By Jai Tiggett | Shadow and Act December 5, 2013 at 10:00AM
This season, the series heads to California for interviews with celebrities including Fishbone's John Norwood Fisher, filmmaker Ava DuVernay, actress LisaGay Hamilton, and feminist Sikivu Hutchinson, as well as everyday black people tackling topics like whether black folk go green, do feminism, or join the NRA. I recently had a chance to screen Season 3 and talk with Tucker about making the series.
JAI TIGGETT: Tell me about what inspired you to make Black Folk Don't.
ANGELA TUCKER: A few years ago Black Public Media was doing a call for digital projects. I was in post production on a feature-length documentary I was directing called (A)sexual, so I was interested in working on something that I could do quickly. I went for a run and the phrase "black folk don't" just popped into my head, I think mainly because I'm someone who has heard that phrase before because I do things that black folk stereotypically "don't do."
So I sent an email out to a bunch of my close black friends saying, "I have this idea called 'black folk don’t.' What are some things that black folk don't do?" And that email chain really inspired the first season. Some people reacted like, "That's crazy, black people do everything." And then there were other people who gave a whole list. And then others would respond and say, "I agree with this, but not that." So that really gave me the fire and conviction to do it, because it was clear that it was the kind of thing that would get people talking and thinking.
JT: One of the great things about the series is that it debunks myths about black people not only in the direct subject matter but in your subtle ways of making it - the musical choices, that you went to a school like Stanford to talk to black students, that you have academics mixed in with man-on-the-street interviews. Can you talk about how you designed the series and some of your goals for it?
AT: A big thing for me is to incorporate humor in the conversations, so that's first and foremost for a lot of the episodes. And it's about debunking stereotypes, but it's also about the complexity of a lot of these topics. I think what's really interesting too is showing people who watch the series that black people are way more diverse than we’re given credit for. And you don't have to necessarily be an academic to be a deep thinker or to be a critical thinker.
JT: You interviewed a pretty diverse group of people. Did you hear anything that surprised you about "black folk," or the subject matter, throughout the course of filming?
AT: There was someone who didn't know what feminism was, which shocked me. So then I was explaining it, and then he still didn't seem to get it.
JT: In that episode it was surprising to me to see so many black people who were quick to say, "I'm a feminist," considering that there are so many different definitions of feminism floating around right now.
AT: I completely agree, and I didn't expect that. That's particularly why I was interested to talk to young people, because I was under the impression that a lot of college age people didn't respond to that term, but in talking to people of different ages most of them did relate. The question was whether you see being a feminist as being like Beyonce or whether you see it as being like bell hooks or Gloria Steinem. A lot of people in the street saw Beyonce as the ultimate feminist because she has that song, Run The World (Girls). I realized that I came into the topic having had conversations with people who read a lot of blogs and think about these things critically, but it seems like the average person is maybe not thinking about feminism in the same way I thought they were.
JT: For the second season, there was a call put out to the audience to suggest and vote on topics for each episode. How did you decide what you'd discuss this year?
AT: This season had topics that I wanted to do and topics that felt right to do in California. For example with plastic surgery, we knew in LA there would be a vibrant conversation because of the large population of people who have to deal with beauty in that way. And it was definitely a collaborative decision-making process between myself and the Black Public Media team, so we were influenced also by things that felt topical.
JT: What was the process like working with Black Public Media? How collaborative were they in shaping the series?
AT: Every year I have to re-submit and say what I'm interested in doing, and how it will be different, and submit a budget. So it's still formal in that way, which is good because it makes me really think about what am I trying to say that's different from year to year. [Director of Digital Media] Christian Ugbode has been my primary partner; not only does he run some of the digital arm of that organization, but he and I have those early conversations about what I'm thinking creatively.
This season I was interested in going abroad, but that didn't make sense budgetarily, so we discussed where was another place I wanted to go and California kind of popped into my head. So technically I get approval [on the series], but it just feels like a conversation with other people to see what generates interest from them. I will say the NRA topic is something that [Executive Director] Jacquie Jones just emailed me one day and was like, "What about this." I thought it was really interesting, and that’s something that I wouldn't have come up with on my own.
JT: What else was behind the decision to film on the west coast?
AT: I think because I was born and raised in New York, I've always been fascinated by the west coast. I also wanted to go someplace where black people weren't the main minority group. I was interested in being in places where there were other racial groups that were there in higher numbers and seeing what that experience was like. But I didn't want to just limit it to one city, because I find the fact that Los Angeles and the Bay Area are in the same state and are so different completely fascinating.
JT: Will the series continue to travel to new cities?
AT: I sort of take it one season at a time, but if we do a fourth season we would take it somewhere else. We haven't been in the Midwest for example, so that seems like a logical next move.
JT: The episodes are being released online, but have you also had the opportunity to do community events and discussions? It would be interesting to hear the kinds of conversations that would come out of a group screening.
AT: Last season in New Orleans we did a lot of that work. We did screenings with the New Orleans Film Society and also a cultural center, and that was a very diverse group. It's always interesting whenever I'm doing a live screening because the black people all talk first. If there are white people, they’re barely saying anything.
JT: What are some of the responses you've gotten from white viewers who do speak up?
AT: I know that white people are watching it because I have a lot of white friends. They usually tell me they enjoy it because they feel like they're present for conversations that they wouldn't be present for otherwise. Another anecdote is, when I went to the University of Wisconsin in Madison I showed the first episode, which was Black Folk Don't Tip. And what I try to say is, "This is a safe space to have conversations about race," just to allow people of other races to feel like they can speak and if they mess up what they're trying to say, it's going to be okay. Usually people don't speak because they think they're going to say something stupid, which I completely relate to. But there were questions tied to, "Are these people that you're talking to real indicators of how black people really feel," to which I have to say, "It's an indicator of the 50 people I interviewed." I guess in answering your first question, I really want this series to show that we keep putting people in boxes, and we need to stop doing that across the board.
Angela Tucker's work can next be seen in her forthcoming short film, Just the Three of Us.