Tuesday, March 04, 2008

Does Shreveport make black movies, or just movies?

I had a brief but illuminating exchange with an anonymous someone* the other day regarding what kinds of movies are made in Shreveport.

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.


Evan said...

I think the "black" label unfortunately categorizes a lot of black culture.

BET for one. In creating a niche channel for "black" people, they inadvertently categorize everything else as "White Entertainment Television". I saw an ad for a new show called "the whitest kids u know", and was thinking about how that's supposed to be a joke parodying stereotypes whereas something like "black entertainment television" is actually supposed to be serious. However, I will be so bold as to say it does just display the stereotypes as well, but it's not in parody.

Same thing happened with the "Black Movie Awards" that showed up on TNT back in like 2005 and got me to thinking "does that mean all other movies are white movies and that the oscars are the white movie awards?" It seems to be what it implies, but in my opinion it's not really the case (though I will admit there is stereotyping with films like "driving miss daisy" and "ray" being the acceptable black movies) and I think those labels end up creating more racism in the end. I think BET is one of the most racist things there is considering the fact that there's not supposed to be discrimination among races anymore. It's one of those situations with a double standard. If white people made it (which I guess they could have) then it'd be wrong, but black people can discriminate themselves all they want. Another double standard being the use of the "n" word (or the not use of it as I'm doing in such a politically correct move). But I'm so far from watching BET that I have it erased from my channel listing. And I wouldn't be surprised if someone said that was racist of me.

But yeah, getting to something like "Monster's Ball". I never saw the movie, but I don't blame studio execs for wanting the director to make more black movies after Halle Berry's acceptance speech for best actress. I would say she's most to blame for that side effect. Not that it's wrong for her to be happy for being the first black "best actress". But yes, in making a big deal about it, it implies that black actresses are not nominated because they are black and not because they aren't good actresses or aren't in good roles. I think the later tends to be more often the case because in my experience as a film lover, most large roles for black actresses are in movies by Tyler Perry and Martin Lawrence which are those crappy black movies we were talking about earlier (joke...but not really...)

Are there more better quality films made by white filmmakers starring white people? I'd say so. Is that because they're trying to repress black people? No. It's because there aren't a lot of black filmmakers making good black movies. It could be for a lot of reasons, but I think it's mainly just a cultural thing. I think the idea of "high art" is new to black culture and has historically been a white thing, and I think "black movies" as that anonymous person was referring to are what black culture for the most part wants from black filmmakers. These are of course generalities and there are exceptions.

At the same time "white movies" seem to encapsulate an awful lot, which can be broken down into categories like "college movies" or "horror remakes" or just "remakes" that to me are equally designed for certain audiences just as "black movies" are. I think "black movies" is just an unfortunate term that implies a lack of diversity in black culture which to some degree is present in a lot of other mediums like television with BET, and I'd argue with music too where rap and jazz are the only real genres of black music, and everything else is lumped together as "white" (i.e. a black rock band or a black country group or a black punk or metal group or classical composer is relatively unheard of).

As far as Shreveport making "black movies" goes. It makes some. I think it's more accurate to just say that Shreveport is making "bad movies", but so does everyone. I think statistically Shreveport is doing just right as a film center in terms of the ratio of good to bad movies. People just seem to associate the movies Shreveport makes with the quality of Shreveport's film industry when they aren't really related. L.A. produces a lot more crappy films than Shreveport and at much higher rate. In fact their ratio of bad to good is probably larger.

mahogani (the media goddess) said...

Wow ... I'm in awe of both this article and that blatantly backwards comment that was left. Hmmm ... I'm almost speechless. But not quite.

First of all I won't even comment on the ANON conversation because if you don't know by now that Shreveport is a hotbed for feature film these days you're pretty much living in the woods, in a mudhole and I refuse to entertain such ignorance. I'm pretty sure Mr. Kent, that you remember much more than you posted lol ... but sometimes a journalist has to know when to edit content to save himself, so good job!

But BLACK is not a "niche" ... it's who WE are. It's how we live, how we were raised, how we see things -- it's our culture. Unfortunately BLACKS are a $800 BILLION dollar industry and media/marketing often focuses on us to drive the American dollar. So yes, some films are shot to cater to Black audiences, some directors are given millions to get Blacks in the theaters and some Black actors are thrown a bone at the Oscars to give them relevance and make us care ... I'm not going to do a cartwheel because Hollywood thinks we're marketable AND mindless idiots.

