The following is yet another exploration of the well known challenges and obstacles faced by Black filmmakers around the globe. Although this exploration may not add anything new to this much discussed dilemma, I feel that it is an exploration worth pursuing as often as possible since the American Entertainment Complex as we know it is constantly changing and modifying its delivery systems, its dependence on foreign earnings and its cultural impact with various buyouts, mergers, and favorable legislative decisions that allow it to consolidate and increase its power unchecked.(1) If the rules and the technology are constantly changing it also means that our concept of the challenges and obstacles we face, as well as, our strategies of attack must be adjusted so that we don’t find ourselves holding bows and arrows trying to fight an opponent armed with plasma rifles, so to speak.
So knowing that a majority of Black filmmakers don’t have equal access to foreign markets, production budgets, marketing budgets, development deals, advanced technology, executive power brokering, executive decision making (e.g. greenlighting studio films), final cut and screen ratios as do White filmmakers, let us begin.
In a recent reaction published through social media against the uproar caused by Zoe Saldana’s casting as jazz singer Nina Simone in a troubled bio-pic of her life Floyd Webb a respected Black veteran film producer and programmer for the Blacklight Film Festival and Black World Cinema in Chicago with over 30 years of experience furiously asserted that:
”All this yak about Zoe Saldana and her role in the Nina Simone story needs to come to an end. I am back to this. Don’t like it??? Support black independent filmmakers who you think can deliver the kind of work you want to see. It is easy enough to bitch and moan. Why depend on others to do what we don’t support in the first damn place? […] Until ya’ll committed to supporting black independent cinema or whatever indie filmmaker you think can deliver the kind of images you want to see, I don’t wanna hear it… Time to put up or shut up as far as I am concerned. Stop complaining, start helping to build a new independent film movement. We can use kickstarter.com, Indiegogo.com, whatever…”(2)
The naked simplicity of his assertion is at once true and problematic; that is to say, we’ve always known that the surest answer to our long complaint against the White controlled American Entertainment Complex is to begin financing, producing, distributing and seeing our own films. The problem is not whether this can be done, but rather how long can such a self determined Black independent cinema be sustained before it is co-opted and/or diffused by the American Entertainment Complex? This is not a rhetorical question, for if we look at all four components necessary to bring a film to the screen: finance, production, distribution (including marketing) and exhibition the problem reveals itself in between those components. If agents of the American Entertainment Complex are needed, used or buy their way in at any point in the four constituent components, then the long term ability to sustain a self determined Black independent cinema is compromised.
Although the truth of the assertion that we need to fund and support our own independent filmmakers who are going to make the images that we want to see of ourselves on screen is undeniable, the reality is that such an effort may not be sustainable. The external challenge that explains the reason for this lack of sustainability regarding Black independent cinema is due to the massive and ongoing consolidation of various mega-media corporations who are controlling even the most highly thought of media outlets which makes it extremely difficult to see the resultant Black films should they ever be produced en masse. The external challenge that we have been describing is that what we can see as a mass audience from the big screen to the mobile screen is corporate controlled on a global scale.
The internal challenge against Black independent cinema has to do with us as Black people. We know now that the color of one’s skin is not an absolute signifier of one’s allegiance to a Black cause, agenda or aesthetic movement. We are not all a monolithic group of people with a simplistic hive mentality as the Dominant cinema would have us to believe via its often one note portrayals. Black people are diverse, dichotomous, and have different paths, orientations, and ideological perspectives. To support any kind of a truly Black independent film movement one has to be willing to tolerate contradictions, challenges to established beliefs, different voices, opinions and perspectives that at once would seem to subvert the raced based foundation of such a movement even as it is born of the people who by virtue of the color of their skin have founded such a movement.
In short, Black only appears as a single color to the jaundiced eye, but Black as a race comes in many shades, hues, creeds, religions and classes to the perceptive mind.
