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Category Archives: African American Films

Alice Walker film captivates audience at BronzeLens Film Festival

Critically acclaimed author Alice Walker at the screening and talkback of Alice Walker: Beauty in Truth at the 2013 BronzeLens Film Festival, November 6-10, in Atlanta. (Photo Credit: Jerome Dorn)

by Kunbi Tinuoye

Alice Walker is fearless.

The critically acclaimed author has lived a full life on her own terms.

From her choice of sexual partners to daring to write a novel – The Color Purple – which talked about the pain black people inflicted on each other.

Her unconventional journey is testimony to her ability to thrive in spite of it all.

It is this fascinating tale that is beautifully crafted in a compelling documentary telling the story of Walker’s life from a shack in rural Georgia to recognition as a prolific writer.

The penetrating film, Alice Walker: Beauty in Truth, was one of a handful of special pre-festival screenings and talkbacks at this year’s 2013 BronzeLens Film Festival in Atlanta.

British filmmaker Pratibha Parmar explores Walker’s childhood, evolution as a writer, her artistic legacy, and activism. Walker, now 69, became the first black woman to win the coveted Pulitzer Prize in 1983 for her international bestselling novel The Color Purple.

The 84-minute film includes interviews from a cast of well-known public figures that are intimately familiar with Walker’s life and work, including Angela Davis, Quincy Jones, Steven Spielberg, Danny Glover, Gloria Steinem, Howard Zinn, and her ex-husband.

It gives viewers a glimpse of her early childhood in the Deep South at a time when African-Americans were coerced into submission. Walker, the youngest of eight children, lived in abject poverty but was raised by loving parents.

“The love and sacrifice of her life was so apparent,” Walker says in the documentary referring to her beloved mother.

It was her gift to flirt with words that became a passport to forge a better life. “When things were hard or I couldn’t deal with a particular reality, I’d write,” she adds.

A full scholarship to Spelman College followed at the height of the civil rights movement. She later transferred to Sarah Lawrence College, graduating in 1965.

During her college years the young and gifted writer was given the intellectual space to flourish, although, her academic studies were eclipsed by an intense period of turbulent social change.

Consequently, Walker became a civil rights activist and later moved to Mississippi with her newly wed Jewish husband, where the young couple campaigned for justice and equality. They were the first legally married inter-racial couple in the state, which unsurprisingly meant the pair was the subject of a prolonged hate campaign.

“We were taken by each other and blocked out the world,” says Walker’s former husband, Melvyn Leventhal.

“We did have a gun and I would have used it,” adds Walker.

The marriage ended in divorce but Walker continued to grow as a writer and in 1982 she publishedThe Color Purple.

Beauty in the Truth effectively conveys that the success of The Color Purple was both a blessing and a curse.  The triumph of the novel, as well as the subsequent stage and  film version propelled Walker to overnight stardom.

“I read the book three times in one week,” says director Spielberg in an explanation to why he felt compelled to adapt The Color Purple into a blockbuster film in 1985.

Still, after The Color Purple, Walker was on the receiving end of scathing criticism for her portrayal of black family, especially the depiction of African-American males. “It hurt,” says Walker.

What is apparent throughout Beauty in Truth is that Walker is unafraid to candidly talk about her challenges.

She reflects on her grief in the aftermath of an abortion at the age of 19. “As soon as I got stronger I wrote all these poems. The poems healed the agony that healed the abortion.”

During the documentary she also opens up about her fluid sexuality and her romantic relationship with singer Tracy Chapman. “I’m not a lesbian, I’m not bisexual and I’m not heterosexual. I’m just curious,” she says.

Walker also talks about her estranged relationship with her only child, Rebecca, which clearly still causes her deep pain. “I never thought I’d lose my child.”

However, she did not give an adequate explanation of what, if anything, she has done to try to reconcile her troubled relationship with her adult daughter. Walker has never laid eyes on her only grandson.

Beauty in Truth is an extraordinary visual portrait of the life and works of one of the most critically acclaimed writers of the 20th century. It explores Walker’s role as a poet, gifted novelist, human rights activist and self-confessed womanist.

But the absence of her daughter is a painful reminder of relational personal failure.

In the Q&A after the screening with author and journalist, Valarie Boyd, Walker told attendees in the packed auditorium she gave Parmar permission to unravel her complex life because they had previously worked together. She was impressed by the filmmaker’s ability to get things done.

“She is the kind of person who begins and finishes a project,” says Walker.

Tiffany Chapple, a Sparta, Georgia native, who now resides in Atlanta, attended the screening. She told theGrio her grandmother grew up close to where Walker was raised. She says that from stories she’s heard The Color Purple fairly represented life in the Deep South in the 1930s.

“Her candidness is what I love most,” adds Chapple “She’s not about fluff or fillers. That’s what I love about her.”

Molly Malone, who is white, studied The Color Purple during her English degree. “It’s a story of human hood,” she says. “It’s wasn’t only a story about black people. It’s a world novel. It’s depicting humanity. She didn’t stereotype.”

