What If An HBO Hit Featured Oakland?

There’s been a lot of hand-wringing lately about a potential HBO series that prominently features Oakland, in all its glory.  This series would follow an old-school pimp and his challenges as he deals with younger, more violent pimps.

The Hughes Brothers, who produced and directed American Pimp (1999) and Dead Presidents (1995), announced their upcoming dramatic HBO series entitled Gentlemen of Leisure last summer.  If all goes according to plan, the first pilot and episodes would air sometime next year.

In the Hollywood Reporter, scriptwriter Evan Reilly explained the series focuses on “a guy who wants to get out but keeps getting sucked back in by the allure of the game and by extraneous circumstances that have to do with his family.”

American Pimp

Ami Zins heads the Oakland Film Office, which supports movie, TV and commercial production here.  She confirmed that scriptwriter Reilly and executive producer Polly Anthony reached her about the project.  For HBO, this dramatic one-hour series ideally fills the The Sopranos gap.

If green-lighted, this series would film on location.  Zins said the producer identified Oakland as “a character unto itself…with a great diversity of people, culture, arts, architecture and geography.”  While the economic impact isn’t known yet, she pointed to The Wired (HBO) which contributes $35 million/season to Baltimore.

What’s the downside for Oakland?  You could quickly denounce it based on the subject matter alone, since Oakland becomes the land of pimps and prostitutes.  Hollywood is possibly glorifying this crime-ridden life as well.  However, I happen to believe that crime becomes a back-drop for the series and its characters.

Folks living in New Jersey probably had the same concerns when The Sopranos began airing.  The subject matter was about mafia violence, but somehow managed to work anyway.  This acclaimed series drew you into the dark drama and family dynamics over time.

(Full disclosure is that I used to work, long ago, for an HBO competitor.  Getting a top-quality series on HBO is a real coup because they aren’t subject to the pressures of network TV.  Simply put, critically acclaimed fare can survive without a mass audience and advertising there.)

So here’s an opportunity to bring Oakland into the American culture more prominently, warts and all.  It’s admittedly very grimy, and every major city in the world has an underbelly.  Will this transform Oakland into an unacceptable place on earth?  Somehow I doubt it.  If the series really gets aired, this isn’t bad for our city at all.

Dec 23rd Update:  News outlets and blogs are buzzing, and we recommend these original takes from  CBS5KTVUOakland TribuneEast Bay ExpressOakbookA Better OaklandBrooklyn AvenueBicostal Bitchin’