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Overview for Shay Cunliffe
Shay Cunliffe

Shay Cunliffe


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The first films of actor-writer-director Rusty Cundieff have displayed qualities typical of a certain tendency in African-American filmmaking in Hollywood in the decade following the groundbreaking the advent of Spike Lee in the mid-1980s. These films--"Fear of a Black Hat" (1993), "Tales From the Hood" (1995) and "Sprung" (1997)--suggest their maker's relatively cordial relationship to recent American pop culture. Thus far, Cundieff seems to have largely rejected the explicitly political, critical and angry approach of his more serious contemporaries (e.g., Lee, John Singleton, the Hughes Brothers) in favor of the playful audience-friendly tone of Robert Townsend and the Hudlin Brothers. Like Keenen Ivory Wayans, he has shown an aptitude for black-oriented parodies of forms that are more often white-identified (specifically pretentious rock documentaries, cheesy 50s comic-book derived horror anthologies and kooky romantic comedy). While he does not ignore the social problems confronting the black community (i.e., drugs, crime, domestic violence, racism), Cundieff's storytelling instincts are unabashedly accessible and commercial. More impressively, he has managed to retain creative control of his work. Quirky, jokey and derivative, his films seem to aspire to some degree of revisionism but, thus far, he has yet to display the organizing intelligence or overarching vision to reformulate his many influences into a meaningful new hybrid.

A Pittsburgh, PA, native, Cundieff entered show business as a stand-up comic. Performing at Los Angeles' Comedy Act theater while attending USC, he began associating with several young comics (Townsend, Wayans and his brother Damon) who would become notable figures in black-oriented comedy. He also met his future screenwriting and producing partner Darin Scott while a student. Cundieff began acting with several bit parts in Townsend's "Hollywood Shuffle" (1987) and followed up with a supporting role in Lee's "School Daze" (1988). He also appeared on TV doing guest shots on "Benson" and "thirtysomething" and a did stint on the NBC soap "Days of Our Lives."

Moving behind the scenes, Cundieff co-scripted (with sitcom writer Daryl G Nickens) the successful if uninspired sequel "House Party 2" (1991) and directed three music videos for veteran rocker Neil Young. He made his feature directing debut with "Fear of a Black Hat," a sharply observed, if quickly dated, "rapumentary" of the hip-hop music community, inspired by "This is Spinal Tap," Rob Reiner's popular 1983 "rockumentary" spoof. Cundieff also scripted, wrote song parodies, and co-starred as rapper Ice Cold. A surprise success at the 1993 Sundance Film Festival, "Fear of a Black Hat" was mishandled by its distributor (ITC) who shelved the film for a year before giving it a limited release.

Lee offered to executive produce Cundieff and Scott's follow-up, "Tales From the Hood," a boldly cartoonish horror film with a social conscience. The pair co-scripted and Cundieff played a small role in one of the four stories in this low-budget film that proved quite profitable.

Between film projects, Cundieff served as a correspondent on Michael Moore's cultish, acclaimed but low-rated comedy newsmagazine, "TV Nation" (NBC, 1994; Fox, 1995). His most celebrated segment demonstrated that NYC cabbies would more readily pick up a casually dressed convicted felon than a well-dressed Emmy Award-winning black actor. By 1997, Cundieff had several film and TV projects in various stages of development as a writer, actor and/or producer. He also had a third feature under his belt, the romantic comedy "Sprung," again co-writing with Scott and serving double duty as director and actor.

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