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Posted by on November 12, 2013 in African American Films

 

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Somali Actors In ‘Captain Phillips’ Jumped In Ocean After Being Cast: ‘It Was Exciting’

Barkhad Abdi, Faysal Ahmed, Tom Hanks and Mahat M. Ali attend the special screening of “Captain Phillips.” | AP

By JEFF BAENEN

MINNEAPOLIS — MINNEAPOLIS (AP) — When Barkhad Abdi and three other amateur Somali actors from Minnesota learned they had won major roles in a new Tom Hanks movie, they tore off their clothes and jumped into the Pacific Ocean.

“It was exciting,” Abdi recalls of that day on the beach in Santa Monica, Calif. “We had to make sure that wasn’t a dream.”

Abdi and his fellow actors from Minneapolis are now living that dream of red carpet premieres and Hollywood endings. The four portray Somali pirates who hijacked an American cargo ship off the Horn of Africa in 2009 and took its captain, played by Hanks, hostage in “Captain Phillips,” opening Friday. The ordeal ended when U.S. Navy sharpshooters picked off three of the pirates holding Capt. Richard Phillips captive in a lifeboat.

Abdi, 28, makes his acting debut in “Captain Phillips” as Muse, the pirates’ skinny ringleader, and is generating supporting actor Oscar buzz for his performance. Before that, he had shot and edited videos but “nothing major,” he said. Now he wants to make acting his career.

“It feels great, and a little bit scary,” Abdi said of his new fame. “I was just kind of a private person (before the movie). This took part of my life.”

Abdi and the other three Somali actors — Faysal Ahmed (the “muscle” of the pirates), Barkhad Abdirahman (the youngest pirate, nicknamed “Little B” by his castmates) and Mahat M. Ali (the lifeboat’s navigator) — all answered an open casting call at the Brian Coyle Community Center, a hub of Minneapolis’ large Somali population — in November 2011. Generic flyers sought actors for what was described only as a new Tom Hanks movie. Over 700 aspiring actors showed up, filling the center.

“There were so many people I just had to put every single person on tape,” casting search director Debbie DeLisi said. Afterward she went to a friend’s house where they watched every clip and voted yes, no or maybe. The video also was uploaded for the film’s main casting director in Los Angeles.

DeLisi said she chose Minneapolis because the city has the largest population of Somalis in the U.S. (The U.S. Census says roughly 25,000 Somalis live in Minnesota, while local advocates peg the number as high as 100,000). Another casting call was held in Columbus, Ohio, also home to a growing Somali population, and submissions were accepted from England and Somalia.

In the end, the field was narrowed to the four Minneapolis actors, who all knew each other.

“I would say they were anointed,” DeLisi said. After they were cast, DeLisi’s assistant took the actors shopping for swim trunks at the Mall of America and made sure they had passports for Malta, where most of “Captain Phillips” was shot.

DeLisi said she was looking for “heart and grit” in the actors playing the pirates.

“It’s not about jumping and being the bad guy,” she said.

To capture the shock of the ragtag band of armed pirates storming the ship Maersk Alabama, British director Paul Greengrass (“The Bourne Ultimatum,” ”United 93″) kept the Somali actors apart from Hanks until their first confrontation on the bridge.

“It’s never an easy thing to scare someone you know and admire,” Abdi said of facing off against Hanks. “For me, it was really a nerve-racking scene and I understood the weight of it.”

Abdi and Ahmed recall Hanks as humble and always joking, and say the two-time Academy Award winner, for “Philadelphia” and “Forrest Gump,” was their mentor.

In their first fight scene aboard the narrow lifeboat, the 6-foot-3 Ahmed says he accidentally grazed Hanks with his fist. Hanks shrugged it off, the two talked and a second fight scene filmed a couple days later went perfectly, Ahmed said.

“He was a really tough guy,” Ahmed said.

Ahmed, 29, was born and raised in Yemen and came to the U.S. in 1999 at 14. He said the main motive for the pirates from war-torn Somalia was to get money. He tried to imagine himself that desperate.

“If you were put into that situation and only wanted to change your life, what would you do? For me, that’s something I constantly thought about,” Ahmed said.

Abdi was born in Mogadishu, Somalia, and raised in Yemen. He came to the U.S. in 1999 when he was 14 with his parents and siblings, and said he also understands the pirates’ motivations.

“What they’re doing is bad. I totally agree with that,” Abdi said. “I was fortunate to have parents who got me out. … So they were stuck in this situation. And I feel compassion.”

 
 

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Ryan Coogler The “Fruitvale Station” Interview

Ryan Cooglar

Born in Oakland, California on May 23, 1986, Ryan Coogler attended college on a football scholarship, playing wide receiver as an undergrad before earning his MFA in Film and Television Production at the University of Southern California in 2011. He worked as a security guard and as a counselor to inmates at a juvenile prison in San Francisco before getting his big break with the help of Forest Whitaker.

The Oscar-winning actor agreed to produce Ryan’s first feature film, Fruitvale Station, a bittersweet biopic chronicling the last day in the life of Oscar Grant, a 22 year-old black man shot in the back by a cop on a train platform in Oakland, California on New Year’s Day 2009. The case became a cause célèbre because the killing was caught on camera by numerous passengers.

