The music (most of it composed by Wilson) is tinny and Muzaq-esque, sometimes painfully incongruous given the scathing and controversial tone. Two flashback scenes resort to the same trite gimmick, in which the final line spoken in the flashback is echoed repeatedly (a la “There’s no place like home” in “The Wizard of Oz.”) All of the crowd scenes–including one in a courtroom and one at an outdoor press conference– are notably underpopulated.

But some of the themes are intriguing, and the performances are on the most part good, particularly from Brown and Charles Timm, as the racist cop, though Wilson remembered Timm was “the nicest man in the world. I said, ‘How can you play this role?’ He said, ‘I don’t know, but I kind of want to play the badguy.’ I said, ‘I’m gonna have you play the nice cop with the bible.’ He said, ‘No, I’m not playing no one with no bible.'”

Timm was cast due to his physical resemblance to a real-life bigoted cop that Wilson and Brown encountered after a fight broke out in a movie theater.

“We sat in a section of the theater that was non-smoking, and these three guys right behind us started smoking,” Wilson remembered. “Curtis asked them to stop, and the guy jumped up and punched him. They’re fighting in the theater and they turn on the lights. Someone called the police and this police officer showed up and hit me in the back, so hard, with a nightstick, and called me a nigger bitch. I said, ‘Why are you doing this? We weren’t the ones smoking.’ And he said, ‘Shut up before I slap you, and slap some handcuffs on you, and get out!’ And we were all kicked out and as I was leaving he kicked me in the behind.”

This horrible incident is mirrored to some extent in the film, the rest of which is not at all autobiographical. But if Brown and Wilson ever team up again, they could–if they wished–make a whole movie based on another quite unfortunate experience, albeit not a violent one: the duo’s bitter falling out with their old pal, Spike Lee.

“We had a relationship,” said Wilson. “His mother and I used to bake carrot cake. Curtis did a lot of commercial photography and taught David, Spike’s brother, a lot about photography. Spike was going to do ‘The Messenger’ [in 1984], before ‘She’s Gotta Have It.’ He had done ‘Joe’s Bed-Stuy Barbershop: We Cut Heads’ [in 1983], which he put Curtis in. He wanted us to invest in ‘The Messenger,’ so I put in some money, Curtis put in some money, and he was supposed to be selling some land in Georgia. And he told us that the money that we invested would be returned. He made some agreement with Curtis, which Curtis signed, for Curtis to pay all the people on the project. He couldn’t sell the property, I don’t remember why, and he was expecting us to come up with the rest of the money, but we only came up with our initial [agreed-upon] portion. So Curtis paid some people, but couldn’t pay some other people, and Spike used that as grounds not to give us back our investment when he made ‘She’s Gotta Have It.’ He never paid.”

According to news reports, Brown sued Lee in June 1991, arguing that Lee had promised to give him 25% of the profits on his first picture (which turned out to be “She’s Gotta Have It.”) Lee countered that Brown had not fulfilled his agreement to pay outstanding debt of $12,700 when Lee and Brown’s corporation, Fresh Films, dissolved in 1984. The case was dismissed in December 1991, according to a February 1992 Entertainment Law Reporter column.

Wilson is still stung by her final in-person encounter with Lee. “When I met him again, when I was doing ‘The Game,’ I said, ‘Do you remember when I came up with money for you and you were so happy, and you said I came through like a champ? I did it because we knew each other, I knew your mother, and she would not like what you did to Curtis.’ And he said ‘Leave my mother out of it.’ It didn’t end good.”

But the sour affair didn’t dissuade Brown and Wilson from making their own film. “Once you get bitten by the film production bug, you’re bit for life,” said Wilson.

It was not the original plan, however, for Brown to play the lead or even act in the film.

“We wanted Clarence Williams III,” said Wilson. “And his manager said he wanted a hefty amount that we couldn’t pay. So it was my idea, since Curtis did have a little bit of acting [experience], to have him play Leon Hunter. I said, ‘You have a face that is believable for this role.’ He said, ‘Yeah, let’s face it, I’m not the most attractive guy, so that’ll be perfect.'”