There are probably hundreds of niches that cater to those who wouldn't otherwise spend money on movies ... How man Van Wilder's do we really need? This is NOT the 80s! How many vampire/goth movies do we need or torture/horror flicks feature sadistic antagonists? Yet Hollywood keeps pumping money into them. Praise is given to the MIST and SWEENEY TODD but The Great Debaters is just another BLACK MOVIE? Please, people.

And for the record, one of the best "black movies" of all time "The Color Purple" was directed by -- you guessed it -- an Oscar-winning WHITE director. All those stupid Scary Movie films were mostly white cast but produced by GUESS WHAT -- The WAYANS Brothers (Black guys). Hustle and Flow -- White director ... Inside Man -- BLACK director ... I could go on.

As for Monster's Ball (and it's ludicrous for the Evan to even COMMENT about it without seeing it) was a complete and utter disappointment to me and to this day I don't support Halle Berry because of that film. So it holds no weight to even mention that as a BLACK film just because there was a Black man behind the camera and a Black woman in it. WE have to accept it for it be in the genre ...

I hate that we even have to call it BLACK film .. No one calls a Will Smith movie BLACK because he's accepted in Hollywood (not just BLACK Hollywood) even co-starring with Martin Lawrence ... it's still not a BLACK film ... but when Martin is by HIMSELF, it's BLACK?

That's what I mean by backwards. Those running Hollywood (and probably less than 10 percent are minorities of any color) put the stamp on it. When a Will Smith trailer runs, it's high energy, laced with alternative music, jazz or rock ... When Martin makes a movie, the trailer has "old school" R&B ... it's all in how its marketed and that's how it's fed to us ... it's sickening and sad.

As for BET, I don't watch it. I don't allow my niece and nephew to watch it ... because it has become a vehicle of mass influence instead of a way for Blacks to see what's going on in their world. My world isn't centered around booty-filled music videos and celebrity hype. So I don't watch it anymore.

I just think if Hollywood embraced all genres equally and didn't wait for Blacks to make films with all-black casts or using all black-crew (writer, producer, director) it would be more balanced.

I am an aspiring director and I want to make a comedy, a suspense film, a romantic comedy ... one from almost every genre ... and I might even make one for my people. But I tell you what, when I was watching Roscoe Jenkins (and Alexandyr was there) ... there were Whites AND Blacks in equal attendance.

I think the more WE stop putting these films and directors in a box, the more society will do the same. Because I don't go and watch/rent movies saying it's WHITE .. Real movie lovers don't really care ... it's on the ignorant (like ANON) who always have to put a face or RACE on something to define it ... and that's GOT to stop ...

Oh and by the way EVAN ... Rap, jazz, hip hop, gospel, rock n roll (which is why there had to be "alternative" lol) and even country (Charlie Pride) all have ties to Black history. And while RAP may be "black music", more than half of the listerners BUYING it, are WHITE. So it's not just for us ... and I loved Aerosmith, Kelly Clarkson, Pink, Daughtry, Carrie Underwood and a lot of other musicians .. but like I said ... true LOVERS of it don't really care who singing it ...

As for BET being racist .. I don't see many Black on CMT or Spike .. so get over it. And black filmmakers aren't the only ones sucking at make good films ... so don't make it seem like we're holding Hollywood down. We make a lot of movie you never SEE because they go straight to the underground market where we'll make more money.

And to even imply that "high art" is new to black culture and historically WHITE? ... I could write an even LONGER comment about how wrong that is. That's almost as ignornat as ANON's statement. I can't even fathom you saying that in the company of darker-skinned people lol .. RIDICULOUS!

Take a venture into Blockbuster and pick up a DVD with a Black face on it that you didn't see at the major theatres ... You know NOTHING about what WE want from black filmmakers. Because like any true movie-lover, you want a variety and we get that ... you just never see it because the only thing promoted to the mass audience is buffonery and conformity (and it's been that way since vaudeville -- White "high art" huh ... lol).

To sum up this comment that could go on for days .... Black film is just another label Hollywood has put on films because of the color of the director or cast. I don't go to a rental place looking for the Black film section. I want a comedy or a suspense film or whatever. Do I want to see people who look like me, yes ... but the reality is, most of the time I won't. But only 3 out of maybe 50 movie releases is a "black film" and mostly of the 50 SUCK .. so you can't point the blame at Black film.

