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The Devil’s Eye Syndrome: Creative Jealousy Against the Black Independent Filmmaker

The Devil’s Eye Syndrome: Creative Jealousy Against the Black Independent Filmmaker

“The greatest trick the devil ever pulled was convincing the world that he didn’t exist.” –Charles Baudelaire

It is something peculiar that I had noticed decades ago from the first time I screened one of my own short films and began writing film criticism: many of us as Black people spew our most harsh and bitter criticism towards Black Independent films and yet rush to see White studio films without so much as raising a question concerning the plausibility of the content (or lack thereof) nor an objection to the lack of diversity in casting and/or the continuation of stigmatizing racial tropes and stereotypes.  As long as there is action, explosions and state-of-the-art CGI any negative criticism of White studio films is suspended.  And if by chance such negative criticism is raised against a White studio film it is summarily disbelieved in the face of astronomical weekend unadjusted box office grosses.  I mean I have witnessed some very intelligent Black people rip a Black independent film to shreds as if they were the sole surviving authenticators of Shakespeare’s lost plays, but then turn around and pay extra money to see Michael Bay’s TRANSFORMERS (1, 2, 3 and 4) without ever saying anything negative about a White studio film that would approach the severity and bitterness of the negative criticism they would level at a Black independent film.

It reminds me of that punch line to the comedian’s old joke about what the Black servant says to the coughing White man: “What’s the matter boss, WE sick?”

What used to cause me a mild form of bemusement, I am now beginning to understand as a peculiar form of creative jealousy expressed towards Black independent film and/or filmmakers by others of their own race that can ultimately have devastating consequences for the development of all up and coming Black filmmakers and for the preservation and continuation of Black film in general.

In this article I would like to examine in detail this peculiar phenomenon of critical hypocrisy that I will define here as The Devil’s Eye Syndrome.  The Devil’s Eye Syndrome is the deliberate critical rejection of Black independent film by Black spectators which manifests itself as a severe and bitter criticism of a Black independent film to the degree that no other commercial White studio film would be able to withstand nor would these Black spectators dare apply such “high standards” to a White film.  I would like to explore how this critical hypocrisy is expressed and maintained often by those closest to us as filmmakers: family, friends and loved ones.  Most importantly I would like to offer suggestions concerning how developing Black filmmakers can protect themselves from this vicious form of self-hatred and creative jealousy disguised as criticism.

What differentiates the Devil’s Eye Syndrome from legitimate film criticism or even constructive criticism is that both the former and the latter forms of criticism are posited from a set of clearly defined principles and standards that can be traced back to their aesthetic or philosophical foundations.  These principals and standards should be applied consistently across various films and film genres regardless of the color of the skin of the filmmakers.  At least that’s what passes for the ideal towards which every critic should strive.  For example, the American critic Andrew Sarris (1928-2012) who is largely credited with importing the French critical notion of the auteur theory to the United States in his book, American Cinema: Directors and Directions 1929-1968, detailed extensively his critical assessments of a vast majority of American and European filmmakers (mostly all White) up until the time of the book’s first edition released in 1968.  Although I don’t always agree with Sarris’ assessments of the films and the careers of many filmmakers, his critical ideas have a foundation and apply a standard which can be traced back to the French critics and filmmakers (Godard, Truffaut, Rohmer, et al) and perhaps can be traced back further to 19th century French romanticism.

In any case, Sarris worked from an established set of principles and attempted to apply his standards consistently, even if the results were not always shared by others.

By contrast, the Devil’s Eye Syndrome is merely a negative attitude that pretends to be legitimate or constructive criticism that either has no set of principles and standards that can be traced back to their foundations or it’s a negative attitude held against a specific kind of film (Black independent film) and the specific race of the filmmaker (Black) expressed as standards and principles that are ultimately arbitrary and inconsistent.  My concern here is that we as Black people are unconsciously predisposed to practice this form of critical hypocrisy towards our own up and coming Black filmmakers and we are unwittingly adding to the existing difficulties many Black independent filmmakers are facing in this White controlled industry.  This article is an attempt to answer the questions of ‘Whom, How &Why?’

Specifically those who look at a Black film through a Devil’s Eye seek out what makes the Black artist’s work unique, different, or challenging and negatively criticizes these aspects to make the artist conform to false conventions, accepted stereotypes, and unrealistic standards.

In short, these “critics” tell you your work isn’t good enough because it is different and/or challenges their expectations- then they turn around and watch the absolute worst that Hollywood has to offer without questioning or challenging anything the White controlled American Entertainment Complex presents as realistic.  

This form of critical hypocrisy is at its most powerful when it is practiced against Black filmmakers by family, friends and loved ones; that is to say, this negativity is manifested often times at the most personal level against the Black artist when the artist is at his or her most vulnerable and trust seeking condition.  This is not to say that the casual observer cannot look at the Black independent filmmaker’s work through a Devil’s Eye.  But the casual observer’s negativity can often easily be dismissed as “Hating” whereas the intimate observer is someone who says they love you- but still rejects your work for reasons they cannot consistently uphold or trace back to foundations and standards to which they consistently adhere.  It’s not the criticism that destroys, so much as it is the destructive hypocrisy that such so-called “honest” criticism disguises.

So now that we know who is practicing this negativity towards Black independent filmmakers and their films let’s look at how it is practiced against the Black filmmaker through the derogatory assessments of their work.

The negativity within the critical hypocrisy of the Devil’s Eye Syndrome as practiced by the intimate or the casual observer of a Black independent filmmaker’s work is usually centered within three specific parameters:

1) Narrative Structure

2) Acting

3) Production Values/Budget

Beginning with Narrative Structure, we know that in the filmic art all of the events within a story do not have to seen on screen for the story to be understood.  The various omissions of explanatory scenes, exposition in dialogue, and other scenes of transportation or transition contribute directly to the specific narrative dynamism of the cinematic language which differentiates cinema as an art form from literature and theatre.  But most importantly certain omissions of events, actions and causal circumstances encourages the viewing audience to make assumptions that fill in the story gaps and are directly correlated to the stylistic voice of the filmmaker: the visual and editorial signature of the auteur that can be discerned within a single film and/or over the course of several films.

