Recent advances for artists of color have some proclaiming a new era in “Tinsel Town” while others dismiss it as a false flag for social progress.
The indispensable guide for collegiates too strapped for time or too lazy to read the classics, Cliff’s Notes, defines society as people “who interact in such a way as to share a common culture.” As arguably the foremost exponent of mass culture, the film industry of Los Angeles wields a disproportional influence on American society, and by extension, the world.
To understand this present juncture in the progress of the “motion image,” it may be helpful to review the history of this dynamic art form/ method of communication. Largely developed by Jewish expatriates from Eastern Europe, the pioneers of the emerging movie industry took pains not to promote subject matter dealing with their own culture of Judaism (with exceptions like 1922’s “Hungry Hearts,” and the original 1927 version of “The Jazz Singer”). Instead, they concentrated on subject matter that would appeal to the widest range of a viewing audience (read White Protestants).
And so, the prevailing mantra of the Hollywood system, box office revenues, was firmly established, and arguably has remained on course in all the generations and shifting tides of taste and opinions that have transpired since.
In the interim, the system periodically has presented itself as a proponent of social change. Films within this category might include “The Grapes of Wrath,” “The Searchers,” and “Schindler’s List.” But more often than not, the industry steps to the cadence of the cash register. This may explain why now, in this the era of feminist empowerment and a changing of the guard ethnically within the consumer population, most of the dramatic fare churned out by the studio system still features White male protagonists with women and minorities filling auxiliary roles in support of the leading man.
However, in direct opposition to the conventional mindset, a recent academic study by the folks over at UCLA came to an intriguing conclusion. Titled “2014 Hollywood Diversity Report: Making Sense of the Disconnect,” it found that contemporary audiences were drawn to productions, both on the large and small screen that featured ethnically diverse casts.
Sociology professor Darnell M. Hunt is the lead author of the study done under the auspices of the Ralph J. Bunche Center for African American Studies, and says it is the first of a series for the center’s Hollywood Advancement Project. The study utilized research from 100 TV shows and 200 films to come to its conclusion. Hunt, who authored a report for the Screen Actors Guild on the plight of employment for performers, acknowledges that historically, such scholarly forays do not exert much influence upon the entertainment industry, but believes that the situation is changing.
His 2000 study concentrated on content analysis, while the latest one, released in February, dealt with employment within individual productions, and Hunt is reluctant to directly compare the two. He does note that some studios are actively seizing upon this change in the ethnic demographic, notably the ABC network and its parent entity, The Walt Disney Company. This is reflected in changes within its programming over the past two years, especially in its Thursday night line-up centering on the fare served up by emerging mogul Shonda Rhimes.
Do what you can to do what you want: the road to Black Thursday
Success in “LaLa Land” means recognizing that one is competing in the “rarefied air” of an elitist industry where “people are interested in what they’re interested in,” believes actress Vanessa A. Williams, a veteran performer of television sitcoms “The Cosby Show,” “Melrose Place,” and “Soul Food.” By this, she means that the tastes of “shot callers” of content appearing on both the large and small screens do not necessarily coincide with that of the masses that congregate in movie theaters and huddle before their TV sets during prime time.
The recent findings documented in the UCLA report do not surprise Williams, who points to the reality that “people are looking to see themselves.”
This means that the programming that minorities are attracted to, whether on major networks or cable venues, are not only cast with people who look like them, but exist within the context of “the stories, the conflicts and triumphs that reflect our lives,” she said referring specially to minorities.
Williams points out that Rhimes utilized a strategic approach to build the foundation of her television empire on her way to becoming one of TIME magazine’s “100 people who help shape the world,” in 2007. Parlaying an educational springboard including degrees from Dartmouth and USC’s graduate school of cinema, she toiled in the trenches as a screenwriter on a number of projects before launching “Grey’s Anatomy,” in 2005.
While Black actors were included in the cast of this ensemble medical drama, the titular character was a Caucasian surgical intern portrayed by actress Ellen Pompeo. This show, in turn, was followed up with “Private Practice,” a spin-off of “Grey’s Anatomy” featuring yet another White actress, Kate Walsh, in 2007. Rhimes’ 2011 political thriller “Scandal,” starred African American Kerry Washington as a crisis manager, or “spin doctor.” Williams maintains that Rhimes deserves praise for “writing the way and creating the way,” to inject new life into the entertainment format.
