We've Gotta Have It
Q: And yet, you still believe this is the best of times for black film?
Oh, yeah! It's changing, definitely changing. There are more black independent films being made than ever before. More black stories being told. In the past five years at the Urban World festival, we've premiered one or two movies that opened number one or number two at the box office. That's how it gets done, showing them from the outside that you can make money.
Q: Some say that the best way for black filmmakers to connect with audiences is to build their own infrastructure of production, distribution and marketing, while others say it's best to work from within the system. What do you think?
I understand that there are more than one or two ways to skin a cat, and if you can do that in or out, great, no problemo! I mean, after Sweetback, suddenly there was this need to hire people to tell the stories to meet the demand I created. And the people they hired were black. They learned the craft, they went on to make significant contributions to the industry.
And that's fine, too.
Building a separate infrastructure? I mean, I think that's a good idea and it's something I've thought about for a long time. I don't necessarily think it's the only way, and I'm not sure it's the easiest way.
Q: OK, why?
I don't know... I mean, it's very hard when you're talking the amount of money you need for distribution. That's a lot of money. Whereas, I think product creates demand, to a certain extent, the more that we can get a variety of product out there and educate the audience by showing them a lot of different things. Not just comedies, but family dramas. Not just family dramas, but science fiction and so on.... The more types of product you have out there, the more you create the demand for it. And I think that once the demand is established, we can carry out the rest through the system. Because all anyone really wants is to make money. You can speculate about some mastermind, institutional racism, but I don't think so. I think it's probably all about commerce. And I think we can change the system just by making films.
Q: So you think it's a process that can begin outside the system and gradually expand perceptions of African-Americans from within the studio system itself?
I think so, but I think the process you're talking about is more like an elaborate conversation between the audience and the filmmaker, between the supply and demand. I mean, audiences can be difficult, too. They have to be nurtured and brought around and made to accept a variety of product, which right now they are not. We're conditioned to accept a variety of white product, and we're not really conditioned to accept a variety of African-American product.
Or "crossover" product that is neither here nor there. Or is both here and there...
Q: I want to stay with this a moment. You mention "crossover." I was thinking of
, and one of the things that at once bewilders and infuriates me is that there are many black women I can think of who have had adventures similar to
, and they're every bit as funny, scary, absorbing and triumphant. But if such a movie were made it would be perceived as a "niche product," exclusively for black people. Whites wouldn't be in the target audience.
Yeah, it bugs me too. And it's very hard to get an audience, even like some of the young really liberal white kids that I know. It's very hard to get them to see an African-American movie even when I tell them they'll love it. Like The Best Man. I tell them, "It's right up your alley. I hear you guys talking about this stuff all the time. You'll think it's funny." And they never go.
Q: They don't. Why? Is it racism?
Who knows? It may be a feeling that they really--I mean, there is a reality. And the reality is that white people don't really have to deal in a black world, whereas all black people have to deal in a white world. And that's one of the reasons we're good with [writing] those white voices, because we're subjected to them a million times a day.
But I don't know why they won't go see black films. It's almost as if it's in a marginal tribal dialect that they don't understand.
Maybe it's not happening for older folks. But the children...they spend billions a year on hip-hop. Interracial love stories like Save the Last Dance open up at number one and sit there for two or three weeks. You look at movies like Romeo Must Die, where you have an Asian hero and an African-American woman lead. Huge! The crossover potential isn't even a potential with these kids. It's there! The 50-year-olds? Don't even bother with them.
Not to sound like an old man, but young people...yeah, they're affected by the cross-cultural influence in music and hip-hop and things like that. The problem is that movies are still dominated by twenty-five middle-aged white multimillionaires who are out of touch. And not just with black people, but with everything.
Look at what happened with Pay It Forward. It was adapted from a novel in which the lead male character was African-American, and yet they cast a white actor [Kevin Spacey] to play the role. You're telling me there wasn't a black actor around who could play that part? It certainly wouldn't have made less money with a black actor. So, you can say, it will get better, it will get better. But how much more bankable do you have to be as a black actor or actress? How many more positive responses do you have to have from moviegoers in general, white and black, before it really changes? I don't know.