Here, Ryan talks about his critically-acclaimed writing and directorial debut, which has already won awards at both the Cannes and Sundance Film Festivals.

Ryan Coogler The “Fruitvale Station” Interview 
with Kam Williams

Fruitvale StationKam Williams: Hi Ryan. I really loved the film. It’s very powerful.

Ryan Coogler: Thanks so much, Kam. I appreciate your taking the time to watch it and to talk to me.

KW: Congratulations on winning at both the Sundance and Cannes Film Festivals. That’s pretty impressive for a first-time filmmaker. Your picture’s star, Michael B. Jordan, told me Fruitvale received a very long standing ovation at Cannes. What did that feel like?

RC: Just playing at Cannes was overwhelming, man. It was one of those moments I never imagined happening. I think a lot of the response was due to the audience’s connecting to the cast. The performances were incredible! I really felt happy for my actors, especially Michael [B. Jordan], Melonie [Diaz] and Octavia [Spencer]. None of them had ever been to Cannes before. They were really moved to have their work embraced like that. And it was very moving to me how this story that I wanted to relate about a real event that had happened in my hometown managed to touched people thousands of miles away. 

KW: What interested you in making the movie? 

RC: The incident itself and what happened immediately afterwards in the Bay area, which is where I was born and raised. I heard about the tragedy almost immediately after it happened, because I was home on Christmas break from film school. Then it was on the news, and I still remember the first time I saw the footage on the internet. I was very emotionally affected by it. Everybody in the Bay was. There were protests and rallies and riots. I saw myself in Oscar. We were the same age, he looked like me, and we wore the same type of clothes. Seeing someone getting shot like that, and not getting a chance to say goodbye to his loved ones was painful. I couldn’t imagine myself in that situation. With my being a filmmaker, I wondered whether there was a way I could do something. My mind immediately goes to that, whenever I’m affected by anything, since film is my outlet. Then, I saw how the incident got politicized, and how Oscar became a symbol, this icon, a martyr who had never done anything wrong in his life to some people, and how he was demonized by others as a criminal and a thug who got what he deserved. In truth, he was neither one of those things. He was just a normal person who had both flaws and good qualities. So, I wanted to tell his story from the perspective of the people he meant the most to and who knew him the best. 

KW: Have you ever experienced racial profiling yourself?

RC: Yes, absolutely! The most recent situation happened one night while I was just minding my business, sitting in a car with a friend in Albany, California. The police rolled up on us and told me and her to get out of the car and sit on the wet sidewalk because there had been a robbery and I fit the description of the suspect. It was cold, and we had to just sit there shivering for about 30 minutes until I guess whoever it was that got robbed finally arrived and told the police from across the street that I wasn’t the guy. 

KW: What sort of research did you do prior to writing the script? Did you interview any witnesses? The police? Oscar’s friends and family? 

RC: I started by helping Oscar’s family’s lawyer organize some of the video footage that got turned in to the prosecutor’s office for the trial. That was really comprehensive. Then I pretty much interviewed anyone who had a meaningful relationship with Oscar, all of his friends and family members. That’s where the three-dimensionality of his character in the script came from. I was also able to bring the actors around his neighborhood, and they got to spend time with the characters they were portraying: his girlfriend, his mom, and the friends he was on the platform with the night he was shot. I based my decisions on all of that research.

Scene in Bart Station

KW: Did the police cooperate with the project?

RC: No, we left the cops alone. Most of them no longer work as police officers. They were only a very small portion of the film, and we had their court testimony, which we felt was enough. 

KW: The officer who shot Oscar was only convicted of manslaughter. Your star, Michael, still characterized it as a murder. Which do you feel it was? 

RC: To be honest, I think people can make up their own minds about the legal terminology. You can call it whatever you want, but regardless, a young man’s life was taken unnecessarily. It’s not for me to get caught up in the politics of it. What means the most to me is that he never made it back home to his loved ones. 

KW: Why did you decide to paint a warts-and-all picture of Oscar Grant? Were you at all tempted to sanitize his image?

RC: No, I never was. It wouldn’t have made sense to make a film about Oscar and not show the struggles he was dealing with. 

KW: What message do you hope people will take away from the picture? 

RC: To me, the film is a domestic story about this 22 year-old and his relationships. It is my hope that people will see a little bit of themselves in the characters. And with that, I hope it will trigger a little bit of a thought process about how we connect to and treat each other, whether strangers or those we’re close to. Some people never come in contact with someone like Oscar, a young African-American male, at all. Their only access to his world is through media. So, I hope the film offers some insight for folks like that. 

KW: Have you considered making a movie about the assassination of Oakland Post editor Chauncey Bailey by members of a Black Muslim sect, which is another story of national interest? I was writing for the paper at the time, and spoke to him just a couple of days before his murder.

RC: I’m sorry to hear that, man. I followed the case and know a lot about Chauncey, and was moved by what happened. Like I said before, whenever something happens in the community, I think about it in terms of my art form. 

KW: You originally went to college on a football scholarship. How did you make the transition from jock to film student?

