Covering Cinema From All Across The African Diaspora

REVISITING - Calling For An Autonomous Black Owned & Operated Film Studio

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...


  1. Jaceeel said...

    I've never been to church before but i was testifying while i read this piece. Your concept is true not just of films but for all aspects of African American life.

  2. The Sujewa said...

    Hey Tambay,

    Some thoughts I had re: this idea:

    In 2009, what exactly is a studio? Every aspect of the motion picture production & distribution industry can be hired or rented to produce or distribute a film or several films at whatever scale the client wants to work on (from a small art house type release - something several indie filmmakers have done with service deals - to releasing a movie on 3000 theaters using distribution services rented from other companies - as George Lucas does). So, maybe all anyone or any group of people who wants to behave as a "film studio" needs is the money to hire the services that they need in order to make & distribute films on the desired scale. And after that, or if it is somehow better to do it that way or if not enough movie theaters exist for their product, a company or organization could build new theaters, new distribution networks, etc.

    So, the goal of creating a Black owned & operated studio in 2009 is not that difficult to accomplish (provided you raise the money necessary to work on a Hollywood scale if that is what your goal is, otherwise you can work on a smaller scale - equal to the amount of money & other resources that can be gathered at present, & then build the business from there to the ultimate desired level).

    - Sujewa

  3. Anonymous said...

    You got your wish.

  4. The Obenson Report said...

    Hey Sujewa - yup, raising the necessary funds is at the core, regardless of scale. What I'm talking about here is creating something on the scale of any of the majors - Disney, Fox, Sony, Time Warner, etc... Certainly those conglomerates weren't built overnight; BUT, the Dreamworks story I think is a model worth considering. Spielberg, Katzenberg and Geffen, each ponied up $33 million of their own money, and attracted another $500 million of so from Paul Allen to create the studio - which of course was later sold, and is now back in the hands of Spielberg again.

    Last year, via my podcast and blog, and ActNow Foundation (a Brooklyn-based non-profit arts organization), we tried selling a scaled down version of the idea, by setting up a fund, and raising money necessary to produce and distribute a couple of lo-budget features annually; the goal was to do it ourselves, hoping that as others saw it working, they would eventually contribute. But we had such a difficult time convincing people the idea was a good one, and actually faced strong opposition in some instances. So, we got discouraged and just decided to put an end to it.

    But, this fund that I'm creating this year is a revisiting of the idea. Of course, the money will come from me initially. But, I won't be so quick to give up this time.

  5. The Obenson Report said...

    @ Anonymous -

    On the contrary - Tyler Perry is very much a part of the system and far from autonomous.

    As long as he's still dependent on a studio - in this case Lionsgate - for any aspect of the production/distribution process, he can't be classified as autonomous. Lionsgate both funds AND distributes his films - 2 aspects of the filmmaking process that we know are the most crucial, and the most challenging for any entity, whether within the system, or outside of it.

    So, while I champion his efforts and accomplishments so far, for him to be classified as a studio, in the most recognized form of the term, he would have to be in a position to finance and distribute his films, minus any outside influence. I'd like to think that he is in such a position - he's certainly got the money, the influence, and the built-in audience; but I'm just not sure he fully realizes that; or maybe he does, but is content with his current setup, and would rather not take the risk.

  6. Jeremiah J said...

    Well Tambay, I must say that your idea of a Black owned studio is delightful in my mind. As for reality, I can only hope for the best. I catch hell trying to get money from people (especially Black folks) for my little projects, so I can only imagine this undertaking. I wish you the best and I hope you don't quit.

    You have a lot of dynamite ideas to go along with your creativity and hope you follow this through. If any person can do it, I believe you can.

    Onward Soldier,

    Best Regards,

Post a Comment