I often have conversations like this. They usually go:
ANON: They really make movies in Shreveport?
ALEX: Yes. Fifty or so since late 2005.
ANON: What kinds of movies?
ALEX: Some productions are considered independent or low budget -- like made-for-TV movies or cable-based shows. Some companies, like Nu Image/Millennium Films, make larger independent movies with big-named stars. And other movies are made by bigger studios. Weinstein Co. has shot a bunch of projects here like "The Great Debaters" and "The Mist." Disney made "The Guardian" here. Universal made "Welcome Home Roscoe Jenkins." Sony is currently shooting "Year One" with Jack Black.
Above is basically what transpired between me and anon, but the next comment momentarily threw me. The conversation continued:
ANON: Don't they make a lot of black movies here?
I didn't articulate an answer besides something wishy-washy.
ALEX: Well, some of the movies have featured black actors or largely black casts, such as "The Great Debaters" and "Welcome Home Roscoe Jenkins" and the currently in production "Comeback" and "Soul Men."
What anon said -- well-intentioned or not -- isn't simply an observation of race; I think it reflects a general perception about the divisions in the current movie marketplace, or the niche marketing of movies.
There's a great conversation to be had about this, one that is encouraged by David Geffner's article in the current issue of Moviemaker Magazine. It's called "The Color of Money," and it provides a fantastic analysis of the history and current state of black moviemaking. (It's well-worth a trip to the local magazine rack.)
Remarks from producer Lee Daniels ("Monster's Ball") are compelling. "What I find insulting," Daniels is quoted as saying, "is when the industry is still, to this day, surprised by a hit film made by or for African Americans. It's insulting and racist."
Geffner's article takes a historical view of black moviemaking -- connecting the pioneering success of "race" moviemaker Oscar Micheaux (between 1918-1948) to the Tyler Perry's incredibly success in making movies for a "built-in audience" to the casting of Russell Crowe in the urban-themed "American Gangster."
The article suggests that there are no clear-cut answers for anon's question: "Do they make a lot of black movies in Shreveport?"
But more comments by Daniels can steer an inquiry into a productive direction.
After "Monster's Ball" earned two Oscar nominations, Daniels had many offers to direct studio films but rejected them. "They just wanted me to do their perception of what African American filmmakers are supposed to do," Daniels said in the article. "I chose to stay here in Harlem and do stories that are important to me."
He's currently making "Push," a story about an overweight African American teen struggling with HIV and more. "My mom would love for me to make a Tyler Perry movie," Daniels said. "But why should an entire culture fit into a little niche -- African American comedy, for example -- as the studios would like us to believe?"
This gets me back to what I'd like to talk about on this blog. I don't have a clear answer for anon, but I have a lot of questions for you. Here are a few to start conversation:
- Are you comfortable with the label "black film" or "African American film?"
- Does it advance or squash efforts to diversify the marketplace?
- Do you believe that Hollywood studios are purposefully making "black films" for black audiences? Urban films for urban audiences? White films for white audiences?
- Is marketing or thinking about black films as a distinct category or distinct genres (e.g. African American comedy, African American drama, African American bio pic, urban crime) a good idea? Economically? Socially?
What say you?* For the record, I honestly don't remember with whom I was speaking. In casual conversations where I don't have a notepad in my hand, I typically remember what is said rather than who said it.