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Cinema Activism: A Conversation with Blackhouse Foundation Chair Brickson Diamond

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by Jasmin Tiggett
June 11, 2012 11:24 AM
1 Comment
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The Blackhouse Foundation works to “expand opportunities, increase knowledge and provide support for black filmmakers through partnerships with the world's most prominent film festivals.” At the LA Film Festival beginning this Thursday, Blackhouse will present a full weekend of programming including panels, networking, and a brunch in celebration of black documentary film.

I spoke with Brickson Diamond, Chairman of Blackhouse, to discuss the organization’s work and his perspective on creating change within the world of film.

S&A: Tell me about what The Blackhouse Foundation is working on now.

BD: Right now we’re developing full activations at the festivals we attend - Sundance, Tribeca, Los Angeles Film Festival, and Toronto International Film Festival. Those four festivals are our core focus areas for programming. In concert with growing our programming we're trying to grow the audience of black folks attending the festivals. And for ourselves, it’s connecting more meaningfully to the festival apparatus - programmers, executives, the institutes behind the festivals - so that we have an ear and a force we can work with to say, How can we get more black films programmed in the festival? How can we make sure more filmmakers are aware of what it takes, what's going to get in, what's going to sell, and all the processes that help them manage their involvement.

S&A: It's a unique strategy to work directly with film festivals to get more black films programmed. How did that idea come about?

BD: We really stole it from the Queer Lounge, which Ellen Huang was doing [at Sundance]. I think she’s much more about the social events and programs that talked about issues in gay cinema. But for us, it was a matter of moving beyond the parties and the social space to answering the questions about why black films weren't getting in. And we found ourselves in the unique position of being welcoming enough that people were willing to have open conversations about it. So it was as much about opportunity as it was about strategy.

I've worked in the investment business my entire career, working with wealthy families strategizing around the long-term. So thinking about the world in that way - combined with my background in activism, my time as a philanthropist, and my upbringing in the shadows of the Civil Rights Movement - helped give me the knowledge that you can't just be willy-nilly; if you want to make change, you need a clear understanding of who holds the power and how you can engender their respect, their concern, and their help. I think the respect for us comes from them seeing our numbers, their concern is understanding that these people in the room have stories to tell, and then the help is moving those stories from just being in the room to being on the screen.

S&A: How do you achieve that?

BD: For us, it’s about the artistic voices. It’s understanding that these folks, particularly in today's environment, are making amazing movies for the price of a Mercedes-Benz. So as they look at the changing face of America, they realize there are stories that aren't being told. And there are audiences that aren't being served because the people who know those voices aren't being heard.

Years ago I heard John Johnson speak at Harvard Business School, and he said one of the interesting things about dealing with people is that eventually, they get guilty. They realize they haven't let you rise, and their humanity forces them to think about it at some point. We believe in people's humanity, and their curiosity. When you come to the Blackhouse and it's warm and inviting and unstressed and you have a great time, you look around the room and say, who are these people?  I want to hear what they have to say. I think that's as much a factor with festival programmers as it is with folks that listen to rap music - they want to know what we have to say and what our story is.

2011 Blackhouse LAFF panel

S&A: Can you explain to me how the foundation works, how many are on the team, and how it's organized?

BD: So we have a board of about nine folks. Carol Ann Shine and I are the key folks who do a lot of the executional pieces. Carol especially with logistics, and I do a lot of the fundraising. Other board members, Gordon Bobb and Ryan Tarpley, are great about fundraising as well. Liz Powell and Pauline Fischer are great on the programming side and connecting with folks, as well as Dolly Turner in terms of relationships with the industry, and folks who are in guilds and unions, and Demile Halliburton on the finance side, and the mechanics behind filmmaking. So it takes all of us, collectively, to make this thing happen. But Carol and I are sort of the engine behind it.

S&A: How are filmmakers served by the work you do, particularly when it comes to the knowledge they should have going into these festivals?

BD: I think it’s about your desire to have a mainstream film career. And that comes with lots of costs. So we provide a platform so that they can understand what that means and decide if it’s for them. Our ideal attendee isn’t necessarily someone that has a film in the festival already, but who has a film in the works – they have a script done, they have a team and some money, and are on the cusp of making this film, and need to make some decisions about how to move forward.

