CINEMA is approaching its 100th anniversary, but it's still young enough to allow for first-time-ever achievements. One such milestone is marked by the arrival of Darnell Martin on the filmmaking scene - proudly billed by Columbia Pictures as the first African-American woman to direct a movie for a major Hollywood studio.
The title of her debut film is ``I Like It Like That,'' and it was liked so much at last spring's Cannes International Film Festival that I sought Martin out for an interview on her experiences in the movie world, which has been dominated by white males since its earliest years.
I found her a smart and energetic young woman with a strong sense of optimism tempered by a realistic perspective on minority-group problems both in and out of Hollywood.
The story of ``I Like It Like That'' centers on Lisette, a woman with black and Latino roots who's working hard to give her three children a decent upbringing in a poor Bronx neighborhood. Her problems multiply when her husband Chino goes to jail after a looting incident; he then becomes confused and angry at her efforts to support their household single-handedly.
Subplots deal with Lisette's new job at a record company, the support she receives from her transvestite brother, and the resentment she feels toward another woman in her husband's life. The movie's content is sometimes vulgar and oversexed, and its technique is often ragged. But it's always lively and colorful, and critics have received it generally well since its recent opening in United States theaters.
``I grew up in the Bronx, and a lot of the characters are people I knew there,'' Martin says, acknowledging a strong autobiographical element in her film, which draws on her own life as well as memories of her mother's struggles as a single parent.
``There's a scene when [Lisette] counts out her change and wonders how she's going to support her family for a week on this,'' Martin says, ``and it emotionally affected me when I shot it. There were many times when my mom was in that situation, and we were hunting around the house for 33 cents for a little macaroni-and-cheese dinner.... I remember when she wanted to find work, and the cost of buying a newspaper and going back-and-forth to the city was a real issue.
``It was just a few dollars,'' the filmmaker continues, ``but when you have nothing, this can be everything in the world. I wanted to make something of that. And also the way [the heroine's son] is torn apart by his family being separated. My dad wasn't present, and that affected me in a certain way - there was a sense of longing, of wanting them to get back together.''
Despite the severe challenges her family faced , Martin says she profited a great deal from the warm, creative nurturing she received at home.
``My mom always made up bedtime stories that were pretty elaborate,'' she recalls. ``My sisters were the same way, so I was encouraged to do that, too. And also, my mom always encouraged me not to respect authority. Just because someone was an adult, that didn't mean anything. I remember her always saying when I was a little kid, `You didn't ask to be brought into this world, so I owe you everything.' Most parents don't tell their kids that.''
Martin's original career choice was to be a marine biologist, although her mother thought she would make a good tap dancer. ``I was a lousy tap dancer,'' she says with a grin, ``but I started reading a lot and decided to be a writer.... I think reading is the first filmmaking we do. We cast all the characters in our heads, we move the camera and do the production design and editing in our heads.''
It was William Faulkner's novel ``Light in August'' that made Martin determine to become a filmmaker. ``It's a very visual, cinematic book,'' she observes. ``It was also the first time I saw myself represented in fiction. There's a magical moment when you're a kid - when you read a book or see a film and say, `Hey, that's me!' You suddenly get excited about expressing yourself.''
Not yet confident in her writing skills, Martin felt she might achieve the self-expression she sought through film. Then she grew interested in theater and had her first opportunity to direct performers onstage. ``I loved that,'' she says, ``because I could play with my ideas. When you're writing you create a little fantasy, but when you're directing you can bring other people into it, and share their `take' on it. You can learn a lot about relationships that way.''
Martin pursued her ambition through high school and college, where she developed her talents and acquired very mixed feelings about film-school training. ``You have to be really really strong if you go there,'' she says, ``because they can destroy any idiosyncrasies you have, even though idiosyncrasies are what make your voice different from everybody else's. I saw a lot of friends come in with good, strong ideas about character and then lose these as they went along....''
Martin also has mixed feelings about her new billing as the first black woman to complete a big-studio production. ``That title kind of irritated me when I first heard it,'' she says, ``because I know there are other African-American directors. Maybe they haven't directed studio pictures, but I don't want to take anything away from them.
``I also don't like being labeled as anything,'' she adds. ``I just want to be someone who makes films about people. I think all of us [black filmmakers] should be seen as people who write about and direct about the human condition, not just about strange people from another planet - which is how some people seem to view us when they say `minority filmmakers.' ''