Recall, for example, the omission of the jewelry store robbery scene in Tarantino’s RESEVOIR DOGS (1992) which gave dramatic urgency to the events that were shown after the omission.  Already, here in this first film, Tarantino was establishing a distinct authorial voice in the cinema by challenging the conventional telling of a tale in deliberately choosing to omit a scene that usually defines the genre of a heist film which is the heist itself.  

Yet when a Black independent filmmaker attempts to “tamper” with narrative structure in the attempt to establish an artistic voice and a distinctive cinematic style all too often the casual or the intimate spectator will point out the gaps in the story as flaws; that is to say, they look at the independent film through the Devil’s Eye which gives them license to deny making the assumptions they would normally make to fill in the gaps while watching a White studio film and accuse the Black independent filmmaker of shoddy or poor storytelling abilities.

To use a personal example, I recall an incident concerning a short film I had made several years ago titled, WASTELAND, which will be available to stream on-line shortly.  I was confronted by an acquaintance who claimed to have had viewed the film and complained about what they saw as a structural flaw in the telling of the story.  In this film, which was my first attempt at creating what I would eventually identify as a Seduction Narrative in my book Screenwriting Into Film (See: pgs. 94-97 or the films: Psycho, Spider, The Sixth Sense), a young man quits high school and literally walks into a hellish nightmare of murder and mayhem after he witnesses a brutal crime by another man that very same day.  Yet one of the main points of criticism of the film by my acquaintance was centered on the fact that when the young man leaves on foot from his high school located in Mid-town Detroit I used a slow dissolve to another scene of the young man walking in Downtown Detroit.  The alleged flaw, as it was explained to me, was that no one could walk from Mid-town Detroit to Downtown Detroit in such a short time frame.  

Needless to say, I was taken aback.

The slow dissolve between two shots of a young man walking was apparently not enough to imply the passage of time nor was it enough to signify that time had been cut out to render these transitional scenes cinematically dynamic.  The fact that the two shots mirrored each other graphically with one shot having the young man walking away from the camera on the right side of the screen and the next shot which slowly dissolved over it was of the young man walking towards the camera on the left side of the screen was apparently also not held in any esteem by my critic.

I quickly realized that the acquaintance was deliberately attempting to deny me the artistic license to use a very basic formal device of cinematic narration (the dissolve) to structure my film according to my own stylistic predilections.  The hypocrisy here is that this very same acquaintance would unquestioningly accept such basic and well understood formal devices of time compression from a White studio film produced in any city with whose geography they would not be so familiar.  

What is being revealed is that when the Devil’s Eye is applied to Black independent film as it concerns narrative structure one is often challenged with absurd and arbitrary criticism of basic formal and narrative paradigms that every film artist no matter what their skin color is free to change or adhere to according to the themes they are pursuing in their specific work.

While it is certainly true that the omission of scenes for the effect of style must follow through in some form of emotional, circumstantial or thematic logic that informs the entire film so that such omissions are not truly the result of flawed storytelling, careful omissions of scenes or actions are fundamental to the dynamism of cinematic narration.

Often when intimate and/or casual observers view the work of Black independent filmmakers they see the necessary story gaps and omissions of filmic narration as flaws in storytelling rather than the conventions of filmic narration deliberately applied by the Black independent filmmaker as a matter of style.

Although viewing the narrative structure of a Black independent film through a Devil’s Eye allows the critic to feign an inflated sense of intellectual superiority, acting is usually the first and easiest target of attack against the Black Independent filmmaker’s work if simply because most independent films utilize unknown actors.  Yet the question of acting ability often rests upon how well one is familiar with an actor’s star persona as well as the cumulative effect of those popular studio films that are awarded recognition for Best Actor/Actress.  

For example even though Meryl Streep has been nominated 18 times (and counting) for Academy awards for acting, in the opinion of this writer her best and most nuanced role was the small part of a girl in between two guys in Michael Cimino’s THE DEER HUNTER (1978).  But the mystique of great acting is often built around how well the star persona of the actor can be secured in the public’s consciousness via high profile studio films and television work released in close succession.  For Streep it was the release of four films and a television miniseries in quick succession between 1978 and 1979 that established her star persona and created the mystique of great acting ability.  In these early films one could say that she was actually performing the characters rather than performing her star persona as a character as she does today.

Unfortunately, the acting by unknown performers in a Black independent film is more susceptible to being given a negative assessment because it is often judged vis-a-vis the cumulative effect of acting conventions established in White or even Black studio films and television.

The notion of great acting is itself a standardized convention that changes with each generation.  Note how the infiltration of method acting by Stanislavski and Strasberg redefined the boundaries of classical acting in the theatre, on television and on the big screen during the late Fifties through the Seventies.  We can also note how fresh Sidney Poitier’s performances were compared to those typically given to Black males during the 1950’s and yet how stiff and mannered Poitier’s performances appear when compared to Denzel Washington’s performances in the 1990’s and even today.

The casual or intimate viewer usually looks at the acting in a Black independent film through the Devil’s Eye and judges the performances in a negative light based upon the single criteria of the actors being unknown.  That is to say, that because a Black independent film is already situated outside of the conventions of White studio films, the unknown actors and their performances are almost always judged negatively based on how far these performances deviate from well established acting conventions.  Indeed, one could say that through the Devil’s Eye the only good acting in a Black independent film is acting that adheres to the standardized acting conventions of studio films- even if said conventions are based on extremely narrow stereotypes of Black behaviors.  

