“I call it black history with a smile,” said the author and filmmaker Nelson George recently over beverages at a muffin shop in Fort Greene. “Everyone who came here found their artistic voice and became a success.”
Mr. George means “here” literally. Fort Greene, the Brooklyn neighborhood he has called home for nearly 26 years, is the subject of his latest project, a two-hour documentary called “Brooklyn Boheme.” The film, which was co-directed by Diane Paragas and funded in part via donations through the entrepreneurial web site Kickstarter, is currently in the post-production phase. It explores a brief window in the neighborhood’s history, from the mid-1980s through recent years, during which time it hosted a remarkable assemblage of African-American and Hispanic actors, writers, filmmakers, poets and musicians as they transformed from aspiring artists into stars.
For Mr. George—who, if prompted, will rattle off the various addresses he’s lived in the neighborhood—the film represents a swan song of sorts. When he’s finished making “Brooklyn Boheme,” he will leave Fort Greene, which he says is no longer the neighborhood he came to love in the 1980s. “I think all of us benefited from our time in the community,” he said. “It was a place where ambitious young people found themselves and laughed a lot.”
Generally speaking, the 1980s and ’90s were a fertile period for African-American cultural development throughout the city, from the birth of hip-hop in the Bronx to the Young Lions jazz movement in Manhattan and the filmmaking of Spike Lee and Matty Rich in Brooklyn. But Fort Greene, said the writer and musician Greg Tate, stood apart for the remarkable number of African-American artists—such as Wesley Snipes, Branford Marsalis, Chris Rock, Erykah Badu, Mos Def and Common—who emerged as stars while living there during those two decades. “I don’t think so much fresh, energetic, innovative black American talent has been so concentrated in one part of the city since,” he said.
Mr. George, 53 years old, said his new film grew out of his 2009 memoir “City Kid: A Writer’s Memoir of Ghetto Life and Post-Soul Success” (Viking), which explored the connections between his childhood in Brownsville and East New York and his career as renowned author and filmmaker. “After writing the book, I felt I should document that era,” he said. “I didn’t want it to be scholarly, just people who lived here talking about it what it was like.”
Mr. George arrived in Fort Greene in 1985 as a young writer. “I just happened to move around the corner from Spike [Lee],” he said. “I went with him to Knicks games back when he had really bad tickets.” He helped the burgeoning director finance his first film, “She’s Gotta Have It.”
Within a few years, Mr. George found himself surrounded by cutting-edge African-American artists and performers. He soon became an editor at Billboard magazine and a columnist for the Village Voice. In the years since, he has published 15 books and a number of screenplays, and directed several films. He cited Fort Greene’s proximity to Manhattan as well as its superior architecture and, in the 1980s, affordable prices—the result of a once-affluent, culturally rich area having fallen on hard times in the 1970s—for the rapid evolution of the community. “[Author] Carl Hancock Rux moved into a duplex apartment for $350 and his landlord asked him if he could recommend the other vacant units to his friends,” Mr. George said. “You could buy a house for a hundred thousand.”
Roger Guenveur Smith, an actor and author who has appeared in several of Mr. Lee’s films, moved to the neighborhood in the 1990s from Los Angeles. “I reveled in Fort Greene’s histories and its possibilities,” he said. “My daughter was baptized there, on the corner of Lafayette and Vanderbilt.”
Mr. George cited his friendship and collaborations with Mr. Lee, who lived and worked in Fort Greene for more than two decades, for his own interest in filmmaking, but he also credited the bustling artistic activity in the neighborhood. “It kept you motivated,” he said. “Everyone was always busy with interesting projects.”
His own impending move is motivated primarily by the opening of the Barclay’s Center, which will house the soon-to-be Brooklyn Nets of the NBA. Citing the population density and traffic that it will bring, he said, “the DNA of the area will change profoundly; it will be the end of this era of the neighborhood.”
But, he added, “I won’t leave before I finish the movie; that would just be wrong.”