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Black Power in the Global Film Industry

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by Andre Seewood
June 2, 2014 12:38 PM
23 Comments
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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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23 Comments

  • IGBO | July 1, 2014 2:15 AMReply

    The solution is simple: Black people need to stop nitpicking about other black filmmaker's films and start supporting them.

  • Brian Winiarski | June 23, 2014 3:15 PMReply

    @PURE EGO- One white man to another. Some of your' ignorant remarks and thoughts are why people like me feel the need to debate on forums such as this. I don't want the world to think that all whites are narrow minded ego maniacs like you. You should have named yourself PUREIDIOT instead of PUREEGO!!!

  • squeesh | June 22, 2014 5:49 AMReply

    @Seewood

    I bought a book you wrote about film from a black perspective a couple of years ago at a movie theater, and enjoyed it. Thanks.

  • sqeesh | June 22, 2014 5:47 AMReply

    @Pureego

    And your comments about how black cinema is irrelevant and that there hasn't been a good black film in 17 years---well, if you haven't seen anything in 17 years, you're not even qualified to talk about what current films are good or not because you obviously haven't seen them.So why should anybody even listen to you about anything concerning film? Honestly, you obviously haven't done any kind of research before you spouted off your ridiculous,ill-formed comments. Plus,the fact that Hollywood is pretty racist itself, and won't ouch any ---read this for proof---look up "Fade Online---Minority Report".

    You're basically saying that black filmmakers have no talent simply because they're black? Are you serious?

  • pureego | June 21, 2014 5:23 AMReply

    This post is unnecessarily WAY too wordy and verbose. Didn't know Michael Eric Dyson was on S&A. lol. If blacks controlled Hollywood, the same kind of films would be produced. And the reason there's no support is because most black films suck. In fact, the majority of films produced period suck. There's only a handful who can make movies well. The real issue is art and making quality work, because cream rises. And as soon as you blame you're giving power. But not making excuses is assuming responsibility. You're perceiving an invisible enemy because it gives you a sense of identity as a negro. This mental constructs will always hold us back. We don't need anyone else to fund(crowdfunding), produce(DSLR's), distribute(youtube), and market(social media) our work anymore. Make good work and support will follow.

  • squeesh | June 22, 2014 5:35 AM

    @Pureego

    "ost black films suck"? Dear, you haven't seem most black films, so how would you know? Here are a list of good black films that don't "suck".

    Ballast, American Violet,42, August The First, Think Like A Man, Good Deeds, I Can't Do Bad By Myself, Blood Done Sign My Name, Night Catches Us, Medicine For Melancholy, Park Day, Marriage Prep, Ski Trip, Premium, The Stick-Up Kids, Beast of The Southern Wild, 12 Years a Slave, Hustle & Flow, Alma's Rainbow, Yelling To The Sky, Pariah, Rosewood, The Butler, Go For Sisters, Precious, & The Inevitable Defeat of Mister & Pete. (Both Ballast and o For Sisters were actually written and made by white directors---they're both good, regardless. ) The majority of these titles were made by black filmmakers.

    And the truth is, it's harder for black filmmakers to get distribution for their films--they don't always get the hype that white indie filmmakers get, and their work is seen as just another small market niche. And Hollywood pushes the majority of white films more than anything and could care less about anything else unless it's making money off of it,plain & simple.

  • pureego | June 21, 2014 12:58 PM

    And you need to take this 'Educated Negro' act somewhere else and realize when someone is telling you the truth. Just a bunch of wussy complainers. And I couldn't finish it all. It was too Freaking long. Make shorty concise points.

  • Andre Seewood | June 21, 2014 12:23 PM

    @Pureego, You really need to take this self hatin' clown act someplace else. There have been plenty of great Black films made and released in the last twenty years- where the hell have you been? Under a rock or something? And Love Jones came out 17 years ago, not twenty. You are revealing the depth of your own ignorance. No, I'm not going to name all of the great Black films that have come out in the last twenty years- because I've had arguments with self hating Blacks like you before and I'm not going to feed into your ignorance. You contradicted yourself in your previous comments, you didn't read the entire article before posting your ridiculous comments and you continue to prove your ignorance with each subsequent post. You are the sadness of an unenlightened life.

