Making Black Films Isn’t The Problem, It’s The Distribution

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While most of America stayed up late mulling over whom might take home the golden statue for Best Picture at this year’s Academy Awards, much of black America was already fast asleep.

It’s not that we don’t like movies or award shows, but there weren’t any of “us” represented that night to justify why we would be arriving to work late the following day. It’s really hard to explain to folks of non-color, but our support of the awards was absent because of the lack of overall representation of black images on the screen. Generally, black folks live by the immortal words of a never-nominated Wesley Snipes, “always bet on black.”

After a decade of seeing beloved black talents such as Halle Berry, Denzel Washington, Jamie Fox, Forest Whitaker, Morgan Freeman and Mo’nique bring home the golden trophy, this year, black Hollywood was left out in the cold. There was not one single Oscar nod for any black actors or actresses, best pictures, not even for best song.

While some folks are understandably angered over the alleged ‘white-out,’ actor Idris Elba said recently that as a collective, we shouldn’t be worried about it. After all—to quote Elba—“The Oscars aren’t designed for us…let’s focus on making more films.”

Anthony Mackie—who was featured in last year’s Oscar-winning ‘The Hurt Locker’ and is the sole black face on the cover of this year’s Vanity Fair’s ‘Hollywood issue’—recently offered some thoughts on the Oscar white-out. According to Mackie, the barriers in Hollywood for African-Americans have been broken [so] blacks within the film industry “are being kinda lazy on [their] game,” for not taking advantage of all the distribution and production deals that have been made available to them.

I get what both Elba and Mackie are saying – although I take exception with Mackie’s ‘lazy’ reference as I personally know a few struggling black filmmakers who are grinding hard to get their films seen by the mass. Getting films made is one thing, but actually getting them on the screen is a whole other issue on its own.

Generally speaking, finances allocated to black film projects are significantly lower than those allocated to other feature-length films. Though black filmmakers are beginning to benefit from an increasing number of film festivals and distribution outlets geared to them, most of those avenues exist so far outside of Hollywood to ever reach the mass viewing eyes of Joe Black Public.

It’s a phenomenon very well illustrated at ‘Shadow And Act,’ which does a great job of chronicling what’s up and coming on the sphere of black films.  While there is no shortage of upcoming black films in the works, unfortunately, many of these films will never see daylight without having the support of large film distributors such as Universal, Paramount, MGM and Twentieth Century Fox.  Those companies play a huge role in determining whether a movie really is coming to a theater near you. And with theaters struggling with poor ticket sales, they too are reluctant to take a chance on any film not guaranteed to be a big box office hit.

It’s a fact that Mackie, in particular, should be aware of considering that ‘Night Catches Us,’ a critically-acclaimed film in which he served as lead, was only shown in very limited theaters for less than two weeks before being banished to straight-to-DVD shortly thereafter.

It is true that black filmmakers all have to find ways to create projects despite the lack of networking or mentorship that exists. However, we shouldn’t delude ourselves to believe that there is this mass network of black media outlets out there waiting for more black filmmakers to step up and make films. The reality is that until black theaters become the norm, black films can only look to the current slate of black distribution outlets as a way to create marketing for major studios that might be willing to take a chance on a nationwide release.

Charing Ball is the author of the blog People, Places & Things.

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