Growing up in Oakland, Datari Turner had two passions: football and movies.
"Only one I thought was a viable career, and that was sports," said Turner, who got a scholarship to play football at Oklahoma State University and whose goal was to get drafted by the San Francisco 49ers. Although Hollywood was just 360 miles away, Turner thought, "It may as well have been Dubai."
But plans and dreams have a strange habit of collapsing and manifesting themselves in unexpected ways.
Today, Turner, 41, is a prolific independent producer with credits on some 30 feature films, including "Uncorked" "Ten Thousand Saints" and the successful TV franchise "Growing Up Hip-Hop" — largely focusing on stories that reflect his experiences and that of his community. He's had six films premiere at the Sundance Film Festival. Recently, Turner joined forces with actor Jamie Foxx to form a production company that has more than 10 projects in development.
"I love stories, but at the same I want to make an impact," said Turner in an interview from his home in Tarzana.
While blazing his own unlikely path to Hollywood, Turner quickly stumbled onto an uncomfortable truth: "This business wasn't built by people that look like me," he said. "It wasn't designed by people like me to tell our stories."
Despite numerous discussions and initiatives, the levers of power in Hollywood remain predominately white.
"It's very simple; things are never going to change until we have Black people in positions to greenlight movies."
Turner is on a mission to make that happen.
He is in advanced talks to establish an endowed producing program at the cinema, television, emerging media studies (CTEMS) program at Morehouse College in Atlanta, one of the Historically Black Colleges and Universities.
Turner is on the board of the Blackhouse Foundation, a nonprofit aimed at amplifying Black creatives and executives in the industry. Through the years he has taught and spoken with young filmmakers at Sundance and USC. He has given master classes at Morehouse.
Given his own experience, he knew that the dearth of people of color occupying the upper echelons of the entertainment industry wasn't due to a lack of talent or ambition but of access to opportunities — on top of socioeconomic barriers.
"The only way to change things is to change them at the root, and we're creating a pipeline of people of color to be able to rise up the ranks," Turner said.
This type of program represents a significant shift, said Stephane Dunn, a founding member and the director at Morehouse's CTEMS program.
"We're not just talking about white folks with money [giving to an institution] or studios talking about diversity," she said, "but empowering Black folks in the industry with money and means."
While Turner is also working with several industry executives for funding and partnerships, Dunn said that a formal announcement is expected this fall and the goal is to launch the program next spring.
The child of an electrical engineer father and a board of education mother, Turner did not plan a career in film. An injury during his freshman year put his football aspirations on hold. In 1998, a modeling scout saw Turner in San Francisco's Union Square and suggested that he enter a modeling contest.
After the contest, Turner was signed by the Ford Modeling Agency. When photographer Bruce Weber saw some Polaroids of Turner, he cast him in an Abercrombie & Fitch campaign. Soon after, Turner moved to New York and was modeling for Skechers, Sean John and Tommy Hilfiger.
Two months of modeling netted him $60,000. "At that time I was thinking maybe I could do this for a short period of time and be able to make a lot of money," he said. "But I never looked at modeling as a real career, and my parents were never really comfortable with it."
By 2001, Turner was two years into modeling when the terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center happened.
"I just started thinking about my life. ... I thought, you know, I was going to go to the NFL and I sort of took the detour to be a fashion model. I thought about what else I loved as a kid outside of sports because, you know, let's face it, NFL players have a very short career."
When he wasn't playing football, Turner could usually be found in a movie theater. In high school, he'd cut school and take the BART into Berkeley and spend afternoons inside the historic Art Deco United Artists theater.
"I would watch three or four movies in a day. The movies shaped my life. A lot of the movies I liked weren't Black movies; they were 'Back to the Future,' 'The Breakfast Club.' I've always just been a fan."
Turner switched course. He holed up in his apartment and watched movie after movie. "I would take a filmmaker like, you know, Fellini, Truffaut or Stanley Kubrick and I would just watch every movie they ever made from the very beginning," he said.
Turner knew that he didn't want to be an actor. It was the language of film, the imagery and storytelling that he was drawn to.
"I thought, 'Maybe I'll give this screenwriting thing a shot,'" he said.
Turner bought books on screenwriting and in two weeks had a draft of his first screenplay, "Video Girl," which examined the dark side of '90s music video vixens.
In 2002, draft in hand, Turner returned to California to launch his career as a writer. Two years later, he was part of ABC/Disney's diversity talent program alongside Meghan Markle, whom he would later cast in his second film, "Dysfunctional Friends."
He gave the script of his first movie, "Video Girl," to actress Meagan Good without initially telling her he wrote it.
