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A Crisis of Culture: Exactly What Type of Cinematic Disapora Are We Creating?

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by Charles Judson
June 11, 2012 11:07 AM
27 Comments
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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. 

Crisis: Noun

  1. A time of intense difficulty, trouble, or danger.
  2. 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.

Charles Judson
Atlanta Film Festival 365 
Head of Programming and Industry Outreach/Festival Director

2013 Atlanta Film Festival -- March 15 - March 24, 2013

Submit Your Film or Music Video: http://www.atlantafilmfestival.com/2013-fest/2013-submissions/

Submit Your Screenplay: http://www.atlantafilmfestival.com/2013-fest/2013-atlanta-film-festival-screenplay-competition/

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27 Comments

  • Rory | June 12, 2012 1:10 AMReply

    Charles, thank you for your post. Your paragraph where you state, " 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," truly resonated with me.

    The assumptions and expectations for us (African Americans) are that we have a universal experience. That comes from the majority but I believe some people of color buy into as well. I call B.S. on that fervently. My experience as a Black male growing up in Chicago is different from the brother who grew up on the next block! So why would anyone expect that I share the same experience as that Black Brooklynite or sista from the Deep South. Nevertheless, many people (read--studio executives) will have you believe it is true. Although I may not agree with Tyler Perry's films all the time I respect the fact that he is making movies (and his movies do resonate with a certain audience...I for one am not in the audience). But his "stories" cannot--nor should they--be viewed as representative of all Black culture. It's a patch on the larger quilt of the Black experience. So we can have our "Eve's Bayou", "Love Jones", "Soul Plane", "Bones", "Precious" and so forth. Who is out there making quirky films like "Eternal Sunshine for the Spotless Mind" for an African American audience? Sure, Tim Story did the Fanstastic Four films, but who is going to make a Black Panther film, Static Shock film, etc. for the brothers and sisters who are into comics and superheroes?

    We are in a crisis.

  • Charles Judson | June 12, 2012 5:00 PM

    Troy, I'm not sure about the point you're making or how it fits exactly in the conversation, but who said we need to follow the path of White people to feel good about ourselves? I agree, just to make a film because White people are doing it, or doing a Black version is silly. I'm not for cinematic versions of the Black Mickey Mouse and Bart Simpson t-shirts of the 1990s. It's one of those moments in time that was just embarrassing and while it made the makers money, it was by no means a revolutionary act of creative control that some of them claimed it was. I doubt many of those vendors created long lasting new businesses out of them, or went on to create original characters. We should be encouraging filmmakers to take risks and tell stories in interesting ways that engage audiences, not just copy what someone else did because it was successful.

  • troy | June 12, 2012 2:26 PM

    Why do we never everything white people have to feel good about ourselves? Can we work on finding the right path instead of following others' paths. I guess thats why white people think the Black Panthers is a parallel to the Klan. Reactionary followers is who they are just like Sambo.

  • Charles Judson | June 12, 2012 12:24 PM

    I'm with you. Doing a film like ETERNAL requires some risk and audacity, but the reward is a really good film that has a lot to say about relationships.

  • Rory | June 12, 2012 11:52 AM

    I am sure there are some brothers and sisters out there who are just as innovative as Michael Gondry/Charlie Kaufman if not more. Again, I don't know them personally (ha!) but i would love to see African Americans making these sort of films and acting in them. Charles, you say risk and audacity, I say just do it. But I am not naive to realize the crux of the problem remains support outside of film circles and major studio backing.

    Horror and psychological thrillers have been my favorite film genres since I was young, and aside from "Tales From the Hood", "Blacula", "Def By Temptation" and "Bones" I have yet to see a genre-film that I thoroughly enjoyed or resonated with me as say Wes Craven's original "A Nightmare on Elm Street" or David Fincher's "Se7en", etc. In order for the Black Film Diaspora to be a true "diaspora" we need African films, Caribbean films, horror films, action films, etc.

