Photo still from the film 'Story Ave'
Photo: Kino Lorber

Screenwriter Bonsu Thompson Has a ‘Story’ to Tell

The legendary hip-hop journalist turned filmmaker talks the state of rap media, his podcast, and co-writing the indie darling ‘Story Ave’

Bonsu Thompson is an OG who is just getting his feet wet. He’s been a writer and a storyteller all his life, but his first foray into feature filmmaking, Story Ave, dropped earlier this fall. Originally a short film, Story Ave (which stars Asante Black, Luis Guzmán, and Melvin Gregg) is the feature-length debut for both its director, Aristotle Torres, and co-screenwriter Thompson. It’s a beautiful coming-of-age story, a SXSW- and Snoop Dogg-approved saga steeped in Black and brown culture. Thompson says Finding ForresterGood Will Hunting, and Fresh were Torres’ guiding lights in creating this movie. (One might throw in Boyhood and Kendrick Lamar’s “Father Time,” as companion pieces.)

While Thompson, a former Sundance Institute Screenwriters Lab fellow, has shifted his career into the Courier New font and Final Draft space, he’s done what only a hallowed set have managed—snatch up bylines and edit prose for some of the culture’s most essential magazines. He was music editor at XXL when the publication dethroned The Source in the 2000s, and later served as editor-in-chief at the land of the five-mic reviews. Thompson was a senior writer at SLAM, editorial consultant at Vibe, and if you ever got through drooling at the covers, you might recognize his name on the now-defunct KING magazine masthead. Let’s not leave out the countless features and cover stories he’s written for BET, Mass AppealComplex, and (ahem!) LEVEL. He’s also dipped his toe in producing docs; he and Angie Martinez worked on Iconic Records: Life After Death, which honors The Notorious B.I.G.

Thompson is a thoro journalist with two decades of spilled ink under his belt. If anyone’s got a right to lament poetic about the state of the profession, it’s him. You’ll see he’s got a ton to say in our chat, where we talk about Story Ave’s exploration of youth and young manhood, the state of hip-hop media, his Hard 2 Earn podcast, and Offset’s interview with “the Caucasian lady.”

LEVEL: Let's start it off spicy. Top five. Dead or alive. 
Bonsu Thompson:

Yeah, MCs.
Wow. I would have to go Biggie number one, Jay-Z, André 3000, Black Thought, Kendrick Lamar

That's a good five. 
A good five. 

Story Ave isn't necessarily about hip-hop. I don't think it's mentioned in the film, but it has this huge presence. It feels like a hip-hop movie. Did you set out to write a hip-hop film? 
No. I mean, hip-hop is Black culture—Black and brown culture. It's also a graffiti movie, so it’s a hip-hop movie because one of the pillars of hip-hop is graffiti. We didn't set out to write a hip-hop movie, but anytime you do anything with Black and brown culture as well as graffiti, it's automatically hip-hop.

Living in Texas, I don't really know of many graffiti artists. I know people who do murals, but not many graffiti artists. It’s not a big part of the culture here. I'm wondering if this is still a big part of the culture in the Bronx. 
It's not just the Bronx; I think it's everywhere. Graffiti writers evolved. Graffiti writers are now in marketing, in advertising. They're designers. Take somebody like Spike Jonze, who comes from the skateboard world. He was very much into the culture, but also the art form and expression of it, the documentation of it. Guys who came up with graffiti writing, it was about design. It was about expression. It was about putting their stamp on the world. So you have a lot of graffiti guys who just evolved from that. A lot of those graffiti writers have the pleasure of going on to explore their artistic ability scholastically.

Related: Wisconsin Man Uses Bad Graffiti To Teach White Lives Matter Most

There's a lot about father figures and brotherhood in this movie. I think it is really interesting to see this film come out at a time when we're having these conversations about toxic masculinity. And then you have Luis, who is the kindest, most tender man imaginable, and then a nerve is hit, and he turns into something completely different.
Well, that's the illusion. Is he a kind man? Absolutely. Is he a perfect man? Absolutely not. But who is, right? He's all of those things. We wrote him as a dark angel, honestly. And dark angels sometimes are in the middle of the Venn diagram when you have the angel and the devil on your shoulder. Dark angels sometimes either come in terrible ways or terrible forms to give you something you need. Sometimes that's through trauma. Sometimes that's through turmoil, or they bring something that you think you want to give you a harsh lesson that it's not really best for you.

