By Cara Jepsen
Mark Harris admits he procrastinates. The Englewood native put off registering at Harper High School until the last minute, and by the time he got around to it, classes were full. He had to commute to Tilden in Canaryville.
His speed as a running back and receiver won him a football scholarship to the University of Wisconsin in River Falls, where he studied theater. Harris had wanted to be an actor since he was little, but in college he began to toy with the idea of making films. "I didn't see too many positive black role models in Hollywood," he says. "And there are a lot of black actors who are out there fighting for the same parts. I can't wait for nobody else to give me a part in a movie--you have to create your own movie and give yourself a part."
River Falls didn't have a film department, but by the spring of 1992 Harris was thinking about leaving anyway. He had stopped playing football after his sophomore year "to focus more on school," and his scholarship was canceled. By the time he finished the first semester of his junior year, he'd run out of money. He returned to Chicago, his family, his seven-year-old son, and the child's mother, with whom he had an on-again, off-again relationship.
He got a job as a bank teller and enrolled in a screenwriting course at Columbia College, but he took his time getting his financial aid papers together. Three weeks into the semester, he learned that the aid didn't come through because he still owed tuition money to Wisconsin. That was when he realized that if he really wanted to become a filmmaker, the first thing he had to do was stop procrastinating.
"It's a serious disease," he says. "It was a wake-up call; it was my fault. I couldn't blame nobody else. There were certain things in my life that had to happen for me to be able to go out and be a filmmaker....A lot of people told me that I'd need to be more professional and more organized if I wanted to be in the film business."
He rid himself of the habit by starting with little things, such as going in early to work and filling his time sheet out before it was due. "If I was going to write something--a poem or a play--I would test myself. I would say I wanted to get it done by a certain time, and I would do it and get it done by that time. I would always test myself on smaller things, to get ready for bigger things to come."
Inspired by Kevin Smith and Spike Lee, he decided to bag school and teach himself how to make films. "Kevin Smith had to pave the way for himself," Harris says. "He never would have gotten funded to do Clerks; he had to go out and do it by himself. And that allowed him to do other movies."
But Harris had to put his plans on hold after he and his girlfriend had a second son in 1994. "I had to focus more on bringing in money," he says. He continued to read up on and study the industry, and in 1997 he finished the first of many scripts.
In April, Harris was leafing through a guide put out by the Chicago Film Office when he noticed an entry for a fellow south-sider, cinematographer Don Winter, and called him up. When they met, Harris showed Winter his screenplay "about classism in the black community," a sort of Romeo and Juliet story about a wealthy man from Los Angeles who falls in love with a woman in Englewood.
"Classism is one thing we don't talk about in the black community," says Harris. "We are always trying to point the finger at white people for our downfall, and blame them for the condition that we're in. But we can't blame them. It's not like you see Michael Jackson dining in Englewood, or Oprah Winfrey shopping in a shoe store here. White people see them in their neighborhoods. People in Englewood don't see them."
"It was pretty ambitious," says Winter of the script. "I kind of told him to take baby steps first."
"He said I should do a short version of it or make a trailer to send to different studios, and they might fund me for it," says Harris.
He contacted various arts organizations about applying for grants but found the process disheartening. "Many people look at it as I have no film background," he says. "They were telling me I had to have at least one project under my belt. Also I'm self-taught and self-educated, so people are hesitant about giving me a budget to work on. I don't blame them."
He decided to make a documentary, on video, about another subject close to home--the adoption of African-American children. The year before, with all four of her children grown-up and on their own, his widowed mother had adopted two children, now five and six.
The agency his mother had dealt with put him in touch with the Adoption Center of Illinois, where he did the bulk of his research. Harris discovered that of 4,233 adoptions in Chicago in 1998, 3,272 of them were of African-American children. But, he says, "there are so many children in the adoption system, and so few who are adopted. A lot of people don't want to take the responsibility for other people's children."
Winter, who shot the video, cut his fee in half for the project. At the start of the one-day shoot last May, Harris showed up at six in the morning for his first interview, and this time it was his subjects who weren't ready. "That's the only reason I had to change the schedule," he says.
He finished editing Roses Without Thorns in September. It features interviews with his mother and other adoptive families and addresses the realities of caring for babies born addicted to crack, as well as concerns about interracial adoption and adoption by homosexual couples. He's shown it at several African-American churches on the south side and so far has sold over a hundred copies. (They're available on-line at www.dibit.com/chicagowireless.) "The proceeds are going to be used on the next documentary I'm working on," he says. "Some of it is also going to an education fund for the children who were in the last one."
In October, Harris quit his job and moved back into his mother's house to work full-time on the new project, a three-part documentary about women who were sexually abused as children. "Two of the women that I've had in my life, that I love and respect and have had relationships with, had been sexually abused," he says. "I know how that has affected my relationship with them. A lot of them don't want a man to really touch them. They feel funny. But they confided in me why they felt that way."
Last fall he accompanied cable TV talk show host Munir Muhammad, on whose Channel 19 program Harris has appeared, on his weekly trip to visit female prisoners at Cook County Jail. "When I told them about this project, they started breaking down and crying," Harris says. "I asked how many had been sexually abused, and half of them raised their hands. They started telling me how they were raped by their fathers, brothers, uncles, their brother's friend, when they were three and five years old. I got emotional too."
He plans to interview women from all walks of life, and is still looking for subjects. Winter, who has taken Harris under his wing and occasionally brings him along on commercial shoots, will again be the cinematographer. "I think he has a lot to give," says Winter. "It seems like he really wants to make not just a name for himself, but to make a difference in his life and for other people."
Harris is living off his savings, but he's still paying child support for his sons, now 11 and 5. "Instead of buying the kids what they want, I get them what they need." If he does eventually make it big, he says he won't go Hollywood, although he would like to have a summer place in Phoenix, where he's never been. "I plan to keep living in my neighborhood," he says. "If I'm successful--this is not a throw-off on black people or white people who do this--but if I'm a successful filmmaker and I move out of my neighborhood, the cycle repeats itself. Kids don't have anyone to look up to. That's not the route I want to take."
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Yvette Marie Dostatni.