18 June 2006

Black indie cinema... still in the red

How many African-American, i.e. Black American, film directors do you know of? Can you quickly list out their names and their films? How many of these films would you have seen, enjoyed, and added to your collection?

This is no easy task. For, in India, there is hardly a market for Black cinema. Indians cannot easily identify themselves with Black culture… and/or Black sentiments. No, don’t get me wrong. It’s not racism. Indians – at least those urban Indians who watch English-language films – are neither exposed to, nor appreciative of, Black cinema. But, we aren’t alone here. There’s hardly a market for Black cinema internationally. And, that includes the United States.

According to the US census bureau, as of July 2004, the estimated population of black residents in the United States (including those of more than one race) makes up 13.4% of the total US population. Black residents of a single race, i.e. the African American, are likely to make up 12.4% of the US population. That would make it a little under 40 million Black people. Yet, filmmakers of African-American origin are unhappy about the state of Black cinema… and what the future might bring for them.

The biggest hurdle in the system seems to be a lack of finance. African-American directors find it difficult to get financing for independent Black films. Investors and studios are just not willing to accept that Black films can gross big earnings. Who wants to see Black films? Are Black films made with an African-American audience in mind? Or, can they attract white and coloured audiences too? What about the international market? In a January 2004 Christian Science Monitor article by Reed Martin, ‘The new voices of Black film’, director (of Eve’s Bayou) Kasi Lemmons says, “That’s the constant struggle, explaining who is the audience.”

Obtaining theatrical distribution is an even greater challenge. In the same Christian Science Monitor article, producer (of Boomerang and House Party – along with his brother Reginald) Warrington Hudlin acknowledges, “The process is complicated by race in America… Often, the people evaluating the merits of your project are from outside your community – outside your culture – and can’t recognize its merit. The lack of an even playing field makes it more difficult, since the people I have to appeal to over and over never look like me.” Perhaps this might explain why Spike Lee is often accused of showing whites and Jews in his films as evil, money-grabbing guys.

Of course, film festivals like Sundance and Tribeca have begun to give Black filmmakers a leg-up in the business by creating special forums for them. “But,” reports Reed Martin in the Christian Science Monitor article, “that doesn’t always mean money will be forthcoming or that studios will see completed movies.” Someone needs to genuinely assess talent and broker introductions to sources of financing. Thankfully, there are some agencies on this job. Among them, ‘The Black Film Foundation’ founded by the Hudlin brothers, and ‘Film Life, Inc.’ set up by Jeff Friday.

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