In March, Tambay posted his piece "Pondering The Seemingly Dismal Outlook For Black Filmmakers Working Within The Hollywood Studio System.” Dissecting the top 300 grossing films of 2011 as a jumping off point, it was a post pondering the fate of established Black directors and their ability to carve out meaningful careers and projects.
There’s one particular section of that post that has been stuck in my mind. I revisit it almost daily.
I certainly don’t pretend to have all the answers to this crisis – yes, I’m calling it a crisis, as extreme as the word might sound. The obvious solution is that these filmmakers (if they haven’t already) become more proactive in their efforts, as in looking outside the studio system for opportunities, or funding, for their own personal projects.
Within that, it’s the word crisis I continuously mull over.
- A time of intense difficulty, trouble, or danger.
- A time when a difficult or important decision must be made: "a crisis point of history".
Even with some of the exciting developments of the last few years, we are most definitely at a time of “intense difficulty”.
There’s no need to go over what those issues are. The only purpose would be to catalog the list of challenges so some reader decades from now will have some context. For right now, in the present, most of you are hip to what is and isn’t happening.
On to this month and Tambay’s post: “Notes On Working Towards A Fanboy/Girl Culture In Black Indie Cinema - Part 1”. In terms of a crisis, it is pieces like this, and how we answer, respond and follow up that will be the key moments in how we overcome and move beyond that crisis.
Whenever we talk about the indie film scene, the narrative more or less starts in the 1980s with the emergence of filmmakers like Spike Lee and Jim Jarmusch at the earliest, and more often in the 1990s with the dominant rise of institutions like Sundance and Miramax.
However, the current Indie film community today exists on the backs of the small film groups and collectives that rose up in New York, San Francisco, Paris and London going far back as the 1940s, 1930s and 1920s.
That we weren't part of those larger discussions and movements in any significant numbers then is reflected in our level of participation in what exists now. You can find filmmakers who are third, fourth and fifth generation artists and filmmakers who are White. Even though it’s starting to slowly change, you’ll be hard pressed to find a significant number of African American, or Asian or Latino, filmmakers who are even second generation.
A question to be asked is why didn’t a parallel infrastructure exist for African American filmmakers? And if it did, where is that infrastructure today? And I’m not talking about the IFPs or the Austin and San Francisco Film Societies of the film world. I’m talking about those groups and collectives, informal and formal that grow into IFP that become Austin Film Society.
It doesn’t matter what was, only what is. We'll never build up and keep the momentum going if we're trying to move as one large mammoth entity. As localized, empowered entities, there's so much that can happen when 10 filmmakers in Atlanta, 15 filmmakers in Chicago, 30 filmmakers in Miami are all banding together to push and challenge each other. The potential energy that can be generated when those smaller groups meet to have their ideas and thoughts, merge, clash and morph is immeasurable.
From those groups arise the thought leaders who will be the pioneers, the innovators, the instigators and the entrepreneurs. They will create the new IFPs and the Film Societies. They will reinvent organizations and give them new purpose. They’ll destroy and tear down old ones that have outlived their usefulness. They will challenge convention while not ignoring the hard truths that there are things that exist because they work.
How do we make this happen? Looping back to Tambay’s question, how do we create a fanboy/girl culture for Black cinema?
First things first.
We must begin by killing and burying the parallel conceits that capital letter Black Filmmaking must speak to capital letter Black Folk, that Black Audiences are some kind of monolithic group with continuously shared interests and desires that don’t exist asymmetrically and contradict each other, and that there is a Black Experience.
We've missed out on having more films that are specifically about being Black in Chicago, Black in Atlanta, being Black and 16, being a Black atheist, being Black and being married to someone from Ghana. There’s a specificity of time, place and character that is still too rare.
When it’s there, you get DO THE RIGHT THING. You get MEDICINE FOR MELANCHOLY. You get KILLER OF SHEEP. You get a NIGHT CATCHES US.
When it’s not, you get GET ON THE BUS, a good film that has a lot to say, but lacks fire and heat and states the obvious and doesn't stick to your cinematic ribs for long.
You watch DO THE RIGHT THING and you may not know the facts about the racial climate of New York in 1989, but you feel it in your belly. A visceral reaction that forces you to make a choice about the film, the themes and the characters that rarely leads anyone to sit on the fence. The ending alone still pushes people into separate camps. Even when one comes away ambiguously unsure where to fall it’s an active ambiguity of ideas that still resonate in the present. Trying to get anyone to understand even one tenth of the anger over Trayvon Martin, show DO THE RIGHT THING. Trying to explain the unease an Iraqi or a Pakistani may feel with the United States’ continued presence, it’s all there in how Sal’s Pizzeria is simultaneously of and set a part from the community, and while his business is there, Sal could still walk way at any time.
Looking to the theater, some of the strongest plays are very specific. August Wilson's plays work and resonate because they are about Pittsburgh. RAISIN IN THE SUN would be a different type of work if wasn't set in Chicago. Back to film, Spike's best films are very much about New York, especially Bedford-Stuyvesant, at a specific point in time. Out of that comes the universal.
As we look to build and create business models that can sustain a growing body of work, we have to do a better job of understanding, reaching and targeting the audiences we too easily believe we intimately know because those audiences look like us —a belief that is often fervent and blind in its passion.
The problem isn't that films aren't reaching a wider demographic the problem is that too many filmmakers are still trying to reach a wide demographic without first acknowledging that being Black is not ubiquitous. Not generationally, socially or regionally. A thirteen year old in L.A. is not the same as a 46-year old in New York city and to lump them together is silly. The problem is that too many filmmakers are not stopping to consider that maybe their project has no audience, or a small audience, or a specific audience, or an audience that will have to be cultivated over years, or an audience that has to come into the theater already informed.
We need even more diverse stories and projects of various sizes, ambitions and budgets within the Black Film Community. For the health of our overall community, the more we can create films that strongly resonate on smaller scales, the more we can create a collective that organically builds. We need cultural epicenters that like earthquakes are strongest at their center.
More in part 2.
Atlanta Film Festival 365
Head of Programming and Industry Outreach/Festival Director
2013 Atlanta Film Festival -- March 15 - March 24, 2013
Submit Your Screenplay: http://www.