New Faces of Filmmaking: Blacks Creating Their Own Opportunities
More directors are going the indie route to bring their projects to the big screen
And so it goes.
Yet another Oscar season has come to a close with little if any recognition for African Americans, especially those behind the camera.
In the 84-year history of the ceremony that just aired Sunday night, coveted Oscar nominations have resulted in only 14 wins for African American actors and just one for a black director, producer or screenwriter (of a non-documentary) -- Geoffrey Fletcher for his adaptation of the novel "Push" into the movie "Precious." This year saw more of the same, with Oscar turning his back on Denzel Washington and young Quvenzhané Wallis for their acting turns in “Flight” and “Beasts of the Southern Wild,” respectively. Reginald Hudlin also lost out on an Oscar this year as one of the producers on the Best Picture-nominated “Django Unchained.”
The last two decades definitely saw black filmmakers from Spike Lee and Allen and Albert Hughes (“Menace to Society”) to Darnell Martin (“I Like It Like That”) and Tyler Perry making inroads in Hollywood. But increasingly, today’s up-and-coming African American directors are finding success along the less trodden road of the independent film industry and its kingmaker, the Sundance Film Festival.
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Rashaad Ernesto Green, whose debut feature "Gun Hill Road” premiered to a sold-out crowd at the 2011 Sundance festival, says that in some ways, Hollywood is opening the door for independent black filmmakers to tell their stories -- even if it doesn't necessarily mean to.
"There are two parts to the industry: the indie world and the Hollywood Machine," says Green. "And the Machine is taking less and less chances on, for example, dramas because they need to make money so they're making blockbusters, but then audiences become more and more hungry for human stories and that's creating an opening in the indie world to explore the heartfelt."
Green’s “Gun Hill Road,” which he wrote and directed, tells the tale of an ex-convict who returns home to find his son undergoing a gender transition. It received a standing ovation at last year’s Sundance, which has a history of recognizing black filmmakers.
At the 2009 festival, Lee Daniels was heralded for "Precious," his directed and produced story of an overweight, abused and illiterate pregnant teen that went on to win both the Grand Jury Prize and the Audience Award for U.S. Dramatic film (and became the first black film to do so). The following year, Tanya Hamilton was the only African American director at the festival, where she showcased her debut feature film "Night Catches Us," the Kerry Washington- and Anthony Mackie-led portrayal of a former Black Panther's return home. In 2011, the same year in which Green’s “Gun Hill Road” garnered praise, it was writer-director (and Spike Lee mentee) Dee Rees's "Pariah," the tale of an African American teen lesbian embracing her identity, that took home Sundance's Excellence in Cinematography Award. This year, first-time filmmaker Ryan Coogler achieved the same feat as Daniels with his Oscar Grant-inspired "Fruitvale."
Despite such acclaim from juries like Sundance, not all black filmmakers have confidence or are convinced that such steady recognition is a sign that the film industry is further opening its doors.
"I bought a camera and we said we're going to do this motherf—ing film myself. We didn’t even go to the studios,” Lee said. “I don’t want to hear no motherf—ing person from a studio telling me something about Red Hook, [Brooklyn]. They don’t know nothing about black people. Nothing."
Lee’s sentiments were a far cry from almost a decade before when, in a 1999 interview with the New York Times, he expressed optimism, declaring the era one "of unprecedented possibility for African American filmmakers.”
But while Lee had the cash to make his Red Hook dream happen, many black filmmakers aren’t as lucky.
“Funding is a problem for all filmmakers, but especially for black filmmakers, because it is difficult to obtain funding for subject matter that isn’t considered commercial,” says veteran filmmaker Ernest Dickerson, who made his directorial debut with 1992’s “Juice.”
Box-office stats make Dickerson’s point. Of the 50 highest-grossing films of all time, not a single one comes courtesy of a black filmmaker. In fact, more than half of the charted films belong to sci-fi and superhero series or fantastical franchises that chronicle the lives of wizards, adventurers, talking animals and toys; all eight installments of the "Harry Potter" parade have made the cut, as have the three parts of "Lord of the Rings," proving, as Green said, that it's the indie world that is more adept at exploring the heartfelt human tales.
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Rather than wait on Hollywood’s blessing, black filmmakers must create their own opportunities, says filmmaker Ava Duvernay, who won the top Directing Award for U.S. Dramatic Film at last year's Sundance (becoming the first black woman to do so) for her film "Middle of Nowhere," the story of a woman who adjusts her life to her husband's prison sentence.
"The only opportunities that filmmakers from outside of the dominant culture should depend on are the ones we create ourselves through creativity, community and permission-less work,” she says. “From there, it's all possible."
Green agrees, and says new technology that has brought down the cost of filmmaking equipment like digital cinema cameras is helping black filmmakers overcome obstacles regarding funding.
"It isn't that our stories haven't existed before, we just didn't necessarily have an opportunity to make them because of how expensive it was," says Green. "Now, the whole game is changing because of the RED camera, the ARRI Alexa -- it's just more affordable. So all of these students coming out of film school no longer have to jump through the super hoops of the studios in order to get a green light on their project. They can raise a novel amount of money and be able to tell their stories."
Last year, the Red Digital Cinema Camera Company announced a major slashing of the prices of its models -- some by as much as half, with one model offered for as little as $7,950. Gizmodo dubbed it "the time" to buy for filmmakers, and DIY-friendly site NoFilmSchool called the move "big news for the camera industry."
Still, camera choice aside, being recognized for one’s work by Sundance and others can only help open doors for budding filmmakers like Green and others.
Before “Gun Hill Road,” Green’s prior short films had placed in festival circuits. His "Premature” won the Grand Jury Prize in the HBO Short Film Competition at the 2008 American Black Film Festival. Such praise created enough buzz to gain the attention of a production company, which, Green says, "afforded me [the chance] to raise the status of [“Gun Hill Road”] and make it at a higher budget level than I had anticipated."
So despite the box-office lure of aliens and sci-fi superheroes, it is human stories that are helping black filmmakers win the kind of praise that makes production companies take notice.
First-time feature filmmaker Sheldon Candis says it is African American filmmakers’ ability to tell great stories, ones that eclipse color, that is increasingly awarding them recognition and a rise to fame. Candis’s debut "LUV” -- a coming-of-age story starring rapper Common as an ex-convict and uncle of an impressionable boy -- appeared at the 2011 Sundance festival.
"From my experience, we're witnessing a renaissance in black filmmaking," says Candis. "Wonderful stories are being told from within the black experience that truly transcend race. We are beating the drum and it's being heard."