So it can be said that the casual or intimate viewer is often pre-disposed to looking at a Black independent film negatively through the Devil’s Eye simply because a majority of independent films have unknown actors in leading roles and their performances are less likely to conform to the standardized acting conventions of Studio films, network television and cable series. The hypocrisy disguised within these negative critical assessments of acting ability in many Black Independent films is that at some point every well known actor was an unknown actor and asking that the performances in an independent film conform to the standardized conventions of Studio acting performances is a disingenuous standard that betrays the notion of independence inherent in films produced outside of the studio system.

Of course truly bad acting is usually at its worst when amateur actors attempt to imitate the acting conventions they’ve seen in studio films or on television.  One of the greatest ironies of independent film directing is found in the large amounts of time you have spend telling your actors not to act.    

The final parameter that allows the casual or intimate observer to negatively assess a Black independent filmmaker’s work is the budget which is always significantly lower than the inflated budgets of White studio films or even Black studio films.  The budget usually directly correlates to a list of technical and decorative aspects that are called production values such as: image quality, sound quality, art direction, locations, costuming, lighting and other deliberate aesthetic choices practiced for stylistic effect such as an original score or the rights to pre-recorded music.

Since the budget is one of the most defining characteristics between a White studio film and a Black film it is almost always generally assumed that a Black film (studio or independent) was produced with significantly lower funds that a White film (studio or independent).  Under these fixed inequitable economic circumstances the expectations of artistic excellence and deliberate choices of artistic style are always lowered as it concerns a Black independent film.  The Devil’s Eye of negative criticism is always reserved and applied to Black films no matter how brilliant because the lower budgets for such films are often misinterpreted as lower artistic excellence and style.  

For example, in 2013 at a retrospective of the work of Black female independent filmmaker Julie Dash that was held at the Detroit Film Theater her masterpiece film Daughters of the Dust (1991) was screened to a packed house.  Directly after the screening the White curator of film and director of the Detroit Film Theater, Elliot Wilhelm opened a Q&A with this question: “You didn’t have much money to make this film did you?”  And although Mr. Wilhelm may have thought he was merely complimenting Ms. Dash for the beauty, precision and excellence of her work made on a shoestring budget he was also calling attention to the fact that Daughters of the Dust transcends the lowered expectations concerning the direct correlation between budget and production values that many associate with Black independent film in general.

Ironically, in the effort to keep their films from appearing “low budget” many Black independent filmmakers adopt conventional production techniques and standards which actually hides their unique artistic voice because they fear that any risk taking might appear as unprofessional and “low budget”.  Julie Dash’s Daughters of the Dust demonstrates that a lower budget need not be directly correlated to lower artistic expectations and/or artistic style.  The critical hypocrisy of lowering expectations concerning the style and production values of a Black independent film based on fixed budgetary inequities between a White studio film and a Black film denies the Black filmmaker the creative and artistic license that is taken for granted when we view a White film.

By analogy, the lowered expectations regarding a Black independent film because of its lower budget is similar to believing that Black jazz musicians were lesser artists because many were paid less to improvise than White orchestral musicians who were paid more to play music exactly as it was written.

But what are the consequences of Black people themselves maintaining a negatively charged critical hypocrisy against Black independent filmmakers and their films?  The most destructive consequence is that it kills off the creative spirit of our brothers and sisters who are attempting to develop distinct artistic voices through the medium of film.  The negative criticism against Black independent filmmakers who attempt to establish a unique voice in film is often expressed by those Blacks who are simultaneously upholding the White controlled global entertainment system that segregates and ghettoizes the work of Black filmmakers from those of Whites.   

If all things were fair in this world we could look at the consequences of the Devil’s Eye syndrome upon up and coming Black filmmakers as merely required tests of mettle, rites of passage meant to thicken one’s skin against real negative criticism, but alas the world is not fair and the playing field itself is severely tilted against our favor as Black people in the global film industry.

Because the critical hypocrisy against Black independent film and filmmakers is at its most powerful when it is applied by friends, family members and loved ones what happens is that the Black independent filmmaker is literally hoisted on the petard of his or her own talent.  

Express yourself too distinctly in film and you’ll never work in Hollywood (not that you should want to work there); express yourself too conventionally and you’ll get the job in Hollywood, but very few people will be able to tell your film from anyone else’s film (e.g., Tim Story).

And when we factor in the various racially motivated obstacles of the American Entertainment Complex (e.g. minimal screen ratios, limited access to foreign markets, and the tendency to see all Black films as one singular niche genre regardless of subject matter) we can conclude with a reasonable degree of certainty that the destruction of the creative spirit of the Black independent filmmaker occurs from within the Black community (The Devil’s Eye Syndrome) and from outside of the Black community (The White controlled American Entertainment Complex).  When I say destruction of the creative spirit I mean specifically the suppression of the willingness to take risks in form (narrative structure) and/or content (story, casting, acting, etc) because only by taking risks in form and content can we ever sustain a truly viable and relevant Black independent cinema.

Just as I can distinguish a Spielberg film from a Scorsese film without even seeing the director’s credit, I should also be able to distinguish an Ava DuVernay film (Middle of Nowhere) from an Alexandre Moors film (Blue Caprice) by the voice of the artist expressed as their cinematic style.  

But we might ask ourselves,” Why?”  Why do so many of our own people look so negatively upon Black independent cinema?  Some of our own people go so far as to say there hasn’t been a good Black film released in the last twenty years.  Obviously, that the Devil’s Eye syndrome has blinded them from making a positive assessment of Black cinema in the last twenty years reveals how powerful this syndrome really is among us.  Part of the answer to the question of why is found in our own economic and political circumstances within White controlled societies; that is to say, that because a great percentage of Blacks have had to give up their artistic and/or intellectual ambitions to earn a living many of us discourage others from their artistic and intellectual pursuits.  They discourage others out of either jealousy (for what they themselves had to give up) or out of misplaced pity in knowing about the long and difficult road that the artist is going to face if they don’t conform to the stereotypical racial representations and Studio film conventions which we can all recognize even if they are wrong, untrue and uninspiring.

