After years of struggle, Chicago indie-filmmaker Mark Harris finally broke onto the national movie scene last week with the release of his latest flick, “Black Coffee.”
It’s not Harris’ first feature film — you can get “Black Butterfly” on NetFlix, and he’s produced a dozen that went straight to DVD — but "Black Coffee" is his first release in out-of-town theaters.
“It’s a limited theatrical release in Baltimore, Washington, D.C., Atlanta and Chicago,” Harris said. “So far, D.C. is the top city supporting the film, even beating out my hometown of Chicago.”
In fact, "Black Coffee" — released exclusively in AMC theaters — didn’t get booked in a single theater within Chicago’s city limits. If you want to see it, you’ll have to drive to south suburban Country Club Hills or Crestwood.
It would be nice to have his newest film on Chicago screens, but Harris, an Englewood native who now lives in Hyde Park, isn’t complaining.
“The budget for this film was nothing. Initially it was supposed to be a direct-to-video movie, but after [the distributor] saw the film they wanted to take it to theaters,” Harris said. “I don’t have any idea why it wasn’t shown in Chicago, at AMC River East, but I know people would have went. It’s doing extremely well for us.”
It has some pretty funny moments, including a scene where the main character explains why he’s not a serial killer this way: “Because I’m black.”
But Harris says "Black Coffee" is more than just an urban romantic comedy.
He hopes the story of Robert — a house painter who overcomes the loss of his job and his girlfriend on the same day to find new love and work in the coffee business — inspires underemployed folks in the audience to chase their own dreams.
Some critics panned the movie for having an over-the-top message without enough character-driven drama.
Harris isn’t worried about that.
“Making a film like 'Black Coffee' was about showing people that even in tough economic times you can stop looking at your job as your identity and look within yourself to find hope through entrepreneurship, whether it's opening a café or working online,” Harris said. “I hope that people watch the movie and leave asking themselves what is my purpose in life and then go out and pursue it.”
After all, that’s what Harris, a Tilden High School graduate, has done his entire career.
He taught himself how to make movies, figured out how to sell them and has dedicated his professional career to encouraging other aspiring Chicago filmmakers to do the same.
“As a filmmaker, I could go off and write something that’s not about what’s happening in our society just to make more money,” he said. “But I want to use my talent to help touch people in some kind of way.”
Each year has been better than the last. In 2013, "each screening was in a theater with 300 seats, and we were at 80 percent capacity,” Harris said. “It was our best year, triple what we’ve done in the past.”
Harris says he’s already looking ahead to his next film, “I Used To Love Her,” which will be released on DVD on Jan. 21 — and projects in development.
“I’m having fun doing what I’m doing. This is my passion,” he said. “Sure, I wish it was easier to get money to make films, but either way I’m going to continue to make films that inspire people and make us think. I wouldn’t change that for anything.”