Speak Your Mind

Calling for Autonomous, Black-Owned Film Companies

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This week, we have a submission from blogger Tambay Obenson. He's a filmmaker based in Brooklyn, New York, who also hosts a weekly podcast on black cinema called "The Obenson Report." He says blacks should take ownership (literally and figuratively) of their on-screen depictions.

Tambay Obenson
Courtesy Tambay Obenson

Since the early days of cinema, when the Lincoln Motion Picture Company and Oscar Micheaux existed, we haven't seen an autonomous black-owned and operated film entity in this country, akin to the likes of the Hollywood-based studios and their subsidiaries.

As a black filmmaker, I once empathized with the cries of black voices working within the studio system, criticizing it for its lack of diversity. However, the song has become stale, as people like myself, existing outside the system, struggle to understand the apparent lack of vision that some of our well-paid, powerful, influential voices display.

In recent weeks, I've read articles in which black Hollywood elite like Halle Berry, Spike Lee, and Tyler Perry have expressed their frustrations with some aspect of the industry, specific to their race. It seems to me that we've created this unfortunate reality for ourselves, this prison that we've psyched ourselves into, when we clearly have the power to create the kind of truth we yearn for. Instead we wait for a group of devout capitalists to some day realize our plight and intervene accordingly.

Almost 70 years ago, Hattie McDaniel, the first black Oscar winner, was quoted as saying, "I'd rather play a maid and make $700 a week than be one for $7," implying that she was arguably without choice. If black film talent (writers, directors, performers) today are still making somewhat similar statements — post-Civil Rights Movement, post-Blaxploitation era, post Oscar wins for several black performers; at a time when we have unprecedented access to the production resources necessary, distribution channels, and finances; 70 years after "Mammy" in Gone With the Wind — if we're still expressing similar sentiments, then we have perhaps regressed instead of progressed. It's a thought that is simultaneously numbing and enraging.

It baffles me that someone like Robert Johnson chooses to jump into bed with the Weinstein Company and JP Morgan Chase, to form his film company — Our Stories Films, Inc. — as opposed to building the entity solo (he's certainly capable), or in cooperation with other able African Americans/Africans, in order to make it an unequivocally black-owned and operated entity, as opposed to one that's dependent on the influence of white-owned establishments.

We've risen to the challenge before. In 1973, a film called The Spook Who Sat By the Door was financed through funds raised from black investors. In 1992, when Spike Lee needed money to complete production of Malcolm X, Bill Cosby, Janet Jackson, Oprah Winfrey, and others, collectively came up with approximately $11 million to ensure the completion of the film, since the initial budget approved by Warner Bros. wasn't sufficient. In 1996, the $2.4 million budget for Get on the Bus was financed entirely by contributions from African-American men, including Will Smith, Danny Glover, and Wesley Snipes.

So we've clearly shown the will to mobilize ourselves for a cause, and have done so with some success; it perplexes me why this similar kind of communal effort has not been implemented on a grander scale, and done so more frequently.

An absurd 10 out of the 400 plus films (a paltry 2.5 percent) that have been released this year by the dominant studio system, tell stories primarily about black people, while also being created by black people.

We are still very much the "invisible man" in this powerful medium — arguably the most influential medium in existence. Cinema informs and educates; and what we learn from the images we see, partially dictates how we relate to each other, especially those whom we rarely interact with. When you're not present, you're not valued, particularly by those in power, who are in positions to create and enforce policies that directly affect us; and when your life is considered unessential, then you're disposable; the victims of Katrina saw this phenomenon play out firsthand.

What I and others like myself are calling for, and trying to crystallize collectively, is a comparable studio that's autonomous, just like any other major/mini film entity — one that produces, finances, and distributes its own films globally, as opposed to relying on an existing system that's motivated by profit, and has no real incentive to change its modus operandi, nor does it have any allegiance to a single group of people.

We have to become the change that we all say we want to see — a feat that's more accessible to us than we might realize. It will be a challenge from the beginning, but as long as we don't lose sight of the big picture, it will be a worthwhile effort in the long run.
— Tambay Obenson

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I have to agree and disagree here. I agree that modern popular culture has tended to support the more "white-centric" film format pushed by the mega-studios. However, I have to say that this has more with supply and demand than any bias against movies based on black characters and black culture.

For most of the modern constant-TV-watching film audience, what they desire out of a film is either comedy, action (often in the form of violence), or a combination of the two.

