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Franklin is a graduate of University of California, Berkeley, and continued his education at the AFI Conservatory, where he graduated with an M.F.A. degree in directing in 1986.
Carl Franklin was raised outside of San Francisco, in Richmond, California. He never had the opportunity to know his biological father, who had 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,” he 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.
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