  • pureego | June 21, 2014 11:52 AM

    I'm not contradicting myself and still stick to the belief that we don't need them anymore. I'm just pointing out that if you want to use industry mergers and buyouts as an excuse as to why black independent cinema is becoming irrelevant, I'm simply pointing out that we ain't creating nothing worthy of staying relevant to them. So let's do our own thing. But we got have better expectations for ourselves. Critiquing art and saying most black films suck is not self hate. It's a fact. We don't need better strategies. Just better movies. Name me one decent black film in the past twenty years since 'Love Jones.' There ain't none. And yes, you are blaming Hollywood. Blacks like you have blamed Hollywood for years and I'm sick of it. None one's out to get you. You don't hear Asians, or Hispanics complaining. They just want money.

  • Andre Seewood | June 21, 2014 11:35 AM

    @Pureego, you are really making an ass out of yourself- you should have read the entire article before you commented. It ain't about "blaming Whitey" its about recognizing our own strengths and weakness vis-à-vis a White controlled industry, so that we can better establish our own.

  • Andre Seewood | June 21, 2014 11:26 AM

    You seem to be making wildly contradictory statements: "We don't need anyone else to fund, produce, distribute and market our work anymore..." "Show them that you can pull a crowd and they'll come knocking at your door." Who is "them"? If it's Hollywood, then I thought you just said," Stop giving them power. You don't need Hollywood anymore." But above all, the most revealing statement you have put forth is," Maybe we're not given a shot in Hollywood because we don't deserve it." Is it you who have internalized a stereotype of Black inferiority and now you want to pass it off as the general condition of all Black filmmakers (i.e. most Black films suck)? You are exposing you're own ignorance and self hate in these commentaries and it's a damn shame because I'm not attacking Hollywood, I'm merely describing the changing circumstances and suggesting ways that we can create better strategies to stop giving them (Hollywood, the American Entertainment Complex) the power. Get it together, man or leave it alone.

  • pureego | June 21, 2014 11:26 AM

    Blame whitey. Blame whitey. I feel like i'm in the 60's. Perception is reality. So I hate to inform you but no one's out to get you. Plus, do you honestly think everyone who picks up a camera and calls themselves a filmmaker should get the right to international distribution. Let's be real. Sure if you want poop on a canvas.

  • pureego | June 21, 2014 10:48 AM

    Stop giving them power. You don't need Hollywood anymore. Show them that you can pull a crowd and they'll come knocking at your door (ie: Tyler Perry). He's not great but he has his audience. So it goes back to my original point that everyone seems to overlook and that is make GOOD work. Maybe we're not given a shot in Hollywood because we don't deserve it. Sometimes you have to be great and prove yourself. (Eminem, Tiger Woods) Just like @thefilmbutler talks about.

  • Andre Seewood | June 21, 2014 6:55 AM

    Just as your commentary was WAY too wordy and insipid. One of the main points of the article was how the global consolidation of power within the industry via mergers, buyouts and favorable legislation neutralizes the effect of Black independent cinema by making it appear irrelevent because other corporate distractions appear ubiquitous. The real issue is how the C.R.E.A.M. gets made and who determines and puts so called quality work it at the top. Because your simplistic "field of dreams" mantra (Make good work and support will follow) is outdated and does not address many of the attendant obstacles that are facing African-American filmmakers today: budgets, screen ratios, foreign licensing, narrow genre définitions. Not analyzing and understanding the playing field is irresponsible. And an unwillingness to perceive an opponent gives you an inflated sense of equality- that is really not there.

  • John Lindsay | June 17, 2014 4:03 PMReply

    @ Vic. So very true.

  • John Lindsay | June 17, 2014 4:05 PM

    My mistake...I meant Daryl. Great comment Daryl/

  • John Lindsay | June 17, 2014 3:59 PMReply

    @ Janet. Very good points you made, and I agree with your great insights, experience and comment Janet.

