The Politics of Making a “Black Film” in Obama’s America


Image of director Kasi Lemmons courtesy of Professor Sussoro’s Blog

Last fall I tweeted that a barometer of Black women’s freedom would be their ability to control, tell, and distribute their own stories.

Having seen Push, and now For Colored Girls, two movies based on texts written by Black women about Black women, but directed by Black men, I am incredibly mindful of who gets to tell which story and why. Story telling is powerful because it is through stories that we come to see who we are in the world. Our stories define us. Stories tell us what is possible.

Consequently I was really excited when I learned that Pariah, directed by Dee Rees had been acquired by Focus Features last week.

A story, by a Black woman, about a Black girl. #Awesome.

In thinking about Pariah I was reminded of a Professor Michelle Wallace’s commentary on Spike Lee nearly fifteen years ago and what it means to make “Black Films.” In the article “Doin’ the Right Thing” she writes,

” …implicit in this formulation of Blacks having their own films was the nagging question as to whether such representations would somehow make black
peoples lives better overall. Regardless whether representation weather a film has value as any value as art, it can , if it chooses closely mirror or reflect the problems
and inequities of society. People make the mistake of thinking that a film can therefor correct inequities. This because we as a culture, are still trying to figure out what representation fully means in still new and exponentially expanding forms: what such forms can and can’t do, what we should and should not ask from them.”

She also say’s something in the article that has stuck with me which speaks to the idea that,

“we can now see that the notion of blacks making their “own” films presupposed the existence of a monolithic black community, unified enough to
posses a common ideology, ethics, morality, and culture, sufficient to override such competing and divisive interests as class, gender, sexuality, age and
education.”

This morning @tkoed Sent me a link from Ta-Nehisi’s blog where Neil Drumming, a screen writer and journalist, talks about about whether he would make “Black films.”

The article talks about how films by several NYU alums made it to Sundance this year. Full disclosure, as a little bear I worked for several years at NYU’s film school as an office manager. NYU’s Black film making culture is a part of me. It is in seeing grad and undergrad student filmmakers grind to make their dreams work that, that in some ways I developed the courage to openly pursue being an artist. Filmmakers taught me the power of story and how to analyze a film.

My homie Jase has just came back from Sundance after working on a doc on Harry Belafonte, Sing Your Song, #wingsup.

My homie’s Marquette Jones and Qwesi Davis both have films in the San Diego Black Film Festival this month.

I also found this article to be interesting, in that it speaks to how hyper segregated both Hollywood AND the art world is. Furthermore, it is related to a conversation that I was having last week with a Black woman journalist friend about how segregated Washington’s journalism corps are, and what this means for the careers of Black people in general and women of color in particular. It appears that one can operate in the White circle or the Black circle, but not both. Where does this leave people who are neither White nor Black? o.O

Work mirrors life?

Was it this rigid in New York? I don’t recall.

What is material to me is that Neil never disclosed his race. I read the article again, looking then I asked @tkoed if Neil was White. @Tkoed says that this is because regular readers know who he is, and that may be true. But I am not a regular reader, so I finished the article wondering is this a White, mixed race or Black person analyzing what it means to have negro characters in their movies.

Perhaps given how marginalized Black films are, to choose to make Black movies is a choice to have your work live on the margins. This can be tough to reconcile for some.

The homie Dame also sent me a link to an article titled “Can Revolutionary Films Hinder Social Action.” Read it here. This article looks at how the top 1% can use the medium of film
to transmit messages to the masses that then absolve the masses from taking action. For example, if you know that “The Matrix” exists, are you obligated to do something about it?

Oh and Rob has a piece up at The Liberator about the Black Creative Class. He makes some interesting points about who makes up this class and although his timeline throws me a bit, I like
the idea of inter-generational Black struggle that’s not linear and impacted by art. In some ways I think our posts are in conversation with each other.

Excited about Pariah?

Why did we assume that having more Black Films would change the lives of Black people?

Can we have a conversation about the forces that create a “Black Film” genre in the first place?

Race and racism are draining.

Comments

  1. “we can now see that the notion of blacks making their “own” films presupposed the existence of a monolithic black community, unified enough to posses a common ideology, ethics, morality, and culture, sufficient to override such competing and divisive interests as class, gender, sexuality, age and education.”

    I wonder if you can push on this quote a little bit more or show your hand a bit more on what struck you? This gets at a lot of the major issues about “should we pursue a ‘black aesthetic’”
    in the post-civil rights moment. There seem to be both ethical and artistic ramifications to how we answer it

    “It appears that one can operate in the White circle or the Black circle, but not both. Where does this leave people who are neither White nor Black?”

    is this challenging a black-white racial binary or are you asking a more amorphous question about the category of race?

    “Perhaps given how marginalized Black films are, to choose to make Black movies is a choice to have your work live on the margins. This can be tough to reconcile for some.”

    How are you defining a “Black film” here?

  2. Well, the idea of a “Black Film” at least in how Professor Wallace was talking about it assumes that there is “ONE” kind of Blackness, and because of that we would all support a movie or MOVIES that have Black people in them. In many ways we reified the category of Black, as if we are one group thats all the same.

    As opposed to acknowledging that we do have some shared experiences, Black people are as broad and varied as White folks.

    “It appears that one can operate in the White circle or the Black circle, but not both. Where does this leave people who are neither White nor Black?”

    is this challenging a black-white racial binary or are you asking a more amorphous question about the category of race?
    ==========

    I am acknowledging the power of the binary and the impact that it has on the lives of my friends and peers who are writers. I will not ignore it, some of them apparently do and it is arguably to their detriment. In fact acknowledging that it exists is the first step to transforming it. #PowertoName.

    A Black film, centers the narrative of a person, who in the film, self identifies as Black.

  3. Sis,

    Loved this article and definitely will be adding you to my blogroll.

    Natasha
    http://www.begirlmanifesta.wordpress.com