As many black cinephiles anxiously await the release of Ava DuVernay’s Middle of Nowhere, discussions begin again about the need to rally in support of independent film. 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 weresupporting 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, Ms. 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 watched a film on Netflix last month 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.