What really happens to a dream deferred is that it returns as jealousy against others trying to be heard.

It would appear that in both cases (jealous or pity) the Black spectator is using the Devil’s Eye from an unconscious motivation; that is to say that no sooner have they delivered a devastating negative critique of a Black independent film do they rush to see a White studio film that adheres to none of the standards and principles from which they ripped apart the Black film.  It is a peculiar form of cognitive dissonance that erodes and weakens the diversity of Black self expression in the art of cinema because it encourages Black filmmakers to abandon experimentation and alternate perspectives in favor of Hollywood approved conventions and stereotypes.  

And finally, another important question to ask is why should the opinions of others, even close friends, family, and loved ones matter to the artist? It would appear that such opinions however dishonest and misguided matter to the independent filmmaker as a consequence of the democratization of film financing (crowd funding), film production (digital video) and exhibition (Youtube, Vimeo, etc)- anybody can make a film and call themselves a filmmaker.  So what the Black independent filmmaker is really seeking is a sense of legitimacy.  

If a filmmaker makes a film and nobody sees it, then is he or she still a filmmaker?

It is a question of legitimacy.  Some seek it through contracts with the big studios; but there is no guarantee.  Some seek it through profits made from their films; but there is no guarantee.  And still others seek it through celebrity, sex and drugs- but there can never be a guarantee of legitimacy outside of your own belief in your own work.

What those who practice looking at Black independent film through the critical hypocrisy of the Devil’s Eye are really doing is reneging on the promise of artistic legitimacy to the Black filmmaker if the film does not conform to the standards, practices, and pursuit of profit as a White studio film or adhere to the stereotypical representation of bourgeois hetero-normativity that doesn’t offend, challenge or inspire.  

Because the negative criticism of the Devil’s Eye Syndrome is specifically designed to break the confidence of the up and coming Black independent filmmaker the only real protection for any Black independent filmmaker who has or who will have to suffer this form of critical hypocrisy is that one has to be one’s own worst critic.  What this really means is that you have to know the basic fundamentals of the cinematic language so that you can be certain why you are deviating from those fundamentals or why you are adhering to them.  I knew for certain why I used the basic formal technique of the dissolve to compress time in my short film WASTELAND.

One must also be certain of what one can leave out of a narrative to continue to comprehend a story.  The worst films are usually films that try to show everything that’s happening in a story.  The cinema is really an art, a science and a business all at the same time.    

Therefore, you have to uphold and adhere to a cinematic philosophy and dramatic standard that you practice in every film you make; refining that philosophy and standard as you go.  As the great Russian filmmaker Andrei Tarkovsky once said,” Respect for an audience… can only be based on the conviction that they are no stupider than you.” (Slave Cinema, 27)

Not to over generalize though, there are family members, friends and loved ones who will and do support your work- but the most genuine often do it without calling attention to themselves to reduce the chance of inciting bitter rivalries and false allegiances.  These are the quiet angels who whisper words of encouragement sometimes even as others are attacking you in front of them; cherish them and hang on to what they have said to you.    

You make your own film legitimate even if the eyes of those closest to you refuse to see it.

Andre Seewood is the author of “SLAVE CINEMA: The Crisis of the African-American in Film.” Pick up a copy of the book via HERE.                           

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In summary, haters gon’ hate.

Ivan Butcher II

My son a trained actor has to compete with cross overs from Rap and Hip Hop, who come with a following that investors are looking for in profits and perpetuating the Stereo-type.

Here is a film my son wrote and co-produced from monies made from a prior film:

El Mariachi Negro by Kasan Butcher

Ivan Butcher II

If you consider how the Black race is portrayed in corporate media around the World, it is no wonder why we as a people, especially those of us speaking different languages, do not identify with each other, The Curse of Babel.

We as a people spend too much time on labels trying to define ourselves. The reality, They are serious when They say that, no matter which ethnic group referring, We all look alike to THEM.

We African / Americans are a family and it is time that we begin working toward our own family's interests. The idea that, "Charity begins at home" is not separatism nor selfishness. The neglecting of ourselves and relying on others to provide for us nurtures that negative perception other families have of our community.

Our history has to be written, rewritten and illustrated from our perspective. There is a big world market out there that needs access to a new truth. This will not happen if it is left up to the prejudiced, mind-controlling, self-interest for profit entities.

Ivan Butcher II

To me this is a two fold situation, yes I feel Blacks should be financing our on images, but then there is the struggle to get out into Their controlled industry. But too, to many of our Black Achievers are to busy trying to Fit-in.

Mtume Gant

This article could not read more true. I have actually one addition to the budget, white "indie" films often are praised how they make these great films out of low budgets and their "mistakes" given a pass because "genius is present", like in Michael Mann's first feature film "Thief" there are so glaring "mistakes" and moments of shotty camera work but all is for given while a film like "Chameleon Street" decides to take poetic license in its plot and it's always brought up – though personally to me is totally make sense.

Dennis Leroy Kangalee

Excellent piece!

Ras the Exhorter

Excellent article, and while I'm guilty of holding, at times, unrelenting lens to Black Cinema, I'm intimately familiar with many of the film criticism theories that give foundation to the process (having reader much of JLG & Truffaut's work in Cahiers du Cinema), and can adjust my acceptance and criticism style. For instance, FRUITVALE STATION had some production design limitations and film grammar issues, but they didn't distract from the potency of the story.

Three crucial points — "the question of acting ability often rests upon how well one is familiar with an actor’s star persona as well as the cumulative effect of those popular studio films"; "what really happens to a dream deferred is that it returns as jealousy against others trying to be heard"; and "Express yourself too distinctly in film and you’ll never work in Hollywood (not that you should want to work there); express yourself too conventionally and you’ll get the job in Hollywood, but very few people will be able to tell your film from anyone else’s film (e.g., Tim Story)".

