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Shifting The Conversation On Black Cinema Towards The Love Of Film & Away From Box Office

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by Phill Branch
March 25, 2014 4:50 PM
24 Comments
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As a film enthusiast living in Los Angeles in my twenties, going to the movies was not a passive activity. Long before the paranoia set in about checking ticket stubs as if we are checking for hanging chads; going to see certain films was a political statement. We were not just going to the movies; we were supporting a film. It was self-preservation. If Love Jones didn’t make money, how were the rest of us supposed to make our films about regular, non-stereotypical black folks?
 
Without social media, we did it the old way. We talked to people about the movies we were seeing. We gathered. There was this monthly event that used to go down called Doboy’s Dozens. I remember it being held at Lula Washington’s Dance Theater on Pico Boulevard. We would pack ourselves into this space, young black folks from all over the city, and listen to music and poetry; but the short films were the highlight. I saw dozens, but I only remember two films. One was a short film by Kasi Lemmons called Dr. Hugo that went on to become Eve’s Bayou. The other was a martial arts flick. My memory may be fuzzy, but I’m pretty certain it was Michael Jai White who starred in it. While, I can’t remember all of the films, I do remember the feeling. There was a sense of community. We had to actually leave our apartments, drive and then cram ourselves into a dance studio to see these works. We didn’t have YouTube. I spent a few minutes today looking for any record of Doboy’s. There’s almost no trace that it existed. We weren’t texting, Tweeting, or taking pictures. We were just living the moment.
 
When you’re surrounded by that much energy, you can sometimes forget that you’re not in the majority. It took me a while to figure it out, but we were a subculture. I think if we could have realized this and appreciated the beauty in that sooner, there would have been less disappointment in seeing our heroes ascend at a slower pace than some others. We would have seen the success in just getting certain movies made, as opposed to spending countless hours talking about why black folks don’t support “real” art. Maybe it’s age, but I am tired of that particular discussion.
 
I saw I Will Follow, Ava DuVernay’s first film, in a theater in Hampton, Virginia. I was with a friend and there were two other people in the theater. I went back a second time and brought three people with me. I then made it a homework assignment for my Film Criticism class. For me, the film was a success. The way the film slowly moved from city to city, reminded me of Oscar Micheaux and how he toured the country with his work. There was a feeling of ownership and pride in seeing this movie be embraced by the audience. It all came together. That said, I think we’re still a subculture and I’m okay with that. Sure, I would love to see an indie film like I Will Follow break out and do numbers like Think Like a Man, but I don’t think it’s necessary for the success of the movement.
 
I also watched a film on Netflix called Medicine for Melancholy. It jumped right into my Top 20 all-time favorites. It’s an afro-nerd love story set in San Francisco. While I appreciated seeing the film online, I wished that I had seen it in the theater. The truth is, I would still pay to see it in the theater if I had an opportunity to listen to the writer speak. 
 
Film could be the new jazz. Jazz fans spend money on the experience. I believe that black indie film fans would do the same. If most jazz artists depended on mass appeal and CD sales, they’d be in trouble. Jazz artists bring their music to the people. There are workshops, panels, and education initiatives. To me, this is how all of this could work. We have to find a way to take some of the pressure of box office results. 
 
Cinema lovers would pay to watch these smaller films and listen to the artists deconstruct their work. A good number of my friends have been to screenings where Ava has spoken about her projects. They are not only supporting the films, they are supporting her. I am by no means suggesting that filmmakers ignore the possibility of a wider audience, but we’ve got to figure out how to reach the core. According to the box office, there is no measurable reason to make a film that appeals to a more discriminating audience; but we know the audience exists. So, in some ways, depending on box office to validate the work feels like a set-up for failure. At some point, the audience has to be cultivated; not for individual projects, but for the overall love of film.
 
DuVernay’s African-American Film Festival Releasing Movement is pushing film in that direction. I like that the conversation is driven by the love of film and not about anxiety over there never being another black film made if one fails at the box office. That whole push to buy movie tickets so we can stick it to “the man” can only take us so far.
 
My friends who I used to hang out with at Doboy’s are in their late 30s and early 40s now. Chances are that most of us wouldn’t choose to go out on a weekday and cozy up in a dance studio to watch short films anymore. However, change the venue, add some wine and I’m pretty certain you can get us out of the house. We can be loyal patrons. Let’s consider how we can better use resources and build those relationships.
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24 Comments

  • CareyCarey | March 26, 2014 3:32 AMReply

    Great post... it was non-pretentious, straight forward and spoke to everyone, not just the audience. When everyone takes their eyes off the box as a means of determining the "success" of a film, everyone gains in the long run.