Another key to the success of changing preference is the dying off of the Hollywood “old guard,” and their replacement with younger “gate keepers” not necessarily constrained by the conservative mindset of their predecessors.
Meanwhile, while Rhimes seems caught up in this new Hollywood reality, others maintain a somewhat more pessimistic view.
“Do we have any Black studios?” asked an anonymous industry watcher.
“Can any Black person ‘green light’ a film or TV project?” he goes on to ask. Since the answer to both questions is no, he insists that (real) change has yet to come.
Be that as it may, Rhimes seems to have securely established a beach head on Thursday night with her latest addition being the legal drama “How to Get Away with Murder,” starring African American Oscar nominee Viola Davis.
Television is gaining a reputation for high-quality programming as well as for being an oasis for diversity, with well-regarded actresses already established in major motion pictures transitioning to the smaller screen, a move that would be regarded as a loss of prestige a generation ago. Washington, Davis, and Halle Berry are just a few of the names making the shift. Oscar winner Octavia Spencer, who headlines the Steven Spielberg produced “Red Band Society,” on Wednesday nights, spoke candidly about the lack of substantial roles offered to her in a Daily Beast interview this summer. Even after claiming the golden statue for her saucy portrayal in “The Help,” the slew of one-dimensional parts she was offered facilitated her switch to TV and the Fox network’s comedy-drama.
Working outside the box
A film critic at rogerebert.com, Steven Boone, was mesmerized by the allure of the moving image long before his first review of 1996’s “Set it Off,” by music video auteur F. Gary Grey. Too young to be a participant of the 1970s cinema movement that produced such individual voices as Martin Scorsese, he notes that such talents emerged as a result of the Hollywood establishment’s economic slump; this motivated the studios to sow vast amounts of money into scores of “long haired White boys fresh out of film school” to see what they could come up with, and he laments the loss of the spirit of experimentation that prevailed at that time.
Notable Black directors did surface during this era, including Melvin Van Peebles and the now forgotten Bill Gunn (whose 1973 classic “Ganja and Hess” was placed on the Cannes Film Festival’s 10 best films of the decade, and was recently remade by Spike Lee under the title “Da Sweet Blood of Jesus”). Unfortunately, Van Peebles and Gunn were relegated to the realm of Blaxploitation.
In short, Boone insists that the ’70s “cast a long shadow over the succeeding decades,” and pose a template for the possibilities open to minorities in the future.
“It’s pretty much business as usual,” he maintains, in reference to the opportunities available to Black filmmakers that some think exist because of the sensation generated by “12 Years a Slave.”
In this, he declares that Hollywood’s concerns continue to have nothing to do with Black culture, and poses the provocative question: should we care?
By this, he means that artists should use this as an opportunity to define themselves, and proposes that filmmakers of color embrace the liberation posed by advances in technology that free them from the exorbitant expense of filming on celluloid. This includes not only embracing the development of digital cameras and other equipment, but also the changing methodology of distribution and fundraising.
Providers of online-streaming technology such as Netflix provide avenues outside the traditional methodology of direct-to-video and theatrical release. They allow filmmakers to present fare that would normally go unnoticed such as the indie comedy “Newlyweeds” about a stoner couple in a hilarious love triangle with the well-known psychoactive drug.
Also available are new and alternative avenues of raising cash, “crowd funding” platforms such as Indiegogo and Kickstarter.
Among the artists utilizing Kickstarter are Spike Lee, who funded the previously mentioned “Da Sweet Blood of Jesus,” and experimental Liberian director Cheryl Dunye, whose 21-minute short film “Black is Blue,” is currently making the rounds at various film festivals.
Boone looks forward to the upcoming output from a generation “born and bred in cinema,” suggesting that as of yet Black filmmakers have not been able to fully depict the breadth of African American culture.
“Hollywood is only as powerful as we let it be,” he says.
Erika Alexander used her frustrations with the Hollywood system to channel her creative urges into a different, traditional direction. The veteran actress of “The Cosby Show” and “Living Single,” grew exacerbated with the cold shoulder response she experienced when she and her writer husband Tony Puryear shopped ideas to the various studios in the industry. They resorted to another tried and true medium, the comic book, in which to spin their sci-fi yarn “Concrete Park,” about ethnic minorities exiled to toil on a remote prison planet, and marketed it on the internet (http://www.concretepark.com/).