And here in lies the rub, none of us are bound to an absolute adherence to a Black independent film movement, even the most ardent “blacker than thou” militant has a weakness for some form of the dominant culture. Why? One answer might be because we are all immersed within its ever expanding latticed web of interconnecting distractions. If the Comcast Corporation which has merged with Time/Warner Cable owns Universal Pictures and Universal Pictures owns the National Broadcasting Corporation and various publishing houses, web media outlets and news papers it is incredibly easy to build and sustain interest in a distraction because the power exists to make it appear ubiquitous.
The concept of ubiquitous distraction has incredible financial potential and counter-ideological destructive force which can be found in the notion of a “viral” video or even a popular “hashtag” that trends on twitter. Think here of how the Jay-Z/Solange elevator fight distracted us from Bring Home Our Girls hashtag which distracted us from the Sterling/Viviano racist remarks which all form part of an unending chain of distractions that displaces critical thinking about structural and systemic racism for the sake of the entertainment value of isolated events upon which we might share our opinions, but lack the motivation to exercise any real political power to do anything about.
The very existence of a ubiquitous distraction is built upon the continuous and uncontested mergers, buyouts and affiliations between the global mega-corporations that comprise the American Entertainment Complex. Make no mistake, ubiquitous distraction is as politically dangerous as it is morally circumspect because it turns both the militant and the naïve into unwitting upholders of the dominant cultural system and it’s not too deeply buried White supremacist ideals. This again is a deeper exploration of an external danger to the sustainability of a Black independent cinema.
There is also a deeper internal danger to the sustainability of a Black independent cinema that is connected to our own viewing habits and behaviors. All it takes to wipe away the liberating effect of any single Black independent film is the binge viewing of any one of the dominant cinema’s serial programs. From House of Cards and Game of Thrones to The Walking Dead and American Horror Story the binge viewing of dominant cinema’s serial programs on the television or the mobile screen has the potential to wipe away or severely weaken the liberating effect of any Black independent film in 12 hours or less.
Often what we are binging on contains the very same insidious stereotypes and tropes of White supremacist ideals from which we promised to abstain. And what is it that makes us binge view? Perhaps it is the social need to be part of a conversation about a particular program that everyone appears to be watching and talking about. It is a form of ubiquitous distraction writ large as a must-see series whose plot twists, gratuitous violence, frank dialogue and representations of dearly held beliefs becomes a symbol of one’s intelligence and connectivity to like minds. But what we are really binging on is the dominant and all of its vices.
We betray ourselves and everything we stand for in the name of a Hulu or a Netflix; the delivery systems of the dominant poison that seduces us with the illusion of choice.
For example, what is the stereotype for Kerri Washington’s role in the ever popular American Broadcasting Company’s (owned by the Disney Corporation) SCANDAL but that of a glorified Black maid cleaning up after White people’s mess- and sexing the White male president to boot? And yet the moment Blair Underwood put his lips on a White woman during the second episode of the 2013 reboot of the television series, IRONSIDE it was cancelled quicker than the wind from a duck’s ass.(3)
This is not to say that a Black servant’s exposure and clean-up of a White employer’s shortcomings is not a viable form of artistic subversion of one of the tenets of White supremacy which is their alleged superior intelligence. Nor am I intentionally denigrating the work of Kerri Washington or Executive producer Shonda Rhimes, but instead I only want to note that no new ground has really been broken in regards to the established racial hierarchy, particularly if the Black servant is repairing the shortcomings of Whites and restoring order to the prevailing White power structure. If I am protesting too much then it is only because in today’s culture of illusions a Black servant does not have to wear the traditional uniform of a servant to serve his or her White masters.
Even the most intelligent among us binge view on the dominant cinema’s series, believing that we can compartmentalize and protect ourselves from the poison of White supremacy for the sake of appearing connected to the social conversation of the hive mind- but it is a lie. Binge viewing on the dominant cinema’s television series has the effect of wiping away or severely weakening the liberating force of our own self-determination.
