Knockin’ on Heaven’s Door: Are Open Letters to Hollywood Good for Black Film?

Russell SimmonsIt all started way back in ’86 when actress Margaret Avery penned an open letter that began “Dear God, I knows dat I been blessed…” Writing in the voice of The Color Purple’ s  Shug Avery character — by way of an ad in Variety magazine — the Best Supporting Actress nominee for that year’s Oscar gave a gentle nudge to the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences to consider her for their prestigious Award. And thus the Black Open Letter to the Gatekeepers of Cinema was born.

Ava DuvernayFast forward to May 2011, and African American filmmakers have been finding the independent film world to be as racially exclusive as the Hollywood establishment. Trailblazing filmmaker and self-distributor Ava DuVernay penned an open letter to the independent film community in a guest post in the Hope for Film section of IndieWire. In her letter to “the Tribeca-Indiewire-IFP-FilmIndependent-SXSW-Lincoln Center gate-keepers [of] mainstream indie treasures,” DuVernay created a call-to-action for honest dialogue between the indie establishment and filmmaking communities of color.

Tyler PerryIt’s only March and already 2012 has seen two more high profile black letters to the film community. Super-successful stage play director-turned-entertainment magnate Tyler Perry wrote an open letter on his website thanking George Lucas for making the high budget, special effects-laden historical film Red Tails.

And now hip hop icon and entrepreneur Russell Simmons has written an open letter to the Academy in The Hollywood Reporter and his own Global Grind website in disappointed reaction to this year’s Oscar Awards show. In essence, Simmons asserts that Hollywood, despite its liberal leanings, is not keeping pace with the emerging post-racial sensibilities of America’s audiences.

Each of these open letter writers reflects their times: a Best Supporting Actress hopeful, an emerging filmmaker, a stage play director-turned-one man media empire, and a hip hop mogul seeking to translate music industry norms and demographic realities to the film industry. And all their letters beg the question: are open letters to Hollywood, or indie-wood for that matter, good for black film?

Margaret Avery letter to GodWhile Margaret Avery received a backlash from many in the black community who cringed at her use of ebonics and noticed that she received, in the end, no Award, she continued to pave the way for Whoopi Goldberg’s 1991 Best Supporting Actress win for Ghost and Octavia Spencer’s 2012 win for The Help. Ava DuVernay managed to generate honest dialogue and bring attention to her work; months later, she became the first black woman to win the Sundance Film Festival’s Best Director Award in the U.S. Dramatic film competition for her feature Middle of Nowhere. Tyler Perry helped generate black community support for Red Tails, which reached number 2 at the box office its opening weekend despite mixed critical reviews. And though the results of Russell Simmons’ letter have yet to be seen, it bears saying that the Best Documentary winner of that very same Oscar ceremony was Simmons’ music industry compatriot Sean “P. Diddy” Combs.

Of course, these letters are just words and words in themselves don’t make strides, people do. But these open letters can be seen as spoken wishes for the world of cinema to deliver to black people some small proof that our support and longings would not go unrequited. We should realize, though, that while those prayers went out to the gatekeepers of cinema, it was black talent and audiences who answered them.

-O.G.

Olu Gittens | DIRECTOR’S REEL

An award-winning director whose work across genres has been broadcast on television and screened at numerous film festivals, Olu Gittens highlights her dramatic work with actors in film and television, and her journalism.


Narrative Film | News & Documentary | Multi-Camera Television

TV Takes Over at New York Television Festival

Inspired by the independent film movement, the New York Television Festival (NYTVF), now in its sixth year, is a year-round talent incubator that culminates with a week-long showcase of creative television. This year I attended some events and checked out a diverse array of innovative new work.

