A Good Day to be Black in Hollywood

Categories // Entertainment Sunday, 06 October 2013

The 2010 Oscars established a milestone in black cinema history: Lee Daniels’ “Precious: Based on the Novel ‘Push’ by Sapphire,” was the first black-directed film to earn a Best Picture nomination. Daniels’ newest project, “Lee Daniels’ The Butler”, stars Oprah Winfrey and Forest Whitaker and has already received Oscar speculation, after grossing almost $80 million in the box office it’s first three weeks.

Just last year, Peter Ramsey directed the Golden Globe-nominated “The Rise of the Guardians,” making him the first black director to direct a big budget computer generated imagery film, and creating an in-road for African Americans in cinematic animation.

In May, Tina Gordon Chism made her directing debut with “The Peeples,” and gained enough attention to earn her own HBO Comedy, “Crushed,” which is currently in development. And in July, the low-budget indie film “Fruitvale Station” made $4.5 million at the box office in it’s opening weekend alone—an impressive feat for first-time director Ryan Coogler.

David Talbert’s “Baggage Claim” came in second in weekend debuts for grossing $9,000,000 in box office receipts last month, beating out the star-studded “Don Jon” by almost $400,000.

Adding to this momentum, on October 17th, “Twelve Years a Slave” hits national theatres with much audience anticipation, as it has already won a People’s Choice Award at the Toronto Film Festival. A day after that, “I’m In Love With A Church Girl,” produced by Grammy-award winning Christian singer Israel Houghton, debuts. And before the year is through, “Mandela: Long Walk to Freedom” comes out on November 29th—after sixteen years of laborious planning on the South African revolutionary’s biopic.

The New York Times seemed to hit the mark when it dubbed 2013 Black Cinema’s “breakout year.”

With African American movies seemingly on the rise, it begs the question—is this a good time to be black in Hollywood?

A superficial glance over box office front-runners the past few years will glean an optimistic perspective on African American cinema, and may draw an confident “yes,” to such a question—be it the undeniable success of “Fruitvale” or the welcoming response to “Butler”.

But the aforementioned films are some of the few black films that are actually directed or produced by a black filmmaker. Movies in the vein of “42,” the story of Jackie Robinson’s rise to fame against racial oppression in baseball, and “The Help,” a chronicle of black servant life in the Civil Rights Era, are cited as evidence of a rise in black cinema, and yet are told primarily through the lens of white directors.

As Forest Whitaker told Tavis Smiley in an interview, black cinema has come a long way, but is definitely not at its “destination point.”

It seems many other black members of the film industry—including Tanya Kersey, the founder and Executive Director of Hollywood Black Film Festival—are also not completely content with the current status quo of black cinema, even with this recent influx of motion picture success.

But Kersey is doing her part to change that.

The Hollywood Black Film Festival, also known as “The Black Sundance,” has established itself as a staple in the Hollywood landscape. Preparations are currently underway to celebrate its 13th year, as the festival opens on October 2nd and continues through the 6th.

The symposium is meant to expose a larger audience to black film, and to educate aspiring filmmakers about different aspects of the industry. Classes offered include courses in crowd funding campaigns, screenwriting, pitching, and other aspects of the filmmaking process.

The festival’s goal: to launch neophyte African American filmmakers into the real world with the tools they need to embrace their cinema, and their stories.

“ ‘The Help’ was so big because of all the people behind it,” Kersey says. “These aren’t black films like we know black films. These aren’t independent black films where black filmmakers got together, got the financing put together, a great cast, and went out there and looked for distribution—these are studio projects, these are the big boys.

“These are driven by the white guys out there, or have been partnered with them. These are not true black films.”

Following Kersey’s definition, artists such as Israel Houghton are generating “true” black films. Houghton, widely known as a Christian singer and worship leader, has branched out to film through several projects—his most current project, “I’m In Love With a Church Girl,” for which he acted as producer and helped with the score.

“The studios, they felt like we had something special. So they said hey, we can fund this, we can do this, but you should change this, you should subtract this. So we just said you know what? We’re just going to go with what got us here,” Houghton’s production company, Reverence Gospel Media, produced the film, which was entirely privately funded.

