August 99: BACKTALK
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August: James Richards, a NYU filmmaker, responds to Gordon Parks' ideologies on filmmaking.

Part I of II
by James Richards

A while ago, I read an interview with celebrated writer, photographer, artist, and filmmaker, Gordon Parks. He advised young filmmakers not to be limited to "black stories". I took that personally, like an insult. Maybe "limited" is a poor choice of wording. Maybe if he had said something like "Filmmakers should feel free to tell any story they want, even ones outside of their cultural experience." I'd agree with that wholeheartedly. But he didn't say that, he used the word "limited." Maybe it's simply a matter of semantics and I'm just being too sensitive, but "limited" registers awfully negative in my head. Why are my experiences "limited," and why would another black person feel that way?

Zhang Yimou is arguably one of the World's greatest film directors. His work, even his films set in modern times, are deeply rooted in Chinese culture. No one would dare suggest that he wouldn't really be a great director until he told some stories with white folks in it. At least not out loud.

John Updike has made an entire career writing about a white man nicknamed Rabbit and I've never heard anyone say he's limited because he hasn't written a story about a black woman.

When we think of our culture and experiences as limiting, we've succumbed to the same racism that artists of color think they're overcoming by doing white stories. They have misunderstood the words mainstream and universal as synonymous. They have bought into the majority's definition of universality, that in order for a story to have transcending appeal it must be one the majority feels comfortable with. Black experiences, which are the real day to day living of people that happen to be black, are apparently alienating to the majority. Ironically, the easily digestible chocolate nuggets of black culture, which at times can mean something completely different than black experience, are greedily consumed. There has never been a stronger black presence, for better or for worse, in media than right now.

And yet what I'm hearing, I think, when I hear filmmakers say they don't want to be "limited" by their culture, is "I don't want my bank account limited." Why should directors who are black bust their asses to do a film about white people? Especially when there are a thousand white directors trying to do the same films or when these black directors show no interest in using their unique perspectives as black people to inform their films about white people, like European directors use their unique perspectives when making films about America? It's money. I wish they'd just admit it. Doing a "mainstream film" means access to the "mainstream audience", which as a byproduct likely means a bigger box office. More money.

I understand a filmmaker wanting to take the tools of craft he or she has developed and to be challenged to apply them to a story outside of her or his immediate experience. For the most part, that scenario is not what I'm hearing. What I hear is that people who believe their stories are marginal or small can't really be successful or good by telling them. Their potential for greatness lies in how well they can tell a story about white folks or how well white folks can tell our stories with their help. Part of me feels a desperate need to escape from these filmmakers. They want to enter the mainstream minus that troublesome baggage of race, to be merely a filmmaker like white filmmakers and to have access to what they have. Is this a universal goal of artistic aspiration? What defines mainstream anyway? Assimilating to white culture? Being American?

The hegemony of Western Culture determines "mainstream-ness". There doesn't seem to be a firm definition but a helluva lot of ever shifting fine print. Apparently, something is universal to the degree that it reflects this mainstream white culture. In order for black films to have "universal" appeal, white people must be able to understand them easily or the film should conform, in some way, to previously established stereotypes familiar to the mainstream.

That, to me, is limiting.


No one culture can determine what's universal unless we all acquiesce. This is exactly what artists of color are doing when they fight and struggle to make films about white people, exactly like white filmmakers. They are agreeing that who they are is marginal, where they come from is limiting. Sometimes these are the same people who will ask you to see them as human beings.

I can't accept my experiences, my culture or my life as marginal. My stories are universal. I don't make films about the mating habits of sea crustaceans. I write about human beings that think, dream, love, hate, live and die. There can't be anything more universal than that. The only difference is my characters go about their lives in a way that is culturally specific to their experiences as black people. The situations they face may be unique to their culture and race, but the emotions they experience because of the given situations are human ones. Other humans should be able to recognize them. European directors wouldn't dream of not using their perspectives as Europeans to inform their films about America. Norman Jewison has said that his being Canadian gives him a unique perspective on American society. Are we the only people not trying to have a perspective?

At this point in time, I should not have to go around proving my universality. It's a given. I'm not going to. I will operate as if it is a given and will make no attempt to culturally water down (or juice up) my work so mainstream even white Americans can get it.

I don't believe that white directors worry whether their culture or point of view is limited. They don't have to because for the most part they are the mainstream to which everything else must relate.

There are literally thousands of stories within the Black Experience that haven't been told and thousands of one of a kind characters we haven't met yet. Why abandon them before they've been born? We need to introduce them to the whole World and ourselves. We need to develop new levels of complexity in black film that rival the mastery already exhibited by black musicians, fine artists and writers.

[Hear Gordon Park's response to James Richards] (Real Audio Required)


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