Nov 99: Back Talk

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A N.Y.U filmmaker, responds to Gordon Parks's ideologies on filmmaking. by James Richards (Part 2 in a series) Read Part 1.

Evidently, when it comes to film, we don't trust ourselves. Unless we're making a certain product, we're not marketable, to ourselves and the mainstream. Slightly unusual films or films that deal with complex themes are routinely ignored. I don't know if that's because of poor marketing or lack of interest. I know I did stand on long lines to see "Daughters of the Dust" and "Sankofa" which had strong grass roots campaigns, but was virtually alone when I saw "Chameleon Street" and "To Sleep with Anger." Even that was a while ago. The last few years have been pretty thin.

The majority of films produced that contain a primarily Black cast made in the last seven years almost entirely belong to one genre: The ASS CHASE genre. The pitch is "Niggas want ass", period. With a little morality lesson at the end. Roll call: Booty Call, Skeezers, Phat Beach, BAPS, How To Be A Player (and I'm sure there are others I'm too traumatized to remember). These are films cold and calculated with characters that could've been pulled from one of those racist questionnaires circulating the Internet. These are films with limited, uninterestingly exaggerated or convenient characterizations of Black Life. We ourselves often don't seem all that interested in challenging and unconventional portrayals of Black folks, at least not in films. We accept limitation because we haven't seen ourselves enough in unlimited ways.

In terms of business, the problem is on two levels: Us and Them. We seem to be limited in what we're willing to see and the studios and investors seem to be limited in what they're willing to finance.

It's true that a film with a Black story line will not make the same money as one without one. The majority has difficulty making the cultural leap into the eyes of a Black protagonist. (Sometimes I feel when non-Blacks go to see Black films it's not because of an intriguing story line or the stars but more like an anthropological expedition, like an enclosed tour bus rumbling through Harlem. What else could explain the ridiculous buzz around "Straight Outta Brooklyn"? A film's success or lack thereof is based on how much it either confirms or denies their unconscious interpretation of Black Life.) This cultural leap Black folks take for granted every day when watching soaps to action films. I knew a lot of kids that wanted to be Bruce Lee and Linda Carter when I was growing up, and none looked even remotely like them.

There are exceptions, like "Waiting To Exhale", but however Black these women were, they were accessible (which isn't a bad thing). I do feel it's crossover success is due in part to white women having a greater willingness to see the things that connect women together, than the willingness of white men to see the things that connect all of us together.

Often films that include Black actors aren't interested in their perspective and tragically, even if the issue is Black history.


Rob Reiner was on an interview and said he was fascinated by the idea of doing a Civil Rights story. He came upon the Myrlie Evers Story and thought this was the one he wanted to tell. Except, he, according to his own words, could only relate to the story through the white prosecutor who finally won the case, Bobby Delaughter. He felt he couldn't tell (or felt he didn't have the right to tell) the story from an "African-American" perspective.

So what's the end result? Read Part 3 next issue....


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