Twenty five years ago was a pivotal year for Blacks in American cinema. There were more films written, produced and directed by people of African descent in 1991 than any year before.
Among those films were New Jack City, directed by Mario Van Peebles; The Five Heartbeats, directed by Robert Townsend; Bill Duke’s A Rage in Harlem; Julie Dash’s Daughters of the Dust and Jungle Fever, written, produced and directed by Spike Lee. Other movies produced that year include Straight Out of Brooklyn, Livin’ Large, Ricochet, House Party 2, Strictly Business, The Josephine Baker Story, and Talking Dirty After Dark.
But the most celebrated of those films was Boyz n the Hood, which made $55 million dollars and earned John Singleton, a 24-year old USC-trained director, an Oscar nomination for best director. The film follows the lives of three young males living in the Crenshaw district of Los Angeles, dissecting questions of race, relationships, violence and future prospects. One of those actors was Morris Chestnut played Ricky Baker, one of those males. The role brought him fame and jumpstarted his acting career.
Born in Cerritos, California, Chestnut studied finance and drama at California State University, Northridge after graduating from high school. He currently stars in the Fox TV series, Rosewood where he plays the title role as a private high-level pathologist named Dr. Beaumont Rosewood Jr., who works in Miami, Florida. The series premiered on Fox on September 23, 2015, blending comedy and drama.
Chestnut will be appearing in Denver on Saturday, May 7 as the special guest celebrity host for the Denver Derby at Arapahoe Park in Aurora.
It’s been 25 years since Boyz n the Hood was released and the dramatic scene where Ricky Baker gets gunned down is as heart wrenching today as it was when first viewed on the big screen. Chestnut, who played the promising high school football star, said “Not a day goes by when I’m walking down the street that someone doesn’t yell out ‘Ricky’!” remembering the moment before his character is fatally shot in the film. “People still feel for that movie; it still resonates today,” he said.
Chestnut said the movie started a whirlwind that literally changed his life. Since that time, he’s worked in both film and television; but today he’s being talked about because of his television work.
The start of this year has been promising for Chestnut with the renewal of a second season of Rosewood. His character, which is witty, vulnerable, confident, and fun, appeared shirtless in many scenes. Chestnut explained why he requested less shirtless scenes in the next season. “I want the viewers to become invested in the characters and the show – not seeing me or my co-star Jaina Lee Ortiz naked.”
The divorce rate in America has been estimated at 40 percent, but if surveys were to only concentrate on show business duos, it would surely be closer to 100. The central problem is that members of show business couples are competing in the same field, and their power balance keeps shifting as their careers wildly ebb and flow. But when celebrities date the normal folk, things sometimes end up better.
Such is the case for Chestnut, who has been married since 1996 to Pam Byse-Chestnut with two children and says the major key to success is love and also stability. “It’s possible for any couple to achieve longevity. It all comes down to communication and understanding,” he said. “We’ve been fortunate and blessed enough to grow together. You can either grow apart or grow together and we’ve been fortunate to grow together. I’m in Hollywood, but Hollywood is not my life,” Chestnut said, explaining that separating work and home is key to a long-lasting marriage.
In the wake of the recent very controversial 2016 Oscars, Morris says he has faced challenges in Hollywood as a Black actor. He admitted to being uncomfortable by some of Chris Rock’s racial jokes as he hosted the Academy Awards. However, after more than 20 years in the business, and having his share of doors closed in his face, he feels positive and talked about supporting Jada Pinkett Smith for starting an important conversation.
She was very outspoken about her husband Will Smith being snubbed for a Best Actor nomination and subsequently boycotted the Oscars by not attending – receiving negative opinions from the media and public. As a devoted husband, it’s no surprise Chestnut said, “If she did speak out because of her husband, good for her. And to be honest, I would want my wife to do the same thing. The end result is this open dialogue,” he said. “The Academy has come out openly on this since she has spoken out to say they will enact some kind of change. So I think it’s good, and it’s a very strong dialogue right now.”
Chestnut also feels a large part of the issue is with the studios. “The Oscars judge the finished products and the studios need to produce more content,” he said.
Chestnut, who has often played characters that portray a spiritual and/or religious character, says faith plays a big role in his life. He attributes his all-around grounded personality to his parents and says “They’ve always taught me to work hard and be humble. My parents influenced me the most.”
When asked what has been his most fulfilling film, Chestnut says the Best Man Movies and he is looking forward to eventually filming the three-quel, “The Best Man Wedding.”
Acting is at the forefront of Chestnut’s future plans with a movie coming out in the fall but he also has some producing projects in the works.
Editor’s note: Denver Urban Spectrum will sponsor the Derby 16 on May 7 at the Arapahoe Park in Aurora. For a chance to win VIP tickets and an exclusive “meet and greet” with Morris Chestnut, view the “Countdown to 30!” ad in this issue. For tickets and more information to Derby 16, visit www.cedricpridepresents.com.