Hollywood thinks they know what we want and use black directors to deliver it ... but only approve scripts that don't offend other races. It's a twisted cycle that I hope to break one day ... til then I'll keep watching what I want .. black or not.


(**excuse any typos lol)

Evan said...

Mahogani, I didn't mean to offend. Something must have come across wrong because I agree with most everything you said.

I'm against the generic labeling and like I said there are exceptions (thank god), but the problem is that in pop culture it doesn't seem to matter that there are exceptions because the exceptions don't sell. Perhaps the exceptions could sell if given the chance and therefore expand the market and black image but you won't see many studios betting on it.

I just think it's very interesting that whenever you see the label of "black" if you think of the inverse of "white" in the same situation you see that the label doesn't really work. And I think that should show that the "black" label shouldn't work either. For some reason it's easier to accept diversity in white culture than in black culture, when they should be equally diverse and to some degree a part of the same culture.

My problem with BET is the title which is a "black" label that I think you agree we shouldn't have. CMT and Spike aren't titled as "white" (can you imagine the backlash to "white country music television") even if their demographics are more white.

I don't think "black films" are bringing down the movie industry. I agree that most of the crap if properly categorized would be the white movies. But accordingly since it also the bigger pool of movies (using your numbers it'd be the 47/50) the white movies are also more likely to be where the good movies come from. That's not supposed to sound pro-white or anything. It's just how it is.

My comment about "high art" is just relating western culture vs. african culture and the basics of art history. "High Art" goes back to the renaissance and even earlier and has always been a huge part of western/european/white culture. The "high art" world didn't even really start opening up to other cultures until the 80s/90s, and even when you look at black art (as in fine art, not particularly film) from those periods it's mostly relating back to tribal art. And even though film itself is a fairly young art medium it's even a younger medium in black culture because of racism and segregation in our country. Hopefully "black film" will mature (and I think to some degree it already is in the indie film world) and hopefully then the labels will change.

I thinks it's a little ironic though that you say "black" film isn't a niche, and then you refer to making films for your people and refer to blacks as a singular group with a unified background and culture. That's what the studio execs are thinking when they put these stamps on black films. They think it's one group with one taste. I think that's the very thing that's keeping it from maturing. Blacks should be an infinite group of different people with no movie that can be "for them".

And there may be tons of underground black filmmakers making the good stuff, but until that stuff reaches the surface and hits new markets and is successful, it's not going to change what the studios are doing. But then that's the same issue that all independent filmmakers have and it likely has nothing to do with race. It's non-mainstream content and it just doesn't sell (or at least Hollywood thinks it doesn't).

mahogani (the media goddess) said...

You won't see many studios betting on Black because it doesn't represent them and the rest of society. Like most independent filmmakers, Black directors would be happy just seeing their product out there ... blockbuster or not. But until the executive board is diversified, fat chance.

The majority never has to be defined. That's how our society is. It's like when you say The President ... no one really has to say President George W. Bush all the time. It's understood ... as is the WHITE label. If I talk to a white person and describe someone, the only time I put a label on it is if they are non-White because it's understood who I'm talking about is White. Like I said, the majority needs no label. They control it. (And if you can define certain music as black or white, you should know that movies can go the same way ... because I get critcized all the time for loving musicals and 80s movies which are consider -- "White folks movies") ... The label may not apply in your world, but it does in mine. And its unfortunate.

BET was formed so that Blacks could see themselves on TV because we weren't getting from mainstream media. The original vision has gone completely awry, but that is why it was founded. For the same reason we have Ebony magazine and Black Enterprise and the Shreveport Sun.

If a purple person wanted to represent who they were, they could do that. That's whats so great about media and film. The chance to have your voice heard. As for CMT .. again, it's just understood. How many non-white singers do you see on the network? How many non-Hispanic/Latino people do you see on Telemundo? It's UNDERSTOOD who the target audience is.