With action films, the big budget studios are going to win out every time because it costs a lot of money for the special effects people crave. Even then, audiences (white and black alike) often prefer the image of the urban black barbarian weilding his swords (guns) to one of the noble and wise black hero, with few exceptions.

With comedy, there is more ability for studios with smaller financial resources to break out, but the demands of the audience often beg for caricatures of goofy, seemingly ignorant black people like Chris Tucker's character in the Friday movies.

The author is right when he says that profit mustn't be the primary motive if we are to finance pictures portraying the image of black people we wish to portray. Proof of this can be found in the success of movies like Hotel Rwanda or the Pursuit of Happyness. These are movies not of black people at their worst, but of black people at their best, working hard to survive and do great things in the midst of adversity. Unfortunatly, movies such as this are often the exception, not the rule, as a great portion of the popular culture with begs for the negative depiction of black people consists of black people themselves who think being a gun-slinging dope-dealer is a glorified way of life, and who think it's cooler to sit on your porch smoking pot than to go out and work hard to get an education.

If we want to change the face of black people in our movies, we need to start changing the expectations and attitudes of the people who watch those movies. Financing great movies uplifting the black community is a great idea, but as long as we keep dumping millions of dollars into watching movies depicting the negative stereotypical black person such as the violent gangsta or the uneducated black woman with too much attitude, studios are going to be convinced that's what we want to see. If you want to make a change, think twice before you go to the theater and spend $9 to fund a movie like the newly released "American Gangster".

Sent by Daniel Holloway | 3:07 PM | 10-25-2007

Hey Tambay-

Tyler Perry cannot be classified as Hollywood. In fact he exists totally outside the system. You should consider him an example of the "autonomous black owned and operated film entity"

Sent by Amir | 3:51 PM | 10-25-2007

On the contrary Amir - Tyler Perry is very much a part of the system... far from autonomous.

As long as he's still dependent on a studio - in this case Lionsgate - for any aspect of the production/distribution process, he can't be classified as autonomous. Lionsgate both funds AND distributes his films - 2 aspects of the filmmaking process that we know are the most crucial, and the most challenging for any entity, whether within the system, or outside of it.

So, while I champion his efforts and accomplishments so far - something I have done on my podcast - for him to be considered autonomous, he would have to be in a position to finance and distribute his films, minus the influence of any white-owned entity. I'd like to think that he is in such a position - he's certainly got the money, the influence, and the built-in audience; but I'm just not sure he fully realizes that; or maybe he does, but is content with his current setup, and would rather not take the risk.

And so when I read his complaints about the fact that Lionsgate released his current film on only 2000 screens, instead of the 3000+ that he feels someone with his pedigree deserves, I can only sigh...

I'm calling for an entity that relies on no currently established studio for any aspect of the filmmaking process - let's take a page out of DreamWorks's book. They're no longer autonomous since being purchased by Viacom; but when Speilberg, Katzenberg and Geffen got together initially, they each put in $30+ million of their own money, got a huge chunk from Paul Allen, and were operating solo. I believe we can do something similar - the money most certainly is there...

Sent by Tambay A Obenson | 4:41 PM | 10-25-2007

TO: Daniel Holloway.

Just to be clear, I didn't mention nor imply that the overwhelming support for so-called "white-centric" films, as you mentioned, are due to any bias against movies based on black characters and black culture. I even stated something to the contrary - that money is the dominant motivator for these studio entities.

But I do agree wholeheartedly that a shift in our expectations and attitudes is crucial... and it goes without saying that the films financed by this mythical entity I mention must be varied in their telling of "black stories" and portrayals of black people, otherwise it will be a pointless venture, and we may as well be content with the status quo.

Sent by Tambay A Obenson | 4:53 PM | 10-25-2007

How right you are Mr. Tambay Obenson. I have been saying basically the same thing for some years now.I believe their is enough collective wealth among the Hollywood elites & others to build a film company,that would make Oscar Miceaux proud ! Waiting on Hollywood to tell our stories, with all their complexities, i believe is a pipe dream , it an't going to happen ! If we Black folks are going to truly survive & thrive into the 21 century, than, what you have purposed, some how, must come to pass.
As far as the argument, about if Black folks are ready for such an undertaking ? I say, once they see themselves TRULY reflected back to themselves, with all the creativity, nuance, pathos, & ecstasy, that go into making just some of the elements, of high quality film making ; they will be more than ready, for such, shall be a revelation !

