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Race Traitors: White Filmmakers Who Make Black Films

Shadow and Act By Andre Seewood | Shadow and Act July 5, 2012 at 2:33PM

One of the hazards of provoking thought is that you can often provoke ignorance, just as when you give a less than glowing commentary upon the idols of sycophants (Spike Lee or Tyler Perry) you can often run the risk of being the target of abusive ad hominem criticism; that is, criticism that summarily dismisses your arguments and attempts to besmirch your personal character as a means of telling others: “Stay away from that guy, he’s crazy!”  For my part I have been called everything from a “Pied piper” leading Shadow & Act readers down a primrose path to their doom, to a delusional self-serving prick who must be receiving some kind of “bribe” to dare suggest that things may not be as they appear.  But these hazards and dangers one should willingly face if you have the courage and the passion to fight for that which you believe.
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Beasts

One of the hazards of provoking thought is that you can often provoke ignorance, just as when you give a less than glowing commentary upon the idols of sycophants (Spike Lee or Tyler Perry) you can often run the risk of being the target of abusive ad hominem criticism; that is, criticism that summarily dismisses your arguments and attempts to besmirch your personal character as a means of telling others: “Stay away from that guy, he’s crazy!”  For my part I have been called everything from a “Pied piper” leading Shadow & Act readers down a primrose path to their doom, to a delusional self-serving prick who must be receiving some kind of “bribe” to dare suggest that things may not be as they appear.  But these hazards and dangers one should willingly face if you have the courage and the passion to fight for that which you believe.

Last weekend (6/29-7/1) Tyler Perry’s MADEA’S WITNESS PROTECTION grossed 26.3 million dollars which was the,” 3rd highest opening for a Madea movie and the 4th highest opening for a Tyler Perry movie (he’s directed 12 movies).” (1)   In a previous article about the power and financial structure of the American Entertainment Complex I was taken to task by commentators for asserting that,” Without any major competition it is useless to complain about the quality or the content of Perry’s work, because at the end of the day the Hollywood studios have entered into a tacit agreement to “kill” any competing African-American filmmakers whose work might challenge the box office of their token.” (2)

The commentators stated matter-of-factly that everyone knows that the studios stagger the releases of movies with similar target audiences to protect and insure that each film makes a profit (for instance THE AVENGERS and THE DARK NIGHT RISES are not going to open on the same weekend).  But what these commentators fail to notice is that the overall effect of this innocuous business practice is that all films directed by African-Americans with a majority African-American cast are undifferentiated and treated as one singular genre which it is then assumed to only appeal to one singular Black “monolithic” audience by the Hollywood studios.   In short, the notion that Black films only play to the African-American domestic box office is discriminatory and prejudices foreign film distributors, producers, directors, writers, and actors from seeing a film made by an African-American beyond the context of race.  Hence, those African-American movie-goers (and movie-goers in general) who want to see something different than Tyler Perry’s work are discounted and/or reabsorbed into the box office grosses of other white majority cast films of other distinct genres as was the case with Seth MacFarlane’s 54 million dollar grossing R-rated comedy TED which opened on the same weekend as MADEA.

And yet last weekend Tyler Perry’s MADEA’S WITNESS PROTECTION did actually play against another majority African-American cast film: BEASTS OF THE SOUTHERN WILD which grossed $220,000.  Keeping in mind that BEASTS opened on just 4 screens nationwide,” averaging about $42,000 per screen,” this per-screen average was far ahead of Perry’s MADEA which opened at 2161 screens and averaged $11,749 per screen. (3)  If we look solely at the numbers, one can make several startling conclusions, one of which is that had BEASTS received a marketing budget and screen ratio comparable to MADEA it would have had an equal or larger box office gross than MADEA last weekend.  The potential success of BEASTS, in direct competition with MADEA, would have revealed that African-Americans and other racial audiences will support a majority cast African-American film in a different genre other than Tyler Perry’s work.  And let us remember that competition among artists is a good thing; it aides in allowing an artist to refine his or her work as opposed to simply resting on their laurels or their healthy bank account statements.  Competition, when fair, puts fire in the belly of any artist to do more than just make a product, instead they create at their personal best.  

Even if we consider the numbers as they are, the simultaneous openings of MADEA and BEASTS gives credence to my assertion that in spite of those who believe in Tyler Perry’s talents, his success,” within the cinema is a wholly manufactured product of Hollywood’s power and control over its audiences through its incontestable horizontal affiliation,” among film studios and theatre exhibitors. (4) In this case, between MADEA and BEASTS, a major contributing factor that allowed MADEA to make 26.3 million dollars and BEASTS only 220,000 dollars was the manipulation of screen ratios [2161 screens for MADEA, 4 for BEASTS].  The “tacit agreement” between films studios and theatre exhibitors concerning the allotment of screens during a film’s initial release (in general the more screens in major markets, the more box office revenue) is but one of the strategies deployed by the American Entertainment Complex to give the appearance of competition when in fact these studios, distributors, television networks and exhibitors are in collusion with each other to maximize their profits at the expense of our simplistic illusions about their business practices.