A few highlights included:

  • The Independent Pilot Competition Works featured works by filmmakers with small screen dreams. OB/GY Anne, an offbeat comedy about a female gynecologist working for her family practice, won the IPC Best Writing award.
  • Stand up comedian Mike Maron, who has a huge following in the indie comic scene, was headlined in the Opening Night Comedy Extravaganza.  His pilot WTF, about middle-aged man’s growing pains as he navigates the waters of “real” adulthood, was loosely based on his own life as host of a weekly podcast with the same title.
  • NYTVF and NBCUniversal co-presented Short Cuts, a festival showcase that displays and celebrates diversity in entertainment with works in comedy, drama, horror and sci fi. Founder and comedian Wil Sylvince and Festival Director Kendra Carter, whose work as Director of Talent Diversity Initiatives for NBC includes spearheading several groundbreaking initiatives, ushered in the 6th annual festival which was hosted by the hilarious J.B. Smoove (Curb Your Enthusiasm).

There were many more works, including shows sponsored be major networks, featured in the festival. For more info, check out NYTVF.com.

Congrats to all the filmmakers and TV producers featured in the fest!

-O.G.

LINKS:

New York Television Festival (NYTVF.com)

NBC Short Cuts Festival

Fearless Filmmaking at Urbanworld 2011

l to r: NaShawn Kearse, Phyllis Toben Bancroft, Bianca LaVerne Jones, Josef Cannon and Jas Anderson.

Quite naturally, I attended this year’s BET-presented Urbanworld Film Festival presented in New York City, a world renowned showcase of filmmakers of color. There were dozens of great films that people were raving about and lining up to see, and the films I saw were incredible.

Yelling to the Sky, starring Zoe Kravitz and Gabby Sidibe and directed by Victoria Mahoney, is a coming-of-age story about a troubled teen girl who fights to survive a tough neighborhood and home life. Closing night film Kinyarwanda showed young love across tribal lines in the backdrop of the Rwanda Genocide; it was directed by filmmaker Alrick Brown and is part of the Ava DuVernay-led AFFRM film releasing movement, in partnership with Urbanworld.

actress Bianca LaVerne Jones (l) and filmmaker Olu Gittens (r)

I also caught an impressive lineup of short films with riveting stories that gripped the audience. Karim, directed by Carl Seaton (One Week), with orchestral music and absolutely no dialogue, is a darkly poetic story of justice and retribution. Burned, directed by BET Lens on Talent winner Phyllis Toben Bancroft (Spent) showed a female veteran, played by Bianca LaVerne Jones, struggling with alcoholism and PTSD; noted Hollywood actor Eric Roberts made a key appearance in the story. In The Boxer, directed by David Au and Teddy Chen Culver, who also starred, a young Asian-American boxer gets schooled by his ailing grandfather. In Geoff Bailey’s Counterfeit, a naive African street vendor finds out the hard way that anyone can be hustled. And in The Tombs, feature film director Jerry LaMothe (Amour Infinity, Blackout) tells the compelling story of a black man in NYC spending three days in a notorious holding area for the recently arrested, and the psychological torture incurred. The Tombs’ cast of noted actors included veteran actor Arthur French.

There were many more films and television series premieres, as you can find out at urbanworld.com. I have to say it was a very good year.

Shout out to Urbanworld Executive Producer Gabrielle Glore and Founder Stacy Spikes!

-O.G.

Hamptons Black International Film Festival Opening Night

I was on the scene for the opening night of the Hamptons Black International Film Fesival, which takes place at venues in Manhattan, and Sag Harbor andMontauk, Long Island.

Opening night films were Obama’s Irish Roots, directed by Gabriel Murray of Ireland, which traces part of President Barak Obama’s ancestry to Ireland, andthe Burkina Faso documentary Kôglb-zanga directed by Ilboudo Yalgabama, forwhich Prince Wendemi, a fighter for social justice, was in attendance.

The festivities also featured performers from the Festival’s children and theArts Program, including talented teen singer Dylan Jenet Collins and young violin virtuoso Claudius Agrippa.

Shout out to Executive Director Princess Angelique Monet and film curator Rashid Bahati!

-O.G.