Alexander spoke at length about the advantages cyberspace affords creator-owned productions, and groups traditionally marginalized by existing business models.
“The internet has been a boon to all people, especially people of color, gays, differently-abled people and women,” she says.
“On the internet, people of color are in the majority, if you factor in the world’s population and access to this powerful-race-gender-disability-species-class-blind publishing apparatus. The internet, is the biggest game changer in all of human history, and the voiceless have the most to gain from it.”
On-demand internet streaming services are another format that offering independent creators the opportunity to reach viewers without the interaction of the colossal marketing-distribution apparatus so crucial in the success of Hollywood theatrical releases. The internet as a whole poses the opportunity of a level playing field, where upstarts can compete with a relative amount of parity against entities that have vastly superior finances and resources.
Meanwhile, the entertainment industry is in a state of uncertainty as it struggles to respond to the dual challenges of technology and globalization. These have resulted in declining box office revenue as reported in trade journals like the Hollywood Reporter and Variety. Alexander is acutely aware of these “growing pains” along with the rest of her peers in the industry.
“The decentralization of showbiz is recalibrating everything. It’s all in flux and everything is up for the grabs,” she notes.
Her projections for the future are simultaneously clear but contain a fair amount of uncertainty about how the transition will manifest itself.
“Netflix, Hulu, Xbox and YouTube are gearing up to be the new Warner Brothers, MGM, FOX, and Universal. They will succeed. The question is: Will they reproduce the same types of shows, casts and story lines? Or will they really make something new?”
“Here’s the problem: More access to more channels and programs does not, by itself, mean more diversity,” Alexander continues.
“Even if we do get more diversity who’s to say it will make an impact? We are all still competing with powerful, rich companies with vast networks and old ideologies.”
Meanwhile, filmmakers are attempting to put a new “spin” on existing business models. Independent filmmaker Ava DuVernay launched the African American Film Festival Releasing Movement (AFFRM http://www.affrm.com/) in 2011 to utilize an existing network of African and African American film organizations to secure a wider audience for Black-themed indie films.
Another possible solution lies across the globe. It’s worth noting that at the center of all the media attention given to the movie “12 Years a Slave,” were key actors, who all were foreign born, as was director Steve McQueen.
The emerging film industries in the Third World adds another intriguing element to the further development of the medium. Recently the monetary output of the Nigerian film industry surpassed the United States as the second largest in the world, behind only that of India. Granted, most of these offerings are largely low-budget releases with poor production values and simplistic plots, but at $590 million annually (according to the United Nations sponsored African Renewal Information Program) it dwarfs the output of the majority of the globe, and reportedly employs some 1 million people, second only to it’s oil and petroleum industry.
A recent landmark of achievement came with the release of “Confusion Na Wa,” a Nigerian comedy-drama chronicling a chain of events involving a group of strangers during a 24-hour period. The movie garnered two prizes at the Africa Movie Academy Awards (AMAA) in 2013.
In the midst of all this is the start of a geographic form of cross fertilization in the form of ideas and participation. Attorney at Law Asantewa Olatunji, a long time director of programming at the Pan African Film Festival locally, does double duty as a permanent voting member of AMAA.
The roots of success here and in other emerging nations may be traced back to the end of colonialism. With Nigeria’s emancipation from Britain in 1960, the national cinema continued to be dominated by European funding and consequentially persisted in reflecting European tastes in the years immediately afterwards. As a budding middle class when increasing discretionary spending appeared, they started to demand a product featuring people who looked like them, and more importantly, reflected ideas and views they were compatible with.
Feeding into this is Africa’s little known but long tradition of drama, and the legacy of storytelling around the evening fire, which feed into the emerging narratives.
This blockbuster growth has earned the industry the nickname “Nollywood,” a play on words just as its Indian counterpart adopted the moniker “Bollywood” (a reference to that country’s film center of Bombay, now called Mumbai). The media industry itself makes up a whopping 1.4 percent of the Nigerian gross domestic product. The country also has Africa’s largest economy. No small accomplishment for a country where 50 percent of its estimated 150 million people have no electricity!
Three years ago, Nigerian President Goodluck Jonathan (a controversial figure in his own right) pledged $200 million to improve the nation’s film industry.
Statistics being what they are, these figures quickly became the subject of dispute (a prime criticism being the definition of what constitutes a “film”), but still it denotes a harbinger of lucrative tidings to come.