    I am reminded of the film LUV. In a youtube interview with Reelblack's Mike D, Charles S. Dutton and Dennis Haysbert, the actors spoke on how they became attached to a low budget film. Of special note they said they'd work for a dollar as long as the principle characters (i.e, writers, director, producer) knew what they were doing. In other words, for the sake of art and to get our stories told they were willing to accept a much lower wage than their "standard". It's an insightful youtube clip-->v=69XxH60bd4Y. Maybe Mike D can post on this site... I received an "error" signal when I last tried to pull it up. Anyway, if our new filmmakers were aware of which actors are willing to work on indie films that didn't have their main focus on box office numbers, that would be... in simple terms.... a good thang. I'm thinking something like a group/club/organization of black actors whose main focus would be their desire/willingness to work on black indie film productions for less than their normal salaries. .. if the scripts were tight and the director/writer knew their craft.

    In reference filmmakers, this post was speaking to them as well. However, their sacrifice may be more severe than an actor taking a lower wage. When a film does not do big numbers, the filmmaker may not be able to feed his family. And, I believe they (the filmmakers) are judged on "how much money did his/her last film make?".

    All that to say, great post and I believe it takes an unseen unity and a sort of dangerous unselfishness by all to move the black cinema in a positive direction. Posts like this tells me so.

  • CareyCarey | March 26, 2014 11:51 AM

    *blacks in the "film business"

  • CareyCarey | March 26, 2014 11:47 AM

    In reference to blacks in the film, I don't know if there's an organization with a mission that focuses on the best interests of blacks in the industry? Well, as I said in my above comment "I'm thinking something like a group/club/organization of black actors whose main focus would be their desire/willingness to work on black indie film productions for less than their normal salaries".

    For example, The Congressional Black Caucus (CBC) describes its goals as "positively influencing the course of events pertinent to African-Americans and others of similar experience and situation", and "achieving greater equity for persons of African descent in the design and content of domestic and international programs and services."
    The CBC encapsulates these goals in the following priorities: closing the achievement and opportunity gaps in education, assuring quality health care for every American, focusing on employment and economic security, ensuring justice for all.

    One more: The NAACP's objectives.
    To ensure the political, educational, social, and economic equality of all citizens
    To achieve equality of rights and eliminate race prejudice among the citizens of the United States
    To remove all barriers of racial discrimination through democratic processes
    To seek enactment and enforcement of federal, state, and local laws securing civil rights
    To inform the public of the adverse effects of racial discrimination and to seek its elimination
    To educate persons as to their constitutional rights and to take all lawful action to secure the exercise thereof, and to take any other lawful action in furtherance of these objectives, consistent with the NAACP's Articles of Incorporation.

    While we may not agree with how those organizations have fared over the years, their mission is centered on the advancement of POC... and that's a good thing. Now, I envison an organization with a mission to pair black indie filmmakers with A-Line actors. Specifically, the members would be those actors who are willing to give their services to "qualified" writers/directors whose scripts have been whose scripts has gone through a lengthy process similar to that of a film festival. In other words, the best scripts finds themselves in front of the members, who in turn have the opportunity to pick and choose their pleasure. The members may/could even set aside a period in the next calendar for the sole purpose of being involved in an indie film whose sole purpose is to file the void of films for the critical film viewers ( The Love Of Film Not Necessarily The Box Office). Those films could include films that tells our stories. Think about it, Jeffery Wright, Lupita Amondi Nyong'o and Denzel find out they all have promised the same period to give their services? And then, a fantastic script surfaces. And those attached to said script has passed the very discerning eyes of those in charge of such matters, they then are introduced to the actors for their approval.

    Can you see it, new, fresh filmmakers meeting the old school, all on the same mission. A unified front of black actors and black filmmakers working together to advance Black Cinema... that's a good thing... and it's needed! As it stands, we have no collective voice, it's you get yours while I get mine. That needs to change. As I said in another thread, we need to adapt a form of dangerous unselfishness.

  • Solaam | March 26, 2014 12:04 AMReply

    Wow, even Ava stopped by to S&A!
    Great article. I think with the advent of DSLRs and more affordable film equipment,
    we will see more of our diverse stories told.

