The new voices of black film
NEW YORK — Robert Townsend has a message for African-Americans who aspire to be filmmakers: "If you've got a friend with a computer, there's a way to get your film made."
It was very different when the director made "Hollywood Shuffle" in 1987. Back then, he had to film with a bulky 35mm camera and edit with scissors and tape.
"The process of making movies is easier these days now that you've got [digital video] cameras that allow you to edit on a computer," says Mr. Townsend.
That won't automatically result in a red-carpet première, however. African-American directors still find it difficult to get financing for independent black films that don't feature, say, Will Smith picking a gunfight on a freeway during rush hour. Obtaining theatrical distribution is an even greater challenge.
On the eve of the Sundance Film Festival, which will accent its regular attention to African-American feature films with a special discussion of "The New Black Film" on Jan. 19, the Monitor sat down with leading actors, producers, and directors to discuss the state of African-American filmmaking today.
In recent years, small movies aimed at African-Americans such as "Soul Food," "Brown Sugar," and "Love and Basketball," have defied expectations at the box office. Many of them, like "Drumline" and "Barbershop" (which grossed over $75 million), were hits with white audiences, too.
Unfortunately, black filmmakers' say, it's still difficult to convince investors and studios that such films can be profitable.
"That's the constant struggle, explaining who is the audience," says Kasi Lemmons, director of "Eve's Bayou" and "The Caveman's Valentine."
"Many people think there's a ceiling for how much they can make with an African-American film because they assume that no white audiences are going to want to see it. What a ridiculous assumption that is!" she says. "If you make a good film, it should be accessible to a very wide audience. 'Eve's Bayou' was, and it crossed over."
"The process is complicated by race in America," says Warrington Hudlin, who produced "House Party" and "Boomerang" with his brother, Reginald. "Often, the people evaluating the merits of your project are from outside your community - outside your culture - and can't recognize its merit. The lack of an even playing field makes it more difficult, since the people I have to appeal to over and over never look like me."
Small, personal movies are even harder to get financed. That's true of any independent film, but the challenge can be particularly acute if the film is not a broad comedy or a gangsta epic in the vein of "New Jack City."
"Even today, after doing what I've done, it's still hard to get funding," says "New Jack City" director and actor Mario Van Peebles, whose most recent picture, "Badasssss," will be featured at Sundance. "At one point I was trying to get funding for a project on the life of Dr. King, but we couldn't get the money to finance it ... and I'm an established director."
Ironically, "Badasssss" chronicles the struggles Van Peebles' father, Melvin, faced when he financed and directed "Sweet Sweetback's Badasssss Song" in 1971. "Like my dad always said: 'Whoever has the gold makes the rules,' and that's still true today," he says.
In this business, you have to be persistent and tenacious in the face of investor skepticism, says Ms. Lemmons, whose actor/writer/director husband, Vondie Curtis Hall, has a film called "Redemption" competing at this year's Sundance Festival.
"You can never take 'no' for an answer and you have to keep telling yourself, 'I know who I am, and I know what I'm trying to do,' " she says.
"There are so many independent films being made, that they can't all find distribution," says Lemmons, who started her career in film playing Jodie Foster's F.B.I. roommate in "The Silence of the Lambs."
"Distribution is still the final frontier," agrees Townsend. Sundance and, more recently, the Tribeca Film Festival have introduced programs designed to give minorities a leg up in "the biz," but that doesn't always mean money will be forthcoming or that studios will see completed movies. The Black Film Foundation, founded by the Hudlin brothers, was set up to tackle that problem. It brokers introductions to sources of financing.
"We're trying to create a critical mass and create an awareness of films, because the people of color in the film industry are not in the executive suite. They're not in the room to say 'yes' or 'no' and greenlight a project," says Mr. Hudlin.
Movies have become so expensive to market and distribute that if a studio is not assured it can recoup its money from the increasingly important international audience, a small African-American film may not get to open there, or may not even receive a greenlight in the first place.
"It's a frustrating reality for many filmmakers and for us, because we like making these movies, but there's almost no international market for them - even in Canada," says Steve Gilula, president of distribution at Fox Searchlight, a division of 20th Century Fox, which will release "Never Die Alone" and "Johnson Family Vacation" later this year.
The fact that "Drumline," "Soul Food," "How Stella Got Her Groove Back," and "Two Can Play At That Game," all grossed less than $2 million overseas does not mean they crashed and burned all over the world, but that they were released only in Britain, the Caribbean, and a handful of Latin American countries. Most studios do not push black-themed films abroad, ostensibly because big markets like Germany and Japan do not have large African or Caribbean populations.
There are exceptions. "Waiting To Exhale" received a very strong marketing push from 20th Century Fox and earned $14.4 million internationally, on top of the $67 million it grossed in the US.
"Many filmmakers still want to believe that there's not enough money spent on promotion, but it's been tried enough times, and tried recently enough, that the studios have seen that there is just very little interest from audiences abroad," says Gilula. "It's not racism, there are a lot of American movies that don't work overseas - [that] don't 'travel.' "
There are more African- American directors than ever before but many of them choose to work on big studio films since there's not as much money in low-budget, independent films. John Singleton, director of "Boyz N the Hood," recently made "2 Fast 2 Furious," for instance. Albert and Allen Hughes, the team behind "Menace II Society," moved on to "From Hell" with Johnny Depp. "Friday" director F. Gary Gray scored a recent hit with a remake of "The Italian Job." Another black director, Antoine Fuqua ("Training Day") is due to release the blockbuster "King Arthur" this summer.
"Many filmmakers want to follow the footsteps of the Hughes brothers and make studio movies because there are bigger directing fees involved for making a mainstream movie," says Gilula.
Some argue that this leads to a homogenization of the types of films that black directors make, since they have to conform to studio expectations of what might be commercial.
"When you go out with a script of brothers in baggy pants shooting each other up in the 'hood ... you can get financing. But when you try to go out of that, it's a lot tougher," says Van Peebles.
"The reason I did 'The Hollywood Shuffle' is because as an artist I was dying," says director Townsend. "A lot of times people of color are stuck in a box. They're forced to only play certain roles and to uphold certain images, and that's how the game works. But these images shape the way people think and also the way people act."
A few black actors say that they, too, are looking for stronger and more diverse African-American roles in film.
"I'm constantly looking for good material, but most of what's out there is not good because most screenwriters are only reading other screenplays," says actress Alfre Woodard, who starred in Spike Lee's "Crooklyn," among others. "They need to read books - they need to read real writing - and they need to read more stage plays. "
Many black actors and producers are looking for a fresh take on relationships in the African-American community, a shift that will certainly be a point of discussion during Sundance's panel on black film.
"One film which I thought really pushed the envelope was 'Drumline,' a movie that talked about African-American youth without resorting to hip-hop cliché or issues of urban pathology, which are kind of the recurring themes in many other films," says Hudlin. "And since it was successful at the box office ... it becomes a model for other writers and directors to follow. The problem with Hollywood is that everyone wants to be second. It's the courageous company that decides to be first with a film like 'Drumline' that can help point the way for others."
Melvin Van Peebles, whose "Sweetback" will enjoy a special screening at Sundance, is cautiously optimistic about the future of black cinema. "When I started out at this, there were a number of people in front of the camera acting, but they really weren't telling their own stories," says Mr. Van Peebles, who is considered to be the grandfather of independent black film. "There weren't any directors. Today, I see some."