So they come to Blackhouse at one of these festivals and get to talk to other filmmakers and festival programmers - people who've walked this path before. They’ll hear them say, The only success is having a studio job, and others say, Fight the power. My favorite was a filmmaker at Toronto who was on our panel, Branwen Okpako, who directed the biography of Auma Obama, the president's older sister. And she said, You know what? I don't care who sees this. It's not about selling it. I told a story that needs to be told, and I'm very clear about what my objectives are. That is as important as someone sitting in a room with Jason Keller, who wrote Machine Gun Preacher, which was meant to be one of these big, splashy high-grossing movies with a heart. Two very different things seated side by side. So people in this room can experience the full spectrum and develop their own perspective. That's what we provide.

S&A: How did this year’s events come together for LAFF?

BD: Stephanie Allain showed up to Sundance and we hung out with her there, not knowing she was the new director of the LA Film Festival. After that experience, she came back and they announced that she was the new director, and she said, You've got to be at LA Film Festival. I want this spirit, I want this camaraderie.  She really visioned this thing out with multiple days and lots of programming. So it's still LA Film Festival, but it brings in black folks. And our goal is to have this weekend that then pays dividends all week long as people continue to come to these events and see the films and feel connected to the LA Film Festival.

And it's Stephanie's relationships, combined with ours, that have allowed us to have these incredible panels. Elvis Mitchell and Franklin Leonard are moderating panels. These are people who have worked with us in the past; Franklin as recently as January, at Sundance. So these are people we know, but it's a matter of connecting and making a through line, which is my favorite thing about Blackhouse. Last year at Tribeca we did a talk with Geoffrey Fletcher, who wrote Precious. And in the audience was Melvin Van Peebles, Warrington Hudlin, Malcolm Lee, Nelson George, Deborah Gregory - just in the room. And it's this amazing moment in space that we all get to share together.

S&A: When it comes to bringing panelists and moderators on board, do they immediately get your vision?

BD: They totally get it. When you explain it the first time, they have a beat. They go, Oh… okay. What's the catch? I think that's in the back of people’s minds, but once they learn what [Blackhouse] is about and experience it, it's just magical. At Tribeca this year we had a panel on being a black filmmaker, moderated by Sheril Antonio, the Associate Dean at [NYU Tisch School of the Arts], and Debra Martin Chase, Rick Famuyiwa, Laurens Grant, Rashaad Ernesto Green and Warrington Hudlin were on the panel. And at some point Debra said, “Brickson came to me and gave me the ‘I have a dream speech’ of what Blackhouse was.” I knew her personally and had asked her to be there, and she agreed. But I think being in the room, she felt the impact and the power. So I think theoretically it's interesting, but in actuality, it's magic.

S&A: Tell me about your audience.

BD: We like to say we are black unapologetically, but we have a big tent. So from day one there have been Latin folks and Asian folks and white folks in the Blackhouse. Our first big party was for Our Stories Films. We had Tracey Edmonds there, Eddie Murphy, Bob Johnson, Three 6 Mafia, Diddy, Nelly. We also had Timothy Hutton. [Filmmaker] Maurice Jamal, who's on our board, he was walking to the airport in our first year at Sundance, and this 67-year-old white woman ran up to him and said, Blackhouse is the place I felt most comfortable. There’s a realness there, where everyone feels welcome.

S&A: Have you noticed any specific trends among the films coming out of the festivals lately?

BD: The films are becoming more nuanced, more personal. They’re accessible in their simplicity. I think the challenge has been, a lot of films would try to do too many things. You've got ten dollars to spend and you think you’ve got to tell every story there is. But I feel that [now], there is a decreasing sense of urgency in some ways, because people feel they’re going to have another chance to tell another story. They can really settle in and tell this story, because they’re going to get another shot.

"... when we can look around and see black directors and producers building great catalogues of films, that's when we've been successful."

S&A: What about trends in the industry as a whole?

BD: Within the industry, the access to the means of production has opened up. It's so inexpensive to do beautiful things. And so now it's about distribution. And that's as much about the filmmaker as it is about the industry. It's about understanding what your goal is. If your goal is to make something beautiful, you have lots of ways to distribute it today. If your goal is to be seen and access the studio system, there are ways to do that as well, but you have to know what you're doing and you have to craft the story and the community in a way that leverages that. And it's still hard. I'm on the outside, so I can say all this without acknowledging it's hard as hell, but it's all the harder if you don't know where to go.