  • Janet | March 25, 2014 10:47 PMReply

    S & A, I noticed that there a comments from 2012 on this post. What's so wrong about telling us it's a retread? Appreciate the essay... still relevant.. just keep it honest, okay?

    Respect to you and your mission.

  • Carl | March 26, 2014 12:12 AM

    Why do they have to tell us? You can read can't you? What difference does it make?

  • Daryl | March 25, 2014 9:04 PMReply

    Good article Phil Branch, finally somebody with a plan on black indie cinema and moving foward. I agree with what you are saying. I wish more black filmmakers would take Ava Duvernay approach and stop being so concerned with the masses but building a strong thriving black film sub -culture that supports indie black films, making them to be able to still be told and released no matter what the masses are doing. There are a lot of film directors who never had box office hits but where able to have a career expanding over 30 years because there was a sub - culture that was there to support them and it also allowed them to pick up new fans along the way. Too many black filmmakers fall into that trap that hollywood has to validate my work for it to have some meaning. The truth box office results are all about advertising, selling the star, it's a franchise, book wiht a built in audience or some type of gimmick, rarely do you hear the masses say I'm going to see this movie because of the story or the director, it's only a few directors like that to sell a movie on their name but they still have to have the right type of genre to sell their name or box office star. Phil Branch is also going to have to start with the actors and actresses, we need more that really care about the craft instead of looking at is as a hustle or just a big payday. I have seen and heard too many stories from black filmmakers who have a hard time casting black indie films that don't play to stereotypes or when they do cast them they don't take it serious enough and it becomes a headache to deal with them. Everybody can't live in LA or New York or a major city where you have an unlimited choice of talent to fit their film needs. This has to be address because a lot of good black indie films and stories are not being told outside of these cities and other major cities because of this. We have to build a better network where film lovers, directors and actors and actresses can connect on an indie level across the country no matter where they live at.

  • Monique a Williams | March 25, 2014 6:26 PMReply

    Positive post. Looking forward to the dialogue and action that grow from this.

  • Dave's Deluxe | March 25, 2014 5:32 PMReply

    These kids today with their boring "webisodes" would do well to attend a Doboy's Dozens. This digital ease-of-access tricks them into thinking their voice is more unique than it is.

  • Radha Blank | October 11, 2012 12:10 AMReply

    Hiiiiiii Philip! My film Fest buddy!

    Thanks for this entry! As a New York native, your Doboys rings familiar in my attending screenings/music shows some ten years ago pesented by Imagenation (founded by Moikgansti Kgama) and Act Now Prodcutions (founded by the late, great Aaron Ingram, RIP)...both entities have since moved on to bigger venues and events beyond the lil cafes of yesterday but have never swayed in their commitment to present some of the dopest, most cutting edge work of the diaspora. It's where I saw the early films of Seith Mann, Rod Gailes, Caran Hartsfield, Pierre Bennu...(Red Bone Guerillas is brilliant!)

    its where i saw Raoul Pecks "Lumumba", Stanley Nelson docs before they aired on tv and where i saw the younger Wood Harris or Nicole Ari Parker give powerful performances at the beginning of their careers. I honestly feel that these enclaves have helped to shape the black indie going audience into what it is today. Now Imagenation sells out Lincoln Center and is part of AFFRM. Now Act Now presents Black films annually at BAM. They've not only become my go to source (along wih Shadow and Act) for great new films of the Diaspora..they've informed my Black film vocabulary and have inspired through great small films to be a part of this movement as audience member and an artist!

    And shout out to all the newer enclaves like Philly's Black Star Fest (founded by Maori Holmes) which through a fresh, new crop of diaspora films, reflected a commitment to not only build on this legacy of cultivating audience but a commitment to showcase STELLAR diaspora films wih great writing, amazing actors, high production values and inspired cinematography.

  • Tamiko | October 9, 2012 3:45 PMReply

    Best post I've read all day! I was part of that subculture at Doboy's. And you're right, there was an energy in the room as young artists watched and enjoyed films of all genres. This post has inspired me to continue that legacy with Netflix / VOD / DVD, my friends, and a bottle of wine on a monthly basis - supporting our love of indie black film and filmmakers.

  • Tamiko | October 9, 2012 3:45 PMReply

    Best post I've read all day! I was part of that subculture at Doboy's. And you're right, there was an energy in the room as young artists watched and enjoyed films of all genres. This post has inspired me to continue that legacy with Netflix / VOD / DVD, my friends, and a bottle of wine on a monthly basis - supporting our love of indie black film and filmmakers.

