Franklin was raised outside of San Francisco, in Richmond, California. He never had the opportunity to know his biological father, as he died before Carl was born. Franklin was raised by his mother and stepfather. While Franklin speaks highly of his stepfather and has called him “very loving,” Franklin has spoken out about his stepfather’s abusive tendencies, linking his outbursts to alcohol use. Problems at home combined with life in a tough neighborhood fueled Franklin’s ambition to be the first in his family to attend college. In high school, Franklin worked hard on his academics, which paid off when he was awarded a scholarship to University of California, Berkeley. Franklin’s initial desires to become a teacher or lawyer led him to study History upon his arrival at the university. However, after two years, Franklin changed his major to theater arts. It has been rumored that he became interested in the arts while trying to meet girls by spending time around the theater department. His time at Berkeley marked the beginning of his acting career.
Good timing found Franklin in the center of the famous political demonstrations at Berkeley in the 1960s. While the entire movement was impossible to ignore, Franklin did not actively participate and chose rather to observe his surroundings. Describing the scene, Franklin told the LA Times: "It was like a dream to me, I wasn't really sophisticated enough to join a particular movement." However, it has been noted that the Black Power movement in particular caught his eye.
Upon completion of a BA degree in Theater Arts, Franklin almost immediately moved to New York City with hopes of becoming an actor. One of his first jobs was acting in the New York Shakespeare Festival, where he appeared in the Twelfth Night, Timon of Athens, and Cymbeline. Perusing his love of acting with an on-stage career, Franklin performed off-Broadway with The Public Theater. He has performed at many well-known public arenas such as Lincoln Center for the Performing Arts and the Joseph Papp Public Theater in New York, as well as the Arena Stage (Washington, D.C.).
With experience under his belt on the off-Broadway circuit, Franklin began his on-screen career with a film called Five on the Black Hand Side in 1973. From there, he acted in a string of guest roles on television shows such as The Rockford Files, Good Times, Caribe, The Incredible Hulk, McClain's Law, and The Streets of San Francisco. Over the years, Franklin’s looks have typically landed him roles portraying men of power, such as members of the police force or military officials. Franklin’s most recognizable acting role was his 1983-1985 portrayal of Captain Crane on the popular action-adventure series The A-Team. After two seasons on the show, Franklin realized that acting had become mundane and unsatisfying to him.
He began to experiment with filmmaking, getting his feet wet with writing and production. Franklin is quoted in L.A. Weekly, saying "Acting made a director out of me.” And so, at age 37, Franklin made an important decision to return to school in 1986. This time, he chose the AFI Conservatory in Los Angeles, where he studied film directing, studying mostly the works of European and Japanese directors. He obtained his M.F.A. degree in directing in 1986.
His time at AFI culminated in a life-changing project. For his master’s thesis, Franklin produced a short film called Punk in 1989. The film follows the story of an African-American boy faced with the realities of familial stress, societal pressures, and the ever-daunting development of sexual discovery. Franklin’s 30-minute film can be attributed to both failure and success. The production of the film cost Franklin his home and left him in a state of financial crisis, however, the impactful final product gained him attention in an industry that is nearly impossible to infiltrate. From there, his vision carried him through a successful career.
Straight out of his Master’s program, Franklin landed a job with movie producer-director Roger Corman in 1989. Corman was one of many directors who had been impressed with Franklin’s thesis film Punk. Corman took on Franklin as a sort of protege, working under him at his production company Concord Films.
While working at Concord Films, Franklin gained experience working on low-budget films, helping to crank out six films in just two years’ time. Roger Corman is known for fast-paced filmmaking, with a reputation for cranking out screenplays in a matter of weeks and filming them even faster. Working with Corman gave Franklin the opportunity to write, direct, produce, and occasionally even act in a wide range of mostly unseen films. Throughout the experience, Franklin found himself working on films in exotic locations such as Peru and the Philippines, and pushing himself creatively. From 1989 to 1990, Franklin worked on Nowhere to Run, Eye of the Eagle 2: Inside the Enemy, and Full Fanthom Five, respectively, under Concord Films.
At the end of the 80s, producer Jesse Beaton was looking for a director for a film called One False Move. The script’s edgy appeal needed someone gritty and fresh. Remembering Franklin’s short film Punk, Beaton met Carl to discuss the film’s vision. Hoping to focus more on the character of the story rather than the aesthetics, Beaton understood that Franklin was the right man for the job, making One False Move Carl Franklin’s directorial debut.
Franklin’s approach to the screenplay produced a thriller just shy of the Film Noir genre, dealing with themes of drugs, violence, and sexual relationships. The story follows three drug dealers, played by Billy Bob Thornton, Cynda Williams, and Michael Beach and their interactions with an Arkansas sheriff played by Bill Paxton. Far from his low-budget past, Franklin’s budget of $2 million gave him a bit of room to be creative, and achieve his entire vision for the film. What set this film apart from the countless other cops and robbers movies was Franklin’s insight into the underlying racial aspect that the film presented. With a unique perspective on a classic topic of racial tension, Franklin’s performance as director was praised above all. However, the original version of the film, which was released in 1991, was thought to be overly violent. In response to such claims, Franklin told the Observer, “I didn't want people getting excited seeing how neat someone can be killed… I want the audience to feel the emotional loss of lifethe real violence is the loss, the violation of humanity. They've taken from us someone who had dreams, hopes, the same set of emotions we have."