Why not look at Africa, such as (South Africa) to build such a venture? Their could be trades men & women in all aspects of film production both here & there; this could be a most unique collaborative experience that could pull talent from the African diaspora from around the world. With this, a more universal perspective in store telling & film making could be achieved, thus giving a global, historical, as well as a local perspective.

It will take men & women like yourself, that have vision, commitment,& of course finance, to bring this into being.This is an idea who's time has come !

Sent by Robert H. | 6:11 PM | 10-25-2007

In my opinion, more scripts need to be written and green-lighted which focus on the under-depicted middle-class African-American community. The great percentage of black-centered films focus on hood-life or rural poverty - often historical fictions, crime-dramas, or growing-up memoirs.

There needs to be a greater depiction of the suburban and exurban black communities, so that the black community in America is not misrepresented as living 'only' in financially-dire circumstances. The socio-economic dynamics of living next to the Jones' are not explored often enough.

Sent by Jason Pierce | 9:38 AM | 10-26-2007

I agree with Jason Pierce, above, that there needs to be more green-lit scripts that depict the plurality of black lives rather than just focusing on 'hood-life.' But who's to say that there aren't a number of such scripts out there already?

Without a black-owned studio, who, exactly, is going to greenlight these projects?

Focus Features doing a 'Something New' once in a while is fine, but it isn't enough. A black owned studio (one hopes, anyway) would be more likely to put out more projects with a wider range of themes, rather than a non-black owned studio putting out the ocassional project that doesn't necessarily sit well with either black or white audiences and, consequently, doesn't give much of a return and, consequently, seems to render the 'black' genre unprofitable.

And how much money and effort are mainstream studios ready and willing to put into the marketing of their 'black' films, even to black audiences? Very little... especially when compared to what they'll spend on what often becomes a summer flop.

Having to ask for financial assistance immediately puts one in a position of creative, and general, obsequiousness.

Sent by W Okoi-Obuli | 2:07 PM | 10-26-2007

Go for it, Tambay.

As long as we live in a capitalist society, he (or she) who owns the capital controls the means of production. It may not sit comfortably with those of us who believe that society should pursue common goals, but owning the means of production confers a great deal of power.

Speaking as a young white woman who grew up in a rural community of primarily white people, I would have loved to have access to portrayals of African American stories. Although my community was supportive and generally kind, there was an undercurrent of racism that was hard to see past without views into the lives of people like me, but living somewhere with more diverse community members.

I would also like to see stories about people like me negotiating relationships with the African Americans who have become my friends -- we do face a culture divide that we have to discuss openly as we seek friendly intimacy.

You have my support, and if you'll accept it, I would contribute to the communal fund.

Sent by Rachel N H | 4:00 PM | 10-30-2007

As a co-founder of a black owned film distribution company, all I can say is "easier said than done." No company can claim some inalienable right to be in business. It must meet the demands of its customer base and compete fiercely with others that may be better capitalized and better positioned to do so. The motion picture industry is a reflection of the dominant society, which, through mass media, has already conditioned the African-American audience in terms of its standards, values and expectations. So it's really an uphill battle. One other thing: it makes no sense to emulate Hollywood in trying to build an independent presence for African-Americans in cinema -- you will always play catch-up. You have to change the paradigm in terms of what your target audience's expectations are. Our company struggled when we tried to pattern ourselves after industry players. It was only when we embraced new technologies, utilized different programming strategies and employed innovative methods of outreach did we gain any traction. Ironically enough, that???s when we also began attracting attention from more established companies. Peace.

Sent by Rodney P | 4:46 PM | 10-31-2007

As a screenwriter and recent graduate I am glad to see such discussion. I'm sure their are many scripts that depict a different view of black life out there, in fact I have written two. However in order to see change we have to start from a variety of angles. Throughout school I was often the only black female in my writing classes and one of three at the most black people overall. Everyone including the professor loved my work, I even placed in a competition. How am I to get my script to the powers that be so we can see more diversity in black film. Yes this is a struggle for all filmmakers but I think you have an added hurdle when you have a "regular" black story to tell.

Sent by Nett in Brooklyn | 2:41 PM | 11-7-2007

I need to contact Mr. Obenson, I have a great novel that i have completed and it has movie material all over. Something very different and unique.

Sent by Black Author Gary Cade | 1:36 PM | 2-3-2008

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