Reinaldo Marcus Green had a surefire method for motivating students while teaching at his alma mater, NYU’s Tisch School of the Arts. “I’d start with: ‘I bet you no one in this class owes more money than I did. I owed $330,000. Raise your hand if you’re above that, because if you’re not, your struggle is not [so bad],’ ” he recalls. “I think I could be a good motivational speaker.”
Green’s journey from student in debt to director of awards season heavyweights is as motivational as it gets, considering that he came to filmmaking later in life. Along the way, he was an aspiring baseball player and an elementary school teacher, then did a stint on Wall Street. He finally enrolled in film school at the age of 27.
“It was a huge leap of faith. I didn’t grow up with a lot of money or material things, and when you grow up in that type of environment, risk is viewed very differently,” explains Green, who made just two independent features before his studio debut with “King Richard,” about Venus and Serena Williams’ father and coach. “All I would say to a student is: Follow your heart. Follow the thing that you feel [in order] to not have any regrets in your life.”
“[‘We Own This City’] is a deeper dive into issues that my own community faces, in a way that adds value to the conversation. If it didn’t, I don’t think there’s a reason for it to exist.”
Green is following up the Oscar-winning “King Richard” with this spring’s highly anticipated HBO drama “We Own This City,” which he’s both directing and executive producing.
“I felt like I could lend a hand in telling the story,” he says of the project, which comes from “The Wire” creator David Simon, plus George Pelecanos. The show focuses on corruption within the Baltimore Police Department. The six-episode series is an expansion on themes Green touched upon in his first film, “Monsters and Men,” which was inspired by the police killing of Eric Garner.
Ian Duff and Wunmi Mosaku on “We Own This City” CRED Paul Schiraldi/HBO
“I know what it’s like to walk down the street and be patted down. It doesn’t matter how many master’s degrees I have; at night with a hood on, I’m just a Black and Latino man,” Green says. “[‘We Own This City’] is a deeper dive into issues that my own community faces, in a way that adds value to the conversation. If it didn’t, I don’t think there’s a reason for it to exist.”
No matter which story he’s telling, Green sees immense value in finishing what he starts. It’s a lesson he picked up during his film school days. “When I left Tisch, I had seven finished short films,” he says. “I learned that from my brother. Even if it was a four-minute film, he would put credits and music on it and submit it to a festival.”
In fact, two of Green’s short films, “Stone Cars” and “Stop,” played at Cannes and Sundance, respectively. However, he insists that getting your work into festivals isn’t a guaranteed gateway to success. “Those first two years out of film school were a real struggle for me,” he admits. “Your body wants to give out, and your brain has to be stronger than your body to get through those pretty dark times. You just have to tell yourself to keep going.”
Failing, Green adds, is part of the journey—in fact, it’s crucial. And he’s grateful to have had a place to do so. “Film school is where your ideas are supposed to be born. It’s not a place to be safe,” he concludes. “You really are paying to literally fail in the safest place possible.”
This story originally appeared in the Apr. 21 issue of Backstage Magazine.