Black independent cinema appears less relevant in comparison to the ubiquitous distraction of all those conversations about who got killed off on FX’s THE AMERICANS.
So far, all we have done is extend the complaint we have against the White controlled American Entertainment Complex by exploring the external problems that impede the sustainability of a Black Independent film movement as well as the internal challenges that aid in weakening or wiping away the liberating influences of a Black Independent film movement.
But I don’t want to appear as a stubborn afro-pessimist who foretells only of obstacles and demands a rebellion,” under the “cleansing” conditions of violence,” as the only means of true Black liberation as tempting as author Frank B. Wilderson III’s suggestion might be to the heart.(4) No, I would rather echo the sentiments of musician and uncommon thinker Questlove in the third part of his on-going series of articles, How Hip-Hop Failed Black America: “…Black culture in general… is no longer perceived as an interesting vanguard, as a source of potential disruption or a challenge to the dominant… These days, increasingly, Black cool is a ponzi scheme that revolves around a couple of people, disingenuously at best.” (5)
Perhaps it might be more precise to say that what is perceived as Black culture is no longer an interesting vanguard because only those who are distracted are falling for what Questlove calls a ‘ponzi scheme’ of coolness. Many of us know that what passes for celebrity is disingenuous and uncool, but we are not obliged to say so under the threat of being ostracized in social media by those of the hive mind.
Let us return to veteran Black independent film producer and festival programmer Floyd Webb’s assertion: “Support black independent filmmakers who you think can deliver the kind of work you want to see. It is easy enough to bitch and moan. Why depend on others to do what we don’t support in the first damn place? […]Time to put up or shut up as far as I am concerned. Stop complaining, start helping to build a new independent film movement…” As I have tried to explore in detail here, such a call to arms, while absolutely true and necessary, does not urge us to take into consideration how “the game”- if you will- has expanded beyond our domestic borders and changed considerably since that fateful time in 1986 when Spike Lee, the doyen of Black independent spirit, released his inaugural feature SHE’S GOTTA HAVE IT.
To this point, I would echo the sentiments of film producer and Fandor CEO Ted Hope who said at an EbertFest panel this year in regards to the ideals that surround the notion of an independent film industry that they are,”…based on antiquated concepts that no longer apply to the world we’re living in. We live in a globalized digital era of overabundance… but many people in the film business still act as if they are still working in a pre-digital era of independent distribution.(6)
The old models of independent filmmaking have been neutralized by the fact that the continued consolidation and globalization of the American Entertainment Complex has rendered the liberating effect of a single Black Independent film ineffectual. The short answer behind this assertion is that for all intents and purposes what I am calling the American Entertainment Complex is a series of interconnected corporate oligarchies that control what we want to see on the big screen and the mobile screen by making distractions appear ubiquitous and manipulating our innate need to be socially connected. Concomitantly, the traditional conceptualization of a Black Independent film movement- with individual filmmakers working in isolation, then gaining attention for their work at celebrated independent film festivals until a major distribution deal is acquired- can no longer sustain itself within the network of interconnected corporate oligarchies that are more interested in their Summer tent pole film releases and their lucrative pay cable/satellite broadcast series than any films which they have marginalized as only having an appeal to a small domestic niche market.
So how do we “put up or shut up”?
To propose any manner of solutions to the dynamic challenges and continuously changing obstacles that Black filmmakers are confronted with it is necessary to repeat the external/internal dichotomy that was applied to explore those very challenges and obstacles. The external/internal schema is not being used to simplify these issues, but instead to insure that we remain cognizant of the complexity, dynamism, and the ever changing infrastructure of the American Entertainment Complex. We cannot afford to become complacent for it is complacency that poisons us like the rusty shackle that dug into and infected the ankles and the blood of slaves. We must be vigilant against this enormous opponent.