These points underscore why the critique is far too harsh, but can we also add that a frisson is created by the filmmaker who has exposed him- or herself to non-American cinema and then injected cinematic styles — that have been proved valid — in his or her work that the intended audience isn't unaccustomed to/aware of, and this might/does cause a disconnect. For example, in Justin Simien's upcoming DEAR WHITE PEOPLE there is more than a clear homage to Stanley Kubrick's BARRY LYNDON (he'll even admit to it) in terms shot selection and composition, and score (exact same music cues); and this was intriguing to me, because I adore and have studied Kubrick's film. Yet, those were some of the elements that rubbed other audience members the wrong way. I doubt that 90% of the intended audience has a) seen Kubrick's film and b) recognize the genius in that film, and c) can understand why Simien borrowed so liberally; each film is about social climbing, so it makes a lot of sense for an artistic point of view. Yet I know this kind of homage isn't respected.

Acting is ultimately subjective, but unknowns have a much harder time being "believed", when the exact opposite should be true… and the point about indie directors spending an inordinate amount of time conveying to their cast, "do act, show me truthful behavior" is a problem, because the "acting" is typically emulating arch behavior that is wrongly celebrated (and given acceptance by it being continually paraded around in reality shows and derogatory news clips) that perhaps truthful behavior — on-screen — appears alien and false.

One of my biggest gripes about Black Cinema is far too much of it tries to be too experiential; in that the stories are shackled to events that feel "normal" and "that's how it is" to the Black audience; the so-called Black experience. Yet, white Hollywood films rarely do this — a film as arch and zany as BRIDESMAIDS or WEDDING CRASHERS is so far removed from a true-to-life story it's not even funny, but its lunacy is what we go to the movies to see or the heightened suspense of a thriller is beyond the pale of what happens in every day life. In contrast, the arch behavior (and very much stereotyped behavior) in Tyler Perry films command a huge audience (the filmmaking technique is abysmal).

Peter Bogdanovich compiled an interesting book on his interviews with celebrated directors from Hollywood's Golden Age, "How The Devil Made It", and it underscores filmic techniques and director hang-ups that become a director's style. There has been some startling and original voices in Black Cinema in the past three years alone, yet distinctive style, sadly, rarely presents itself…even when there is a budget to warrant it. White indie filmmakers find ways to work within the confines of conventional cinematic grammar AND express themselves artistically.

The biggest issue confronting Black filmmakers is ability to create a body of work, and the grow as an artist.

Masha Dowell

This is an amazing post! Thanks!!


Very detailed and articulate assessment and raises a few points that me and my circle of artists friends have on a consistent basis.

Wanted to add another potential cause of this lopsided scrutiny of independent black film by black film audiences. The 'scarcity' idea. Me and a friend call it the 'there may only be one' rule. Black audiences have a sense of there only being one major black film and only one noteworthy black filmmaker per year. Whatever movie is most talked about or marketed to them becomes the only black film worth talking about or watching. Where white independent filmmakers thrive on a niche audience that expects a large number of films being produced per year I fear the black audience is always waiting for that 'one' black film that will mean anything for them. There will be one black filmmaker who is important for the year and everything is considered not worth the time. That attitude hurts black independent film more than anything because the audience doesn't know to look for more work by more artists. I think this is slowly changing with the cost of independent filmmaking going down and more of the filmmakers having access to get their films out to wider audiences with netflix, iTunes, etc. But until this attitude of the audiences changes it will be hard to cultivate a sustainable audience for black independent film.

With all that being said, if anyone is a filmmaker and gets discouraged by any of this…then you may not have been a filmmaker from the beginning. Tough skin is the name of the game and usually no one cares what they hell we make until the stars align, the work has paid off and the time becomes right and people finally take notice.

Great essay.

Miles Ellison

It comes down to this. There is more of an emphasis on being famous than on actually learning the craft of making movies. Audiences support films that they think everybody else is watching. Anything made by or starring somebody who's obscure, even if its good, won't be supported.


Are you sure the "critics" you are describing understand any independent films? It sounds like you might be giving too much benefit of the doubt as they clearly only want to see explosions and car chases.


Andre Seawood you missing my point I'm not saying they won't understand they just want bother to check it out, that's not elitism, that's the reality if it wasn't we wouldn't be having this conversation or black film would be in better shape than it is. Andre Seawood you missed my point again when you say it should be pushed on mutiple fronts, I agree with that I just believe we need a different stratergy than the ones we been using that's why I said your review on the movie Collateral would reach more people and have them looking at films different than this article,That article added another perception for me to that movie that I didn't have before, that I went back and watch it, it was like watching a new film, that's the articles we need. It's not that this article is not on point, in my opinion you could reach more people through reviews on movies and highlighting great movies they might not know about. Let's be real most black filmmakers that get a decent budget on their film just want to get paid like everybody else and could give a damn about telling different black stories or telling their own story , they just want to make what sells, if that's what they want to do, that's on them, that's why I speak to indie filmmakers with no budgets or limited budgets because they refuse to conform to white hollywood bs, they are the ones who are going to change things not these mainstream black filmmakers, actors,actresses, and producers who are just hustling black people like they care when in reality they make sure business go on as usual, you know they can't upset their white studio exec masters.