"The back and forth of having a stepfather at home and being a teenager and arguing with your mother or feeling like you're not being heard by your mom. It's really rough. I had to put that on page.

What role do you think he has on the main character and his development as a man? This is basically a coming-of-age story about a boy becoming a man.
I think he's still a boy at the end of the movie. He’s not a man. It’s a coming-of-age story. It's about setting him on the path to not only manhood, but also his purpose in life and making the right decisions, keeping what's positive in his life and what’s beneficial, and getting rid of what's going to hold him back. That's the route we want to set him on. 

Did you have any difficulties turning a short into a feature? 
Difficulties? It's f**king hard as hell to write a movie. 

It's hard as hell to write a short film, too, but you already created this source material. I'm wondering if there were any difficulties with that specific type of adaptation. You already finished the thing and then you had to make it more robust. 
The movie was one of the hardest things I've ever done. I've been writing all my life. It's my first feature film and Aristotle's first feature film. Aristotle is naturally a director. I'm naturally a writer. It’s not even just the task of writing a first feature, but the collaboration actually makes it more arduous. I can't speak for Aristotle, but I'm sure he would agree because it's a compromise. I had my ideas about which way the story should go, he had his ideas. He has to either convince me that that's the best way or I'm convincing him. You exert more energy collaborating than you do just writing your own script that’s just your ideas. Unless you're workshopping with advisors, it's extremely difficult writing it. They teach you to write what you know. I know Aristotle is an orphan. The back and forth of having a stepfather at home and being a teenager and arguing with your mother or feeling like you're not being heard by your mom, it's rough. It's really rough. I had to put that on page.

I come from divorced parents. My mother, after my father, had a number of boyfriends. I was never happy about any of them being in my household. I had some rocky roads coming up as a kid with my mom for a number of reasons. We butt heads a lot. You have to pull that pain, pull that anger, kind of go back to those spaces, which isn't easy. Your reality—the reason you had turmoil [or] rocky roads in your life—usually comes with unsavory experiences, sometimes experiences that you would rather leave in the past. But in order to really put your soul and your blood into your artwork, your craft, you have to revisit those moments and really lean into those emotions and find a way to articulate them on page.

You made the jump that many writers aspire to: journalism to film. What has that process been like for you? What have you learned through a long career in journalism that you think is invaluable, that somebody who you went to USC film school might not have learned? 
I'm not sure, because I'm not a formally trained screenwriter. But my beacon is always storytelling, whether journalistic work, an essay, a profile, a video-produced piece. I'm fascinated and enamored with the way in which you can tell stories. I've also felt like it takes more skill to say something in a short amount of time than it does with a lot of words.

Related: How a Few Great Hip-Hop Journalists Won In Hollywood

You've interviewed André 3000, Jay-Z—some real heavy hitters who don't really do interviews anymore, and they don't have much of a reason to. But it seems like current stars are becoming more and more mum. Is there a way for hip-hop media to survive this way? 
Well, I don't even know what hip-hop media is right now. I mean, hip-hop media—did you see the Jemele Hill comment about the Offset interview with the Caucasian lady?

I didn’t see her comment, but I know the interview
Yeah, I just don't know. I'm very much disenchanted with whatever concept of hip-hop media there is. Jerry [Barrow of HipHopDX] is a good friend of mine. All these guys, Erik ParkerJermaine Hall. Not only did these guys come up in hip-hop journalism, I think they helped build hip-hop journalism. But built it for what? I can put myself in there as well, Elliott Wilson. It's like, what is it today? Hip-hop publications, which are supposed to be a reflection of Black and brown culture, they're not even Black-owned. That's kind of why I got out of the media workforce, because I was realizing these iconic institutions were just being picked up. They were baseball cards for rich people who most of the time weren't of the same hue, just for the sake of saying they own Vibe magazine on their yacht party.