Kersey doesn’t think that America’s newfound appreciation for films about slaves, civil rights, and black life has “changed the bottom of the industry,” but she has plenty of ideas about how that could happen in the future.

“I think it’s really about education—I think if the filmmakers really understand the business, get out of the dream mentality—that doesn’t exist. That’s not reality. You don’t just get a theatrical field.

“I think that filmmakers…as you’re educated—your strategy changes. And that’s what’s needed. People have to have a serious consciousness change about how the industry operates. And how they should pursue a career, and how they could build their career, and who they should partner and network with.”

Kersey says reality television is one of the culprits—as many nascent movie makers enter an industry they don’t understand.

“Reality TV has made it seem like Hollywood is so easy. And it’s not. And so I would say a good eighty percent of people who come to me…have no clue.”

But Kersey’s work with struggling filmmakers has proven both to herself and her apprentices, that enough education and information can change that mentality.

“Once they get passed that shock, and once they get the reality of the business, it’s a whole different story. Because then they realize that you really have to put up, you have to invest in your career. It’s not that easy.”

“I think that’s what’s really gonna change it, if people get smarter and wiser and start to be really strategic about it and really jump on board with emerging technologies. That’s going to be really great.”

Hollywood film executive and minister, DeVon Franklin, agrees.

“Now the challenge is getting the executive ranks to grow behind the camera and in the studios across the industry. Working on increasing diversity—there is the new challenge so that in front of and behind the camera—what we’re putting out represents the makeup of the world.”

So, is it a good time to be black in Hollywood?

“I don’t think it ever goes out of style,” Franklin says. “It’s good because at the end of the day, it’s about opportunity. And I’m excited that there seems to be a bit of resurgence with black film from now until the summer of next year—almost one or two releases of films are either directed by or star a predominantly black cast.

“The world is continuing to become more diverse and it’s important for the films that we make and the filmmakers to be diverse as well. I’m just excited.”

“I think skin tone and background certainly plays a part—only because the world has become smaller,” Houghton weighs in. “You look at the White House—you look at the effect of hip hop on all culture, you’ll definitely see that we’re at the party. It’s not like we’ve been invited, in many ways we’re hosting the party.

“If you look—see what black film has done and what black filmmakers have done just in the last decade. See how many Oscar winners have been African American—just in the last decade.”

The surge in black cinema may not only be a result of diversifying filmmakers—the audiences are changing as well.

“You’ve got a massive influx of families—young families—coming through, and realizing,  ‘hey if we’re gonna raise our kids a certain way, we need to be able to allow them to be a part of the entertainment process without covering their ears every ten seconds’,” Houghton explains.

Harvey Weinstein, who co-chairs the Weinstein Company (one of the forces being “Mandela: A Long Walk to Freedom” and Lee Daniels’ “The Butler”) termed the aftermath of the past two Presidential elections “the Obama Effect,” citing it as a cultural shift that has made telling stories about black characters and lives much more commonplace. The “effect” even seems to be spreading internationally, as rumors circulate that British actor Idris Elba may be considered to play the first black James Bond.

“Hopefully it signals, with President Obama, a renaissance,” Weinstein said in an interview with entertainment blog, “The Wrap.” “He’s erasing racial lines. It is the Obama effect. It’s a better country. What a great thing.”

“Even in the need for diversity, there’s also a need for good entertainment that is still compelling—it’s not cheesy, it’s not corny, you know,” Houghton says. “It’ll keep your attention but it doesn’t have to apologize either for its content.”

The Hollywood Black Film festival will take place at the Montalban Theatre, and will be screening many breakout films from black artists.

African Americans like Steven Boone, a film critic and contributor to Roger Ebert’s website, believe that it’s about time. When discussing “Fruitvale Station,” a movie based on the true story of Oscar Grant, a 22-year-old who was shot by two white police officers, Boone said,

“For every complicated, vulnerable, flawed but basically decent black male character or celebrity, there are a hundred loud, imbecilic thugs. Hollywood spent six decades emasculating and lobotomizing black male characters.”

Thankfully, Houghton thinks we’ve come quite a ways.

“We’re definitely honing that craft and trying to find something that everybody can see, but everybody can also be impacted by,” he says.

“It’s a different day in Hollywood.”

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