  • Fred | June 13, 2014 4:14 AMReply

    Andre, love your work but you really need to master the art of punctuation. That third paragraph, in particular, gave me a headache just looking at it.

  • Andre Seewood | June 13, 2014 7:55 AM

    @Fred, I believe the "third paragraph" you are refering to was a direct quote from a commentary that was posted on social media where "the art of punctuation" is guided by emotional tone more so than grammar rules.

  • janet | June 2, 2014 8:33 PMReply

    Lots to digest here...
    1. Being a filmmaker --"dominant" or not is a risk, and I've found that neither want to invest in my vision. That could be due to an " I got mine, you go get yours mentality" or they've made a conscious decision to keep their fortunes to themselves. The exceptions that come to mind: Octavia Spencer-- who didn't wait long in her stardom journey to have a contest to help a filmmaker get equipment for future projects, Forrest Whittaker and Ava Duvernay. Would it be so hard for T.D. Jakes, Devon Franklin or Oprah to put together a model similar to Kevin Spacey's Triggerstreet to "pay it forward" and help someone reach their creative dream? Or a Sundance Lab type of organization to nurture the future director,writer, etc. Before someone says "They don't owe anyone anything", that's absolutely true. But there's an opportunity to share a portion-- and worst case scenario,it' still a tax write off.
    2. Why aren't the winning screenplays from "our" festivals being optioned and produced? (ABFF /UP being the one exception. ) Those writers have created a story that has apparently been deemed very good or exceptional. I would love to hear that the winning screenplay of HBFF (if it qualifies in terms of budget) is guaranteed to be produced.
    3. We've got TV networks... that could/should be the jump off to also produce original feature films by new voices.

  • Kisha Dingle | June 21, 2014 5:19 AM

    @Janet. I totally understand your frustration. It's very easy to look out on the terrain and see what isn't happening/what isn't being done. When it comes to black filmmakers, there's lots out there. But since you are a filmmaker yourself, I'll let you in on how I trained the African filmmakers I've worked with, some of who have gone on to create amazing work and be recognized on the world stage: Resourcefulness is not a condition, it's a STATE OF MIND. A Resourceful state can outweigh or outmaneuver any market condition. When you get focused on your work, your desire to be seen and you actually BELIEVE -- not wish or hope -- but BELIEVE it can be done, the universe bends to your will. All filmmakers of color have to find the way to soften their attention on what is, and train themselves to focus upon what they want. Because unfortunately, when all you focus on is what you DON'T want, you get more and more of just that. So, you're just a mindset shift away. It's not the easiest work to do, but its the only way to thrive in this industry. I've been around long enough to know. Good luck!

  • Daryl | June 2, 2014 3:50 PMReply

    Good article Andre Seawood. I would like to add that filmmakers should pay attention to the global market but not in a sense that it's a distraction to them from making their own films. Most black filmmakers have been bamboozled for hollywood acceptance means sucess. Success is determined by one's view on it. Example Charles Burnett has never had any box office hits, this doesn't mean he is not a sucessful filmmaker he has delivered classic films like Killer of Sheep, To sleep with anger no matter how much money they made at the box office. Haillie Germina never had any box office hits but he has been able to have a career that spanned over 30 years, making the great film about slavery Sankofa. I feel black filmmakers should be more concerned with making films no matter if it has a budget of a $1000 or 1 million dollars and decide what filmmaker you want to be, a commercial filmmaker, a indie filmmaker that gets critical acclaim, or a filmmaker that makes films for the love of it and is just satisfied with telling their story anything else that comes after that is gravy. I know it's a business but the hollywood business is too entrenched in white supremacy for a lot of black filmmakers to have success in it, the power at the top of the hollywood system is not going to allow it. Tokenism only works if you are being a token to their face but a hero to black folks by making investments in black films, helping build a sustainable black film market.

  • VC | June 2, 2014 4:27 PM

    Agreed.

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