From any of one of the four corners created by the intersection of 126th and Lenox Avenue in Harlem, onlookers can notice hordes of people making their way to the iconic Sylvia’s soul food restaurant opened in 1962, the urbane Red Rooster eatery opened in 2010, and the trendy foodies bar and restaurant, Corner Social, which opened this year. One hundred Twenty-sixth Street and Lenox is a concrete and asphalt manifestation of the coming together of what some Harlemites, such as actor and filmmaker Al Thompson, name the Old and New Harlem. I met Al in front of Corner Social, one of his preferred hang-outs, to discuss his newest project, Lenox Avenue, which is a new “HBO-esque” Web series offering a depiction of Harlem that Thompson defines as “new” and “grown up”—quite different from the Harlem of his past.
Thompson is a “new generation Harlemite” with old Harlem sensibilities. He recalls growing up on 135th and Madison in the Riverton Houses, a neighborhood comprised of middle and working-class “Black people doing it big.” He purchased his home nine years ago and is the first person from his working-class family to do so. His narrative is representative of the type of story that Lenox Avenue seeks to tell.
According to Thompson, the old Harlem he remembers was an epicenter for African-American life that was home to many cultural spaces and social gathering spaces representing the best of Harlem’s past like Jewel’s Bar, The Den Bar and Lounge, and Melba’s restaurant. For all of the good memories that he was able to recall, he also remembered the bad: “I don’t miss the crack from the ‘80s. Growing up and progression are good. Harlem is growing up.” Thompson stated.
Thompson wanted to create a film series featuring Black characters because there are too few such series on the market. He decided that creating a series specifically focused on the lives of multi-ethnic characters in Harlem would fill the demand for films in a market devoid of African-American representation. Lenox Avenue would help to fill “the need for more films and roles centered on the diversity of African-American life. “
As we talked a bit more, it became clear that he, like so many other Black filmmakers, was determined to bypass Hollywood and create the type of film that he wanted to see on screen. He admitted, “Black filmmakers get tired of having to bust through the platinum ceiling.” Thompson knows a thing or two about pushing his way through the ceiling as his own career took him from Harlem to Hollywood – a journey that has provided him with both the experience and motivation necessary for producing his own films.
His acting career began serendipitously. He was cast as a lead in two films produced by students in New York University’s and Columbia’s graduate film departments. In one, Thompson appeared opposite ABC’s Scandal star Kerry Washington, and both films were selected to be screened at the Sundance Film Festival. With little money, Thompson drove from Los Angeles to Utah for Sundance in an “old school” Honda Accord. A month later, he auditioned for and won a role in director Adam Shankman’s A Walk to Remember. The very same month he was also cast in Wes Anderson’s The Royal Tenebaums. He nows that his journey was unique since so many his friends, who he describes as immensely talented Black actors, could barely find work. It was during this time that he decided to “create the next path and opportunity for friends to display their talent and provide an opportunity for them to be in front of the camera.” He admits that he loves “creating context and executive producing films so that I can bring people on who deserve opportunities.”
Good to his word, Thompson has kept his promise and produced film series using innovative digital filmmaking techniques, including Odesa: The Sci-fi Series and the award-winning Johnny-B-Homeless. He is now focusing his attention on his newest series, Lenox Avenue, which features many of the talented actors he dreamed of helping. He used residuals from his Hollywood work to help produce the show, which he hopes will give a true-to-life depiction of his Harlem community.
The series, which Thompson describes as “a modern day fix for the soap opera that is a mix between The Best Man and love jones,” centers on the lives of a new generation of Harlemites, three best male friends played by Al, Dorian Missick (TNT’s Southland and NBC’s The Cape) and Ryan Vigilant (CW’s Gossip Girls). These three friends went to college together and now live in Harlem where they experience the beauty and messiness of friendship, intimate relationships, and professional careers. The series will also feature a star-studded multi-ethnic cast including Victor Williams (King of Queens), Vanessa Bell Calloway (What's Love Got to Do With It; TNT's Hawthorne), Jamie Hector (Heroes; HBO’s The Wire), Chenoa Maxwell (Hav Plenty), Lord Jamar (the classic rap group Brand Nubian), and Michael K. Williams (HBO’s The Wire; Boardwalk Empire).
Thompson says that viewers should expect a little something for everyone, adding, “It’s the peoples’ show.” He wants Lenox Avenue to be true-to-life-as lived in the New Harlem, which maintains many valuable vestiges of Old Harlem. If he can bring even half of his ambitions to the screen, Lenox Avenue will be the series to watch to understand the changing dynamics of Harlem and the complex interplay of pluses and minuses that such a transformation brings about.