Everette good post you hit the problem on the head, we need to stop sugarcaoting things and be real about it, it's masses of black people that have been brainwashed through white supremacy attack on the black mind through films, tv, books, the education system. Thye have been taught to love being last and not take their own culture serious. You know how many times I have heard black people make an excuse about a business, politics, and education saying you know there are black like that is who we are people that suppose to do f up stuff and just sit around and talk and not get things done. That's why I say to filmakers don't worry about the black audience accepting different films, we need those films to exist eventually they will build a sub-culture that can thrive. The focus should be on making films and the film websites and the critics should focus on letting the public know about these films. The focus should be on the next generation because if you have a genration of black kids seeing different black films and not buying into sterotypes of holllywood that's when you are going to see the change, the reality is theolder most people get the more they are stuck in their ways so you never going to get them to like or even check out different films because this is what they have been taught and grew up with, so you are fighting a losing fight, let them be who they are and concentrate on being who you are. Andre Seawood you wrote a good article on the movie collateral, I would rather see articles like that breaking down great films or telling people about great films that didn't get any notice than trying to convince people that don't give a damn about the art of films and there images of why they should care. My opinion you would reach more people with articles like the one you did on collateral than this article no matter how many good point you make because they are not going to care enough to check the article out. Most of the people that are commenting on this article already know what you are talking about. The ones you are trying to reach you can get through them through articles about movies. Example most people learned a little something about how Wall St works through the movies Wall St and Wolf of Wall St not through no news reports, books, or articles. When A Different World was on t.v. black colleger enrollment went up, you had black youth wearing black college gear taking pride in black colleges. I just think articles like this is just for a small circle of people who already know because that's who it ever really reaches most of the time, that just the reality.



Your description of your acquaintance's reaction to the dissolve made me chuckle. It reminded me of a friend of mine who told me that she did not like Spike Lee's films because they did not feel like films. Then, there was a woman whom I dated went and talked about me me behind my back. I showed her, DAUGHTERS of the DUST, and she fell asleep. She told her family that I had a bunch of boring movies.

What is happen with blacks is that they have internalized the hatred that the United States have for black culture at home. (This same hatred is not witnessed abroad when black music and other aspects of the its culture is being used to promote the American Empire. )

America does not take any pride in Blues, Jazz, Funk, Soul, Rap, our art, Film and writing. Thus, if it is not anointed by the popular culture, then, blacks do not want anything to do with it. Though, at home many of them enjoy it.

We have to do something to change this attitude. Instead of the neighborhoods being plastered with liquor and other ads why not show and honor our artists and scientists. We have to build the pride and honor of our own in that way the youths and those disinclined to learn will know that we respect our creators. Why not post Miles, Satchmo, Julie Dash, Oscar Micheaux, Langston, Fanon, Baldwin, and others to enhance the cultural profile. As it is now, we rise and fall and fade away. When that happens, it gives the appearance of no cultural importance.

There is a reason that other cultures posts photos of their honored members in their place of businesses.

The black community reaction would or might be different if it were aware of giants among us. If we build our own and stop waiting for the approval from the dominant culture, we would then, be in a better position to appreciate our own.


This what I been saying on this site for the longest black filmmakers and the black audience need to step their game up. It starts with the filmmakers, writers, actors, actresses and producers. We have to be willing to invest and tell different stories. It's time to put up or shut up. How many more years are we going to keep having this same conversation when we got all the tools we need now, technology is a game changer. You can go directly to your audience now, the tools available to filmmakers have made making movies cheaper. The real issue is too many of us have been bamboozled and manipulated to lust after hollywood acceptance and success. I challenge everyone that has made a comment to spend at least a $100 before the year is over on black films that don't play to stereotypes or if you are a filmmaker make a movie that don't play into hollywood sterotypes. Example of sucess if we had at least 50 black films that were diverse that were made for a 1 million dollars and on average made 5 million at the box office or vod that's a success. You shouldn't give a f about what the audience like if you are a real filmmakers it's about telling a story that you want to tell. My advice get with people that love the art of films and are just as passionate as you on the story you want to tell and make your movie. You can't change things with just articles, it has to be done on a wider level by us. I don't want to hear no more real talk, I want to hear lets's get things done talk. It's time to put up or shut up, it's that simple, too many of think it's so hard because we been brainwashed to think like that through white supremacy,I don't buy into that bull because I know we got the ability and the resources to change things, it's just a matter of saying enough is enough. Stop buying into the hype about black films, it's enough people that want to see different stories from black films, that you can be a success, you may not make transformers type money but you can have a career, I thought that's what it suppose to be about if you are a filmmaker.


Going off the beaten path in any way is a threat to our security as black people. It challenges our conscious or unconscious desire to further assimilate and blend into this pathological culture. The criticism or dismissal of a black film makers auteur driven work is equivalent to someone saying, "You will lose, my brother. You will be broke, my sister. Therefore you will not survive." That's how deep this syndrome can go. Sometimes I choose to look at jealousy as love disguised as fear. It's ignorance of who we truly are. As a result, we have become a culture of formulas. For example, many of us buy into the convention that something needs to “happen” by a certain page in a screenplay or the script reader will put it down. Or, one must have a clear beginning, middle and end. Or a movie should be entertaining or no one will watch it so you might as well not bother making that film at all or if you have already then you should make changes in order to make the film saleable and the audience more comfortable. Many of us forget that creativity is wild, mysterious and unstructured or bears its own internal structure separate from corporate interests or the desire to entertain. This devil’s eye syndrome reflects a deterioration of the arts and an increasingly cynical and myopic view of how artistic efforts can function in a bland cookie cutter, corporate culture. Film or any art form that makes us slow down and think and reflect is a threat to consumerism. It makes us buy less “things” because we value our inner selves more. So we have to teach our children and ourselves differently in terms of what it means to have the courage to follow our own Muse. Sometimes the greatest act is creating something that no one or hardly anyone might ever see because it makes the person who had that courage in the first place a more healthier, wiser human being and a much more powerful artist for those who may encounter their work in the future.

william lee

As a black indie filmmaker, and After 40 years in this biz, I have found that most black audiences do not support or understand my work. It seems the ranting and raving about stereotypical images is a hypocritical chant, when a film like SOUL PLANE is on auto play on mainstream black media outlets like BET. I do action adventure films, and though they always contain diverse casts, the black audience is simply non existent or they postulate I am not "black enough" in my craft or my ambition. So let me get this straight, a film with black people in pivotal roles is not worth the support of the black audience because it isn't "black" (i.e., ghetto) enough? Is this really where we're at?