So yeah, I don't know what hip-hop media really is right now. A few years ago LeBron James got the biggest interview in hip-hop, which was Drake. He got Drake before everybody else. I think Rap Radar [Podcast] was second, but LeBron was first. You've got Joe Budden who is now the king of podcasts—a former rapper. You got Noreaga with Drink Champs. You know what I'm saying? 

You got It Is What It Is as well. 
I'm not a fan of It Is What It Is. I’m a big fan of Cam’ron; not a fan of Cam playing Skip Bayless. But again, even look at that, they're not journalists; they're personalities. People keep talking about what's happening in hip-hop media, but the question is, what ever happened to hip-hop journalism? 

I think the interesting thing about Bobbi Althoff is people are saying that she's taking opportunities away from journalists.
That's not true, because that’s not her doing. That's the problem. This has been an issue within hip-hop media for the longest. It's the publicist. It goes back to how rappers tend to go towards having Jewish lawyers before they have an African-American attorney, right? It's systemic. You feel like you have a better chance at winning and a better chance at being successful without your own. And that's the same way it is with publicists.

Before we begin crying about media and journalism, we as a culture have to realize that we have got to own our s**t and own our history.

I was at XXL when we beat The Source and were the No. 1 hip-hop magazine. It was still like, “OK, yeah, you're our first Black option,” but we want to see what's up with Rolling Stone and Esquire first. We want GQ first. Of course, you want to go for more eyeballs. But at the same time, how could you make them the priority when hip-hop magazines made you who you are in the first place?

I kind of see her as trying to do Between Two Ferns. She's not very good at it, but that's another story.
Exactly. Because Zach [Galifianakis] is hilarious, and she isn’t. 

She's doing Funny Marco, but not as witty. And he’s the Black person who you could go to. Why do you think journalists are taking it so personally when if you actually think about it, she's not even trying to be a journalist? She's not trying to be in that same lane.
It's not personal with her. It's the system. It's like, she gets the Offset interview—not to say she shouldn't get the Offset interview, but again, that's not journalism. I feel like that's supposed to be a 13-year-old TikTok fan’s way to kill time while they're waiting for their mother in a carpool. I don't feel like that's something you dive into. That's what real journalism is. That's what it's supposed to be. Sitting down with Offset, it's going to be a pretty meaty interview. It's a ton of stuff the world wants to know about Offset. I think there's a ton of stuff that Offset doesn't even know he has to say. But that's what a good interview does, and we're not getting that.

I love Nardwuar, but it's novelty. It's fun. That's not what the New York Times does. That's not the Playboy interview with Malcolm X. Where is that interview? And I understand artists are giving less access, but they're giving less access because they feel like they don't need to anymore because the digital era allows a more creator-to-consumer conduit. That's fine. But there's still ways to cover this. There's still ways to review albums with integrity, skill, experience, and intelligence. There's also a way to actually give the viewer more of that person. That's the whole reason you sit down for an interview: to not only learn that person but also confirm what’s true.

You still play a part in this media journalism landscape with Hard 2 Earn. What's next for the pod?
Hard 2 Earn is focused on album reviews, kind of bringing back that old feeling of the five mics that The Source did. We're trying to take that digitally and have a conversation, but also engage people. The barbershop conversation isn't going anywhere. B. Dot stirs everybody up with these lists all the time because everybody's always ready for conversations. I don't care how much technology we get, the barbershop conversation—the debate—is always going to be there. And because with media and podcasts being so guest and celebrity-obsessed, we wanted to really just put the flashlight on the music. We felt like these anniversaries were just coming and going, and nobody's giving it any real attention. These are albums that not only just raised us, but paved the way for a lot of our favorite artists today. There is no Kendrick Lamar without Snoop's Doggystyle. That's just a fact. There is no Young Jeezy without Aquemini. There's definitely no T.I. without Southernplayalisticadillacmuzik. So before we begin crying about media and journalism, we as a culture have to realize that we have got to own our s**t and own our history. If we don't, everybody else—all the other cultures—will be crowning our heroes, dictating who gets the awards. That should not be the case. Ever. If you created the culture, you should be the one that becomes the gatekeeper for it.