Beyond The Oscars: Black Filmmakers Discuss The Struggle To Get Their Movies Made

March 3, 2015  |  

Just this weekend, Will Smith sat atop the box office once again with his latest film Focus. For audiences, seeing a Will Smith film struggle is stranger than seeing it succeed. But he’s an anomaly among Blacks in Hollywood. More often, it takes a lot of toil and sweat for Black filmmakers to get their work made and in front of audiences.

“I remember last year feeling hopeful that we had seen so many filmmakers and diversity of product,” Malcolm Lee, director of the popular Best Man films told MadameNoire in a phone interview. A third Best Man film is in the works. “There’s progress there, but I’m kind of in a holding pattern.”

We spoke with Lee before the Oscars. Since then, many people both in the film industry and outside of it have expressed their shock and dismay about the notable lack of diversity among this year’s nominees. Most, including Lee, had hoped that after Fruitvale Station,  12 Years a Slave, The Best Man Holiday and other films had gained widespread acclaim and raked in lots of money, we would be seeing more diverse faces on red carpets for awards ceremonies and premieres. But in a lot of ways, the struggle continues.

Across the board among the filmmakers we spoke with for this story, there was one word that kept coming up: “perseverance.” To get their work made, funded and in front of audiences requires a passion for film and the will to tell their stories.

“I had a desire to see people who were a reflection of me, my friends, people I went to school with reflected on screen,” Lee told us. The industry, he says, still sees Black films as a “niche market” that will only appeal to a domestic audience. News today is that, for the first time in February, the box office receipts in China exceeded the US with $650 million. If movies with Black casts and Black filmmakers don’t make big bucks with these overseas audiences, this belief in “niche markets” will no doubt be bolstered. Of course, you have to get your movie made and in front of audiences before you can determine whether it’s going to go over well.

“Will Smith worked diligently to make himself a star,” Lee continued, noting that the Fresh Prince traveled around the world to become a global name. The only other names that might be recognized in that way are Denzel Washington (despite what the folks at Sony said in their emails) and Kevin Hart. But many filmmakers want to create the movies they have in mind, and that might not be an action film or a comedy or something of similar mass appeal with an actor that has a huge name. Not that there’s anything at all wrong with that. But there should be room for a variety of voices.

“Quality has to be more important than quantity,” Lee said. “It’s all about the story you want to tell. It can’t be about making money or getting famous.”

Datari Turner is an independent filmmaker known for microbudget films, movies that cost less than $1 million to make. By Hollywood standards, this is pocket change. Back in September 2014, Turner signed a deal with Codeblack Films to distribute his films across the US and Canada. He’s worked with talent from across the spectrum, from James Franco to Common to Demi Moore to Megan Goode. He’s also created work for television networks including BET, TV One, WE and Oxygen.

“The thing that’s changed in the last six or seven years is the international market accounts for 80 percent of Hollywood profits,” he told us in a phone conversation. However, there aren’t people on the ground overseas to push Black movies. And when it takes millions of dollars to get a movie into theaters, there needs to be a large return in order to justify the investment.

Still, Turner says this is a great time to be a filmmaker because even the big names are willing to take less money in order to work on projects they have a penchant for. Add to that the access to audiences and Hollywood big wigs that’s afforded by the robust festival landscape. Toronto, Cannes, Sundance, Palm Springs, Berlin. These are just some of the hundreds of film festivals that are frequented by fans and production companies.

And then you have new technology, like Netflix streaming and on-demand services that bring movies big and small to moviegoers who don’t even have to leave the house.

So making an independent movie is an option. But a tight budget is a hindrance.

“The hardest thing to do is produce a microbudget film. There’s no room for error,” Turner continues. “You can’t just throw money at it to fix a problem.”

With microbudget success under his belt, Turner says he would love to work with a big budget and big names. Erica Watson, who’s now making the rounds with her short film “Roubado” used Kickstarter to fund her film. Her $500,000 camera was donated. What she’s got plenty of is faith.

“My dad says, ‘When you have to start a race in second place, you have to run twice as fast,’” she told us. “If you’re excellent, I believe no one can deny you.” Though she’s starting to make the rounds at film festivals now, she’s adamant that she doesn’t need them “to be validated.” Rather, she’s more concerned with getting her vision out there.
“The issue is being able to tell diverse stories without having characters that need to fit into a certain mold,” Watson continued. Her movie is about a teenage Afro-Portuguese boy living in the south of France who sees the world through the lens of his camera.

But not every film has to go abroad to find its compelling protagonist. Gina Prince-Bythewood, the filmmaker and screenwriter behind Love and Basketball, received heaps of praise for last year’s Beyond the Lights (now available on DVD). Despite the positive reception, the film didn’t bring in the box office numbers.

“I think it was perception. We’re still fighting the perception that our films are less than,” she told MadameNoire in a phone interview. But aside from that perception, Prince-Bythewood also says she thinks her film fell victim to marketing deficiencies.

“It’s going to take us filmmakers being more involved in the marketing and publicity,” she continued. “Who knows your film better than you?”

Prince-Bythewood herself wrote an open letter advocating for her film, saying:

I feel what’s discriminated against are my choices, which is to focus on people of color as real people. Those are the films that rarely get made and those are the films that take a lot more fight.  But I’m up for the fight, because if we don’t fight for this we stay invisible.

By the time word began to spread that this was a film that everyone should be interested in, Prince-Bythewood says it was too late.

Which brings us back to the Oscars. Beyond the Lights was nominated for the song “Grateful” in the Best Original Song category alongside the winner, “Glory” by Common and John Legend for Selma.

“Early on, there are these films that are considered Oscar worthy and those films persist to the end of the game,” Prince-Bythewood said.

Indeed the buzz around movies like Birdman and Boyhood had been there for a long time. But just like a great movie that has intricate twists and turns, the Oscars needs to be more flexible and, ultimately, more open-minded to what resonates with audiences. Moreover, the Academy must better acknowledge the different points of view putting out work in the world of film.

“The African-American consumer wields tremendous cultural influence,” wrote Cheryl Pearson-McNeil, the Senior Vice President of U.S. Strategic Community Alliances and Consumer Engagement for Nielsen. “African-Americans watch 40 percent more television than any other group, have a $1.1 trillion buying power, and 73 percent of Whites and 67 percent of Hispanics believe Blacks influence mainstream culture.”

The beauty of filmmaking, at its core, is the ability to tell a story visually. There are as many stories in the world as there are people. Black filmmakers have made it clear that they won’t be silenced.


And for more on Black filmmakers in Hollywood, be sure to tune in to Cafe Mocha Radio this weekend when guest Cocoa Brown of “For Better or Worse” will talk about being a plus-sized girl in Hollywood. And right now, there’s more from Mo’Nique and her husband on the Cafe Mocha website.

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