Reginald Hudlin has the perfect answer to East St. Louis' woes: Just secede from the union. The East St. Louis native, who made a name as the director of, among other films, House Party and The Ladies Man, has teamed with Aaron McGruder, the creator of the Boondocks comic strip, and illustrator Kyle Baker to pen Birth of a Nation, a comic novel set on the east side.
Birth of a Nation, which will be released next week, is a satirical look at the 2000 presidential election debacle in Florida -- but with a twist. In reality the Bush-Gore tie was settled by the U.S. Supreme Court. In the book the authors transplant the bitter controversy to East St. Louis, where the fictitious mayor, Fred Fredericks, attempts to vote, only to be erroneously disenfranchised along with a couple thousand other residents. The victory goes to Caldwell, a ditzy Republican governor from Texas.
This is how East St. Louis is aptly described in the book: "East St. Louis: population 35,000, is one of the most destitute towns in the United States," says President Caldwell's aide, who bears a striking resemblance to Condoleeza Rice (Colin Powell and Dick Cheney are also accurately spoofed). The aide continues, "In Illinois [East St. Louis] ranks first in fetal death, first in premature birth, third in infant death." To which the president, a Dubya look-alike, responds, "Jesus, what a shithole!"
"The idea behind Birth of a Nation," writes Hudlin in his introduction, came after a brainstorming session with McGruder. "We were trying to come up with a movie idea that was funny and easy to sell. I suggested the idea of East St. Louis seceding and forming its own country." The result is raucous satire, replete with drawings of fighter planes threading the Arch and bombing downtown East St. Louis.
Hudlin, from his LA home, explains that sometimes drastic measures are necessary. "You get older and you start understanding economic policy and why there are no jobs anymore in the U.S., let alone East St. Louis. I started thinking, well, how could you make systemic change?"
Hudlin and McGruder's solution was simple: After Mayor Fredericks fails to get his and his constituents' votes counted, he decides to form his own country and rename it Blackland. He enlists the help of a wealthy African-American businessman from St. Louis named John Roberts, who finances the secession. Roberts pushes the mayor toward the drastic action.
"It won't work," worries Fredericks, "not in a million years. It's so incredibly insane."
"That's what they said when I started my network," responds Roberts. "That's what they said when I started my airline."
In fact, the Roberts of Birth of a Nation bears a strong resemblance to real-life St. Louis millionaires Mike and Steve Roberts.
Mike Roberts laughs when informed of the character in the book. "Are you kidding me?" he asks. "This is fascinating. I'm intrigued by this. To choose our name and to link it so closely is quite interesting. We have a network, and we have our own charter planes. And people did think we were crazy for trying those things."
Hudlin says that the character is a composite of people he's met but that the naming was unintentional. "To tell you the truth, that is in fact a complete coincidence," he says. "But I guess you could say, yes, he is the best version of that character."
Mike Roberts says he'll forego judgment on the character until after he reads the book but acknowledges that he and Hudlin are acquainted. "Yes, I know him well enough to make that leap," he responds when asked whether the character could be based on him. "Has he ever said anything to me about this? No. But, I have his e-mail address; we drop each other e-mails, and we have visited him in LA."
Adds Roberts: "Even though he probably wasn't thinking about me, I still want my royalties."
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