Granted, according to my previous numbers, more non-Black movies would be box office hits ... but for the most part only about 5 or 6 are actually award-worthy. Again, on about a half-dozen (if that) "Black films" make it to Hollywood and the major market and like I said before that's just for the execs to satisfy a niche and do their part for affirmative action. For the most part (in any race or genre) we don't expect all those films to be Oscar-worthy, we just expect to get our money's worth. Some years are better than others. But it's crazy to say "well if we have the most flops, we could possibly have the most hits too" .. lol .. it's soooo telling of how the majority thinks of themselves. "We have 47 more people can you do, so there's a better chance we'll win" -- don't underestimate the small numbers ... sometimes they make a bigger statement! :)

Then you go on to say Black culture wasn't introduced to high art until the 80s and 90s when I distinctly remember my grandmother (a former SLAVE) telling me about Monet and Van Gogh and Picasso and all the art in her living room. I remember my mother taking me to museums when I was little and I remember reading about slaves painting (they drew pictures and painted because they weren't allowed to write) and having credit stolen from them. Just because you didn't know they knew it ... doesn't mean it didn't exist. For the longest Blacks weren't ALLOWED to show they were educated .. but please don't consider us being ignorant to other cultures until the 80s and 90s ... that's absurd. Next you're going to say we didn't start reading till the 60s ... LOL. Blacks have been doing things much longer than you expect ... just because it's not hanging up in a museum (or in YOUR home) doesn't mean it's not fine art. And just because we're not of mention on the tips of socialites tongues doesn't mean we're lacking in the knowledge of other cultures.

Yes I said Black film is not a niche. It can't be put in a box for mass production. Black film can be about anything, but it's only LABELED THAT because a Black person is behind (or in front of) the camera. And I said I would make a movie for my people ... but that is not just Black people .. Black women, Creole/Black/Native American people, Louisianians, College graduates, Aspiring filmmakers who have to deal with sexism and prejudice, anyone who's ever been told they wouldn't succeed ... by my people I mean people like ME ... that goes way past skin color. Any culture can be considered a singular group. Any ethnicity ... any group of people with the same interests. Teens, Gays, B-Boys, music lovers, thespians ... It's all a culture ... people who linked to each other by a common bond, interest or upbringing. There really is no WHITE culture because they never HAVE to define themselves.

We are not one group with one taste ... if people would ever sit down and talk to someone of another race instead of judging us all but the token friend or the "black guy at work" or the "mammny" character, it'd be a much better world. If executives gave us equal billing, equal script approval and equality at awards shows .. we wouldn't need anything "for us" .. If we didn't have to continue to battle for equality (and women do too!!!) we wouldn't have to fight through the media and make it about US.

But until then ... we keep moving .. keep writing ... keep painting ... keep watching ... keep shooting ... and keep supporting those who show people like US on the screen ... no matter what color they are ... and maybe one day the "newbies" in this medium won't have to fight anymore.

Evan said...

I don't mean to keep this going (though I am very much enjoying discussing this topic), but again with the "high art" you misunderstood me.

I said the high art world didn't start opening up to other cultures until the 80s and 90s not that other cultures weren't aware of high art until then. Likewise a lot of feminist art popped up in the 70s and 80s to correspond with that social movement. Not because women didn't know about art, but because for a large part they weren't making it (or perhaps I should say they weren't getting their art shown in museums).

I'm not going to expand on that in fear of dragging it on too long and getting off on tangents, but I think I've realized that ultimately it's just a battle for the majority. Minorities (in any case, not just ethnicity) are always going to defy the majority until they either overthrow it or become a part of it.

It's unfortunate that there is corporate discrimination, but from a business perspective it makes sense to market to the minorities as minorities and therefore discriminate. Likewise, putting money into the majority makes business sense.

I think ultimately it's just unfortunate that the label is "black" and refers to skin color making it racist. Whereas the label "indie", for example, while a demographic and a group that's financially discriminated against by studios is something that's more accepted and understood. Indie filmmakers want to be succesful but as soon as they become succesul they're no longer indie to a large degree. Indie can't ever be the majority, but it's an accepted category. Whereas with black and white there's a lot of friction because of the history slavery and segregation.

Blacks could hypothetically speaking become the majority and then the tables would turn and white culture would be striving for a majority voice. The only problem is that black and white are, to make a pun, such black and white terms that dictate based on race which is not a very rational category to discriminate by because blacks are just as diverse people as white or hispanics or asians. In politics the "black vote" is an incredibly racist idea. Why can't they be more specific? I know not all black people are a part of the "black vote" which is stereotyped as democratic.

I wish the friction between black and white was friction between more logical categories that better describe the people ideas being compared and are less racially presumptious.