Externally our greatest challenge that needs our greatest solution is how can we counteract what has to be the most secure fundamental conceit that enshrines, ennobles and protects the American Entertainment Complex- which is its ability to mystify its capital expenditures and earnings? If one of the most important truisms of sleuths and conspiracy theorists is “follow the money” then one can deduce that it is how money is both glorified and hidden (as enormous budgets and enormous global net profits respectively) that allows the American Entertainment Complex to mystify its infrastructural business operations from the man-on-the-street who is its potential consumer. It is a continuous shell game of costs and profits hidden among many companies who all share the same parent. There are only a few parents, but with many children in their households.
For example, it is taken for granted that White films and the White filmmakers who make them have deep pockets. A three to four hundred million dollar summer tent pole film contains as part of its attraction what we will call here a capital mystique that is tied to its enormous budget and its equally enormous worldwide gross unadjusted box office profits. What is ultimately mystified in these publicity announcements is the fact that the box office numbers of films reported on television, in print media trade magazines and respected websites like boxofficemojo are not adjusted gross profits- otherwise known as net profits. There are specific deductions, off-the-tops, taxes and contractual obligations that impact what makes a film truly profitable.(7) The capital mystique is the ability to keep actual net profits and total production costs hidden from the public by glorifying the unadjusted theatrical gross profit and inflating actual production costs in public media.
Because here it must be said that most studio film budgets are artificially inflated as marketing costs can be considered “ghost expenditures” in the sense that the big 10 Hollywood studios are owned and/or are continuously merging with various mega media corporations in such a way that advertising costs can actually be absorbed as promotional “freebies”. For example, a domestic box office flop like Disney’s JOHN CARTER (2012) was heavily advertised on many television networks, but more so on ABC and of course the Disney Channel and its other global subsidiary cable networks and print media which are all owned by the Disney Corporation.
The question to ask is do children really charge their parents for eating at the table?
The most important take away point from our exploration of the capital mystique is that the vast majority of studio films make their actual net profits over long periods of time beyond their theatrical release. These net profits are made through various ancillary markets, subscription fees and television licensing revenue. For example, a film like THE SHAWSHANK REDEMPTION that underperformed during its 1994 theatrical release with about 28 million dollars, according to an article in the Wall Street Journal by Russell Adams has gone on in 20 years to bring in an estimated 100 million dollars in revenue for Warner Bros. (which is now part of Comcast Holdings). “As viewers watch movies in new ways- streaming on NetFlix and other services on different devices- top tier library films get new customers. Long term, that’s good news for studios in a world where DVD’s are disappearing.” (8)
Weekly box office numbers are only the inflated forecasts about the long term library revenue a film will make over time.
Moreover, by only glorifying unadjusted gross box office profits, as well as, the inflated budgets of the films that produce these nearly half a billion dollar unadjusted profits, the capital mystique is well maintained because it demarcates and highlights the fundamental disparity between a White film and a Black film: the budget.
A White film costs more money to make and appeals to a wider audience than a Black film- this is the spurious justification- but the reality is that a Black film is given less money in its budget because these films and their filmmakers are deliberately segregated from financially participating in the foreign markets where in which these films would also appeal. Even though it is widely known that the “urban comedy” THINK LIKE A MAN (2012) was distributed in select overseas markets where it made substantial dollars in the United Kingdom and South Africa, what is not known is if any of the participants of color in the film received any percentage of those revenues or if any of them will receive any percentage from THINK LIKE A MAN TOO the sequel’s foreign box office. To be more specific, Black filmmakers are not being allowed to share in any foreign profits in the same way that White filmmakers can negotiate their foreign licensing rights because as a consequence of the capital mystique- many Black films that are distributed overseas are distributed “off the books” or “under the table” to the benefit of all parties involved except those participants who happen to be people of color.(9) THINK LIKE A MAN is an exception that proves this rule true.