Although the success of BEASTS opening simultaneously with MADEA, albeit in select cities and on significantly fewer screens, does provide us with some compelling evidence that a film with a majority African-American cast of a different genre has the potential to compete and make a profit without diminishing Perry’s core audience, as the French say,” Il y a un os,” or there is a catch.  That catch is the very subject of this article.

The film BEASTS OF THE SOUTHERN WILD is a film with a majority African-American cast that was made by a white filmmaker of Jewish descent, Behn Zeitlin and co-written by a white woman, Lucy Alibar.(5)  The question begged here is does a film with a majority African-American cast but directed and/or written by whites still qualify as a “black” film?  If the answer is no, then we have a lot of great films to throw out of the canon of black cinema.  If the answer is yes, then we have to include and celebrate a great many more films that have been neglected, overlooked and ignored into the canon of black cinema.

In a detailed chapter in my book, Slave Cinema, I discuss White filmmakers who make Black films by defining them with the term, Race Traitors.  “To begin with, I do not use the phrase “race traitor” in its negative or pejorative sense, but instead I use it as an emblem of a certain kind of selfless artistic heroism that honors an individual white filmmaker’s sacrifice of immediate commercial interests in the effort to shift narrative focus from whites to African-Americans within a film.  As a consequence of this shift of narrative focus and sacrifice of commercial interests, the resultant film elicits a penetrating social criticism that extends beyond the circumstances presented and casts doubt upon the values and prejudices of the spectator, both white and black alike, who observe those circumstances.” (pg.159)

It is important to note that these white filmmakers who make the deliberate choice to use a majority African-American cast, usually in the face of great skepticism and racial criticism, are the least understood and their films are, at times, the most ignored by Black and White film scholarship.  And as it turns out, many of these genuine “race traitor” filmmakers have made some powerful contributions to African-American film history, but for our own racial chauvinism and the indifference of many whites in the industry these films have not been celebrated nor discussed openly because many of us are uncertain as to whether the white filmmaker’s intentions are without exploitation. (6)

In my book I discuss several powerful films directed by “race traitor” filmmakers like: John Cassevetes’ SHADOWS (1959) which discusses bi-raciality and the perils of unintentionally passing for white in New York city and German filmmaker, Rainer Werner Fassbinder’s incredible 1970 film, WHITY which was the first film made by a European auteur to present a negative, some would even say perverse, portrait of a white slave holding family and the violent rebellion of a formerly docile black servant.

There are special conditions and circumstances that define a genuine race traitor filmmaker from the notion of a white director that was simply hired to complete a product, as was the case during the height of the “blaxploitation” era.  I define a genuine race traitor filmmaker by the fulfillment of at least two of these special conditions listed: 1) The white filmmaker has had extensive Biographical contact or an extended artistic collaboration with African-Americans before or during the production of the film; 2) The white filmmaker usually makes some kind of great personal, professional and/or financial sacrifice to bring their racially challenging vision to the screen; 3) The film differs greatly in emotional tone, acting style, script and/or formal design from conventional Hollywood representations of African-Americans or even contemporary African-American representations of themselves in film; 4) The film usually has a difficult or unsuccessful distribution by skeptical and prejudiced whites which is intended to keep the film from reaching the wider African-American audience; 5) and finally, but most importantly, these films have universal humanist themes; that is to say, the thematic underpinnings of the film are less race specific and do not attempt to identify, defend or accentuate the cultural and moral differences between African-Americans and whites.  Instead, the themes within the film pertain to what is human in all of us beyond our racial, class or cultural differences.

This last aspect, universal humanist themes, is the most troubling aspect of most films by genuine race traitor filmmakers in that the onus of a stereotype or definitive cultural difference is left wholly in the minds of the spectators and is not explored within the fiction in a conventional manner.  The resultant film makes white spectators uncomfortable with whether or not they are seeing a stereotype and black spectators are unsure if the characters are ‘truly’ black folk if the characters don’t respond in ways that have been culturally defined as ‘black’.  Ultimately these films challenge the supremacy of ‘whiteness’ by challenging the notions of ‘blackness’.  (Slave Cinema pgs. 233-234)

I believe that we, as an African-American audience and as critics and scholars, must reclaim and celebrate the previously neglected films made by race traitors, as well as, come to grips with those current and future films like BEASTS OF THE SOUTHERN WILD or Tarantino’s upcoming DJANGO UNCHAINED because if we summarily dismiss these works as simply white appropriation of our culture/history or exploitation we are missing the richness of the social critique within the films and the opportunities such films provide to break the entrenched stereotypes (Bogle’s pentad of Toms, Coons, Mulattoes, Mammies, & Bucks) within Hollywood cinema.

