New Group Promotes Black-Themed Films

African Americans in the film industry have long complained about a lack of diversity in Hollywood movies aimed at black audiences. A new organization has been created to help spread the distribution of diverse, black-theme films. The African American Film Festival Releasing Movement has received support from black film festivals in a number of major cities. Host Michel Martin speaks with its founder, Ava DuVernay, about the group, and her new film, "I Will Follow."

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MICHEL MARTIN, host:

I'm Michel Martin and this is TELL ME MORE from NPR News.

Oscar season is over and many movie artists of color are saying good riddance to this last year in cinema. The lack of diversity among the Academy Award nominees disappointed a number of people in the filmmaking community. But at the same time, members of a new generation of filmmakers say they are not waiting for Hollywood to recognize or include them. They're looking for their own vehicles to get their films made and in front of an audience.

In a minute we'll hear from the director of the largest Asian-American oriented film festival in the U.S. It starts tomorrow in San Francisco. And we'll hear more about it.

But, first, we'll talk about a new organization that's working to get a broader range of African-American films into theaters. The African-American Film Festival Releasing Movement, or AFFRM, kicks off its efforts with the new movie, "I Will Follow." It stars Salli Richardson-Whitfield as a successful black woman whose life is turned upside down by illness and death in her family. It also stars Blair Underwood. Here's a short clip.

(Soundbite of film, "I Will Follow")

Ms. SALLI RICHARDSON-WHITFIELD (Actor): (As Maye) You know, I got you so wrong. That that's what really stuns me, how wrong I was about who you are.

Mr. BLAIR UNDERWOOD (Actor): (As character) Well, that goes both ways. You're the one that left this relationship. You're the one who left our home, our life, without any discussion.

Ms. RICHARDSON-WHITFIELD: What is there to discuss when someone is dying?

Mr. UNDERWOOD: There are things to discuss.

MARTIN: That was Blair Underwood and Salli Richardson-Whitfield in the film, "I Will Follow." It's the first film released as part of the African-American Film Festival Releasing Movement, or AFFRM. Ava DuVernay wrote and directed the movie and she's also the founder of the organization and she's with us now from NPR West. Welcome, thanks so much for joining us.

Ms. AVA DUVERNAY (Filmmaker; Founder, African-American Film Festival Releasing Movement): Thank you for having me.

MARTIN: Now, you were telling us earlier that you think that as far as black film is concerned, that we're in both a state of emergency and a Harlem renaissance moment. Explain that.

Ms. DUVERNAY: Yeah. I mean, you know, it's dire out here for black film in general. I mean when you look at the Oscars and the lack of diversity, when you look at the fact that the studios have released one film so far this year starring a black woman and it was "Big Mama's House," I mean, you know, things aren't too good if you look at from a studio perspective.

But filmmakers of my ilk, independent filmmakers, are really looking at it from a place of open doors. All the traditional models are collapsing. And so for folks that are forward-thinking and are using their imaginations and their hearts instead of thinking about the bottom line, we can create new models of distribution, new ways to make our films, new ways to tell our stories, share our stories. So it's a good time.

MARTIN: Tell me a little bit more about what you're hoping to accomplish with AFFRM. You're saying very intentionally and explicitly this is not a film festival.

Ms. DUVERNAY: No, no. It's the African-American Film Festival Releasing Movement. We call ourselves a firm. And basically what it is is an alliance of African-American film festival organizations who have come together to say, look, we're film festivals, we have the apparatus, the infrastructure, the leadership, the resources in the community to do something beyond our three, four-day festival. And we're going to come together and actually release a film, theatrically, as a unit.

So these film festivals are essentially functioning as a studio and that they are the releasing company. This is the first time in history that a grassroots body has released a picture day in date, same-day, not just for one day, this is a theatrical run. You can see the film at 11, three, five, seven, midnight in real theaters and it's all powered by grassroots groups. This is not just a model for African-American films, this is a model for Asian-American films, Latino films, LGBT films, any films that are on the fringes that the studios are not embracing through their distribution efforts. This is a new way, a new possibility to think about how we can do it on our own.