We can also recognize this fundamental disparity between the budget of a White film and that of a Black film in our socio-economic relations as well. Author William Darity Jr., informs us in an article called Conversations We Are Not Having that:
“Perhaps the most dramatic economic gap between blacks and whites is associated with wealth disparities. Indeed, racial gaps in wealth – the difference between the value of a household’s assets and debts – are the most pronounced indicator of black-white economic inequality in the United States… This gap will not be closed by the acquisition of more information about managing personal finances or more careful savings practices by black households. Plausible changes in black behaviors will do little to close the staggering racial gap in wealth.”(10)
For our purposes though it’s what Darity identifies as the two main factors of the wealth disparity between Whites and Blacks which are inheritance and in vivos:
“The explanation for the black-white wealth gap is not racial differences in financial practices, but the fact that white households receive much larger transfers of resources from previous generations. These transfers take two major forms: inheritances and in vivos. Inheritances are resources that move from an older generation to a younger one upon the death of the member of the older generation. In vivos are transfers that occur while the older generation still is living; these can include assistance parents might give a newlywed couple with a down payment for a mortgage on a home, funds parents might provide for the college education of their child, the provision of a child with an automobile, or grandparents establishing a trust fund for a new born infant. These types of transfers have nothing to do with individual merit, but they lock down racial wealth differences across generations.”(11)
In the context of cinema, White filmmakers inherit the budgetary resources to produce their films from the older White generation that still controls the American Entertainment Complex sometimes from beyond the grave via the multi-tiered financial structures they created that remain in place to this day. (i.e. Disney, Warner Bros., etc not to mention the nepotism among older stars, directors and their adult children.) In vivos in the context of cinema has to do with older White actors and/or producers who are well established in domestic and foreign markets participating in the films of White independent filmmakers as a means of financial and marketing assistance that insures that a particular film from an up-and-comer will be seen at festivals, by distributers, and finally by spectators.
The question is if Black filmmakers lack the inheritance in the form of budgetary resources because the American Entertainment Complex is White controlled do they benefit from in vivos? Are there many Black A-list actors or producers who participate in Black independent films? Do they finance or make connections for up-and-coming Black independent and commercial filmmakers? If they do participate in Black independent cinema then we must ask at what frequency in comparison to White A-list actors and producers? If not, then why not?
Perhaps to truly break down the race based segregation of Black filmmakers from the foreign marketplace an A-list Black actor or producer who is well established in domestic and foreign markets must participate in the film(s) of a Black independent filmmaker.
The Black A-List actor or producer who would risk his or her reputation for a Black independent filmmaker as an in vivo does so because breaking through to the foreign market would allow for larger inheritances in the form of greater budgetary resources, more diverse stories and narrative styles for all Black filmmakers.
But this is an external exploration of the issue. The internal exploration has to do with our resolve as Black filmmakers and Black spectators to not be taken in, hoodwinked or bamboozled by the acceptance of a few tokens within the American Entertainment Complex in lieu of our rich and dynamic diversity.
Returning to the issue of binge viewing the dominant cinema’s television series we are often taken in by the highlighting of one or two Black characters only to 1) find that these characters are only shallow place holders who must support the White characters and the resolution of the circumstances of these White characters. (i.e. a White film); or 2) the Black characters are expendable as cognition switch points just before the middle or ending of the film so that Black spectators (if they want to continue to gain any entertainment value) must identify with the White characters and the resolution of the circumstances of these White characters otherwise known as a White film.(12)
We also know that the high profile installments of Blacks as Presidents, Executives, and Directors of previously lily-White organizations, television networks, studios, guilds, boards and conservancies gives the appearance of a color blind meritocracy while simultaneously neutralizing the ability of these Black Presidents, Executives and Directors to advocate and aggressively apply procedures, policies or put structures in place on behalf of the pursuit of a color blind meritocracy.
So even as we celebrate the installment of Pearlena Igbokwe as Executive Vice-President of Drama Development for NBC Entertainment, Paris Barclay as President of the Directors Guild of America and others if these people of color in these positions of power cannot risk their careers in the attempt to right the ship of racial equity on the behalf of all Black and minority filmmakers then we must quickly stop our applause and get back to the work of changing things in our favor.
