The “Collard Greens” Circuit: An Alternative Model for the Distribution and Exhibition of African-American Independent Cinema

All too often in the African-American community our conformist tendencies and moral conservatism leads us to a moribund complacency that is just as dangerous for our community as a whole as it is for our culture and the art it produces. It is a complacency born from not necessarily a traditional right-wing conservative perspective, but a religiously centered, middle class aspiring perspective that forces some of us to look at social and cultural problems, not from their systemic causes and functions, but instead as a moral judgment against an individual.

I will use two examples from the past to shed light on our current state of affairs and the dim future it foretells.

In the 1980’s the rise of the crack cocaine epidemic was for so long thought of as an individual’s weakness by some within our communities, which in turn instilled a complacency that blinded some of us from the various life-threatening problems a collective of individuals weakened with substance abuse issues would cause us within a decade’s time. The same could be said of the HIV epidemic during the late 80’s and 90’s, when our moral conservatism and homophobia fed into the perception of AIDS as a ‘gay man’s disease’ and therefore an individual’s weakness. The complacency born from these perceptions encouraged a lack of collective political effort and an unwillingness to help others that blinded us from how the epidemic would profoundly impact our community throughout the 80’s and 90’s and even today.

Now moving from community to culture, today it is well known that only two or three films made by black filmmakers are attaining mainstream theatrical releases each year since the early 2000’s. Once again our conformist tendencies and conservatism is making us complacent and blinding us to the systemic causes and economic functions of the paucity of black films being released theatrically. It is a complacency that has many of us blaming the individual filmmakers for their perceived weakness in not securing a lucrative Hollywood deal as the problem. In other words it’s not Hollywood’s fault, Hollywood exists to make money, it’s the black filmmaker’s fault for not providing more marketable (read: white friendly) material. Even our comedies are failing to make substantial profits as the recent underperformances of FIRST SUNDAY, LOTTERY TICKET and WHO’S YOUR CADDY revealed.

Yet, even though there are many, many African-American films produced each year only two or three of these films gain a mainstream theatrical release. If we count a Tyler Perry film as one of those three, then actually there are only two African-American films, usually with a high profile African-American star attached, that are given a mainstream theatrical release. But there are two additional caveats here also: 1) Neither of the two remaining African-American films can be considered ‘independent’ because they are either bankrolled by a well-known or well connected producer (e.g. John Singleton and the film HUSTLE & FLOW, Tyler Perry and Oprah Winfrey’s involvement with PRECIOUS); or 2) not directed or written by an African-American (e.g. BIG MOMMAS: Like Father, Like Son which was directed by John Whitesell). So what do these, for lack of a better word, two or three ‘bogus’ African-American films released to mainstream theaters every year tell us?

In times of great cultural crisis, like today, we as African-Americans become complacent because the ‘white controlled’ system offers us one or two symbols of African-American success in a particular art-form or medium that, in turn, distracts us from the hundreds or thousands of African-Americans who languish in poverty and obscurity as they zealously pursue their ambitions in that particular art-form or medium. A discomforting and stereotypical analogy is that: many African-Americans play basketball and aspire to be professionals, but only a handful get into the NBA to make millions. One of the great differences here is that we get to see those handful of black basketball players on our television screens, whereas so many, many African-American filmmakers works are seldom seen on television nor on the big screen. Today, the obvious success of Tyler Perry and even Oprah Winfrey distracts us from our entrenched powerlessness to simultaneously produce and distribute an African-American independent film into mainstream theaters.

It is under these conditions that we are forced to realize that African-American cinema and ‘white’ American cinema are segregated and unequal in regards to the funding, distribution and exhibition of their respective films. As I stated in my book, SLAVE CINEMA: The Crisis of the African-American in film:

More money may increase the quantity of films whites produce, but more money also allows white filmmakers a wider margin of error when judging the box office appeal of a film against the artistic purpose and integrity of a film. This wider margin of error encourages certain white filmmakers to experiment with style, dialogue, the presentation of action, editing, setting as well as allowing these white filmmakers to take chances on subject matter and its overall narrative presentation. Yet when studios and independent producers approach African-American films they provide little margin for error by way of smaller budgets, shorter development and production schedules that do not afford African-American filmmakers the same luxuries of artistic purpose, integrity and experimentation as whites.” (pg. 16)

Couple this problem with the fact that only two to three ‘bogus’ African-American films are released into mainstream theatrical theaters and you have a segregated cinema that discourages the ambitions of African-Americans while sustaining the status quo of white cultural superiority in the art and business of film.

What is needed is a renewed sense of collective urgency, cooperation and strategic change in how we fund, market and distribute African-American independent cinema. We can no longer depend on the illusion of a big Hollywood distribution deal as the model to sustain African-American cinema commercial or independent. Countless commercial African-American filmmakers have had their careers halted or destroyed by the Hollywood contract which keeps their scripts in “turnaround” (industry jargon for,” not at this time”) or have their films poorly marketed and distributed as a means of controlling their talent and forcing them to “pull the plough” for an industry that makes the most of its profits from multi-million dollar blockbuster films that through a variety of seductive ways sustain the illusion white cultural superiority in the cinema. Yet it is a white controlled entertainment industry that sustains its artistic prestige from smaller films that take years and years to turn a profit which is a privilege deliberately withheld from African-American filmmakers and their works.