RC: Initially, I was majoring in chemistry and planning to become a doctor, if football didn’t work out. But in a creative writing class, I had a professor who encouraged me to go to Hollywood and write screenplays. I thought she was a little crazy at first, since it came out of nowhere, but it stuck in my head. I later transferred schools, switched majors, and started taking a bunch of filmmaking classes. Then I went to USC film school for my graduate degree. 

KW: Well, we’re all glad you did, Ryan. Thanks again for the time and best of luck with Fruitvale Station during Academy Awards season.

RC: Thank you, Kam.

 

 

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African Film Enjoys Rare Cannes Outing‘26-Year-Old African-American Is One To Watch’

ABIDJAN, (AFP): African film is enjoying a rare invitation to cinema’s top table with a film by French-Chadian director Mahamat-Saleh Haroun competing for the coveted Palme d’Or, as the continent strives to satisfy an appetite for films made by Africans for Africans. Haroun, who left Chad during the civil war, won plaudits for his autobiographical 1999 film “Bye Bye Africa” and has continued to make films about his homeland despite settling in France more than 30 years ago. His latest film “Grigris” is one of 20 films in the contest for the Palme d’Or. It will be screened on Wednesday at the Cannes Film Festival where he was invited to sit on the jury in 2011. Although the filmmaker won the Cannes jury prize in 2010 for “A Screaming Man”, few Africans will have seen his films at the cinema. Cinemas across the continent have in recent years fallen victim to a combination of lack of investment and the rise of television and DVDs, often pirated, as a preferred form of entertainment. Apart from Nigeria and South Africa, which have their own domestic film industries, the continent suffers from a shortage of homegrown movies. Ivorian actress Emma Lohoues, who scooped best actress awards at two international film festivals for her performance in Owell Brown’s 2010 romantic comedy “Le Mec Ideal”, believes many of the essential ingredients for a successful industry are already in place. “Our cinema has a future with a wave of talented emerging actors and directors,” she told AFP.

“All we need and which is badly missing is the support of the authorities,” she added. Democratic Republic of Congo director Ronnie Kabuika dreams of the day when there might be a state-sponsored infrastructure for the industry in his country, perhaps as part of the ministry of culture. “Those who try to produce things make do with what’s at hand (but) there is no support, no finance,” he said. Many on the continent look with envy at the way films are financed in Morocco, a set-up modelled on the French system. Government funding has made the country the envy of the continent with six million euros ($7.7 million) funding some 25 Moroccan films a year. In Rwanda, it is hoped that a planned film commission will help the country move on from films made by foreigners about the 1994 genocide.


Dare

“We should dare to make films (that look at things) through our own eyes,” said filmmaker Eric Kabera who in 2001 collaborated with British filmmaker Nick Hughes on the first feature film about the genocide.
Movie makers say the success of the Nigerian film industry, known as “Nollywood”, shows that Africa can produce its own films and make a splash in the wider world.
Nigerian actress Omotola Jalade-Ekeinde was recently named by Time magazine as one of its most 100 influential people.
Mostly shot on video and rooted in the hard realities of daily lives blighted by violence and corruption, the films made over the last 20 odd years “have placed Nigeria on the world map and redefined African cinema”, said Nigerian director Mahmood Ali-Balogun.
“Nollywood is worth celebrating. It has done well for Nigeria and Africa…. It has put Nigeria on the world map and redefined African cinema,” he said.
“It is about us, by us and for us…. Nollywood has empowered Nigerians,” he added.

Replaced
Older, poorer quality films known as “microwave” movies were being replaced with better productions, he added. “There is a lot of improvement these days,” he said. The success of “Nollywood” with its hundreds of films produced annually is also notable for the fact that it receives very little support. Despite that the industry was “viable and profitable” with stars that “take the public with them”, added Owell Brown. You may not have seen any of his stuff, but movie insiders predict you soon will. And good parents, American football and mentoring by Hollywood star Forest Whitaker are what gave him his chance. Aged just 26, from a modest background, African-American director Ryan Coogler is being tipped at the Cannes Film Festival as a dazzling new talent. His first feature movie, “Fruitvale Station”, featuring in Cannes’ “Un Certain Regard” competition, touches on a tragic true-life story that occurred in his native San Francisco. It recounts the last 24 hours in the life of a young black man, Oscar Grant, who is shot dead by a cop at a subway station just as he is getting his troubled existence back on track. Riots broke out after the verdict in the policeman’s trial. Filmed on less than a million dollars, the movie made a buzz in January at the Sundance Film Festival, where it won the Grand Jury prize. A bidding war broke out, won by mogul Harvey Weinstein, who is releasing it in the United States in July. “Fruitvale Station” was warmly applauded at its press screening in Cannes, where it is vying for the Golden Camera prize for young talents. Britain’s Guardian newspaper gave the “quietly gripping debut” four out of a maximum five stars.