  • Charles Judson | June 12, 2012 8:46 AM

    "Who is out there making quirky films like "Eternal Sunshine for the Spotless Mind" for an African American audience?" <---- This right here is what I'm talking about. And if we want to talk about budget, that's a sci-fi film that uses a lot of in camera tricks and continuous takes. Folks can make that film. Again, Risks and Audacity.

  • CareyCarey | June 12, 2012 12:07 AMReply

    Where do I start? Here?--> "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"OR THIS?-->"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". Well Charles, first I have to say this is well written and obviously you put your foot in it. I loved how you didn't pull any punches. Now on to the heart of the post. I don't believe there's anything that I can disagree with. Well I do disagree with your comment on "Get On The Bus" but that's a small detail we can discuss at a later time. I highlighted the above paragraphs because although I wholeheartedly agree with prescribed journey, I don't see the detailed road map. Here is what I am suggesting. While working with individuals with serious drug and alcohol problem, I noticed a perculiar pattern. Not only did I witness this pattern, I went through my own hell to find my peace of mind. I too had lived a long life of addiction. Anyway, what I noticed was education, intelligence, devotion, good role models, inspiration, etc... none of that made any different if the solutions were not detailed, specific and deplete of ambiguity. Time and time and time again, I saw the most educated, devoted and strong willed individuals succumb to their addiction (and die) because they where not given enough detailed and precise information which would address "HOW". They were given loads of great "sounding" blanket solution, but the solutions were absent of concise, 24/7, no holds barred -- details. Not only was "HOW EXACTLY DO "I" DO THAT" not addressed on a continual basis, the myriad of possible road blocks, setback, and mental pressure, problems, etc, were not addressed, which leads directly back to the problem of "HOW". How does one prepare to "fix" and/or address that which does not exist in ones mind?

  • CareyCarey | June 12, 2012 4:47 PM

    "Many folks are creating films that aren't Tyler Perry or aren't another X, instead of just making the film they want to make". UT OH! Now we're sizzling hot. But again, this is your piece so I'm still meddling. So let me stop before I ask... in reference to Tyler Perry and another X film, what are some folks reacting to and what are their subsquent reactions? Are they running away from something?

  • Charles Judson | June 12, 2012 2:20 PM

    You're actually still in the same area as my point. Many folks are creating films that aren't Tyler Perry or aren't another X, instead of just making the film they want to make. We should be in this to create, not (simply) react. This does NOT mean we can't critique each others work and we can't raise issues or concerns.

  • CareyCarey | June 12, 2012 1:08 PM

    Okay Charles, I gotha. I was at a different place. I was speaking more toward enternal strife within the African American Film Community (i.e. "different camps", audiences, actors, filmmakers, political groups and other industry talents) beginning as far back as Oscar Micheaux. I've noticed a serious destuctive interference pattern. But there is a solution (or antidote if you will) that also has been proven to work. And again, this is your piece so I'm meddling :-)

  • Charles Judson | June 12, 2012 11:12 AM

    Speaking in general, I call it a false trap because, as an example, we get a lot--and I do mean A LOT--of submissions that in the cover letter the submitter will elaborate on how their film is special because it's not a Hollywood film, or it doesn't have explosions or car chases, or it's not [blank]. Those typically turn out to not be the stronger films, even when well intentioned. There's a indie vs. Hollywood, outsider vs. insider divide that too many filmmakers focus on and instead of knowing their story inside and out, they're constantly looking up and seeing what else is out there and they become reactive and not proactive. They're passive participants instead of active creators.

  • CareyCarey | June 12, 2012 10:29 AM

    "What I'll write about will also speak to the false trap of us vs. them". Good good good... that speaks to my concerns. But I don't know if I'd call it a "false trap". I think I'd call it a solid barrier of "divide". But do continue.

  • Charles Judson | June 12, 2012 10:00 AM

    I've got the rough draft on my computer. I'll tell you right now, neither the words money nor business plan will be used in part 2. What I'll write about will also speak to the false trap of us vs. them. I used "culture" in my title for a reason. The more I do this, the more I live by this quote: "You have to build the culture you want to see, you have to build the culture you want to work in."