The film is noted for Franklin’s creative use of the pastoral motif. By combining cinematic and literary traditions, Franklin paints a picture of a crime, deeply rooted in the South, pointing out that the real issues at stake date back farther than one would expect. The underlying commentary on the severity of racial issues is one that has not been expressed by many other filmmakers in this way, however, Franklin’s film has been likened to Oscar Micheaux's Within Our Gates (1920), John Singleton's Boyz N the Hood (1991), and Roman Polanski's Chinatown (1974).
Despite the film’s lack of professional publicity, One False Move was largely promoted by word of mouth and earned itself mixed reviews. However, the reviews that were positive were very positive, gaining the project more attention. The film was named Best Film of the Year by Gene Siskel, and one of the 10 Best Films of 1992 by the National Review Board.
Next came one of Franklin’s most famous films, Devil in a Blue Dress. Franklin’s involvement in the production stemmed from his admiration for Walter Mosley, author of the original mystery novel. Heavily invested in the project both as a director and fan, Franklin adapted the screenplay himself. Working again with Jesse Beaton, and with Jonathan Demme as Executive Producer they were able to obtain a $20 million budget for the film, paving the way for a smooth production. With Denzel Washington on board to play the lead role, the film showed great promise.
Set in Los Angeles in the end of the 1940s, the story follows an African-American private detective and his often challenging career. The film’s biggest contribution was its recreation of South Central Los Angeles, in a time when the neighborhood was at its peak of historical relevance. His portrayal of the area touched on a piece of time often overlooked, and reminded audiences of the community values of Los Angeles, and especially hit home for many African-American viewers, who appreciated the insight into the family values that define their culture. Reviews for the film varied, with many praising Franklin’s directing more than the film itself.
Switching gears back to television, Franklin directed Laurel Avenue, a two-part miniseries focused on an African-American family in Minnesota for HBO in 1993. Franklin’s portrayal of the realities of the African-American community were highly regarded, further demonstrating his knack for hard-hitting reality mixed with a deep sentimentality and understanding of humanity. One issue in particular that stood out in the series was the issue of drug use. Franklin defended his depictions, explaining that "Drugs are a huge problem in the black community. Not to include that would be a stupid oversight. But if the subject of drugs is introduced in the context of a hardworking family that has managed to maintain unity, and the audience sees drugs as a threat to that unity, they get a much greater understanding of the problem." The series brought Franklin even more positive reviews, proving that it is his upfront approach to portraying reality that continues to bring him success.
Following Laurel Avenue, Franklin found himself maintaining A-list status, which allowed him to work on bigger and more visible projects, such as 1998’s One True Thing. The film is an adaptation of an autobiographical story by New York journalist Anna Quindlan, following a woman (Renee Zellweger) with no option but to leave Manhattan for the small town where she was raised when her mother (Meryl Streep) is diagnosed with cancer.
Franklin supports the portrayal of African-American history in films, and has been quoted as saying “I am interested in the universal values of the black experience.” However, just because Franklin is a filmmaker who is African American does not mean that all of his films are racially motivated. Not all of his films revolve around a central theme of culture: some of his films cover racial issues, while others do not. Franklin maintains a wide subject range in his films, choosing not to focus solely on his heritage.
As a prominent African-American filmmaker, Franklin stands apart from the rest in his careful selection of projects. While many of his most notable films touch on the subject of racial climates and the struggles that ensue, Franklin does not hide behind his race. Explaining to The L.A Times, "My ethnicity is a plus, a tool. It gives me ammunition in terms of the way I view the world. There are certain stories in the black community that inform us all.” Combining his humanitarian instincts and personal experiences, Franklin stands out as a visionary for community improvement through his films. However, a large part of Franklin’s remarkable journey revolves around the fact that he is black. Discussing the realities for African Americans in the television and film industry, Franklin said: "When I came up, the only legitimate dramatic actor was Sidney Poitier, the bankable star was Richard Pryor and the other choice roles were action parts that went to Jim Brown. Even someone as good as Billy Dee Williams had a couple of great moments and then couldn't get a decent part." With a very small window of opportunity for African Americans at the time that Franklin was getting his start, his skills and educational background contributed to his success.
Franklin is a standout filmmaker regardless of his race, yet he is often praised for his ability to overcome adversity, and is recognized for his highly regarded opinion as well as his relevant contributions. In February 2000, Franklin was featured as a Black History Month guest speaker at Indiana University’s ‘’Black Film Center/Archive’’. The group hosted an event called A Night with Filmmaker Carl Franklin, which gave Franklin the opportunity to talk about his experience in the movie industry as well as show a preview of his film Devil in a Blue Dress. Franklin's appearance was highly regarded by many students who were honored to meet him in person.Punk (1986)
Eye of the Eagle 2: Inside the Enemy (1989)
Last Stand at Lang Mei (1990)
Devil in a Blue Dress (1995)