Hamptons Black International Film Fesival,  HBIFF.org

@BushwickBelle is now on Twitter

I am now on Twitter and my handle is @bushwickbelle. I’m Bushwick Belle for the neighborhood I grew up in, Bushwick, Brooklyn. Sandwiched between Bed-Stuy Do or Die and Ridgewood, Queens, it was, for me, the place of buildings low enough that you can always see the sky, elevated trains, the official language of Spanglish, African Americans / West Indians / Dominicans / Puerto Ricans all living together, Carvel ice cream, trained pigeons flying overhead in unison, me and my sis riding our bikes,  our house on Irving Ave, IS 383, Bushwick Bill of the Geto Boys living down the block, RIP wall murals of people gone too soon, the 80s crack era, the people sticking together… I’ve been around the world and back but the neighborhood I grew up in is still my inspiration. @BUSHWICKBELLE. Holla!

-O.G.

Olufunmilayo Gittens will be tweeting about  film, television, and stuff beyond the screening room.

Tuskegee Angels Fly Over New York City

What gift do you give to the filmmaker who has everything? Tickets to a play! For my birthday, my cousin took me to see Black Angels Over Tuskegee, a wonderful off-Broadway gem written, directed and produced by Layon Gray.

There’s something about the Tuskegee Airmen, the black World War II fighter pilots who broke ground as the first African-American pilots in U.S. military history, that continues to inspire.  The dapper brothers with side parts and bomber jackets have become iconic, and a number of documentaries, including the Cable ACE Award-nominated Lonely Eagles: Airmen of Tuskegee, produced by Nicole Sylvester (co-producer of Oh Gee Productions’ BABY OF THE FAMILY) have conveyed their fighter spirit and military accomplishment against a segregated backdrop. But it was after seeing HBO’s narrative film The Tuskegee Airmen starring Laurence Fishburne that thespian Gray was moved to create an expression of their story for the stage.

With a narrator and a cast of six pilots and a sergeant  loosely based on the cumulative stores of many, Black Angels reveals the brotherhood, determination,  and fighter spirit that defined these great airmen. Each character speaks in his own unique voice, and the play’s rhythms and sensibilities vividly recall the “last great generation” era. Gray and the Black Gents of Hollywood theater ensemble brought Black Angels to New York City from Los Angeles along with several awards  in tow, including the NAACP Image Award. The play, which features Lamman Rucker of Tyler Perry’s Why Did I Get Married as one of the pilots, has since won an AUDELCO Award here in New York.

This is a story for the ages. Don’t walk – RUN – to see Black Angels Over Tuskegee.

Actors’ Temple Theatre, 339 W. 47th St nr. Ninth Ave, NYC

-O.G.

 

LINKS:

http://www.blackangelsovertuskegee.com

http://www.thelayongrayexperience.com/

http://theblackgents.homestead.com/

 

Will “Dark Girls” address colorism on the backs of black women?

There has been a lot of buzz around the upcoming documentary Dark Girls (2011) directed by Bill Duke and D. Channsin Berry. Duke is the ground-breaking, prolific director of numerous hit television shows over the years and he has helmed such movies as Deep Cover (1992), A Rage in Harlem (1991), Hoodlum (1997), and TD Jake’s Not Easily Broken (2009). I understand that Berry  is a song writer, music video director and documentary filmmaker. Based on these filmmakers’ track records and the subject matter, I am sure that Dark Girls will be a compelling piece.

I wouldn’t deign to criticize another filmmaker’s voice or their hard work but as a dark-skinned black woman and someone whom this film would appear to represent, I have some reservations. A number of filmmakers have explored black culture’s preoccupation with skin tone and hair texture, with mixed results. This includes Spike Lee’s School Daze, which featured a musical number with dark- and light-skinned black women fighting over “good” and “bad” hair, Chris Rock’s Good Hair, a comedic look at black women’s quest for straighter hair, and My Nappy Roots: A Journey Through Black Hair-itage, by Regina Kimbell, an empowering film about black women struggling with and, ultimately embracing, their hair in all its varied glory.

Dark Girls (2011) by Bill Duke and D. Channsin Berry

It is interesting that while the issues around color and hair affect the lives of both black men and black women, the filmmakers tend to be male and the domain in which it is explored is female. I don’t believe this is just because beauty is a uniquely female concern. Instead, by framing the pathology and misery of the black experience in a female context, whether through derisive humor or with deep compassion, the male filmmakers are able to explore the topic from a comfortable distance. This is the nature of male dominance, and it happens at the expense of black men exploring and healing their own pain.

