Prize of the Kung-Fu Judge: The Slave Theatre

In the early 1980’s, a tenth-degree black belt named John L. Phillips wanted to showcase a taboo film about interracial love called “Hands Across Two Continents.” He had produced the film, but it was so controversial at the time, no one would distribute it. In response, Phillips bought two theatres in Bed-Stuy and named them the “Slave No. 1” at 1215 Fulton Street and the “Black Lady” at 750 Nostrand Avenue. Why Slave? “So no one would forget our struggles” said Phillips. Besides being a martial arts teacher, an indie film producer, an avid property developer in Bed-Stuy (during a time when no one would invest in our neighborhood!), a World War II veteran, and a successful lawyer, he was also a Brooklyn civil court judge for 17 years. Whew!

Regent Theatre in 1942

Originally named the Regent and constructed in the early 1900’s, the Slave is a 1 screen, 546 seat movie theatre. I was lucky enough to catch up with the Slave Theatre’s “Chief,” Mr. Clarence Hardy, long-time friend of Hon. Phillips. “The Slave Theatre is for everyone. It represents not just what blacks have gone through in the past, but the modern-day slavery of all underserved people” said Mr. Hardy. He took me on a tour of the now-decrepit theatre and passionately told me the story of Hon. Phillips and the unfortunate selling of the property which so many see as a community landmark…

It all really fell apart when Judge Phillips decided he was going to run for the Brooklyn District Attorney seat in 2001. Before the formal announcement, four-term incumbent Brooklyn DA Charles A. Hynes’ Office began investigating an allegation in which Phillips was  swindled out of a real-estate holding. According to the New York Times, “no one was arrested, but in the course of the inquiry, a judge determined that Mr. Phillips was mentally incompetent, knocking him off the ballot and removing his control of his own affairs.”

After the ruling, Hon. Phillips had all of his assets frozen and properties sold-off by court-appointed guardians. Phillips also saw the siphoning of hundreds of thousands of dollars into his guardians’ personal pockets and a bill for $2 million in unpaid IRS taxes and fees. By 2004, due to extreme mismanagement, and without access to his funds, pensions, and social security, he was forcibly removed to a nursing center in the Bronx. In that same year, his home on 155 Herkimer St. was gutted by a fire. In February 2008, Hon. John Phillips passed away in squalid conditions while still under guardianship.

Hon. John L. Phillips, 2006

Now his nephew, Rev. Samuel Boykin from Ohio is the current administrator of the estate and trying to make sense of the mess that has been made. Since October 2008, Rev. Boykin has filed complaints against eight organizations including a wrongful death suit against the nursing facility (more information can be found at Brooklyn Ink).  Millions of dollars in debt, Rev. Boykin is now faced with the unhappy task of selling off Hon. Phillips’ remaining properties, including the Slave Theatre here in Bed-Stuy.

“It is criminal what has happened” says Mr. Hardy, “I am just trying to finish what Judge Phillips wanted.” After showing me the theatre, he popped in a DVD with an interview of Hon. Phillips conducted by Mr. Hardy and family members, which reiterated his desires for community improvement. The Slave Theatre is known as a rallying point for Bed-Stuy, Brooklyn, and the larger African-American community. Plastered on the walls are murals of Black activists and leaders from across the globe. Pithy quotes, cartoons, and portraits adorn the entryway – just walking in the building you are going to learn a little something. Known as a meeting place and a stronghold in the community, activists like Alton Maddox and Al Sharpton spoke their often and led organizing meetings and educational activities and film-screenings.

While Mr. Hardy opens up the Slave daily at 9am and tries to slowly clean and improve it (he is only allowed to remove 10 bags of garbage per week), Rev. Boykin is trying to find a suitable buyer to cover the years of accumulated debt (you can read more about the sides in this 2nd Brooklyn Ink post). Without landmark status and due to a recent upzoning of the area, there is now an allowable 25,000 sqft. of buildable space. I saw on Brownstowner that it was listed for $2.9 million by Massey Knakal Realty, but they had pulled the listing down from their website when I checked to confirm. At this point, I hope a really enlightened individual or organization decides to purchase it and turn it into a community center dedicated to arts and film education: a Park Slop Pavilion Theatre but with the community and educational aspect as the focal point.

Mr. Hardy hands me a burnt CD of a documentary trailer two students from SVA made a year ago, along with a CD of Hon. Phillips’ final interview. “The story is all on these,” he looks down despondently and I drop a small donation in the box. Before I left, I asked him what he wants from the community residents in particular, besides just having volunteers drop by to help clean up: “we really need a printer or a photo-copy machine,” he replied, “so we can make some flyers.” It really has been an uphill battle since 2001.

Here is the documentary trailer called “The Mission:”

If you are interested in contacting Mr. Hardy to see when you can volunteer or how to donate, his phone number is 718-581-7234. The Slave is open daily from 9:00AM until around sunset every day, and Mr. Hardy is there everyday by around 1:00PM. Their website is managed by Mr. Hardy’s son, and it looks like they have monthly events – one is even slated for July 30, 2011! Check the Slave Website for more information.

If you are interested in purchasing the Slave Theatre (please be nice), the phone number is 234-788-2876.

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Also, check out the amazing photos by Hiroki Kobayashi and a link to the Save the Slave! facebook fan page.

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Categories: Arts and Culture, Bed Stuy, Fulton Street, Videos

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