“I was incredibly fortunate,” the athletically-built young man told AFP in an interview. “(…) It’s more than you can ask for.” Coogler and his little brother were born to a couple who married young and focussed on education to help their rise out of tough neighbourhoods in the Bay Area around San Francisco. “They put us through nice schools,” said Coogler. “We lived in rough neighbourhoods, but we went to nice schools. So I grew up with both those worlds, and for a long time, I didn’t fit in to either.” He didn’t fit into his local neighbourhood because he was a bookworm. Nor did he fit into life at school, because he was poor. “But I started playing sports — and there I fitted in everywhere,” he said. With the help of a football scholarship, he went to a liberal arts school where he started taking classes in film-making. He followed up with a graduate course at the University of Southern California’s School of Cinematic Arts, one of the most prestigious movie schools in the world. There, he cut his teeth with a series of short films about life on the margins, including a piece about a young prostitute’s fight to protect her daughter. The next big break came through Whitaker, who won the 2006 Oscar for best actor as Ugandan tyrant Idi Amin in “The Last King of Scotland”.
“His company was looking for film makers to mentor while I was in film school,” said Coogler.
“For him it’s social issues. Forest is a humanitarian, he does a lot of work in conflict resolution in Africa and the US, so his company was naturally attracted to things that have social relevance. That’s how my name came up.” In their 45-minute first encounter, Coogler sketched his idea for a film that pulls Oscar Grant out of anonymity as yet another crime statistic, and recounts the last 24 hours in his life. “[Whitaker] said, ‘I’m going to help you make that,’ and walked out of the room,” Coogler said. Funding was scraped together from a variety of sources — grants from the San Francisco Film Society and Sundance, and Whitaker himself stumped up more than half. Coogler admitted he was having a hard time coping with all the attention. “I try to focus on the work, otherwise I think my head would probably explode.”

 

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At Cannes, challenging the notion that black films ‘don’t travel’

By 

CANNES, France — In 1995, Will Smith begged producer Jerry Bruckheimer to let him go to the Cannes Film Festival to promote “Bad Boys,” despite the parent studio’s insistence that a black actor would not get any traction with the international fans and journalists thronging the city’s beach-side promenade, the Croisette. Bruckheimer and Columbia Pictures eventually relented: Smith traveled to Cannes, held a news conference, threw a huge MTV party and charmed dozens of interviewers — and “Bad Boys” earned $140 million, nearly half of it overseas. Smith, who would systematically repeat that model in markets from Moscow to Johannesburg, emerged well on his way to international stardom.

As the 66th edition of Cannes gets underway Wednesday, Smith’s example has taken on new resonance — and urgency. For years, black filmmakers, or anyone interested in making movies starring or about black people, have been told that “black doesn’t travel,” the assumption being that the African American experience is too specific to be comprehensible, or commercial, anywhere but in the United States.

But some films coming to Cannes this year are poised to challenge the no-foreign-market assumption: “Sexual Healing,” a drama about the personal and creative resurgence of American singer Marvin Gaye starring Jesse L. Martin, will be in the hunt for international distribution at Cannes, its production having just begun in Ostend, Belgium, where the story is set.

Producer Frederick Bestall admits that financing was difficult to pull together for “Sexual Healing” and that casting a non-superstar in the lead “has its drawbacks” for international sales. But he’s cautiously optimistic that the film will find distributors outside the United States. Noting that Gaye sold more than 100 million records worldwide and that “Sexual Healing” will center on the singer’s relationship with Belgian promoter Freddy Cousaert, Bestall said, the film’s “human-relationship aspects transcend the concept of a black movie per se. I believe if the story is powerful enough and touches the human-nature side of [the story] rather than the race aspect, the film should do well.”

At a time when figures such as Smith, Barack Obama and Michael Jordan are global superstars, the assumption that films by and about black people won’t sell feels counterintuitive, or code for more corrosive biases. “We are stars, we are athletes that are hailed and fawned over throughout the world, our music people are fawned over throughout the world, you would assume the same would apply to our culture,” said director Lee Daniels. “I think it’s some sort of scam. I think something ain’t right in the kitchen.”

The perception that black films can’t open overseas has even more impact today, when international financing has become far more crucial to getting films made and foreign box office can account for between 60 and 70 percent of a movie’s total revenue. As foreign markets gain in importance, Hollywood will be even more prone to make movies that transcend language, with explosions, superheroes and special effects that take the place of dialogue. The troubling result is that fewer films will be made and seen, inside or outside the United States, that offer diverse reflections of American life.

The film industry is rife with examples of anonymous filmmakers who couldn’t get their project off the ground because their star or subject matter was black. But it’s also happened to some of the biggest players in the business. Last year, “Star Wars” creator George Lucas complained that he couldn’t find financing for “Red Tails,” about the Tuskegee Airmen, for just that reason. “They don’t believe there’s any foreign market [for black films],” he told Jon Stewart on “The Daily Show.” “And that’s 60 percent of their profit. . . . I showed it to all of them and they said, ‘No. We don’t know how to market a movie like this.’ ” The independent drama “Blue Caprice,” which stars Isaiah Washington in a story based on the 2002 Washington-area sniper case, will not be coming to the Cannes market this year, having failed to secure a high-end international sales agent.

For years, the conventional wisdom that black doesn’t travel has taken on the force of myth. Increasingly in recent years, it looks like the myth might be beginning to crumble. Not only have films starring Smith, Denzel Washington and Queen Latifah succeeded, but even relatively small films with no big names have done well. In 2011, “The Help” earned a surprisingly healthy $42 million overseas and last year “Django Unchained,” Quentin Tarantino’s slavery-era spaghetti Western, broke all the filmmaker’s box office records.