I see this article as a further in-depth analysis to my response.

June 15 2014, Looking for Something to Watch on Father's Day? Try 'Black Nation'

Obviously you're from the D or the suburbs. I had to double check to see if we crossed paths without knowing. I don't know if you're solo or you have your own film group. If you joined 48 Hours film groups some interesting film projects can come about. Basically I'm trying to change the black independent culture of essentially relationship drama. Right now I think the group is moving towards a higher degree of professionalism. Just throwing some information out there.


I value the time and attention and considerate care given to writing this post.


Wow. You're a class act… Calling someone a "scroll troll" just because they disagree with you. By the way, I thoroughly read this article more than once and each time I came to the same conclusion. In the end, we don't agree. As a matter of fact, I think "black spectators" have been way more forgiving when it comes to black indie films versus studio films. And coming up with a fake syndrome is utterly ridiculous!

I've read many of your postings and sometimes I wonder… Are you really about helping advance black filmmakers in today's society or just to keep them locked in yesteryear?


So let me get this right…I've "insulted" you with my response yet YOU wrote this regarding black film goers: "The Devil’s Eye Syndrome is the deliberate critical rejection of Black independent film by Black spectators which manifests itself as a severe and bitter criticism of a Black independent film to the degree that no other commercial White studio film would be able to withstand nor would these Black spectators dare apply such “high standards” to a White film." Well let me just clarify this so you can understand…YOU HAVE INSULTED ALL "black spectators" of film. Did you understand that?


To Sergio

I would see a film like Middle of Nowhere and Transformers 4. Movies has to make me say that's a great piece of art as well as entertain. If it doesn't then what's the point.


*Sigh* I really wanted to like this article but, frankly, it just comes across as sour grapes. So folks didn't get your use of a Quentin Tarantino "dissolve" in your short film, therefore, you've concluded that most of us are inept at seeing and understanding superior film quality and skills? Wrong. Not buying that. If that were the case, talented indie filmmakers like Julie Dash–who's mentioned in your piece–would not have been discovered. Are black indie filmmakers skewered more than their white counterparts? Most definitely but that unwritten rule is something that applies to ALL blacks. We live in a society where black folks have to be ten times better at everything practically. However, when all is said and done, it doesn't have to deter you from being successful at what you do. And frankly Andre, I've been a patron of black indie films for more than 20 years and in my opinion…cream does rise to the top. A talented black indie filmmaker may not get millions of folks viewing his work but he may get the "right eyes" viewing it, leading to him or her being able to secure much bigger film/commercial work (Ava Duvernay is a good example).

As far as talent, it's your job as a director to find the very best. Not mediocre or just "okay" talent. The BEST. Do black folks have a tendency to pick at the skills of unknown actresses and actors? YES and that's because they've been fed bad or mediocre levels for so long. Even if I use your "devil's eye" theory which is basically saying we've been conditioned by the white mainstream media, it would still mean we're exposed to a higher level of acting and we wholeheartedly EXPECT anyone attempting to enter the fray as a filmmaker or actor/actress to adapt to those standards accordingly. Filmmaker Joe Doughrity knew Emayatzy Corinealdi was a great actress when he put her in AKIRA'S HIP HOP SHOP. The same can be said for filmmaker Pete Chatmon when he used Dorian Missick and Zoe Saldana in PREMIUM.

Finally, there are other components and factors, such as marketing and "insider" push, missing from your argument. I sometimes sense indie filmmakers think the indie film word is "magical" and it's not. So much is based on money and who you know just like any other industry. Also, in my opinion, the black audience is still in need of being cultivated when it comes to art house/indie films. One aspect I find problematic is how so many black filmmaker chose to enter the field with a dramatic film. ALL dramatic features have difficulty in the industry, mainstream or indie. It's always been this way. You put yourself behind the eight ball if you go this route.

In the end, as I stated…talent will rise to the top. Filmmaker Justin Simien's DEAR WHITE PEOPLE concept trailer/kickstarter campaign is an excellent example of that! Nobody was coerced into liking that trailer. It came naturally and easily with NO PRODDING and because it was great, people referred it to others with excitement.

By the way, I don't know anyone who picks TRANSFORMERS for its artistic merits. Big tentpole films are usually seen at the theater with your family for the experience. While art house and/or indie flicks are saved as your date night flicks using VOD or Netflix.


I understand and appreciate the sentiment behind your writing. I must start by saying that I am, as an artist, very interested in giving rise to my own voice as a filmmaker, a voice which respects the wisdom of the great filmmakers before me and yet seeks to express a very personal and intimate vision of the world, which includes developing a personal approach to narrative structure, cinematic language, and orienting cultural perspective.

In regards to narrative structure, I feel you. But I have to say that I feel that comes with more African American filmmakers seeking to explore the boundaries of conventional narrative, something which I have yet to experience at the independent level, if even with black Hollywood films.

In regards to budget, current technology is a lovely thing. If you have a cinematographer that can paint with light DSLRs can offer amazing imagery.

Acting, however, acting is different. I grew up around the theater as young person (mom was an actress) and saw a lot of plays. Acting is a serious thing. I learned that a quality actor could perform against a black wall and make you see the whole scene on the stage in your mind's eye. Acting is unforgiving. Decent acting is really bad acting. Acting reminds me of music in that way. A close note still sounds like a false note.