  • CareyCarey | June 12, 2012 8:56 AM

    Okay sir. When? I am asking because I am following you and I have several more questions and concerns. One of my concerns speaks to the "roadblocks" of a sustainable fanbase in the black flim community. History tells me there are "loud" groups with money, power and influence who will wreak havoc upon any "patterns" that does not fall in their fold/agenda. In the past they have been very sucessful in muting those who do not share their likes, dislikes and opinions. I don't want to be a killjoy but I believe in the phrase "a successful business plan is only as strong as it's weakest link". If "that" weak link is not exposed, the whole plan WILL come tumbling down.

  • Charles Judson | June 12, 2012 8:32 AM

    More in part 2 sir.

  • Julie | June 12, 2012 12:05 AMReply

    Why must black directors always have to make "black films"? I believe the real problem is that all too often black directors confine themselves. Why can't there be a film directed by a black director about starring black people without it being a "Black Film" ? All too often black films limit themselves to being about the black experience, anywhere. I, for once, would like to see a film about "people" not about black people being black. Make stories that aren't the same recycled sundance plot. Move beyond, "just being black" or even having a grand social statement. Tell a story. There are some directors who have benefited greatly from this. They may not be well known, but they have had tremendously successful work. Even filmmakers like Steve McQueen understands that he can tell a story without it being a "black film". He knows that he can have a black actress without it being a statement. Make a film, any film but please do not be a slave to your race.

  • Charles Judson | June 12, 2012 9:38 AM

    Laura, I got what Julie is saying and I don't think she was implying that ALL Black writers and directors are confining themselves. I think her point is that overall there's a heaviness in films featuring Black characters that White characters don't endure. You can feel the weight of all 40 million Black folks resting precariously on the shoulders of these characters. When you add 400 years of history for good measure, it's not surprising that too many films barely hold together. It sounds like the way you've approached writing your script, while not featuring Black characters, is what Julie is looking for. I definitely understand your reaction though. That we collectively use words like humanity and human condition so often shows how much we have felt under siege and isolated in the film world. Over the last few years I've noted how often White filmmakers say it, which is rare in comparison to filmmakers of Color (unless it's been another--sorry White documentarians if you're reading this, but it's true--White People Go To Africa doc). I admit I am generalizing to an extent, but that we still have to speak in such global terms and aren't able to speak about the characters we create, regardless if they're Black or not, with as much specificity is an issue. If I create a character, I would want people to speak of her the same way people breakdown Don Draper or Sarah O'Connor.

  • Laura | June 12, 2012 9:01 AM

    Wow, as a person who just finished a script for the market with no Black characters and has stories with non-Black protagonist, I find your statement incredibly offensive. "Black people limit themselves to being about the black experience". Really? Really? What about white filmmakers who create movies without nary a person of color insight? Are they limited themselves to being about the white experience. Oh, I forgot, whiteness is the default standard of humanity. Everybody else are viewed as limited in the human experience. All of my films may not be about the "Black Experience". However ALL the films I make ALWAYS come from a Black Female perspective. And I say that with no malice or resentment whatsoever . My take on the world is as valid as any white male filmmaker. (I can't believe I have to utter such a thing in this day and age) Moreover, I know my unique creative vision will bring a welcome insight into human condition.

  • Mateen | June 11, 2012 10:36 PMReply

    You said a lot but no way can you compare Medicine for Melancholy, Do the Right Thing and the Killer of Sheep with Night Catches US. No way the latter is in the class of the other 3.