But by far the most impressive groundbreaker recently was “Precious: Based on the Novel ‘Push’ by Sapphire,” which Daniels brought to Cannes in 2009 as part of a far-ranging festival circuit that started with winning a grand jury award at Sundance the previous January. “Precious” featured no international stars to speak of (other than a virtually unrecognizable Mariah Carey) and was set within a highly specific urban American context. And yet the drama was a hit overseas, earning nearly a quarter of its $63 million worldwide gross there.

Daniels credits his early experience as a casting director, and later as a producer and first-time director, with helping to establish relationships with foreign distributors. He also notes that by the time he made “Precious,” he had perfected a way of subtly pushing back against the “black doesn’t travel” assumption.

“If you study my early films, ‘Monster’s Ball,’ ‘The Woodsman,’ ‘Shadowboxer,’ all had black people in them, but they also had viable white stars,” Daniels said. “Since I came from casting, I understood the concept of the value of African Americans overseas — or what Hollywood perceived to be the value of African Americans overseas — versus the white actors. So I’ve always purposely and strategically mixed it up in such a way that I can get my vision out, and at the same time keep my blackness in.”

Daniels’s strategy was never clearer than at Cannes last year: While his lurid Southern potboiler “The Paperboy” was making its wildly polarizing world debut at the festival, he was also drumming up distributors for his next project, “The Butler.” Knowing that the film’s protagonist — a White House butler played by Forest Whitaker — may not automatically garner interest, Daniels larded the production with lots of white stars — including Jane Fonda, James Marsden and Robin Williams — playing White House figures over eight presidential administrations.

“They’re really cameos in the film, but they got the movie green-lit, which was very disturbing,” Daniels said of the white actors in “The Butler.” “But it’s okay, because the script is great and it was a wonderful ‘Kumbaya’ moment for everybody who participated.”

Both Daniels and Will Smith present models worth emulating, said producer Jeff Clanagan, president of CodeBlack Entertainment. “It will take us to push the envelope,” said Clanagan, who plans to take the Kevin Hart documentary “Let Me Explain” to foreign markets where Hart has toured with his stand-up act. “Our talent has to go over there and support it.”

Similarly, Tambay Obenson, editor and chief writer at the film Web site Shadow and Act, noted that black filmmakers need to show up at international festivals such as Cannes, the better to establish the kinds of relationships with film professionals and audiences that held Daniels in such good stead. Some markets hold particularly strong potential: Obenson made a study earlier this year of black-themed films that played overseas and discovered that black American films often did well in South Africa and the United Kingdom.

“ ‘Think Like a Man’ did better in South Africa than ‘Jack Reacher,’ ” said Obenson, referring to the Steve Harvey-inspired rom-com and the Tom Cruise thriller. “It made about twice the box office compared to ‘21 Jump Street.’ When people say things like [black doesn’t travel], they’re saying the rest of world is just made up of white people. Look, there’s an entire continent called Africa with a billion black people on it, and not much of a film industry outside Nigeria and East Africa. There are black people around the world who want to see black people on-screen.”

David Glasser, chief operating officer of the Weinstein Company, which released “Django Unchained” and will distribute “The Butler” in August, believes that the notion of “black doesn’t travel” is on its way to becoming obsolete. “A good movie is a good movie, and these barriers are coming down,” Glasser said. “It’s all about quality now.”

He can point to at least one persuasive example: One of Weinstein’s Sundance acquisitions, the grand jury award-winner “Fruitvale Station,” is a movie by a black filmmaker based on the real-life case of an African American man who was shot to death by a police officer in Oakland, Calif. The film will make its European debut at this year’s Cannes’s “Un Certain Regard” section, with its international distribution territories already sold out.

 

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There Is an Audience for Our Films: Four African-American Female Filmmakers Speak Out

Lorenza Muñoz moderates a discussion between four African-American filmmakers about race, gender, and connection, and why there is most definitely an audience for their films.

The demise of independent film labels has made it more challenging for new talent—especially nonwhite filmmakers—to tell their stories and gain entry into major studios.

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Over the past two years, a series of vital, powerful and reflective films directed by African-American women have been humming along under the radar of mainstream Hollywood, struggling to get distribution and missing the strong marketing campaigns that catch an audience. Ava DuVernay’s second feature,Middle of Nowhere, won Best Director at the 2012 Sundance Film Festival and was recently nominated for four Independent Spirit Awards, and yet she had to establish her own distribution company, AFFRM, African-American Film Festival Releasing Movement, to release her film. Her movie, a critic’s pick described byThe New York Times as a “plaintive, slow-boiling, quietly soul-stirring drama about a woman coming into her own,” is now playing in more than a dozen theaters nationwide.

