“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
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 Amazon.com HERE.