Feb '00
James Richards has something to say!

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The Black Film Movement
By James Richards

Black Film, is there such a thing? The Black Film movement I would argue, as an aesthetic movement doesn't exist. Instead, there has simply been some relenting in the institutions that finance and produce films due to the un-ignorable rise in skill, ambition, determination, and commercial viability of a number of filmmakers that happen to be Black. Combined with the ability of other filmmakers that happen to be Black to find ways around the system, and ways to subvert the system in order to make films. If there is a movement, it is more of an integrationist movement as the Industry slowly relents and lets the Negroe sit at the front of the bus. Should we be happy or mad as hell?

But are these Black people making Black Films? If they are not making Black Films, what are they making? I'd say they are making films for the most part, but not Black films. To simply have a Black director, or a Black cast, or a Black artists-packed soundtrack is not enough to make a film Black. It makes the film Black Themed or of Black Interest, but these are descriptions of the subject matter, not the aesthetic qualities of the film. There has to be a fundamental quality that creates a distinction between Black Films and the Hollywood style of filmmaking. These fundamental qualities should distinguish Black Film from all other major film movements as well.

Most films made by filmmakers that happen to be Black are Hollywood style films with Black casts and music, and that is not enough to declare it a Black Film. To say a film has a director that happens to be Black is not enough. Is One True Thing or Hope Floats, Black films because Carl Franklin and Forest Whitaker directed them respectively? Is A Soldier's Story or Sounder white films because they were directed by Norman Jewison and Martin Ritt? What those films are, essentially, are Hollywood films which is not necessarily a bad thing; it just is. Franklin and Whitaker make no bones about their aspirations in Hollywood and, I believe, pride themselves on how smoothly they slip within the continuum of white Hollywood directors that their work is virtually indistinguishable from their white peers.

Let me clarify what I mean by a Hollywood film. I don't mean that the film was made through Hollywood (though all my examples were made through Hollywood), I mean, the filmmakers embrace the classic aesthetic formulas of Hollywood. The Hollywood style is best known for maximum narrative efficiency. Almost all elements filmed are for the propelling of the story to an inevitable conclusion. It works beautifully for what it wants to achieve. To some degree, all film movements are determined by how they differ from the Hollywood standard. It is safe to assume that the Hollywood style is the standard. Many of the formal principals, the basics so to speak, were mastered in Hollywood. We take them for granted today.

A Black Film must differ from tradition in its form and structure in a way that is obvious to the perceptions of the viewer, otherwise it is just a film with Black people in it. To paraphrase French film theorist Jean Mitry: The history of film art is not the history of subject matter, nor even the history of film stories but the history of poetic techniques which reach beyond the stories they spring from (Page 195, "Major Film Theories," by J. Dudley Andrew). It is not the story that creates the difference, it is the poetic techniques used to tell the story that makes the difference.

May I be bold enough to declare some criteria·I'll do it anyway.

  • A Black Film cannot in any way make concessions to the mainstream. If at any time a filmmaker asks, "will white people get this?" That filmmaker has expressed interest in making something other than a Black Film. I don't believe Chen Kaige or Kristof Kieslowski asks himself that question when he makes his films. Now, this doesn't mean the filmmaker is trying to make a film that is impenetrably Black. It just means that whatever choices the filmmaker makes will be based solely on what is best for the film and not on what an audience outside of the experience of the characters or filmmakers will get.

  • A Black Film should have significant structural differences from a conventional Hollywood film. The viewer must viscerally experience the differences. In what form these differences take and to what degree are determined by the filmmaker. As stated earlier, subject matter alone is not a strong enough criterion to accurately define a movement. I would suggest that these differences in some way remain analogous to our experiences as Black people. Like visual metaphors, these differences in form and structure relate a deeper truth than the pure representation of a story.

  • A" Black" Film should find some kind of independent or sympathetic sources of funding. To do otherwise is to risk concession, due to the innate desire to please those who have funded the project. It's only normal to want to please the investors so that they will finance the next project and so on, even if this desire is on a sub-conscious level. The danger is that those with the money rarely leave the filmmaker alone. Those, unfortunately, who green-light projects inherently do so to maintain the status quo and not to challenge it or redefine it. It is not out of malicious intent; it is often not profitable. And, when there is that brief moment in time where challenging mainstream ideas is popular, they churn out films exploiting that moment in time, for profit. I actually don't have a problem with that. It's capitalism. You accept that when you decide to stay in the States. The key is finding some sort of alternative financial support system where artistic merit has as much weight (if not more) as potential profitability. It is easier said than done obviously, and any such systems would be rife with politics, but in some ways still better than what we have right now. Let me make it clear; I celebrate all black directors who struggle against the odds to get a film (any film) off the ground. And I am not critical of those who embrace, who relish in the Hollywood aesthetic of filmmaking. These criteria are my criteria, my opinions, only.

In my heart, I do not believe the Hollywood style of filmmaking is adequate to deeply depict the multi-layered multiplicity of the broad African-American experience. I believe the task requires a new form, somehow. Like no one would consider the Britney Spears school of R&B capable of expressing our experiences like Aretha Franklin, the same is true for Hollywood. We are still waiting for the Aretha school of filmmaking.


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