Victoria Mahoney’s first feature, Yelling to the Sky, features Zoe Kravitz as a teen whose family is coming apart and must find her way in a tough school. The film was nominated for a Golden Bear at the 2011 Berlin Film Festival, but here it will be seen only in one theater in New York this month and on VOD. Tina Mabry’s Mississippi Damned, a family drama set in the Deep South, which won 13 awards in more than a dozen film festivals, was also self-distributed through the production company Morgan’s Mark and later had its television debut on Showtime. So far, Kasi Lemmons—who directed three movies including Eve’s Bayou and Caveman’s Valentine—holds the record for the greatest number of feature films directed by an African-American woman.

It is such a tough road that many filmmakers simply give up. DuVernay, Mahoney, Mabry, and producer/writer Tajamika Paxton sat down with Lorenza Muñoz of The Daily Beast to discuss their films, the state of the industry, and the challenges faced by African-American filmmakers in Hollywood. What follows is an edited transcript of their conversation.

So what is it like to be an African-American female director in Hollywood today?

Victoria Mahoney: When we are asked that, part of our ribcage locks because we just see ourselves as filmmakers. But the world wants to define me by my mammary glands and melanin. It is just fascinating that Michael Mann has never been asked what it is like to be a white male filmmaker. I like Michael Mann’s films, and he’s taken very seriously. I feel like a lot of us at this table often get treated like little kids who stumbled on some badass ways to tell a story, but it was all an accident.

Taj Paxton: It’s a reality. I am happy to be a woman and African-American. I can’t focus on a burden. I have to focus on how where I come from makes my position unique and what opportunities emerge from that.

Ava DuVernay: I like to identify myself as a black woman filmmaker. But I am finding that my film is making its way into conversations about Lincoln andDjango Unchained and Beasts of the Southern Wild, so it is being viewed through the prism of race, which is interesting because this film has nothing to do with the others. So in one way you stand yourself proud to call yourself a black woman filmmaker and on the other side it is exhausting to always talk about race and have to defend your film. The times I can actually sit down and actually talk about my film and the filmmaking, not the society we live in, not the politics, but how I worked with my actor and my cinematographer, are few and far between.

Tina Mabry: Yes, for my film it was about, “This is about the black family in the South,” and I would say, “Look beyond race and look more at the socioeconomic aspect of the film.” This story in my film is really about being poor, uneducated, and in the South, and being stuck and in a cycle. That transcends race, gender, and age.

And yet, race matters…

DuVernay: What gets me is that so often the expression of the African-American experience that is acceptable and applauded by the industry is not coming from us. They are stories being told from the outside in. Interpretations of the black female experience, as opposed to reflection, are valid. All we are saying is our reflections are also valid. What our films have in common is they are showing reflections of who we are. They need to be just as valued, just as heard, just as critiqued and distributed as our white male counterparts’ interpretation of us. That is what the disconnect has been and the cinematic legacy on screen as black filmmakers has been. These films are set apart and there is not a balanced approached to their value.

Mahoney: One of the fascinating things about this year is that Ava wins the Sundance Best Director and what that means. If you talk to certain people in the industry, they will think another person had won. It is bizarre to watch and it makes my heart hurt. Why does that happen? Why wasn’t the film she offered up from her perspective as valuable as every other guy who has won Best Director at Sundance over the past years?

In Hollywood, there is a persistent belief that “black” films don’t resonate with audiences abroad. This makes the films less attractive to some producers and distributors because they rely so much on foreign sales.

Mahoney: We could write a book about all the sentences that we have been told: “Nobody wants to see this film. Nobody will pay to see this film. Nobody worldwide will pay to go see this film.” Well, one of my favorite stories is from Berlin when we had more than 2,000 kids there at a screening. And I had a moment [watching the audience] when that sentence ran through me, “Nobody wants to see this movie.” There was this girl that kept watching me and staring at me and following me after the screening. So I said to her, “Are you OK?” And she stares at me right in the eye and says, “How did you know?” And I said, “Excuse me?” And she says, “How did you know all that about me?” And we just stood there, and I hugged her. She believed with all her being that I had followed her and that my film had told her story. This is something that no number counter or pencil pusher in Hollywood can ever understand.

Mabry: We all see that when we travel with our films internationally. In this industry, they think our films won’t “cross over,” but if you have a human story and strong enough characters, people will connect on a human level. It is not all about race. I have personally seen it in Switzerland. People are connecting regardless of where they are from. They are saying, “That is my family,” and I was shocked because I didn’t know there was that much dysfunction in the world. We have all had that experience where you have people come up to you after a movie. That is the thing that makes it worth it, and it helps through all the hard times when you know that you are connecting with the audience. This is what it was for.

“The world wants to define me by my mammary glands and melanin,” said Victoria Mahoney.

Trying to get financing, getting distribution, and then marketing the film is a huge challenge.

Mabry: It can be frustrating and you have moments when you can get bitter, but when you screen it and you see the reception, that takes away the bitterness. I have gotten to a point in my career where I am not looking to be invited to the table. I am going to build my own table. Why wait around and hope that you will be accepted? What do you do—stop your career? Suppress your voice? Stop telling stories? No.

Mahoney: A lot of great, talented people have.

