Articles: Denver Filmmaker Captures Legendary Actor Oscar Brown Jr.




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Laurence Washington

Oscar Brown Jr.

Denver-based film director donnie l. betts was sitting next to legendary actor…no that’s not quite fair…make that legendary actor/composer and political activist Oscar Brown Jr. at the LA Pan African Film Festival. Betts’ bio-pic "Music is My Life…Politics my Mistress," a tribute to the life and times of Oscar Brown Jr., the festival’s opening night film, had just played before a packed house.

donnie l. betts

Brown turned to betts as the credits rolled, smiled and paid the highest tribute film subject can pay to a director.

"You captured me," Brown said.

Betts explained Brown had seen clips of his film with his favorite critic, Brown’s granddaughter Kayla, but the festival was the first time Brown had seen the entire film.

Betts says he couldn’t help but be flattered, because he had always been interested in Brown’s music, his work and his activism work.

A month later Brown was dead. The actor/musician died of complications from a blood infection.

So what were betts’ thoughts? Was there satisfaction in having made such a definitive biography?

"Obviously a great sadness and I felt very honored that he and his family allowed me to be in the room as he drew his last breath and also to let my camera roll," betts says. "I knew that Oscar was ready to go because he said it. He lived such a wonderful, creative life, and he left such a wealth of material and happiness."

Betts interest in Brown started when he was working on the radio series "Destination Freedom" several years ago. Oscar had been part of the original series in the late 40s as a teenage actor. It was there that betts’ interest peaked. Betts says he also thought that Brown was one of those overlooked artists that he personally wanted to know more about.

"I thought the public at large would like to find out more about [Oscar]. I had not been planning on making a film about Oscar. I was actually working on another project."

Critics have described betts’ "Music is My Life…Politics my Mistress," as simply stunning, a brilliant gorgeous documentary. The film took a total of six years to complete. The difficult hurtle was raising funds and conducting the critical research always needed to create a documentary – a duet of all too familiar tasks for independent filmmakers, betts says. Raising money is never easy, but can be especially difficult for risk takers like Betts. And it becomes even harder when making a film about a political activist.

"Politics has been a big hit with filmgoers and surprisingly it was not a hit with the so-called liberal funders," betts says. He ended up financing ninety percent of the film himself.

Betts sent a rough-cut to filmmaker John Sayles just before the first public screening of the feature length documentary at the LA Pan African Film Festival.

"I was very impressed with the comments that he had, so I made those changes before the LA Pan African Film Festival. Then I made a few tweaks that Oscar suggested for the Maryland Film Festival." Betts says the next change he makes will be for a broadcast version.

Betts included many live performances of Brown in the film because he felt the only way for an audience to really experience Oscar Brown was to experience him live.

"He was one of the most phenomenal performers, storytellers, and comedian, poets that I have ever seen or known," betts says. "I shot all of the modern day performances and I was lucky to find the many historical clips I used in the film. The fact that he was one of the first blacks to host two popular TV shows helped."

Currently betts is working on a documentary about voting around the world that focuses on the young population, another documentary on a musical group from Amsterdam, a feature on the dark side of the civil rights movement, and a three-part series on American cities that deals with race relations.

Meanwhile betts plans to release "Music is My Life…Politics my Mistress," as a DVD with a soundtrack of additional material sometime in the coming months. Right now he’s working on a broadcast release and continues to enjoy the film festival circuit.

"Oscar once said, ‘One life is all I owe the truth,’" betts says. "That’s the way he lived. I don’t know if I made the definitive biography, but I am pleased that so many others were pleased with the work."

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