So ultimately if we want to establish and sustain a Black independent film movement we must apply a Janis-faced strategy as the corollary to DuBois’ identification of the doubled souls of Black folk. One face must monitor the mergers, acquisitions, buy outs and legislation that changes the commercial and political landscape of the global film industry while we encourage and speak to those Blacks who are admitted into the White controlled American Entertainment Complex. Because even if they are but tokens they should be convinced to sacrifice their token status in service to the greater cause of righting the ship of racial equity in cinema- and if they don’t we must call them out for their lack fortitude.
The other face must monitor our own viewing habits and make shared cultural and financial connections within the global Black community to build a strong international Black business infrastructure that will allow people of color uncensored access to all films by people of color from across the globe. It is an infrastructure itself that may have to play a shell game with profits and expenditures as Whites do- but only this time it would be to our own benefit. The exchange of films could begin with French subtitles or dubbing for African-American films exported to African countries as French can be used as a lingua franca to reach many different African nations. English can be used for subtitles and/or dubbing of African films imported to the African-American market and other English speaking Black markets as a first step in building this commercial infrastructure and international connection.
Concomitantly, we must encourage and speak to ourselves as a people to make sure that even if we are enjoying the products of the dominant culture as participants or consumers we must sacrifice some of that celebrity, fame, wealth or entertainment pleasure to uplift those of us who have been excluded as a consequence of that success. Whether the A-list Black actor or producer aides the Black independent filmmaker or the binge viewing Black spectator makes the conscious effort to binge view the works of Black filmmakers, each is part of the other face that makes the strategy whole.
If we really want to put up or shut up then some must watch and gauge our enormous and expanding opponent while some must watch over us to make sure that we are not being taken in, bamboozled and hoodwinked by the distractions of the American Entertainment Complex. But most importantly each face must tell of the other’s view so that we might release ourselves from the “ponzi” scheme of our exploiters and reclaim the coolness, authenticity and diversity of being Black.
(1) The ending of Net Neutrality could be considered a form of corporate greed advanced through legislative corruption. Moments ago, the Federal Communication Commission voted to push forward with Internet “fast and slow lanes,” ending Net Neutrality and establishing paid priority online. FCC: This isn’t the end of our fight for Net Neutrality! http://act.watchdog.net/petitions/4655?n=70867259.0LjQWJ
(2) One of the articles that discussed the backlash against the film and its star. http://blogs.indiewire.com/shadowandact/nina-simone-zoe-saldana-the-politics-of-color
Mr. Webb was responding specifically to this article concerning the director of the film who was removed from participating in the final cut of the Nina Simone film. http://www.hollywoodreporter.com/news/cannes-nina-simone-biopic-screened-704578
(4) See page 66 in Red, White, & Black: Cinema and the Structure of U.S. Antagonisms by Frank B. Wilderson III, Durham: Duke University Press, 2010.
(7) See pages 3-8 of The Biz: The Basic Business, Legal and Financial Aspects of the Film Industry 2nd ed. By Schuyler M. Moore, Los Angeles: Silman-James Press, 2002.
(9) This accusation is based on the author’s knowledge of French rap music and the French rap artist, La Fouine, whose second solo album CAPITALE DU CRIME released in 2008 begins with an excerpt of the film Menace II Society, one of many urban-themed Black films that were thought to have no appeal in foreign markets but are somehow seen and very well known to the foreign audiences to which they appeal. http://rapgenius.com/albums/La-fouine/Capitale-du-crime
(12) For a more detailed discussion of the concept of the “cognition switch point” as it relates to Black actors in White films please see the article, Black Film Theory: Fighting the Illusion of White Supremacy in Cinematic Narration Part Two. http://blogs.indiewire.com/shadowandact/black-film-theory-fighting-the-illusions-of-white-supremacy-in-cinematic-narration-part-two
Andre Seewood is the author of SLAVE CINEMA: The Crisis of the African-American in Film. Pick up a copy of the book via Amazon.com HERE.