What do ILL-GOTTEN GAINS, a little-seen black and white indie, and CLAUDE’S CRIB, a short-lived USA Network sitcom, have in common?  A number of things, starting with the fact that both were failed attempts at dramatizing the “black experience” by largely white crews.  They were also released within roughly a year of each other in the late nineties, and, most importantly to these eyes, I worked on ILL-GOTTEN GAINS and CLAUDE’S CRIB as a production assistant—a job that in both cases covered just three weeks during preproduction, and for which I wasn’t credited.

IllGottenGainsIt was in June of 1995 that production began on ILL-GOTTEN GAINS, which provided me with my first legitimate (albeit non-paying) film job.  The base of operations was a rented house in Silverlake where the film’s writer-director Joel Ben Marsden was staying.  Marsden had apparently spent several years raising money for the film, which explored a topic that at the time was strictly off-limits on American screens: slavery.

I was excited to work on ILL-GOTTEN GAINS, at least until I read the script, with which I wasn’t too impressed.  Nonetheless I soldiered on, and had a not-unpleasant experience; Mr. Marsden was a nice guy, and I also got on fairly well with the production manager, a hard-working young woman named Ruth (who deserved a far more prominent credit on the finished film than what she received).

The big problem, aside from the script, was a flight to Cameroon taken three weeks into the production by Marsden and the cinematographer.  The object was a week’s worth of pick-up shots meant to add production value to the film, which would otherwise be filmed entirely on a boat docked in the Long Beach harbor.  Unfortunately this trip had the effect of halting momentum on the production, momentum that was evidently very hard to regain.  I recall waiting a week for them to call me back to work, which stretched to two weeks and then three.  By the time that call finally came, over a month later, I’d found another job (one that actually paid money!).

I heard nothing more about the film until, most unexpectedly, it was released to the arthouse circuit in late ‘98.  It was self-distributed by Marsden’s production company Spats Films, with the catalyst for the release being Steven Spielberg’s similarly-themed AMISTAD, which had bowed a year earlier and just happened to star ILL-GOTTEN GAINS’S headliner Djimon Hounsou.

Upon viewing ILL-GOTTEN GAINS for the first time I’ll confess I was worried my judgement might be clouded by jealousy or resentment, although once it started I found my greatest concern was, simply, how the Hell I was ever going to make it through this painfully amateurish slog of a film.  Meant to be a brutally realistic drama of life aboard a late nineteenth-century slave ship, it’s actually an interminable talk-fest with stilted acting and a few crappy gore-effects (including what may be the least convincing eye gouging in film history).

The slaves are of course all impossibly noble and upstanding, while their captors are two-dimensional baddies (and in one case a ludicrously stereotypical homosexual).  The use of hip-hop derived slang, apparently meant to draw a crude parallel to modern day racism, further undermines any trace of realism.  Even the surreal Claymation interludes, meant to evoke the “spirit of the wood” or something, largely fall flat.  The best part of the film is the opening credits sequence, which showcases the scenery shot during that abovementioned Cameron trip.  Unfortunately Marsden never convincingly integrates that scenery into the rest of the film, which fails in every conceivable department.

ILL-GOTTEN GAINS only lasted a week in theaters before vanishing from sight, being to my knowledge the only movie put out by Spats Films.  It did, however, score a DVD release courtesy of Xenon Video, who included an ill-advised video showing Marsden getting chewed out after a screening of the film.

As rotten as ILL-GOTTEN GAINS is, it’s far superior to the stink-bomb that was CLAUDE’S CRIB.  My job on this program took place on the ClaudesCribParamount Pictures lot in October of 1996.  I’d love to tell you about the experience, but I’ll observe the old adage that if you can’t say anything nice don’t say anything at all (and anyway, I signed a pretty strict confidentiality agreement).  Small wonder this “comedy” turned out the way it did!

CLAUDE’S CRIB, for the record, was the brainchild of Claude Brooks, an actor-comedian who’s probably best known these days for playing Eddie Murphy’s sidekick in BULWORTH.  CLAUDE’S CRIB, produced by and starring Mr. Brooks, was an early attempt by the USA Network at transforming itself from the twelfth-tier cable channel it was back then into the mini-powerhouse it is today—a failed attempt, as CLAUDE’S CRIB, which ran from January through March of 1997, only lasted 12 episodes.  These days the show has been mercifully forgotten; not even the nineties nostalgia craze has given it much of a boost (from a comment on the imdb CLAUDE’S CRIB message board: “Does Anybody Else Remember this Dreck?”).

The show centered on the African-American Claude, an impossibly cool, easygoing DJ who gets laid a lot (among the show’s signature gags was the discovery of a box full of condom wrappers left behind by Claude, who was apparently having a “slow week”).  The titular “crib” was a mansion Claude inherited from his grandmother, the interior of which is one of those sitcom-friendly settings consisting of a couch in the foreground framed by a staircase in the back.  There a quirky cast of multi-racial twentysomethings move in, including two hot chicks, a nerd and—a nineties comedy mainstay—a goofy Asian dude.

It all adds up to a shockingly bland concoction that, like seemingly every other late-nineties sitcom in existence, was little more than a blah FRIENDS rehash.  This fact extends to the storylines, which as in FRIENDS featured the inhabitants of Claude’s Crib doing various silly things, such as switching places with each other for a day and coming onto one another during a heatwave.  What the program wasn’t was funny, endearing or memorable in the slightest—indeed, I find I’m having trouble remembering much about CLAUDE’S CRIB outside what I experienced during its preproduction, which I’d much rather forget.

Following the cancellation of CLAUDE’S CRIB Claude Brooks quickly resurfaced with another sitcom, HITZ, which he once again produced and starred in.  About that program I know nothing outside the fact that it utilized much of the crew of CLAUDE’S CRIB and had a similarly brief lifespan.  Neither series is available in DVD, pay-per-view or even bootleg form—both shows appear have all-but disappeared, about which I can’t say I’m too broken up.

So what can we take away from this eccentric two-title survey?  That, simply, ILL-GOTTEN GAINS and CLAUDE’S CRIB are both extremely poor, though not entirely atypical, products—and that if you ever find yourself in the mood for worthwhile nineties-era dramatizations of African-American strife then you’d best look someplace else!