  • Charles Judson | June 12, 2012 8:29 AM

    It's the specificity of NIGHT CATCHES US and all 4 films that I'm highlighting. A story about 1976 Philadelphia that features The Black Panthers in away we haven't seen before. I agree it's not as strong a film as the first three I mentioned. However, as a film that critiques the disconnect between the promise of the Panther Party of the 60s and the reality of Philadelphia a decade later, it brings something new to the table. Instead of getting another PANTHER, that pits the Party against COINTELPRO, and doesn't tell us much about Oakland, it turns the lens back on the party and neighborhood to explore some hard and interesting questions. From the end of my review I wrote back in 2010: "If there’s a weakness in the overall story, it would be that as a character driven portrait of a neighborhood, Night doesn’t contain much dramatic drive. Hamilton tries to utilize Jimmy’s constant battling with a racist Philadelphia cop as a narrative spine, however the climax of that arc does more to undercut the subtle and delicate world she’s created than add any believable tension. And it doesn’t help that both Jimmy and the cop are one note characters who seem only to exist to antagonize each other. Still, Night‘s end point feels not only emotionally logical, never resorting to drawing any firm conclusions, it reinforces that while movements may come to an end, the issues and complex questions they bring to light rarely do." Films don't need to be perfect to be vital.

  • bondgirl | June 11, 2012 1:26 PMReply

    Thanks Charles, I don't think anyone has told the story of "Black in Chicago, Black in Atlanta, being Black and 16, being a Black atheist, being Black and being married to someone from Ghana" , the way Spike has told being Black in Brooklyn. The business model he used should be copied as well, because people will retweet or Facebook some zombie apocolypse story before they will repost a black indie filmmaker's movie. Spike wasn't working with even half the social media that's out here today, when he made School Daze, not that I know if it even made a profit.

  • question | June 12, 2012 1:54 PM

    Is being black in a different location a unique storyline especially when they are black neighborhoods with roots in the south and west Africa?

  • troy | June 12, 2012 1:51 PM

    George A. Romero has been making american zombie films for almost 50 years. People in the world have been fascinated with the living dead way before the most famous zombie Jesus. Zombie Culture Club has been a part of every society.

  • Charles Judson | June 11, 2012 2:24 PM

    I'm with you. But, I think filmmakers have to create a body of work that gets people excited on a level that's beyond "support this because you have to". The zombie genre, even within horror was fairly niche for decades and now it's turned into a genre to reckoned with that's crossed over into the mainstream. You need excited, motivated fans to build on top of, but that only happens with work that resonates and exists en masse. THE WALKING DEAD likely wouldn't exist if it wasn't for the influence of Italian Zombie movies being pumped out on the regular 30 years ago. Films I had no interest in seeing, but I remember kids sitting in the back of class in high school leafing through the latest issue of Fangoria. Trying to think of the one video store that would rent them explicit versions of the films they wanted to see that weekend. I'm going to address this in Part 2 with a section called Risks, Audacity, Output. And SCHOOL DAZE did make money, $14 million on a $7 million budget, if I'm remembering correctly.

  • Laura | June 11, 2012 12:15 PMReply

    Hey Charles. Thanks for the post. You give a lot food for thought. I agree with everything you have to say. But I would like to add a few things. Not only can't one Black film be for all Black people, but we have to stop chiding the (B)lack film going public for enjoying certain films we cineaste/film makers may deem politcally incorrect. (i.e. Tyler Perry Films and Django Unchained). We seem to have this either/or, or a zero sum game attitude when it comes to movie viewing. (B)lack American movie habit is not seperate from American Movie viewing culture. Even though I have no interest as a film goer to pay to see the above mentioned film, I would do a disservice to (B)lack filmmaking class by alienating our potential movie going public by attacking them because of the films they enjoy watching. Filmmakers should meet these film goers where and invite them on a the ride. It is fun. Film is magical. Like you stated, our individual films can not be all things to all (B)lack people. As a film maker I have an particular audience in mind. It does not include all (B)lack people for sure. However we now have that opportunity to narrow our demographics because the advent of cheap technology. Filmmakers did not have that luxury a generation ago.

  • Charles Judson | June 11, 2012 12:34 PM

    Add a way, because I'm with you. In fact, a section of Part 2 is called "Respect the Audience".

  • Charles Judson | June 11, 2012 11:54 AMReply

    FYI: That ending part is my email signature. Not part of my post. :-)

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