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The new voices of black film

By Reed MartinContributor to The Christian Science Monitor / January 9, 2004


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."

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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."

On bankrolling small films

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.

The biggest hurdle: distribution

"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.

Why Hollywood roadblocks black film