MARTIN: If you're just joining us, you're listening to TELL ME MORE from NPR News. We're speaking with Ava DuVernay. She is the writer and director of the new film, "I Will Follow." It debuts in selected cities tomorrow. Ava DuVernay is also the founder of the African-American Film Festival Releasing Movement or AFFRM. That's the organization responsible for releasing her film and it's also dedicated to releasing more independent films that show a broader spectrum of life than is often presented in the commercial media.

You know, one of the things that I think a lot of people are puzzled by is the fact that, you know, there are major stars in Hollywood. There are major figures who are being cast in all kinds of different films like, you know, Anthony Mackie, for example was in "The Hurt Locker," which is a - won an Oscar for best director, it also was best film, and a lot of the films people will talk about and pass around and watch at home, like "Love Jones" or "Love and Basketball," you know, films like that.

On the other hand, as you just said, there's been only one African-American-oriented film which is "Big Momma's House," which is this kind of broad farce. How can both those things be happening at once? See, how is it possible that you've got a whole, you know, other generation of people, Kerry Washington, Anthony Mackie, who are getting recognition and yet, these films so often, the films that are being released, so often trade in these broad stereotypes that a lot of people are sick of?

Ms. DUVERNAY: Well, I mean, I think of, you know, when you look at someone like Anthony Mackie who is in "The Hurt Locker" that wins the Academy Award and you wonder okay, well, what's next for this brother and what's next for the images that he might be able to present? And, you know, he's doing "The Adjustment Bureau" now, but he was also just in a film directed by a black woman called "Night Catches Us," which was an independent, which had a, you know, a limited release - a nice release, but it was limited. And so everyone might not have heard of that one.

And so really what it's about is, you know, seeking out these films, seeking out the films that we want and when they come, supporting them. They are there. You know, I think the answers to the questions are they are there. It's just they might not be right in front of you.

MARTIN: And just to remind people who may not have caught it, we did an interview with the director of "Night Catches Us," the writer and producer and director of "Night Catches Us." And if you want to hear that conversation, you could go to our website. Just go to npr.org and click on the Programs page and put in "Night Catches Us."

But what about those who argue that more films like that aren't being made because the audience - it's the audience driving it? What they want to see are, you know, car chases and things getting blown up?

Ms. DUVERNAY: Well, I disagree. I think that, you know, especially for the African-American filmgoer there's not been a diverse presentation of images, that images that are presented by the studio system with large P&A budgets -that's print and advertising - are broad comedies or shoot-'em-ups, and that it is challenging for anyone, white, black or otherwise, to find these jewels, these pearls, these independent films that do not have large budgets and are not kind of hitting people over the head with the fact that they are opening. So it's a challenge.

I think that, you know, if there were a small, thoughtful art-house picture or an independent picture that was able to kind of expose itself to large numbers of African-Americans that we would go. And we've proven that we have in the past with something like a "Love Jones," "Love and Basketball." Those were independent films. They just had a good marketing push behind them. And when our folks knew that they were available we went.

I mean you ask 90 percent of black folk what their favorite film is it's going to either be "Love and Basketball" or "Love Jones." And I think it's because those films portray contemporary images of ourselves. It's just black folks loving each other and living every day and that's really what we're starved for, I think.

MARTIN: Well, talk about your film to that end. It's a very quiet film. There are no car chases, nothing gets blown up. Tell us a little about how you chose this story.

Ms. DUVERNAY: Yeah. "I Will Follow" is a personal story. I come from a family of women and so it really is a meditation on what happened when we lost one of our own. And so, yeah, I mean it explores love and loyalty, you know, romantic love, familial love, self-love. It's an exploration through one day of a woman who is at a crossroads and has to kind of decide how to keep her balance when tragedy strikes.

And so, you know, it's a film that is really a meditation. It's about matters of the heart and so, you probably won't die laughing or be scared at an explosion. But if you just want to see a drama with black people being black people, as we are, no more, no less, that's the kind of film we've made and that's the kind of film we're hoping to distribute through AFFRM.

MARTIN: Ava DuVernay is the founder of the African-American Film Festival Releasing Movement, or AFFRM. She's also the writer and director of "I Will Follow," the inaugural film from the organization which opens in selected cities tomorrow. And she was kind enough to join us from our studios at NPR West.

Ava DuVernay, thank you so much for joining us and good luck to you.

Ms. DUVERNAY: Thanks for inviting me. I appreciate it.

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