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Black Power in the Global Film Industry

Shadow and Act By Andre Seewood | Shadow and Act June 2, 2014 at 12:38PM

Black Power in the Global Film Industry
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Poster: "The Realization of a Negro's Ambition" (1916)
Poster: "The Realization of a Negro's Ambition" (1916)

The following is yet another exploration of the well known challenges and obstacles faced by Black filmmakers around the globe.  Although this exploration may not add anything new to this much discussed dilemma, I feel that it is an exploration worth pursuing as often as possible since the American Entertainment Complex as we know it is constantly changing and modifying its delivery systems, its dependence on foreign earnings and its cultural impact with various buyouts, mergers, and favorable legislative decisions that allow it to consolidate and increase its power unchecked.(1)  If the rules and the technology are constantly changing it also means that our concept of the challenges and obstacles we face, as well as, our strategies of attack must be adjusted so that we don’t find ourselves holding bows and arrows trying to fight an opponent armed with plasma rifles, so to speak.

So knowing that a majority of Black filmmakers don’t have equal access to foreign markets, production budgets, marketing budgets, development deals, advanced technology, executive power brokering, executive decision making (e.g. greenlighting studio films), final cut and screen ratios as do White filmmakers, let us begin.

In a recent reaction published through social media against the uproar caused by Zoe Saldana’s casting as jazz singer Nina Simone in a troubled bio-pic of her life Floyd Webb a respected Black veteran film producer and programmer for the Blacklight Film Festival and Black World Cinema in Chicago with over 30 years of experience furiously asserted that:

”All this yak about Zoe Saldana and her role in the Nina Simone story needs to come to an end. I am back to this. Don't like it??? Support black independent filmmakers who you think can deliver the kind of work you want to see. It is easy enough to bitch and moan. Why depend on others to do what we don't support in the first damn place? […] Until ya'll committed to supporting black independent cinema or whatever indie filmmaker you think can deliver the kind of images you want to see, I don't wanna hear it… Time to put up or shut up as far as I am concerned. Stop complaining, start helping to build a new independent film movement. We can use kickstarter.com, Indiegogo.com, whatever…”(2)

The naked simplicity of his assertion is at once true and problematic; that is to say, we’ve always known that the surest answer to our long complaint against the White controlled American Entertainment Complex is to begin financing, producing, distributing and seeing our own films.  The problem is not whether this can be done, but rather how long can such a self determined Black independent cinema be sustained before it is co-opted and/or diffused by the American Entertainment Complex?  This is not a rhetorical question, for if we look at all four components necessary to bring a film to the screen: finance, production, distribution (including marketing) and exhibition the problem reveals itself in between those components.  If agents of the American Entertainment Complex are needed, used or buy their way in at any point in the four constituent components, then the long term ability to sustain a self determined Black independent cinema is compromised.

Although the truth of the assertion that we need to fund and support our own independent filmmakers who are going to make the images that we want to see of ourselves on screen is undeniable, the reality is that such an effort may not be sustainable.  The external challenge that explains the reason for this lack of sustainability regarding Black independent cinema is due to the massive and ongoing consolidation of various mega-media corporations who are controlling even the most highly thought of media outlets which makes it extremely difficult to see the resultant Black films should they ever be produced en masse.  The external challenge that we have been describing is that what we can see as a mass audience from the big screen to the mobile screen is corporate controlled on a global scale.

The internal challenge against Black independent cinema has to do with us as Black people.  We know now that the color of one’s skin is not an absolute signifier of one’s allegiance to a Black cause, agenda or aesthetic movement.  We are not all a monolithic group of people with a simplistic hive mentality as the Dominant cinema would have us to believe via its often one note portrayals.  Black people are diverse, dichotomous, and have different paths, orientations, and ideological perspectives.  To support any kind of a truly Black independent film movement one has to be willing to tolerate contradictions, challenges to established beliefs, different voices, opinions and perspectives that at once would seem to subvert the raced based foundation of such a movement even as it is born of the people who by virtue of the color of their skin have founded such a movement.