DuVernay: I feel that there is no gate that has been kept that I need to go through. I only say that because it is something that has freed me. I don’t even go to meetings. I do not go in and say, “Can you help me make this film?” I only go in if you are inviting me to tell me how you will help me make this film. It is a different posture—it is “I am making this thing. Do you want to help me make it?” If any of us try to wait for permission, it is not going to happen for us. But for better or worse, with the collapsing model of the industry, with the advent of social media and digital filmmaking, it is no longer a space where we have to sit back and wait to be heard. The compromise is recalibrating what we see as success. Is it enough to have that moment where you have reached this sister in Germany and go audience by audience and get love at the black film festivals and cultivate your audience as you go? Is it OK if you don’t win the awards or make it to a talk show or the cover of a magazine? Once we reconcile in ourselves that what we really want is to tell stories and to connect with an audience, that needs to be just as valuable to us. We need to stay focused on what matters.

Paxton: That is the legacy being black gives us. It was never going to be a journey in any field that looks like anyone else’s. Every field my family went in, the door was kicked in and they had to shape it the way that it worked for them.

So that connection with the audience has to be found.

Mabry: People are traveling to see Ava’s movie. I know someone who drove from Raleigh to Charlotte, a three-hour drive. With my film, I knew someone who drove from Atlanta to Savannah to see it again.

DuVernay: That is not uncommon. That is how starved people are…

Mabry: Exactly. That is what that tells us. There is a void in the market, and there is an audience out there.

Mahoney: Yes, through social media we can see our audience and they are saying, “We are hungry; can we see it please?” So we know how hungry they are. Also, a few years ago, I felt like I was alone. But now with the Internet and social media, how many people in the past months wrapped films? Dozens of people. I know people who are on their second films. There is strength in numbers, and we can beware the lies we are told.

DuVernay: It takes time to cultivate a market. The question is can we exist within this small niche? And there is a precedent like the Criterion brand. What we need are more people—Latino filmmakers, Asian filmmakers, LGBT filmmakers, everyone that is not in dominant culture. If we could all figure this out—everyone has the same problem—there has to be another route. We have enough talent, filmmakers, producers, and the audience exists. I believe that film will eventually start to reflect what we have seen in the election process. It is going to have to change, and the question is, will it change in time for our stories to be viable, or can we create some forward movement so that the next group of sisters that are sitting in this room are not having this conversation? Previous generations of black female filmmakers have opened up the space to say that black female images can be made and are viable. Now we just need to make it sustainable.

Paxton: Honestly, sitting at this table, I am so scared because I am one of those people that, up until four or five months ago, was on the verge of saying this might be too much of a cross for me to bear. I come from being an executive and having produced two films that had tiny audiences, and I saw how hard that was as a producer. Now the feature that I am trying to direct is a drama about a lonely black woman in New York who is obsessed with a violin and the metaphor for why she holds on to this inanimate object instead of reaching out for love with people. And as I listen to you guys now I think, “hmmm, am I sure?” I am hoping to find the strength in what you guys have done. As an executive [formerly with Forest Whitaker’s production company Spirit Dance], I have watched genres break, and you never have to have these conversations again. Teen horror broke and it was like, stop talking about teen horror not being a profitable genre. It is profitable. We are done with this conversation. Buddy comedies, done. At what moment do you say, “Dramas with black females that have broken through—bring them on?” When is that going to happen? When Forest [Whitaker] made Waiting to Exhale [in 1995] people said, “Aren’t we done with this conversation?”

 
 

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African Diaspora International Film Festival

Doctor Bello: Isaiah Washington and Genevieve Nnaji

The African Diaspora International Film Festival (ADIFF) which organizers say “presents an eclectic mix of urban, classic, independent and foreign films that depict the richness and diversity of the life experience of people of African descent and Indigenous people all over the world” opens this Friday in New York City with several films that will be shown over the week.

This year, the lineup is impressive.

“We are proud to announce that The Pirogue by Moussa Touré has won the Golden Tanit at the 2012 Carthage Film Festival,” says Diarah N’Daw-Spech who together with Reinaldo Barroso-Spech, are founders of the film festival, in a release promoting the festival.

“The Cartage Film Festival is held in Tunisia every two years. The Cartage Film Festival and FESPACO in Burkina Faso are the two most important film festivals on the African continent that showcase African and Afro-Centric theme films.”

La Pirogue will be screened on Friday, Nov. 30 at 6pm with short Swiss film Objection 6.  “With amazing camera work putting you in the shoes of the lead character, Objection 6  tells the story of a deportation that happened in March 2010, which ended with the tragic death of an asylum seeker,” N’Daw-Spech adds.

ADIFF is also extremely proud to announce that Doctor Bello by Tony Abulu continues to demonstrate at a global scale the talent and creativity of African filmmakers all over the world.

Doctor Bello, after opening the 20th African Diaspora Film Festival in New York, will be showcased in Lagos, Nigeria, London, UK and Johannesburg,South Africa.

Doctor Bello and The Pirogue will be part of a Special Presentation on Friday November 30 at the NYIT Auditorium located on 1871 Broadway and 61st Street in Manhattan.

Tickets $15 per film available here www.NYADIFF.org 

Tel: 212-864-1760

 
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Posted by on November 28, 2012 in African American Films

 

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