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.
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