"I called him after I finished it and I was like, 'Dude, this is dope,'" Good said.
"He'd just come out of the modeling world, and because of that, people really underestimated him."
Developing the movie, which also featured actress Ruby Dee, took seven years and cemented a working relationship with Good, with whom he has made six films.
Turner has produced films featuring Ellen Barkin ("Another Happy Day") and Omari Hardwick ("A Boy. A Girl. A Dream."), but he's yet to have a mainstream breakout hit. The experience on the low-budget indie "Video Girl" — fighting to maintain his vision and financing — began to shape Turner's understanding of the Hollywood machinery.
Without the benefit of film school or connections, Turner taught himself the business and culture of movies. He devoured every book on such Hollywood moguls as David Geffen and Lew Wasserman. "These guys became my mentors — through their stories," he said.
Always a keen consumer of films, he began researching the people behind the blockbuster films he watched growing up in the '80s and '90s, such as "Beverly Hills Cop," "Flashdance" and "Top Gun."
"Jerry Bruckheimer began to be a guide. I sort of looked at him as the gold standard of producers," Turner said.
But Turner wanted autonomy to tell the stories he was interested in. He concluded that the most powerful people in entertainment were the producers.
He was going to be a producer.
Colleagues describe Turner's deep knowledge of the history and business of film, innate ability to bring people together, his drive.
Jelani Johnson, partner at Macro Management who previously represented him at CAA, calls Turner "resourceful, diligent and creative. He leans heavily on his intuition and he's relentless in this business and relentlessly loyal."
A few years ago when Prentice Penny, the showrunner of HBO's "Insecure," was trying to direct his first film, "Uncorked," which he also wrote, he recalled how Turner had his back.
"Not a lot of people were looking to make a movie about a Black brother set in the world of wine," Penny said.
One of Penny's agents introduced him to Turner and the two clicked immediately. The movie, a father-son dramedy about a young man who wanted to eschew his family's barbecue joint in Memphis and become a master sommelier, was the kind of story that Turner wanted to see on the screen.
"We were both raised by strong Black man," Penny said. The story reflected their lives and provided a counter-narrative to the usual images of Black people onscreen.
Turner, said Penny, "liked that Black people get to be in places like Paris and England in the movies the way that white people get to travel the world. It was just up his alley. And he was like my brother."
At the time, Penny had just started to make a name for himself on "Insecure." He recalled many attempts to persuade him to sell the script and have a marquee name direct. "I was told that this would be an amazing movie that can win an Oscar. There was a lot of pressure and I was starting to have doubts."
Penny didn't want to sell the movie. When he solicited Turner's opinion, "He was just like, 'Hey, you wrote this to direct and we're in this together. We're not selling it.'"
"That feeling of being like, 'Oh, you're in the trenches with me' was just never lost on me."
"Uncorked" premiered on Netflix in March. The Times called it "a nicely nuanced feature debut."
Foxx first met Turner at an event at the actor's house. "We chopped it up, and the next thing you know things just sparked off," Foxx said. Among the projects the pair working on is a docuseries for Apple.
"The art of producing itself is one of the most marvelous things in the business. He has the knack," said Foxx, who likened it to watching Phil Jackson coach the Lakers. "He knows how to get the best and get the best out of people. And that is a rare and golden entity that a person possesses. And so that's why I want to stay close to him."
The idea for the Morehouse project took shape about five years ago.
It wasn't lost on Turner that any number of successful power players were graduates of the Peter Stark Producing Program, an MFA track at USC. He likened it to a farm team for Hollywood's golden triangle of power: producers, studio heads and talent agency partners. "The selection process is brutal," Turner said. "Most kids, especially of color, can't afford the program." (First-year tuition and fees are currently $51,622.)
About a year and a half ago, Turner began a conversation with Dunn at Morehouse.
"We had a passion for doing the work of diversity and not just talking about it, and seeing empowered Black folks and empowered Black folks giving back," she said.
Dunn calls the program they are hoping to launch "actual pipeline building."
Turner has brought in a number of industry executives to advocate for and support the program.
Among them is Ashley Holland, a WME agent who formerly represented Turner at CAA. "I'm one in a village of industry professionals who are trying to help him raise the financing, you know, to make this a reality," she said. "Datari really wants to see there become more producers of color and specifically more African American producers doing what he does, which is bringing all the elements together and functioning as a hybrid between creative and business."
For Turner, this nascent program is his biggest production yet.
"I love movies and I love helping artists tell their stories," he said.
"My dad always told me, 'You have to give just as much as you receive.' You know? Sometimes more. For me, that's always been my statement, to really pay it forward."
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