Speaking of pain, that’s all I see in the Dark Girls preview. While it is important to address the very real hurts of internalized racism, it is just as crucial to celebrate the joy and beauty of being black. Sadly, few the color/hair films I’ve seen so far, with the exception of My Nappy Roots, does this.

I see myself in the women in Dark Girls. I want to hug them and wipe their tears. But I’d be lying if I said that being dark equals not being loved or feeling attractive, not reaching your potential, and not enjoying life to the fullest.  This is why the very idea of blackness is so fascinating, scary and beautiful all at the same time. It is a bitter sweet mix that may take many, many films to fully grasp.

I look forward to seeing Dark Girls in its entirety. I’d also like to invite readers to check out my personal essay Dare to Be Dark: My Trip to a Tanning Salon.

-O.G.

LINKS:

 Dark Girls Preview at Vimeo

Dare to Be Dark: My Trip to a Tanning Salon by Olu Gittens

Children of God Opening at Quad Cinema

One of the most exciting experiences is the opening night of a new film. I was thrilled to attend the opening night of Children of God, as it began its one-week  run at Quad Cinema, the renowned indie film house  in New York City.

Filmmaker Olu Gittens (c) with Children of God's producer Trevite Willis (l) and writer-director Kareem Mortimer (r)

Written and directed by filmmaker Kareem Mortimer, Children of God was produced by Trevite Willis, along with producer Richard Lemay, executive producer Jay Gotleib and associate producer Nia Hatsopolous. The screening was presented by BET and Out magazine.

Children of God is a dramatic ensemble feature film about the lives of local residents in the tourist-friendly Bahamas: an art student trying to find his creative voice, a fiery preacher and his wife struggling in their marriage, an engaged mama’s boy falling in love on the down low.  All the stories are intertwined, and they all deal with sexual identity in a culture that is torn between its very religious, often homophobic views, the influences of tourism, and changing social values.

Children of God actress Margaret Laurena Kemp (l) and producer Trevite Willis (r)

The project has been a labor of love for those involved and it was great to see it come together so well.

Shout out to Trevite!

-O.G.

Children of God was acquired for distribution by TLA Releasing and is now available on home video.

LINKS:

Children of God film website

Quad Cinema   

ImageNation and Lincoln Center advance screening of Gun Hill Road

ImageNation Cinema Foundation and the Film Society of Lincoln Center held a special advance screening of Rashaad Ernesto Green’s feature film GUN HILL ROAD.

Harmony Santana and Esaid Morales in Rashaad Ernesto Green's GUN HILL ROAD

I’d been wanting to see this film throughout its festival run and finally got a chance. GUN HILL ROAD is about a father returning home from prison only to clash with his transgender son – but this amazing film is so much more. Green deftly communicates a message of tolerance with a deep compassion for the fragility of machismo and the struggle to be a man – father, son, husband, and yes even drag queen – in this harsh yet beautiful world.

There was an insightful Q&A afterward, moderated by ImageNation founder Moikgantsi Kgama and featuring the film’s Executive Producer Ron Simons (also Producer of Night Catches Us); Green, who was connected to the event from Thailand; acclaimed veteran actor Esai Morales and co-star Judy Reyes (TV’s Scrubs), who were also Skyped in on screen. Morales, who proudly hails from the Brox where the film is set, talked about what it felt like to return to his stomping grounds to play in this powerful film.

ImageNation's and Moikgantsi Kgama and Gregory Gates
ImageNation's and Moikgantsi Kgama and Gregory Gates

Back in the day, I was a dedicated ImageNation volunteer and it’s been great to see ImageNation grow by leaps and bounds, packing theaters and playing a pivotal role in the marketing of indie films.

Shout out to Greg & Kgantsi!

-O.G.

LINKS:

ImageNation Cinema Foundation

Film Society of Lincoln Center

Gun Hill Road at IMDb 

Photos @ FLICKR