One of the first genuine race traitor films ever made was King Vidor’s HALLELUJAH (1929).  A film that was conceived from Vidor’s extended biographical contact with African-Americans during his childhood and one that he felt so strongly about making that in the face of intense studio resistance to an “all negro” film, Vidor gave up his director’s fee in the effort to convince the studio to make the film.  And it is this film that highlights the difficulties African-American critics have had embracing the works of race traitor filmmakers because as many black critics were celebrating HALLELUJAH at the time of its release, Zora Neale Hurston denounced,” certain black intellectuals for what she perceiv[ed] as their self serving complicity in popularizing the distorted white depictions of black folk culture…” (7)

Hurston’s comments (even engaging in her own form of abusive ad hominem criticism by calling those black intellectuals “the Niggerati”) are a measure of the difficulty and the fear-mongering rhetoric within the African-American community that causes many of the films by genuine race traitors to be neglected, dismissed and in some cases forgotten.  These films do not pander to the stereotypes African-American hold against themselves (as the measurement of ‘real’ blackness) nor the stereotypes whites hold against African-Americans (as the confirmation of black ‘otherness’ and inferiority).

To dismiss these films as white appropriations of “black culture” or sheer exploitation is to dismiss a rich and powerful collection of works that challenge the racial perceptions and distortions held by both blacks and whites alike.  During my recent discovery of Jules Dassin’s UPTIGHT (1968), a film that was co-written by African-American actors and activists Ruby Dee and Julian Mayfield, I was dismayed to discover that the usually perceptive critic Nelson George dismissed the film as a,” rather incoherent look at infighting among black revolutionaries in Cleveland.”(8)  To the contrary, I found this film to be a powerful and emotionally unsparing look at infighting among black revolutionaries in Cleveland that was directed by a white filmmaker who had been blacklisted during the Macarthy Era and returned to America just as Martin Luther King was assassinated; the film contains authentic color footage of Dr. King’s funeral which sets the urgent tone for the entire work.  UPTIGHT was a film the U.S. government deliberately attempted to interfere with during its production.  Perhaps it was all too clear that Dassin had something urgent to say about civil rights in America that we all should have cause to see and hear.

Returning to the film BEASTS OF THE SOUTHERN WILD which has already won the Camera d’Or award at the 2012 Cannes Film Festival and the Grand jury prize at the 2012 Sundance Film Festival (providing more evidence that African-American films do have audiences in international markets and that African-American filmmakers are being deliberately discriminated against by the industry), domestically the film is receiving the typical “art house” or limited release treatment that many other films made by race traitors have received historically.  Robert M. Young & Michael Roemer’s remarkable 1964 film NOTHING BUT A MAN, which starred Ivan Dixon, was given a limited release and played outside of Black populated urban markets, to insure that film would not reach its intended audience.  Although BEASTS will be opening in several more theatres this weekend (7-06-12) it is highly unlikely based on the historical precedent set by other race traitor films that the film will play at an equal or greater amount of screens as Tyler Perry’s MADEA.

Why you might ask?  In my opinion it is because the films made by genuine race traitor filmmakers often reveal to us certain truths about ourselves as a human race that we would much rather sweep under a rug.  For whites in control of the film industry, the works of race traitor filmmakers are treated as a rarified anomaly that should be seen but by the chosen “elite” few.  For African-Americans who lack power and control in the industry the works of race traitor filmmakers often does not “feel” true because the characters don’t respond in the stereotyped “black” ways that we have chosen to believe we all would do.  But as I have stated,” These race traitor filmmakers commit their treason to “whiteness” because they are loyal to humanity,” would that we all had such a loyalty in the face of great ignorance and even greater fears.(9)

NOTES

(1) http://blogs.indiewire.com/shadowandact/box-office-for-6-29-to-7-1-madea-is-clearly-here-to-stay-beasts-rules-the-averages

(2) Evidence of Things Not Seen: The Structure of Power: Notes for a Revolution in African-American Filmmaking (part 2)

(3) Per screen averages taken from Boxofficemojo.com on July 2nd, 2012.  These numbers are subject to change daily during the films theatrical run.  

(4) The Shopkeepers Till and The Devil’s Pie: Notes for a Revolution in African-American Filmmaking. http://blogs.indiewire.com/shadowandact/the-shopkeepers-till-the-devils-pie-notes-for-a-revolution-in-african-american-filmmaking-part-3

(5) Of course I am broadening the term “White” to include various European ethnicities (Italian, Irish, etc) and Jews since Zeitlin is of half-Jewish descent.

(6) I use the qualifying term, genuine, because I describe three distinct types of race traitor filmmakers in my book (Genuine, Mercenary and Reparative), but for reasons of space I cannot describe them all here.  

(7) Pg. 184, RETURNING THE GAZE: A Genealogy of Black Film Criticism 1909-1949 by Anna Everett, Duke University Press, Durham: 2001.

(8) Pg. 7, BLACKFACE: Reflections on African-Americans and the Movies by Nelson George, HarperCollins: New York, 1994.

(9) Pg. 250, Slave Cinema by Andre Seewood

Andre Seewood is the author of SLAVE CINEMA: The Crisis of the African-American in Film. Pick up a copy of the book via Amazon.com HERE.


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