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.