Under these pernicious circumstances we can no longer afford to blame the African-American filmmaker for not making a more marketable product since the product that Hollywood does not want to market are African-American films that challenge the racial representations that have always contributed handsomely to its bottom line. We have to realize that all of the African-American films which we are not seeing are a direct consequence of the “chosen few” that are being placed in front of us to block our view. In short, it is not the weakness of the individual filmmaker that is keeping him or her in poverty and obscurity, but instead the strength of the system which is being fed by our conformist tendencies and conservatism which translates as a lack of a sense of urgency when it comes to African-American cinema. Like the tragically absurd figure in Franz Kafka’s vignette about a deluded man who waits all of his life in front of a door he was told he could not enter, only to find out at the point of his death from old age that this door was, “for you and only you,” too many African-American filmmakers are waiting for a chance that cannot be given to us: it must be taken. (1)

The first and foremost effective means with which we have to combat this problem are African-American film festivals. With several important changes to the submission processes, the addition of multi-tiered exhibition categories and a co-operative ethos and mandate several African-American film festivals could collectively function like the “chitlin’ circuit” did for African-American playwrights and performers who were not allowed into all white establishments during and after segregation.(2)

In effect, these African-American film festivals could form what we might call, ”a Collard Greens circuit,” where challenging, artistically advanced and stimulating films could tour from city to city under a particular festival’s brand name. Profits from these tours could be used to create prize money for award winning films to help fund African-American filmmakers future works, as well as, create a non-profit fund to provide grant money for developing African-American filmmakers. Funding that would give these filmmakers a wider margin of error concerning short term profits vis-à-vis long term cultural legacy in the creation and development of challenging and innovative films. These grants could potentially ‘level the playing field’ and de-segregate the relationship between African-American cinema and white cinema in terms of an African-American filmmaker’s ability to develop challenging, innovative and groundbreaking works.

One of the foreseeable problems with the development of,” a Collard Greens circuit,” for African-American independent film is found in making sure that the films are marketed and exhibited to their target audience. For example, in 2009 Barry Jenkins’s film, MEDICINE FOR MELANCHOLY, was given a limited “art-house” release across the country, but when it played in my hometown of Detroit, it was shown at the Detroit Film Theater. On paper, the Detroit Film Theater is a well respected film institution with a more than 35 year tradition of showing the best films from around the world. In reality, the Detroit Film Theater rarely reaches out to African-American film audiences, usually showing only one obligatory African-American themed film during Black History month. While as an adjunct of the Detroit Institute of the Arts, it serves mostly white privileged suburbanites and college students and faculty. The “art-house” release pattern continues the segregation between white art films and African-American independent films because the art film theater caters to white audiences for the majority of its yearly programmed schedule. Therefore, the African-American independent film that receives an art house release does not effectively reach most African-American filmgoers.

The second foreseeable problem is whether or not large African-American film festivals like, the Hollywood Black Film Festival (HBFF) or the American Black Film Festival (ABFF) and any other film festivals whose agenda is to promote black film can work together to both coordinate the tours and distribute a percentage of the profits into prize money and grants for developing filmmakers. It’s not that these festivals don’t already have systems in place for prize money and development funds, but the fact that separately these festivals have a less than profound effect in getting African-American films into mainstream theaters and accumulating funds that could be distributed as development and production grants to filmmakers. But given the circumstances I have already described concerning a segregated cinema between white films and black films, if these disparate festivals could work together they could form a mighty weapon that would aid in the desegregation of American cinema.

A third but not less important foreseeable problem with the development of “a Collard Greens circuit” for African-American independent cinema can be found in our conformist tendencies that are manifested in the notion of filmmaking as a “get rich quick” means of vertical class mobility. We have been seduced by a variety of conduits into believing that the business of film is the sole purpose for getting involved in the art of film; that when we make a film and concern ourselves solely with ability of the project to make money we lower our ideals to what we have convinced ourselves is a common denominator and in so doing we make mindless comedies or create stereotypical characters and circumstances to which we believe all black audiences can relate. We conform to very notions we wanted to transcend when we think of filmmaking solely as a means of getting rich, instead of as a means of artistic expression.

Yet, to end this dream on a ray of hope, “a Collard Greens circuit” if developed and sustained could allow the most innovative, challenging and artistically advanced African-American independent cinema to finally reach its targeted audience. These films, if shown in a variety of cites North, South, East and West could renew our spirit and faith in cinema as the most important art-form of African-American artistic expression. The “Collard Greens circuit” could resurrect films long thought lost or unmarketable like R.W. Fassbinder’s WHITY (1970), GANJA & HESS (1973) or Tanya Hamilton’s NIGHT CATCHES US (2010) saving these films from obscurity and giving them a chance to make a deep impression with African-American audiences as a means to contradict the racial representations of typical Hollywood product. The “Collard Greens circuit” could provide an alternative model for the distribution and exhibition of African-American independent film that could finally let us create a doorway for ourselves rather than wait for someone to open the door for us and let a ‘chosen few’ through.

Andre Seewood is the author of SLAVE CINEMA: The Crisis of the African-American in Film. Pick up a copy of the book via HERE.

(1) For an eloquent and arresting interpretation of the tragically comic figure of the vignette from Kafka’s The Trial, see the opening sequence of Orson Welles’ phenomenal film adaptation THE TRIAL (1962). The exact passage can be found in chapter 9 “In the Cathedral” on pages 213-222 in Franz Kafka’s The Trial, Schocken Books, New York, 1974.
(2) The ‘Chitlin’ Circuit’ has been alternately described as a loose affiliation of performance venues where African-Americans could perform during and after the time of American racial segregation. These were venues where many well known African-American performers could develop and master their craft while being paid (nominally of course). Performers like, Redd Foxx, Moms Mabley, Flip Wilson, Jimi Hendrix, Aretha Franklin and a host of others began their careers on the ‘Chitlin’ Circuit’. This circuit still exists today and was instrumental in the success of Tyler Perry’s stage plays before his career as a filmmaker.