  • kirk | October 9, 2012 3:16 PMReply

    Damn Ava your everywhere! lolololol. Looking forward to seeing you on Tavis tonight!

  • Donella | October 9, 2012 3:16 PMReply

    As one who watches a lot of film from the B-flick, foreign and/or weird section, I agree! Story is everything.

  • Jason Gilmore | October 9, 2012 1:05 PMReply

    Thank you for writing something that I couldn't agree with more if I'd written myself. I remember DoBoy's as well and I truly believe that because of AFFRM and Blackhouse and other filmmakers and resources that have been written about here, something is beginning to formulate. It will have traces of our past but will be something quite different - it has to be, because we are in different times. Anyway, I'm glad to be as close to it as I am, seeing people that I know stepping forward and making films by any means necessary. But thank you for this wonderful piece.

  • Keith Purvis | October 9, 2012 10:42 AMReply

    Great, observant post and a conversation that's been happening in Chicago for quite some time. There's small groups like the one you mentioned all over the country. There should be some dialogue on how to organize all of them so we can share films and multiply our support for filmmakers. Imagine if all those groups around the country could in some way rally around films like Ava's or Barry's or hidden gems that many don't know about. Something looser than a film festival but bigger than any one group.

    I would even suggest using this resource (shadow and act) in some way. Great post and very interested in what happens next.

  • monkeysuit | October 9, 2012 9:11 AMReply

    Someone should organize this. Like now.

  • Michelle | October 9, 2012 1:45 AMReply

    I agree wholeheartedly with you. We have to redefine success and understand that not everything has to show up grown. Some things should sneak up on you and make you never forget it. Your example reminded me of how I learned about Jill Scott's first album. It was a whisper that turned into a roar. I took note of all of your recommendations and look forward to more post.

  • Blackman | October 9, 2012 12:59 AMReply

    I seen medicine for melancholy. It was NOT "all that" She went back to her White Art House Boyfriend. And it wasn't sexy enough. While you bumping your gums, why haven't you Reviewed, "THE HOUSE I LIVE IN?" http://filmguide.sundance.org/film/120108/the_house_i_live_in

    http://www.democracynow.org/2012/1/31/the_house_i_live_in_new


    It won the sundance Grand Prize for Best U.S. Documentary?

    Oh, that's right, this is an African only documentary discovery blog.

    This OPENS in Chicago this Friday. I will DEF be in attendance.

    Movie review:
    the top documentary prize at the Sundance Film Festival went to "The House I Live In," which questions why the United States has spent more than $1 trillion on drug arrests in the past 40 years, and yet drugs are cheaper, purer and more available today than ever. The film examines the economic, as well as the moral and practical, failures of the so-called "war on drugs" and calls on the United States to approach drug abuse not as a "war," but as a matter of public health. We need "a very changed dialogue in this country that understands drugs as a public health concern and not a criminal justice concern," says the film’s director, Eugene Jarecki. "That means the system has to say, 'We were wrong.'" We also speak with Nannie Jeter, who helped raise Jarecki as her own son succumbed to drug addiction and is highlighted in the film. We air clips from the film, featuring Michelle Alexander, author of "The New Jim Crow"; Canadian physician and bestselling author, Gabor Maté; and David Simon, creator of "The Wire."

  • VC | October 9, 2012 12:22 AMReply

    Nice post...

  • AVA DuVERNAY | October 8, 2012 11:40 PMReply

    Mr. Branch: You wrote what's inside my head and my heart on this issue. "According to the box office, there is no measurable reason to make a film that appeals to a more discriminating audience; but we know the audience exists. So, in some ways, depending on box office to validate the work feels like a set-up for failure. At some point, the audience has to be cultivated; not for individual projects, but for the overall love of film." Thank you. Ava DuVernay

  • ALM | October 8, 2012 10:56 PMReply

    Nice post. Googling "Medicine for Melancholy" now.....

  • Dui | October 8, 2012 9:59 PMReply

    This is a very relevant post.

  • theyounglion | October 8, 2012 9:50 PMReply

    I remember DoBoy's, and even had the pleasure of having one of my shorts screened. I went when he was doing it in Leimert Park in the early 2000's. What a warm and energetic scene that was...like you said, black folk coming from all over L.A. to pack a spot in order to watch and talk about short films. Those were really good times.

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