Like Carl Franklin (Devil in a Blue Dress) and Bryan Barber (Idlewild), one of African-American writer/director Preston A. Whitmore II's first career moves involved carrying mainstream black cinema in an unusual direction. The native Detroiter's 1995 debut, The Walking Dead, marked a cinematic first -- the premiere "black Vietnam film" -- and would have entailed an auspicious bow. Unfortunately, Whitmore's grade-A casting choices (Joe Morton and Eddie Griffin fill two of the key roles) and the ingenuity of his central concept failed to mesh with the dispiriting critical and public response. The San Francisco Chronicle's Peter Stack lamented, "There is a potentially great movie to be made about African-American military men fighting in Vietnam for an America tainted by racial unrest and oppression -- but The Walking Dead is not that film." And The Washington Post's Desson Howe remarked, "Walking Dead...distills its reservoir of dramatic potential into a series of clichéd eddies."
Perhaps taking this as a cue, Whitmore spun around and carried off in a different direction. He cut his teeth on the small screen, as one of the scripters of the sitcom Malcolm and Eddie. With The Cosby Show's Malcolm-Jamal Warner and Walking Dead mainstay Griffin in central roles, and Joel Madison as the series creator,UPN landed a four-season home run. Scripting duties on a first-run theatrical feature followed, summer 1996's criminal-on-the-run actioner Fled, with Laurence Fishburne and Stephen Baldwin. The response proved equally dispiriting. If critics found the previous year's Walking Dead unsuccessful, they were particularly harsh on Fled; many zeroed in concertedly on Whitmore's script, which they dismissed as pedestrian and cliché-ridden.
Four years sans credits followed for Whitmore, until he scripted a trio of features just after the turn of the millennium. He authored director John Luessenhop's 2000 prison picture Lockdown, which stars African-American character actors Bill Nunn, Anna Maria Horsford, and others. It received extremely limited distribution; those who did catch it espoused mixed emotions. Whitmore broke free of black cinema to pen the teleplay of William A. Graham's 2002 psychological thriller Blood Crime (with Johnathon Schaech and James Caan), and adapted the same year's social conscience drama Civil Brand from his own story.
In 2004, Whitmore harkened back to the big screen and reclaimed the director's chair, for the straight-to-video crime thriller Doing Hard Time, which he also scripted. A kind of African-American spin on In the Bedroom, crossed with the filmmaker's own Lockdown, the picture tells the story of a father denied justice in the wake of his son's murder, who seeks deliberate incarceration to execute the men who snuffed out his boy's life. Whitmore also wrote and directed a follow-up, 2006's first-run big screen effort Crossover. That picture stars Anthony Mackie and Wesley Jonathan in its tale of an all-black underground basketball team, who play in a converted train station, and was realeased by Sony Pictures in September 2006.