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Filmmaker Antoine Fuqua on 'From MLK to Today'

  • Story Highlights
  • Director Antoine Fuqua is filmmaker behind CNN's "From MLK to Today"
  • Fuqua discusses life, experiences with racism and the hope Barack Obama brings
  • Fuqua, director of "Training Day," compares Obama with Denzel Washington
  • Fuqua's latest feature-length project, "Brooklyn's Finest," screened at Sundance fest
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By Denise Quan
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HOLLYWOOD, California (CNN) -- Director Antoine Fuqua, the force behind films such as "Training Day" and "Shooter," turned his focus to creating CNN's exclusive short film "From MLK to Today," which airs at 7 p.m. ET Monday.

Filmmaker Antoine Fuqua, 43, says he didn't believe he would see an African-American president in his lifetime.

Filmmaker Antoine Fuqua, 43, says he didn't believe he would see an African-American president in his lifetime.

Before flying off to the Sundance Film Festival to premiere his latest action-thriller, "Brooklyn's Finest," starring Richard Gere, Ethan Hawke and Don Cheadle, Fuqua, 43, stopped by the CNN newsroom in Hollywood to discuss the making of this film.

He outlined his vision for the piece, which chronicles America's civil rights journey from the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. to Barack Obama.

CNN: As a filmmaker, you work with people like Don Cheadle, Ethan Hawke and Denzel Washington. Why are you sitting here in our edit bay doing this project?

Antoine Fuqua: Because it's Martin Luther King, and because it's Barack Obama's story. And because it's CNN. It's important to be a part of history, and a part of inspiring people today. I think this is one of the biggest times in my life -- besides my children. So why wouldn't I be here? What else would I be doing except flying to Sundance to promote my movie! [Laughs] Video Watch a clip from "From MLK to Today" »

CNN: You were born in the '60s, so you were very young during the civil rights movement. You were barely out of diapers when Martin Luther King was assassinated.

Fuqua: I am familiar with the history because I love history. African-Americans -- I feel we cannot ever forget our past. Not in an angry or negative way -- just to know where we come from, so we get a better sense of where we're going, and how to get there, and what not to do. I don't think you can ever forget Martin Luther King and many other people who sacrificed, whose names we don't even know.

CNN: What do you remember from your childhood?

Fuqua: I remember being afraid at times. I remember the Black Panthers. When I was a little boy, the men that were around me were part of a movement. There was a lot of tension. There were a lot of weapons around. There was talk of FBI. I was a little kid, you know -- 6, 5 years old. I didn't really know what it meant. But there was a lot of fear -- a lot of fear of police, or of leaving your neighborhood.

CNN: Did you experience much racism growing up in Pittsburgh?

Fuqua: I remember a lot of racism. I mean, we used to get beat up by the police. We used to go to certain areas, and cops would slap you around, and grab you by your collar and treat you a certain way. I remember getting on a bus and drivers would treat us disrespectfully, assuming we were going to misbehave. And we were just going to school. I got into fights at school. ... No real reason, except for color of the skin. I don't think they even understood really.

CNN: Did you understand?

Fuqua: Not really. I didn't really understand it. I was used to it. I had an understanding of it at that age, which was I was black and they were white, and I was poor and they had money.

CNN: Did you think there were certain things you couldn't accomplish because you were black? What about being a director?

Fuqua: When I was a little kid, I used to sleep in my grandmother's basement, and I would read magazines, and books and things -- and I would dream of places I would go. I remember thinking, "Well, if it's just a matter of money to leave my neighborhood, then I have to make money."

Then I read something about craftsmanship -- which is not a word you used often in that time in the ghettos. If you learn a craft, then you can make a living for the rest of your life.

So I went to school to be an electrical engineer. And when I was in school, I took a Baroque art class. They were talking about Caravaggio, who was a Baroque painter. Now he was from the streets in Italy, and he used to paint these very provocative paintings of people he lived with on the streets -- beggars, and prostitutes and things.

It reminded me of my world -- in the sense of being a young kid on the streets, growing up, seeing a lot of provocative images that I was probably too young to see -- and I would express them, and I would do little illustrations or I would paint on a wall.

Then I started to study [Akira] Kurosawa, who was a painter as well as a director. I saw his movies -- "The Seven Samurai" and all that -- and I thought, "Wow, that's even more interesting, because it's a moving picture and you get to tell a story."

CNN: And now you're telling the story of Martin Luther King and Barack Obama. Did you ever think you'd see an African-American president of the United States?

Fuqua: Never. Never. Not in my time. I thought somewhere down the line it would happen, but not in my time -- because I still deal with racial situations. Sometimes people don't do it blatantly. They'll say something, or they'll behave a certain way when I know they don't normally behave that way. As a director, you run into walls where they say, "Well, it doesn't translate well overseas. You know, you need to have a white movie star in it." There's some truth to that. So if Hollywood's not ready to embrace more stories about African-Americans -- and that's based on the money that the movies make -- then would the country really be ready to embrace a president? You know, the CEO of the country? And obviously, we are. We are ready.

CNN: As a director, you have this story about an unbelievable presidential election, where a first-term senator wins. Would you have cast Barack Obama in that role?

Fuqua: In a heartbeat, in a heartbeat. He's like a movie star. Look at the guy. He's dashing, he's charming, he's got a little swagger about him. He reminds me of Denzel in their way. [Fuqua directed Washington in the 2001 action-thriller "Training Day."] I was with Denzel over Christmas, and they're very similar -- their mannerisms at times.

CNN: In the short film you're directing for us, you've drawn the parallel between Obama and Martin Luther King.

Fuqua: It is the passing of the torch between Martin Luther King and Barack Obama. I think Barack Obama is the "dream." I mean, we're all the dream. I think it's a bigger picture than one man.


CNN: What's the message you want to convey with your short film?

Fuqua: Hope. A sense of the past. But more than anything, I would love people to walk away feeling like we've just begun.

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