African American filmmakers offer original voices

As of late, onscreen images of the black experience have been slanted heavily toward gun-slinging gangbangers or slap-happy laughfests.

But the 2001 Sundance Film Festival offered an array of fresh voices that provided a broader, more balanced perspective. And yet if questions aimed at a panel of African-American indie directors is any indication, the reality remains that getting such movies produced, and then distributed, is still an uphill struggle.

Altering long-standing mindsets might be the biggest challenge at hand. TV director Paris Barclay, co-chair of the Directors Guild of America’s African-American steering committee, cites the recent successes of John Singleton’s “Shaft” and Keenan Ivory Wayans’ “Scary Movie” as proof that black films are making strides to crossover acceptance.

But even someone with Barclay’s stature is offered projects ghettoized along racial lines.

“I get a feature film script every week and 95% of them are black (in theme),” says Barclay. “It’s true that I am black, but I also went to Harvard and have some experience with Caucasians. I’ve directed ‘NYPD Blue’ — having won two Emmys for it — and ‘ER,’ ‘The West Wing’ and many other shows. So you would think that I’d start to get some scripts that reflect those experiences — police dramas and so forth. Nope, I get ‘B.A.P.S.’ and ‘Booty Call.’”

‘Valentine’s’ Day

In the wake of “Eve’s Bayou,” the magical realist murder mystery “The Caveman’s Valentine” — Sundance’s opening-night attraction — further underscores helmer Kasi Lemmons’ bent toward stories that delve deeply into humanity and confronting one’s inner demons. Though the 1997 “Bayou” took the indie world by storm, the offbeat tone of her sophomore effort generated a tooth-and-nail fight for financing.

After a few stalled starts, the actress-turned-director ended up with an indie budget of $13.5 million. That sum ran considerably lower than she had hoped for the drama of a classical pianist-turned-homeless eccentric.

“In the world of Hollywood moviemaking, it’s hard to present certain types of black images,” explains Lemmons. “Showing them in certain ways — like in an action film — is more likely to give you a greenlight. But if you are doing a serious character piece that has an African-American protagonist, it’s not that easy to get it made, and there’s also a ceiling on the amount you are going to get for it. And as much progress is being in made in independent films, African-American art films are still are really hard sell.”

Straight out of Boston

“Lift,” a crime drama from writer-directors DeMane Davis and Khari Streeter about a female “booster” who loots upscale department stores to satiate her mother’s materialistic urge for fancy fashion, also made waves at Sundance with its combination of talent in front of and behind the camera. The Boston-based filmmakers are rather Sundance-savvy, having debuted there in 1997 with “Black & White & Red All Over” as well as honing “Lift” at the Sundance Institute’s Directing and Writing labs.Streeter says they are interested in relating tales with contemporary issues for black people that have universal themes.

It took Streeter and Davis two years to acquire suitable shooting capital — through Hart Sharp Entertainment and Japanese outfit NHK.

“Distributors and production companies were very locked into the idea that ‘Lift’ was a crime saga and not too terribly interested in the mother-daughter relationship,” recalls Davis. “One company actually said, ‘It’s sounds interesting, I’ve never seen it before, I like it, but I can’t see the poster so I’m going to pass.”

Although still being shopped around, favorable buzz earned “Lift” an end-of-March slot at the New Directors/New Films series to the Gotham’s Museum of Modern Art.

Commitment to ‘Life’

Writer-director Vanessa Middleton pursued the purely indie route, sinking her own cash, and that of soundtrack scorer Timbaland (“Romeo Must Die”), to pay for “30 Years to Life,” a witty riff-on-relationships ensemble piece. This New York native hails from a broad TV background, having spent eight years penning material for “Saturday Night Live,” “Apollo Comedy Hour”, “Hangin’ With Mr. Cooper,” “The Cosby Show” and “Sister, Sister.”

After colliding with “the glass ceiling” while trying to strike a deal for her own show, she opted for a feature instead. Dealing with film studios, however, proved no less frustrating than some of her travails in TV: “30 Years to Life” got trapped in the spinning wheel of development hell before its lapsed option allowed her to take a more direct approach.

“It’s also been a challenge because people (in distribution) don’t know how to place my movie,” she continues. “They say, ‘I see black people, but it’s not a black film.’ My feeling is that I grew up on John Hughes movies and the Woody Allen-style writing.”

Boost from Spike

Bronx-bred Lee Davis’ developed his multicultural cabbies-in-New York piece “3 A.M.” at the Sundance director and screenwriters workshops. He was godfathered by Spike Lee, whom he met while the director was researching jazz music for “Mo’ Better Blues.” The encounter led to p.a. work on “Mo’ Better” and “Jungle Fever,” and a.d. gigs on “Malcolm X” and “Crooklyn.” After Lee consented to produce his “3 A.M.” script through 40 Acres and a Mule, Showtime quickly joined forces.

Davis recently set up Leeway Flix, an outfit looking to produce scripts with an original voice.

“Hollywood is very quick to pigeonhole a person (in terms of genre) — be it black, white or whatever,” surmises Davis. “But putting people in boxes doesn’t really work. There are definitely some intelligent executives who have placed phone calls to me and said, ‘Look, I have this project that I think you would be interested in.’ And on the face of it, it’s not a film that is urban in any way; while it does have black characters, it is not a predominantly black film in terms of audience.

“Our most important goal should be to tell diverse stories, but unfortunately for the past half-a-dozen years those stories have really seemed to narrow (in focus) rather than expand.”

The network dance

Brooklyn-bred Reggie Rock Bythewood navigated his way to Hollywood through the writing circuit — a Disney fellowship, gigs on the TV series “A Different World” and “New York Undercover,” and Lee’s feature “Get on the Bus” — before taking his first crack as a writer-director with “Dancing in September,” a scathing critique of network television’s love-hate relationship with black programming.

In true grassroots fashion, he funded his film through a rainbow coalition of private investors. After five months of seeking a distributor, he signed with HBO. Not only did the cable network present a large potential audience, but its deal allowed his financiers to recoup their costs.

But Bythewood believes that the model of indie ownership needs to be extended further.

“The next place we need to evolve as African-American filmmakers is playing a role in the distribution of our films,” says Bythewood. “We don’t have our Motown of the film industry. It’s not necessarily to make a separate but equal Hollywood, but it will give us more options, which is what people are really asking for.”

Filed Under:

Follow @Variety on Twitter for breaking news, reviews and more