Shooting began at a rented studio space on Manhattan’s West Side pier. “It was a place right next to the teamsters union,” she said. “We had a [mostly] non-union crew but two of the guys were from the union. And one day they said, ‘You gotta pay us.’ And I said, ‘I don’t have the money. What if I bring you guys coffee?’ And they said OK.”

Money was so scarce, in fact, that the filmmakers couldn’t afford to process their footage until the final stages of shooting, hence it was impossible to watch dailies. Wilson had to cut her staff of 16 bike messengers to eight. When Brown ran out of film while taping the courtroom scene, Susan Howard, the aforementioned accountant, immediately came up with $450,000. Another disastrous ordeal that ended miraculously well involved a stolen equipment van, which derailed a scheduled shoot on the Brooklyn Bridge; the van was later found parked on a random street in the Bronx. (Years later, Wilson still believes the rumor she was told by a crew member that Spike Lee arranged the theft, but has never been able to prove this).

Once released, the film went on to gross, according to Wilson, about $500,000, but due to the terms of the agreement with the distributor, her and Brown only received about $30,000.

Discouraged but never quitting, Brown and Wilson collaborated again, in the early 1990s, on a drama about a dancer and her daughter, entitled “I, Rhythm.” It was never shot, though the script was shopped to a few people. The British Film Institute even has a listing for it, indicating that Avery Brooks, Valarie Pettiford and Brown himself were slated to star in it. According to Wilson, a financier from England and his Las Vegas-based partner stole the idea for “I, Rhythm” and tried to make the film themselves, to no avail, which explains the BFI listing.

Wilson and Brown divorced in 1993, shortly after “I, Rhythm” fell apart.

“It took awhile for the wounds to heal, but then we realized that we have kids and it’s not good for them to see this conflict come up all the time,” said Wilson. “And we decided to bury it. I considered myself the so-called injured party, but after you really dissect everything, you realize you made choices that contributed one way or another to you getting hurt. You can’t blame just one person. And also, when you’re just a victim, you lose control.”

Wilson relocated to Panama in 2005, eight years after the death of her mother, who had always urged her to come back. She converted to Judaism the same year and is still a “Messianic believer. I believe in Jesus and I believe that he is who he claims to be. I believe in the relationship that the Hebrews have with the almighty God. Those who are grafted in are expected to keep the laws, so I keep Passover, I keep Shabbat.”

As much as she loves her home country, Wilson’s greatest desire is to settle in Israel. “I have never been treated more decently by any people than the Hebrew people,” she said. “There’s just a synergy that happens, something good always happens.”

The script Wilson is currently drafting, called “Battle of the Firstborn,” is largely inspired by her religion.

“I don’t have an ending yet, but it’s 99.9% finished,” she said. “It’s about the other side of Moses, from the point of view of the firstborn. It’s a historical fact within the Jewish community that the firstborn did rise up against Pharaoh when they found out that if he didn’t let the Hebrew people go, they’d be the ones that died. Not only that, but they had children that were first-born. And Pharaoh didn’t even care about the life of his first-born. At the end, there’s a big battle between Pharaoh’s soldiers and the firstborns of Egypt.”

As for the new screening of “The Game,” it was Wilson’s daughter that convinced Wilson to reexamine the movie. “She said there are many things in there that people would get now and that we should take it back out there,” said Wilson. “My friend took it to someone she knows here, who is teaching an experimental film class. The students will look at it from a different point of view than Americans will. They know about the corruption in politics. And they like that it was done by someone who was born in Panama. They have a theater with a big screen and it seats 160, and we wanted to show it there. It looks so beautiful, it sounds immaculate. [EDITOR’S NOTE: this screening occurred earlier in June.] And then another gentleman wanted to show it in his theater, on June 26 and June 27.”

One key difference between “The Game” of today and the original version: a rather explicit sex sequence, in which the camera repeatedly zooms in on a chair leg rising and dipping, has been cut.

“I wanted that out,” Wilson groaned. “I hated it all the way through. It was too long. I said, ‘Why do we have to do this? What is this, a porno movie?!’ And Curtis said, ‘Sex sells.’ Even the crew guys said, ‘Let’s keep that in there!’”

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