I have been in filmmaking communities in Ohio, Bay Area, Los Angeles, Houston, and New Orleans and in independent film, regardless of race, acting is the make or break factor to your story feeling real. The problem in independent film is that, as I have seen more often than not, a person decides to call themselves a director (without studying cinematic language or narrative structure) and another an actor because people see a film and think "it can't be that hard." The director writes a script gets enough money to bring a team together. The director sees someone who looks like the part and is interested in acting, but has little to no training yet hires them anyway.) But acting, like writing, and directing, (or every other art form) is a craft that takes years to learn. So the director makes his film from her first script and is so in enchanted with the idea of people doing what you tell them to do and surge of creative power and loses objectivity. The script needs work. The actors are eager but don't have training in how to modulate their emotions. The director's friends and family are amazing because (you actually made a film) Then someone who is not connected to the project has something critical to say and all hell breaks loose. The critical person has now become the source of evil in the world.

This is not to say that there aren't haters out there, but on the real talk level, I have seen the above sequence happen dozens of time over the past 13-14 years. Some people, also regardless of race, enjoy the props of accolades of creativity but not the painstaking work to creating within themselves.

Andrei Jefferson

Mr. Seewood,

I always find your essays very interesting. And while I understand the point you are making with this essay, I find aspects of it problematic. Years ago when I was teaching film in DC, a showed my graduate class a sequence from one of my films. Throughout the film, I periodically utilized flash frames as an editing aesthetic. After the screening, one of the students asked me if this was a mistake. It never struck me then, nor does it now, that this question was motivated by what you refer to as the “Devil’s Eye.” More accurately, it was a comment based on the fact that the majority of people who go the movies, rent or buy DVDs mostly only view commercial cinema and most commercial cinema adhere to a very specific set of aesthetic conventions. Simple put, the student had never seen a film that incorporated the flash frames created by the film camera.

As the creator, it’s understandable for us to want our creative choices, if not understood, than at least appreciated in some way, but the audience doesn’t have this responsibility. They don’t have to like what we do. And we have to find a way to come to terms with that. As some one else suggested, all filmmakers do not make films for the same reasons. And in a country that regards film first and foremost as a product for commerce, filmmakers have to be realistic when it comes to how much broad appeal a film will be able to generate with an unconventional narrative and unconventional aesthetics.

I watch all kinds of films. I love international art cinema and I can also enjoy the entertainment value of a big budget Hollywood spectacle. I think acceptance and appreciation ultimately comes down to exposure, but there will still be individual tastes and levels of intellect.

I think your argument also would have been stronger if you could have provided another example other than one leveled at your own filmmaking endeavors. I’m also curious to know what your response was to the brother that made the comment about the dissolve. Perhaps he didn’t understand it. Perhaps there was something about the use of the dissolve, the timing, the framing of the two shots, that “got in the way” of his understanding. Or perhaps he took a sip from his soda and missed a second or two. Anything could have happened to interfere with his understanding. I also think you make an incredible assumption by suggesting this same person will go and see a “Hollywood” movie and basically swallow absolutely everything about said movie without question. Once again, the issue of subjectivity comes into question.

In the end, I completely agree with you: all filmmakers, and maybe to a greater degree, black filmmakers have to decide what type of filmmaker, storyteller they want to be. And if you are truly driven with a passion and a desire to make films, than you will continue to do so, be your own worst critic, learn as much about the craft as possible, and make the films you want to make regardless of whether or not someone understands your dissolves or flash frames.


Thanks for this!


Most people view films as a form of entertainment…many people who become filmmakers view film as an art…most people judge a film based on its ability to entertain them…artists value films based on the creative innovation and unique voice of the filmmaker…the Devil's Eye Syndrome is the anger that most people have towards artists who value innovation and aesthetics over pure entertainment value…as an artistic filmmaker you do not see "film" as
95% of the population sees it…they have no idea who Bazin and Eisenstein are and don't care…they are watching something and it needs to move them emotionally to laughter, fright or something immediately…they don't want to think about it or try to figure it out (unless it's
a murder mystery)…you can either make things that are popular and genre and give it a smart artistic edge or just go all out artistic and understand the audience for this is tiny…resentment of the Devil's Eye is not the answer…the Devil's Eye is just clarifying things for you


The Devils Eye Syndrome… I must admit… I've harbored such in my soul.

So this excellent piece spoke directly to me. In fact, it was so tight I had to read it twice… and boy oh boy, you laid me (and I can assume many others) smooth the fk out. So, in my defense it behooves me to say, I simply didn't know. I didn't know the harm I was causing our fellow and up n coming filmakers, by using my Devils Eye while critiquing black independent films. So thank you for bringing our missteps to our attention.

That said, I do have a slight disagreement. Well, you used Meryl Streep in a negative connotation. You said "Acting is usually the [Devil's eye] easiest target of attack against the Black Independent Filmmaker's work"

And then you justified and qualified your opinion by downplaying Meryl Streep's acting prowess. Okay, speaking for myself, acting is not the first target my Devil's Eye focuses on. Many, many things take me "there". Generally speaking, my evil eye is raised at the first sign of "trouble". That aside, I believe I am a good judge of an actor's ability to convince "me" they are not acting. More importantly, I am the judge of an actor's ability to emotionally move me without me referring back to their past performance(s). Therefore, in my opinion, one who believes Meryl Streep is today's best living actress, a lessor actor may have been a better choice to illustrate/bolster your point.

That small issue aside, this post may not be loved by many (and we know why) but again, you've done the damn thang. This was (of course) well-written, very insightful and very much needed for all to hear.

spirit equality

The "What's the matter, boss, we sick?" line is from Malcolm X, not an "old comedian".

And most black people I know never even go to see black independent films, so be glad your friends at least pay money for them.

ps: I have to admit, I've never met anyone who would see a black indie like "Middle of Nowhere" AND "Transformers 4". Seems like two sets of people go to these types of films and I rarely observe any overlap.


“94-97 or the films: Psycho, Spider, The Sixth Sense), a young man quits high school and literally walks into a hellish nightmare of murder and mayhem after he witnesses a brutal crime by another man that very same day”
I do not agree, look at

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