In light of all the discussion generated by my entry on black film festivals, I was reminded of a previous similar piece I wrote just over a year ago that inspired almost as much simultaneous praise and ire from my fellow brothers and sisters of the Diaspora.
In October 2007, I wrote an op-ed for NPR's News Notes, calling for an autonomous, Black-owned and operated film studio, akin to the current group of majors and mini-majors that have dominated, and continue to dominate the industry; one with the same kind of power and control, financing and distributing its own films.
The article was published on their website, where it still resides, and which I still occasionally receive emails about, from those just finding it.
I recall just how quickly the euphoria I felt when NPR notified me that it had been posted, quickly weakened in intensity, as I read the emails and comments of those who balked at the idea, often for perplexing reasons. Some even attacked me personally, calling me an Uncle Tom, uppity, likening me to people like Bill Cosby, labeling me a pariah for supposedly airing our so-called "dirty laundry."
I was disheartened and discouraged by many of the responses; but, thankfully, there were those who championed the idea, applauding my stance, and reinvigorating me in the process - a scene that played out somewhat similarly to all that's happened since last week Friday, when I posted an entry challenging our nation's black film festivals.
I don't claim to have all the answers to all our problems. I'm just one guy with ideas and opinions, and this is my chosen forum to share them. Anyone who knows me well enough understands that I have nothing but our best interests in all that I say and do (and have said and done) with regards to black cinema. And I certainly hope that my words are taken in the spirit of progress and self-empowerment.
So, I thought it would be a good idea to revisit that NPR op-ed piece I wrote in 2007. I haven't read it since it was initially posted; and reading it again after so long, despite seeing a few words and sentences that I may rethink using if asked to write it today, I still feel comfortable with the article's overall sentiment.
Of course, one can argue the merits of race-based solutions to race-based problems - a discussion we have had on this blog, as well as on my podcast, a few times. Alas, race, the social construct that it is, matters, and is unavoidable in the world that we've collectively created for ourselves. So, we're essentially forced to deal with each other, and many of our problems within those myopic limits.
Following below is the entire op-ed piece as it was originally printed on NPR's website, where it still resides. No adjustments or alterations were made to it.
I'm curious to hear how others feel about the ideas within it, today, a year and a few months later.
Here ya go, courtesy of NPR:
Since the early days of cinema, when the Lincoln Motion Picture Company and Oscar Micheaux existed, we haven't seen an autonomous black-owned and operated film entity in this country, akin to the likes of the Hollywood-based studios and their subsidiaries.
As a black filmmaker, I once empathized with the cries of black voices working within the studio system, criticizing it for its lack of diversity. However, the song has become stale, as people like myself, existing outside the system, struggle to understand the apparent lack of vision that some of our well-paid, powerful, influential voices display.
In recent weeks, I've read articles in which black Hollywood elite like Halle Berry, Spike Lee, and Tyler Perry have expressed their frustrations with some aspect of the industry, specific to their race. It seems to me that we've created this unfortunate reality for ourselves, this prison that we've psyched ourselves into, when we clearly have the power to create the kind of truth we yearn for. Instead we wait for a group of devout capitalists to some day realize our plight and intervene accordingly.
Almost 70 years ago, Hattie McDaniel, the first black Oscar winner, was quoted as saying, "I'd rather play a maid and make $700 a week than be one for $7," implying that she was arguably without choice. If black film talent (writers, directors, performers) today are still making somewhat similar statements -- post-Civil Rights Movement, post-Blaxploitation era, post Oscar wins for several black performers; at a time when we have unprecedented access to the production resources necessary, distribution channels, and finances; 70 years after "Mammy" in Gone With the Wind -- if we're still expressing similar sentiments, then we have perhaps regressed instead of progressed. It's a thought that is simultaneously numbing and enraging.
It baffles me that someone like Robert Johnson chooses to jump into bed with the Weinstein Company and JP Morgan Chase, to form his film company -- Our Stories Films, Inc. -- as opposed to building the entity solo (he's certainly capable), or in cooperation with other able African Americans/Africans, in order to make it an unequivocally black-owned and operated entity, as opposed to one that's dependent on the influence of white-owned establishments.
We've risen to the challenge before. In 1973, a film called The Spook Who Sat By the Door was financed through funds raised from black investors. In 1992, when Spike Lee needed money to complete production of Malcolm X, Bill Cosby, Janet Jackson, Oprah Winfrey, and others, collectively came up with approximately $11 million to ensure the completion of the film, since the initial budget approved by Warner Bros. wasn't sufficient. In 1996, the $2.4 million budget for Get on the Bus was financed entirely by contributions from African-American men, including Will Smith, Danny Glover, and Wesley Snipes.
So we've clearly shown the will to mobilize ourselves for a cause, and have done so with some success; it perplexes me why this similar kind of communal effort has not been implemented on a grander scale, and done so more frequently.
An absurd 10 out of the 400 plus films (a paltry 2.5 percent) that have been released this year by the dominant studio system, tell stories primarily about black people, while also being created by black people.
We are still very much the "invisible man" in this powerful medium -- arguably the most influential medium in existence. Cinema informs and educates; and what we learn from the images we see, partially dictates how we relate to each other, especially those whom we rarely interact with. When you're not present, you're not valued, particularly by those in power, who are in positions to create and enforce policies that directly affect us; and when your life is considered unessential, then you're disposable; the victims of Katrina saw this phenomenon play out firsthand.
What I and others like myself are calling for, and trying to crystallize collectively, is a comparable studio that's autonomous, just like any other major/mini film entity -- one that produces, finances, and distributes its own films globally, as opposed to relying on an existing system that's motivated by profit, and has no real incentive to change its modus operandi, nor does it have any allegiance to a single group of people.
We have to become the change that we all say we want to see -- a feat that's more accessible to us than we might realize. It will be a challenge from the beginning, but as long as we don't lose sight of the big picture, it will be a worthwhile effort in the long run.
Fin! Talk amongst yourselves if you like...