Fade to White

A filmmaker maps Austin’s shifting ethnic landscape.

On a warm Thursday in Austin, Texas, film director and native son Aaron Burns was driving his 2002 Honda Civic coupe through the city’s east side, and talking up his debut feature, blacktino. The film, which had premiered a week earlier at the South by Southwest festival, is the compelling, if uneven, story of Stefan, a chubby, bespectacled black and Hispanic kid trying to pick his way through a football-crazy high school in the suburbs of Austin. It’s akin to Junot Díaz’s Pulitzer Prize–winning novel, The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao, if more sanguine and less epic. “The difference between Oscar Wao and this is that Oscar is a Hispanic kid who happens to be black, whereas Stefan is a black kid who is trying to hide his Hispanic-ness,” Burns told me. “He even changes his name from Esteban to Stefan.”

Burns wore a black T-shirt, black jeans, and a beard. He spoke freely, and paid homage to his Texan roots by ending his responses with sir. As he drove, he offered a running commentary on Austin’s east side, pointing out old haunts from his younger years, and noting the creep of gentrification. “This is the place where a lot of stuff goes down,” he said, shortly after we crossed I-35. “My dad … used to play basketball down here at Rosewood gym in the early ’90s, when this was all hood. This was ghetto, ghetto, ghetto … It’s kind of hood still, but then you see houses like this, where you see people with money and trust funds, who buy these houses and turn them into an eclectic Austin kind of thing.”

Austin is the poster child of new urbanists, and the city, now the 14th-largest in the country, is booming. That includes East Austin, whose earlier ghetto phase was largely the creation of state-mandated racism. In 1928, the city council adopted a development plan that in effect pushed all blacks across East Avenue—a divide that hardened when the avenue became an extension of I-35, which stretches from Canada to Mexico. As in other divided cities, crime and blight soon followed, and in the ’70s and ’80s, the African American share of the city’s total population began to shrink. Now, whites are moving to East Austin, pushing property values up and turning the once-black neighborhood into an enclave of yupsters and hippies.

Burns straddles these two worlds. His African American father raised him in the northern suburbs, but did community work and played basketball on the east side, often bringing his son along. But through his mother, Elizabeth Avellan, and his former stepfather, Robert Rodriguez, the co-owners of Troublemaker Studios (which has produced everything from children’s fare like Spy Kids to elegant splatterfests like Sin City and Grindhouse), Burns partakes of what passes for Austin royalty. After dropping out of film school at the University of Texas, he turned his avid interest in computer graphics into a job in Troublemaker’s special-effects department. As he put it: “Troublemaker Studios was my film school. You cannot have a better film experience than watching Quentin Tarantino and Robert Rodriguez laugh on set and direct two films. It’s impossible.”

Burns pulled into the parking lot of the Doris Miller gym, which sits on the edge of Rosewood Park. “The biggest Juneteenth celebration in Austin is here,” he said. Juneteenth is an ironic African American celebration, particularly strong among those in Texas, commemorating their state’s tardy notification of emancipation. “I just remember as a kid coming here, and you’d hear gunshots and everybody would scatter.”

He pulled out of the lot and grew wistful. “Sam’s BBQ, which we passed a little while ago, was a haunt. We hung out there. You’d go eat barbecue. You’d say hello to Mr. Sam, and then that was that. This was a black neighborhood for black people. A lot of these houses have been rebuilt, or built on top of the bones of a renovation.”

Despite his warm feelings for parts of old East Austin, Burns isn’t overly nostalgic. “It was a heavy neighborhood,” he said. “It’s grown. It’s gotten better. People are investing money, the skyline has grown … I never thought the skyline would look like that. I love it. I think any progress is great.” He was able not only to shoot much of blacktino on the east side, but to do the color-correcting at a high-tech studio just off East Sixth Street.

The film itself is something of a roman à clef, and not just because of its identity politics. Like Stefan in the movie, Burns was himself overweight. In fact, when his grandmother suddenly died, he remanded himself to his room, became absorbed in computer graphics, and, in typical ghetto-nerd fashion, ballooned to 325 pounds by age 18. He showed me a picture of himself as a high-school sophomore on a visit to New York, the Twin Towers in the background, a huge medallion on his chest. I asked him how he eventually shed the weight. “I was in love with this girl. She told me I was fat, so I started running. I ran it all off in a summer,” he said. “Right now I’m ’round 225. I want to get to 200, and I’ll be straight.”

By then we’d left the east side and were heading north past the University of Texas.

“Did you go back up to her and say, ‘How you like me now?,’” I asked.

“Yeah,” he said. “And she said, ‘I don’t.’ And that was that. It was obviously my personality. Or maybe it was this medallion in this horrible picture.”