Harvey’s Hellhole: Hav Plenty

Welcome to Harvey’s Hellhole, a monthly column devoted to spotlighting the movies that were poorly marketed, mishandled, reshaped, neglected or just straight-up destroyed by Harvey Weinstein during his reign as one of the most powerful studio chiefs in Hollywood. Since February is both Black History Month and Valentine’s season, let’s delve into the (unfortunately limited) history of Weinstein and Black cinema – specifically, one ill-fated Black romance. 

The relationship between Bob & Harvey Weinstein and African-American filmmakers was  spotty at best. During the great Black-filmmaker renaissance of the early ‘90s, when such young guns as Mario Van Peebles, John Singleton, and the Hughes brothers were dropping their debut, inner-city dramas, Miramax’s only releases from stateside Black filmmakers were Bill Duke’s A Rage in Harlem in 1991 and Leslie Harris’s Just Another Girl on the I.R.T. in 1993. (Hey, at least they distributed a movie from a woman of color!)

Like so many pale-faced directors, Black filmmakers have also had tumultuous experiences getting their movies distributed by Miramax. (That is, unless you were the Wayans brothers, who churned out crowd-pleasing parody piffle like the first two Scary Movies and that hood-movie spoof Don’t Be a Menace to South Central While Drinking Your Juice in the Hood for Miramax.) Charles Burnett (The Glass Shield) and Charles Stone III (Paid in Full) had their respective films shelved for a bit before the studio dumped them into theaters. The iconic poet Maya Angelou thankfully walked away unscathed when Down in the Delta, the one and only film she directed, was released by Miramax on Christmas Day, 1998. (The film was originally supposed to air on Showtime, until Miramax got the theatrical rights, hoping it would get some Oscar buzz.) 

Other Black filmmakers smartly kept their distance. Spike Lee, who was once in talks with Miramax to helm a big-screen version of the Broadway smash Rent, would go on to warn others about going into purgatory with the Weinsteins. He famously told Martin Scorsese, when he was about to make Gangs of New York for Miramax, “You really sold your soul to the devil on this one. The devil himself. Satan! Lucifer!” 

Christopher Scott Cherot knows all too well what can happen when a Black filmmaker hops in bed with Harvey and them. His debut film Hav Plenty was snapped up by Miramax after its premiere at the Toronto Film Festival in 1997. Writer-director Cherot also stars as the lead character, aspiring writer Lee Plenty. (According to this interview, the actor who was supposed to play Plenty dropped out at the last minute when he got a role in a Spike Lee joint.)

Plenty is crashing at the apartment of his snobby, platonic pal Havilland Savage (Chenoa Maxwell), who calls him up and invites him to her mom’s house in D.C. for New Year’s Eve. The visit turns out to be an eventful one for our boy, who gets stuck there for a couple days. (Savage constantly asks him for favors that prevent him from splitting.) And even though dude is sporting acne, hole-covered jeans, and an aura of bohemian brokeness, he fights off the advances of both Hav’s loopy gal pal (Tammi Katherine Jones) and Hav’s conflicted sister (Robinne Lee), who’s married to a very buff dude (Reginald James) in glasses. Plenty is secretly smitten with Hav, even though she’s going through some drama with her two-timing boyfriend (Hill Harper), a R&B star whose most famous track is “40 Ounces of Love.”

Yes, it seems like Cherot is getting his male, wish-fulfillment fantasy on by making this smart-ass vagabond an object of desire for several women. (Even Hav’s grandmother loves his broke ass.) However, Plenty occasionally breaks the fourth wall to remind the audience that this cocoa-colored comedy of manners is based on true events. It’s inspired by the early-‘90s unrequited crush he had on Drew Dixon, a former A&R executive for historic hip-hop label Def Jam. (Anyone who’s seen the 2020 documentary On the Record, where Dixon alleges she was raped by Def Jam founder Russell Simmons, knows she may not have wanted a relationship with any man at that time.)

Made for $65,000 and shot on Super 16mm (the movie looks intimate to the point of claustrophobic, as the actors are usually tightly squeezed into frame together), Plenty is a charming enough film. Cherot subtly shows how African-Americans aren’t a monolith with this tony rom-com, featuring melanin-enhanced versions of the neurotic, upscale characters you’d usually find in Whit Stillman movies. Music legend Kenneth “Babyface” Edmonds and his then-wife Tracey Edmonds, who attached themselves as executive producers after seeing Plenty at the Acapulco Black Film Festival, did make sure the movie doesn’t get too saditty for audiences by providing a hip-hop and R&B-heavy soundtrack. (The soundtrack, which features songs from Jay-Z, SWV, Faith Evans, Erykah Badu and — yes — Babyface, was yet another ‘90s Black-movie soundtrack that was more successful than the movie.)

Back to the Toronto Film Festival screening. After Miramax snapped it up, guess who wanted a gotdamn happier ending? The studio told Cherot to tack on a more pleasant coda, giving Plenty some proper, less ambiguous closure. The new ending has Plenty screening his debut film Tru Love at a film festival, where the characters watch themselves played on-screen by a cast that includes Shemar Moore, Nia Long, Mekhi Phifer and a pre-pop star Lauryn Hill. Mr. and Mrs. Edmonds also appear as moguls who want to distribute his movie — but it needs an upbeat ending. I don’t know how he did it, but Cherot got Miramax to fork over an additional $50,000 to explain to audiences why this film has a sappier, obviously-reshot ending.

Plenty hit theaters in the summer of 1998, grossing $2 million — a decent amount for a $65,000 film. Unfortunately, it wasn’t enough to make people start calling Cherot the next, great Black hope. Cherot didn’t drop another movie until the hip-hop Great Gatsby adaptation G (which finished filming in 2002) came out in 2005. He also served as a producer/director on the BET reality series College Hill, which was also produced by the Edmondses.

Plenty was another Black film made by Black filmmaker that Bob and Harvey and Miramax slipped out there in the world with minimal fanfare and a pitiful lack of support. Sure, the Weinsteins began courting and championing filmmakers of color more when they started up the Weinstein Company. (In 2013, they released three movies from Black directors: Ryan Coogler’s Fruitvale Station, Lee Daniels’ The Butler and Scary Movie 5, directed this time by Spike’s cousin Malcolm D. Lee.) But we shouldn’t forget about Cherot and the brothas & sistas who made low-budget, independent films that time — and the brothers who ran Miramax — forgot. 

Hav Plenty is streaming for free on Pluto TV.

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