“They’ve Gotta Have Us” director Simon Frederick believes that for a long time black filmmakers have had a series of false storms, but now a realization is happening. He says, “It’s an awakening and I think black filmmakers have become woke in ways they haven’t done in the past.”
The three-part series dropped on Netflix this past Wednesday, just in time for the Oscars which, once again, failed to show much in the diversity and representation department, Cynthia Erivo and Matthew Cherry (“Hair Love”) aside. Its American release coincides with Black History Month.
Frederick recalls watching Issa Rae and John Cho announce the Oscar nominations in January. What he found most interesting was Rae and Cho’s own realization of the lack of diversity. “I’m assuming they had been chosen to represent the diversity that didn’t exist within the nominations and the organization.” He adds: “It was a front and people see through things like that.”
Black filmmakers are taking control of their writing, directing and filmmaking, Frederick notes – a level of artistry that is elevating the artform and revolutionizing cinema beyond what he ever thought possible. “It’s being led very much by black women,” he adds, referring to Ava DuVernay and her production company, Array – the team behind “They’ve Gotta Have Us.”
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He adds that since black people have always been persistent when it comes to changing culture and moving it forward, “if institutions like BAFTA and the Academy don’t change, they’ll become irrelevant.”
The idea for “They Gotta Have Us” was born out of frustration. Frederick’s 2016 documentary “Black is the New Black” featured Naomi Campbell and other prominent Brits talking about what it was like to be British and black. “I’d never heard another ethnic group talking about what it was like to be British,” he says. When he realized he wasn’t the only person, not by a long shot, the BBC wanted Frederick to do more; social media, too.
At the same time, he was confused by the notion that, “If it’s black it won’t sell.” Or that only minorities would be interested in such projects.
Frederick then set out to create a platform bringing together black figures like John Singleton, John Boyega, Whoopi Goldberg, Barry Jenkins to tell the story of the experiences and impact of Black cinema in the UK and America.
Rather than present a story from his point of view, he looked at intertwining career highlights and, during the editing process, Frederick found suitable archives to build into the story. Audiences can hear Jenkins and Goldberg talk about their emotions on a particular day rather than describing their films or an acting role. “I get them to talk about insecurities and fears,” Frederick says.
The first episode of “They Gotta Have Us” opens at the 2017 Academy Awards when “La La Land” was mistakenly announced as the Best Picture winner. “Even then Barry Jenkins and the film “Moonlight” didn’t get the chance to revel in and enjoy that moment because again, that moment was taken away. So, it’s ironic,” Frederick says. “What’s pivotal about that film is that it is a film about a gay black boy. This coming-of-age story is basically seen as an art film, that film could do so well at the box office, win critical acclaim and most of all, the audiences that went to see that.”
At one point, actor Jesse Williams says, “White people can make a story about losing a dog and that’s OK because anyone should be able to make their art.”
Frederick says when it comes to black filmmaking, their stories have to be exceptional. “Sometimes we want to tell a simple story and we should be allowed to do that.” Trailblazing the way are Spike Lee and Jenkins, who he counts among those who long ago decided they were going to tell the black stories they have wanted to tell. He declares, “If you build it, they will come, that’s exactly what happens and is happening.”