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Leaving a Legacy: Black Film Movements

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by Stephanie
June 3, 2014 10:11 AM
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Impressionism, expressionism, realism, surrealism, neo soul, abstract, Bauhaus, nouvelle vague, minimalist, Dogme 95, cubism, rococo, alternative, and vérité. These, and many more, represent the schools of thought created in various art forms. For as long as humans have recognized the importance of art as a way to add dimension to our life experiences, artists have recognized the importance of art philosophy. It’s ingrained in everything we do, whether we recognize it consciously or not. Movements, styles, genre creation, however you’d like to identify them, artists have always managed to brand their work with a special stamp that makes a statement nearly as large as the work  itself.  Emerging art philosophies breathe new life into the art world all of the time and it’s essential to keep things, well, interesting. American cinema hasn’t seen a strong film movement in a while. It could definitely use one, and there’s no reason why black filmmakers can’t lead the way.

Not since the Harlem Renaissance have we seen a strong movement of black artists. And even so, the Harlem Renaissance swept over many art mediums (literature, music, fine arts, etc.), and it was more about encouraging creativity in the black community than focusing on one artistic approach. During this movement, the world was introduced to the concept that an autonomous and independent black population could exist within a nation that had stifled both for centuries, and the byproduct of this concept was significant contributions to the arts. The momentum of this movement began to fade by the early 1970s when, among other things, “blaxploitation” gained more popularity over more positive images of black Americans.

At some point, as we try and define black cinema (or question whether or not we should define it), we should think about the excitement of the Harlem Renaissance and why it all but disappeared. Where did we, black Americans, lose it? Did we, collectively, lose the sense that there is a need to set ourselves apart and create our own? Apparently not, as this is one of the issues that Shadow and Act is dedicated to exploring. Perhaps it was the faltering togetherness between black artists that caused it to sputter to a halt.

There’s no right or wrong way to form an art movement. Some movements have one or two complementary rules, and others have a longer manifesto. It’s the consistency of themes, the uniqueness, and the esprit de corps of its member artists that makes a movement notable and successful. The nouvelle vague (or the French New Wave) had one or two basic rules: the director is the ultimate author of his films, and he should leave a metaphorical thumb print on each film. From there the filmmakers made their mark with individual styles, contributing refreshing editing, cinematography, and narrative techniques to the international film community. Yet, despite their individuality (which was a necessary component to their school of thought), they were strung together by the new wave movement. Dogme 95, a Danish film movement, had more rules and more restrictions, among them is that the director must not be credited (read the rest of the rules here).

A film movement’s popularity does not typically last for a long time. Often the filmmakers involved eventually move on to other methods or styles. But longevity isn’t the point, nor does it ultimately matter, because the best ones leave their mark on the industry and inspire new generations of filmmakers to up the ante, to explore non-conventional ways to make films. People involved in these movements aren’t just thinking about doing the bare minimum (making a movie), but they are interested in leaving the movie industry better than it was before they made their movies.  They want to set the bar higher by “thinking outside the box”. They have a thirst for exploring and learning, and then sharing the results with audiences and other artists. You don’t have to be involved with a movement to do any of these things, but there’s something gratifying about having others do what you do and thus demonstrating, by repetition, the value in it. Black filmmakers, like all others, should always consider improving their industry, leaving it better than it was before their contributions were made, founding a film movement might help facilitate this endeavor.

If you are involved in an art movement, share with us the rules for it. If you’re not, but have a list of themes/rules that your ideal movement would involve, share it. Keep in mind, the rules could involve any phase of a film from financing to distribution.

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