In short, Black only appears as a single color to the jaundiced eye, but Black as a race comes in many shades, hues, creeds, religions and classes to the perceptive mind.

And here in lies the rub, none of us are bound to an absolute adherence to a Black independent film movement, even the most ardent “blacker than thou” militant has a weakness for some form of the dominant culture.  Why?  One answer might be because we are all immersed within its ever expanding latticed web of interconnecting distractions.  If the Comcast Corporation which has merged with Time/Warner Cable owns Universal Pictures and Universal Pictures owns the National Broadcasting Corporation and various publishing houses, web media outlets and news papers it is incredibly easy to build and sustain interest in a distraction because the power exists to make it appear ubiquitous.

The concept of ubiquitous distraction has incredible financial potential and counter-ideological destructive force which can be found in the notion of a “viral” video or even a popular “hashtag” that trends on twitter.  Think here of how the Jay-Z/Solange elevator fight distracted us from Bring Home Our Girls hashtag which distracted us from the Sterling/Viviano racist remarks which all form part of an unending chain of distractions that displaces critical thinking about structural and systemic racism for the sake of the entertainment value of isolated events upon which we might share our opinions, but lack the motivation to exercise any real political power to do anything about.

The very existence of a ubiquitous distraction is built upon the continuous and uncontested mergers, buyouts and affiliations between the global mega-corporations that comprise the American Entertainment Complex.  Make no mistake, ubiquitous distraction is as politically dangerous as it is morally circumspect because it turns both the militant and the naïve into unwitting upholders of the dominant cultural system and it’s not too deeply buried White supremacist ideals.  This again is a deeper exploration of an external danger to the sustainability of a Black independent cinema.

There is also a deeper internal danger to the sustainability of a Black independent cinema that is connected to our own viewing habits and behaviors.  All it takes to wipe away the liberating effect of any single Black independent film is the binge viewing of any one of the dominant cinema’s serial programs.  From House of Cards and Game of Thrones to The Walking Dead and American Horror Story the binge viewing of dominant cinema’s serial programs on the television or the mobile screen has the potential to wipe away or severely weaken the liberating effect of any Black independent film in 12 hours or less.

Often what we are binging on contains the very same insidious stereotypes and tropes of White supremacist ideals from which we promised to abstain.  And what is it that makes us binge view?  Perhaps it is the social need to be part of a conversation about a particular program that everyone appears to be watching and talking about.  It is a form of ubiquitous distraction writ large as a must-see series whose plot twists, gratuitous violence, frank dialogue and representations of dearly held beliefs becomes a symbol of one’s intelligence and connectivity to like minds.  But what we are really binging on is the dominant and all of its vices.

We betray ourselves and everything we stand for in the name of a Hulu or a Netflix; the delivery systems of the dominant poison that seduces us with the illusion of choice.

For example, what is the stereotype for Kerri Washington’s role in the ever popular American Broadcasting Company’s (owned by the Disney Corporation) SCANDAL but that of a glorified Black maid cleaning up after White people’s mess- and sexing the White male president to boot?  And yet the moment Blair Underwood put his lips on a White woman during the second episode of the 2013 reboot of the television series, IRONSIDE it was cancelled quicker than the wind from a duck’s ass.(3)  

This is not to say that a Black servant’s exposure and clean-up of a White employer’s shortcomings is not a viable form of artistic subversion of one of the tenets of White supremacy which is their alleged superior intelligence.  Nor am I intentionally denigrating the work of Kerri Washington or Executive producer Shonda Rhimes, but instead I only want to note that no new ground has really been broken in regards to the established racial hierarchy, particularly if the Black servant is repairing the shortcomings of Whites and restoring order to the prevailing White power structure.  If I am protesting too much then it is only because in today’s culture of illusions a Black servant does not have to wear the traditional uniform of a servant to serve his or her White masters.     


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