Never Die Alone: Goines Adaptation Marks Cultural History
By Tracy Grant
Capitalizing on the popularity of hip-hop culture, rap music, and the rise of urban novels, Fox Searchlight Pictures this month [March 2004] brings ’Never Die Alone’ ’ a gritty, realistic look at the world of guns, money, power and drugs ’ to the big screen. ’Never Die Alone’ stars rapper/actor DMX in an action film set in the shady underworld of street life, where cunning and violence are the keys to success.
However, ’Never Die Alone’ is far from your typical shoot-em-up gangster flick. It is unique in that it is the adaptation of the highly-acclaimed novel Never Die Alone, by Donald Goines, a prolific writer regarded by many as one of the greatest urban novelists ever. While ’Never Die Alone’ is not the first film adaptation of Goines' work, it is surely the first to receive major studio support. As such, the movie's release marks an important milestone: never before has a big studio produced a film that so successfully captures the raw energy of modern street culture and music, while simultaneously paying homage to the legacy of black literature.
But to understand the significance of ’Never Die Alone’ ’ which was shot on location in L.A. in just 18 days ’ requires some background about the creative forces that led to the moment.
Donald Goines is well-known among urban audiences as the author of 16 novels, works that depict the life of gangsters, hustlers, pimps and drug addicts with uncanny authenticity. Goines himself was a part of this world, a longtime thief, pimp and heroin addict for much of his adult life. In fact, Goines' criminal career ’ which included robbing, bootlegging and running numbers ’ led to his writing career because it was during one of his seven prison terms that Goines discovered the work of Robert Beck, a.k.a. Iceberg Slim. Slim's novel, Pimp, was such an inspiration to Goines that he contacted the publisher of Pimp, Holloway House, while he was in prison. He began his first work in jail; Holloway House published it and the company remains the publisher of Goines, Slim and a host of other ’black experience’ books.
’When we started, there was little or no black literature in the marketplace,’ says Bentley Morris, CEO of Holloway House. ’We felt that there were good black writers who had not had the benefit of exposure.’ Upon its launch more than three decades ago, Holloway House attracted writers from the Watts section of Los Angeles, and many of them drew from colorful lives that often involved crime, fast money and vice.
Fast forward to 2004 and Goines' influence is clear. Hip hop culture and rap music are part of the mainstream. The authenticity of Goines' characters and underworld make his books a complete embodiment of the hip hop mantra ’keep it real.’ Donald Goines was first revered in rap on the now-defunct Brand Nubian's song ’Who Can Get Busy Like This' in 1990, when Grand Puba passes time ’readin’ books by my man Donald Goines.’ Iceberg Slim's influence is also apparent. Ice-T and Ice Cube, who also double as rappers and actors, are named after Slim. Pimping, however fictional, has always been a popular topic in rap lyrics and it is certainly a topic du jour today. Finally, as the prison population continues to swell with young black men, so too does their bond with Donald Goines books and others like his. Just as Slim inspired Goines to become an author in prison, Goines too has become the model for thousands of incarcerated writers hoping to emulate Goines' career.
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The acclaimed novel Never Die Alone was penned in 1974 by the late African American cult writer Donald Goines shortly before his death, and was adapted for the screen by James Gibson. One of the most widely acclaimed black authors of his generation, Goines wrote his first two books while incarcerated, and followed those with an astonishing 16 novels written from the time he was released from prison in 1970 until he was shot to death in 1974. Goines sold more than 5 million books in his brief career and has, in the past decade, been re-discovered by legions of hip-hop fans. He has been called the greatest black American urban novelist since Chester Himes and the French magazine L’Express called him ’a flashing talent straight from the street of the lost.’
As a studio release, ’Never Die Alone’ will be different, which is important according to Holloway House's Morris, who has seen several attempts to adapt Goines' work in film.
’They got DMX, they got [Ernest] Dickerson, decent casting’,’ notes Morris. Also, Goines is so popular that any film based on his work has a built in audience.
The lead actor and director of Never Die Alone also suggest some historical significance. While this is DMX's sixth role, it is likely his most compelling and possibly the truest test of his mettle as an actor. The Dark Man X not only displays a street edge, but a complexity and charisma that draw comparisons to his predecessor, Tupac Shakur. Like Tupac, DMX is a platinum-selling rap artist in his own right. His recording success led to his acting, just as Shakur's recording career was buoyed by his pivotal film debut as the sociopathic Bishop in 1992's ’Juice.’
Ernest Dickerson served as Spike Lee's cinematographer for his first seven films, from ’She's Gotta Have It’ to ’Malcolm X.’ His directorial debut was ’Juice’ which starred Shakur. It's difficult to exclude Shakur here given the many correlations. He, like Goines, has an iconic status that was only fueled by his death. Goines was shot to death in 1974 ’ a fate he always feared would happen. Shakur, like Goines, has a fiercely loyal following both in urban communities and in prisons. He, like Goines, was extremely prolific, creating such a large body of work that it continues to live on. One could say that DMX in ’Never Die Alone’ is an odd, almost mystical crossing of Goines and Tupac, resulting in a film that both would have appreciated.
Finally, decades after his death, Donald Goines continues to inspire writers in the ’street fiction’ genre that he pioneered. Many of those authors today enjoy tremendous success, and the publishing industry has caught on. Teri Woods' True to the Game, Shannon Holmes’ B-More Careful, Nikki Turner's A Hustler's Wife and other novels write in the same street milieu that Goines captured, with an updated perspective. Their success has spawned a slew of urban novels, much like Terry McMillan’s Waiting to Exhale inspired a host of similar ’sistergirl’ stories.
Bentley Morris says the explosion in the number of street fiction writers is ’positive,’ adding that it will ’raise the level of quality of authorship of the people who are doing it.’
All of them, whether directly or indirectly, draw inspiration from the writings of Donald Goines, who Morris says would be very gratified by what is happening with his work. ’His biggest dream was being [in Hollywood]. He wanted one of his books to become a film.’ .
Lynnette Khalfani, a freelance writer and the author of Investing Success, contributed to this article. Email her at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Copyright 2004 Earl Cox & Associates - permission to use this article may be obtained by contacting us at email@example.com
About the Movie - Never Die Alone