Rich or independent is sort of the model. Do you want to be rich, or do you want to be able to say whatever the hell you want to say? And people are terrible at contemplating that question. But it's essential because if you want to be rich, that means certain sacrifices. There’s a classmate of mine who is now a professor, who did a study on the plight of successful entrepreneurs, and the title of it is Rich or King. You can be rich, which means selling the company and letting other people run it, or you can be king, which means you continue to hold onto the title. But you cannot be both. And I think in the world of film, it’s that way as well. You can be rich or you can be independent. It's rare, especially as a person of color, that you can do both.

S&A: That’s interesting, because there's a certain mindset that says once you become rich, you’ll have more freedom to say and do what you want; that you'll be able to take advantage of the power that wealth brings.

BD: Not at all. Because the problem is when you become rich, you build other careers and other people rely on you. Audience relies on you, your production team relies on you, the production company, your mortgage company, your kids. Look at Relativity [Media]. He’s taking up another quarter billion dollars in loans from Ron Burkle. He ain't independent.

So you've got to decide. If you want to be independent that means live modestly, make honest stories, put up a sheet in your backyard so folks can see them, and be happy - if that makes you happy. But if honesty requires you to say, I need more, it's essential to take that step. Just looking at what the costs and the benefits are is an essential thing. Because there's a price that's too high to pay, and you have to understand that line too, because you may compromise it all and still not be rich. So you have to be able to look at yourself in the mirror. But there is a space where you have to at least understand that's the way you're going to go, and then run full force towards it.

S&A: What’s the standard, in your opinion, for what we should be striving for with black film, in terms of representation? In terms of achievement?

BD: What I want is more access for black filmmakers to build long, sustained careers. So when we can look around and see black directors and producers building great catalogues of films, that's when we've been successful. So everything we do strives towards finding those new voices, and nurturing them and helping them to connect with the structure that gets them opportunities, mentorship, and guidance.

There comes a point where you've been toiling at the wheel, and you need to look up from there and say, what's that in the distance? So the degree to which you have people thinking about the distance, and how do you let go of this particular piece of art and build a body of work is what we help to do. So that’s about finance help, it's about legal structure. But it’s additionally about at some point, this piece has to either live on or die. And you have to go on to the next. We want directors and showrunners and people green-lighting films. We don't want somebody that had a great single movie and nothing ever happens again.

S&A: Do you feel that most black filmmakers today are aspiring to the same things? Do you think that our expectations are lining up with the realities of the industry?

BD: I think there are different ways to go about the journey, because the level of commitment to independent film has changed. The dependence on blockbusters is so intense. There’s the traditional route of starting in the assistant role and moving up through the ranks. There's all sorts of ways to go at it, but I think there's a fascinating sense of having to learn the rules in order to break them. It’s also finding that creative voice and finding someone that can film it beautifully and edit it beautifully. It’s all the miracle of filmmaking, and it’s collaborative. So regardless of genre, it’s finding that loving community that can create this miracle together, that makes the most sense.

My movement training has always been about the long-term; it isn't about immediacy and right now. I was with my godmother this weekend, Juanita Abernathy. She and my godfather helped start the Montgomery Improvement Association and brought Dr. King into it when he moved to Montgomery. So they did the bus boycott, and we talked about that. 385 days of not riding the bus. These were guys who were independent. Because they were ministers, they didn't need “the man's” money, so they could lead this movement. But they collaborated with people who were domestics. People who had cars picked up people who didn't have cars. And it took this whole crowd of people to make this thing work.

I think it’s the same way across the film space. Those who are working in studio film have to help the people who are not in the studio. Those who are not in the studio have to respect the people who are. And we all have to figure out how to collaborate and build a movement together. Because to me, this is a form of activism. The parties are little nicer. There's air conditioning and the seats are cushioned, but it's totally activism.

*******

Find the full event lineup for the Blackhouse Foundation at LA Film Festival HERE.

Find more information on Blackhouse at their website HERE.

You can also follow Blackhouse on Facebook HERE and Twitter HERE.

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1 Comment

  • vdub | June 12, 2012 4:47 AMReply

    Brickson, Brickson,
    He's Our Man!
    With Him and Blackhouse
    We Know We Can!

    I had the blessed good fortune to encounter the Blackhouse Foundation when our son's first feature was an official Sundance 2012 selection. Our family came from Texas and in the cold, white-bright snow of Park City, we found the warm, inviting, colorful and color-filled Blackhouse. Brickson is truly a Diamond, sharp, multi-faceted, bright, and of great value to our film community... "it's totally activism". YEBO!

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