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Cybel Martin: In Search of Films that Reflect Me

Cybel Martin: In Search of Films that Reflect Me

The above image is from an ad my Mom created for the organization, BOCA (The Black Owned Communications Alliance). It should give you some idea of how I was raised.

I’m aware of the importance of seeing positive images of yourself in film/tv/media. But as a filmmaker and lover of film, I also believe a film should reflect the director’s reality. Not mine. These two beliefs often come to blows when evaluating/enjoying a film. As was the case with “Whiplash”.

“Whiplash” was a superb film. However, I kept thinking “what if it took place at a prestigious film school instead of a music conservatory?” I’d be sour. Really sour. Why? Because the student body portrayed in “Whiplash” was almost exclusively black and white men. I received my MFA from Tisch Film School. Maybe not as diverse a student body as “Fame” but we did have women. My identity is very much wrapped around my education and I’d take the absence of women as a personal slight. As if the director said “I can add a female student… or a potted plant to this scene. Same difference.”

Seeing yourself in media is a form of validation. That you exist. That your story, struggles and legacy matter. That they hold equal weight and value to those who appear different. But I rarely see a protagonist whose life resembles my own. Black female artist. Closest friends resembling an 80s Benetton ad. Surrounded by as many artist, as scientist. As many gay as are straight. Her parents still together. If not for Shadow and Act and Twitter, most people wouldn’t know a black female DP exists.

When writing for S&A, my main goals are to make you better filmmakers, more confident filmmakers and share in my love of film. I never want to gripe unless I can offer a solution or shift in perspective. Other writers have addressed the lack of diversity in front and behind the camera, pervasive whitewashing and a discouraging award season. I can offer no solutions beyond the obvious: write/direct your own films, promote and financially support films, filmmakers, festivals and awards that align with your politics.

What I can share is how I watch over 350 films/year and often see myself in those stories. Why did I love “Whiplash”? It showed pride in one’s education, was about an only child, who had a wonderful relationship with his father, lived in New York, had “complicated” relationships and a fervent belief in his artistic abilities. It was me.

The protagonists of most films won’t share my physical traits, but the film itself might share my personality traits and life experiences. Below is a list to help demonstrate what I mean. Many films could easily fit in multiple categories.

Cinematographer – I can’t help but identify with any film shot beautifully

Only Child – Clueless, Amelie, Spirited Away, Beasts of the Southern Wild, This is England

Positive Relationship with Both (Still Married) Parents –  Easy A, The Incredibles, Mean Girls, The Kids Are All Right

Optimistic / Sometimes Idealistic – Singing in the Rain, Happy Go Lucky, Thin Red Line

Child of the 70s – Any film shot during or about the 70s. From Foxy Brown, to Logan’s Run to Boogie Nights

Growth Prompted by Other Cultures – Ramin Bahrani films, Cairo Time, The Visitor, In America, Le Havre

Native New Yorker/Manhattanite – Shadows, Raising Victor Vargas, Audrey Rose, Midnight Cowboy, Please Give, Kids, Kramer vs Kramer, West Side Story. Noirs shot on location. Regardless of borough, I always respond to films about Black immigrants in NYC

Concerned with Urban Planning – The Pruitt Igoe Myth, Medicine for Melancholy, Poltergeist, Chinatown, There WIll Be Blood, Only Lovers Left Alive, Deliverance

Blue Collar Worker (aka Below the Line) – Edge of the City, Blue Collar, Silkwood, North Country

Proud of / Fascinated with My Friends – Mrs Parker and the Vicious Circle, Bridesmaids, Freaks, City of God, Tombstone, All About Eve, Pollock

Party Lover/ Party Thrower – The Great Beauty, Party Girl, Breakfast at Tiffany’s, Lackawanna Blues, every Fellini film

Strategic / Cerebral – Anything written by Brit Marling, Hannah, Heat, Any Given Sunday, David Mamet films, Bullitt, Fresh, The American, Headhunters, The Good Shepherd, I Saw the Devil, The Conversation. Blade Runner. Related to…

Fascinated by Physics/Quantum Physics – Shane Carruth films, Interstellar, 2001: A Space Odyssey, The Illusionist, La Jetee. Related to …

Constantly Questioning Reality – from the magical: Wings of Desire, After Life, The Matrix, Inception, Next Stop Wonderland, to the bizarre: Synecdoche, NY, Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Being, Enter the Void, anything by Tarkovsky or Leos Carax, to the dark: Every horror film

Traveller/Free Spirit – About Schmidt, Into the Wild, On The Road, Motorcycle Diaries, Thelma and Louise, Death Proof

Woman in a “Man’s Job”/ with “Men’s Interest” – Potiche, Love and Basketball, Norma Rae, Aliens, Jafar Panahi films, Elizabeth. Related to…

Challenging Women’s Roles in Society – Anything written by Sarah Polley or Lars Von Trier, most film noirs, Fill the Void, Mother of George, Wadjda, She’s Gotta Have It. Related to…

Complicated Romantically – Celeste and Jesse Forever, Reds, I Am Love, Last Time I Saw Paris, Rust and Bone, Blue Valentine, Ali: Fear Eats the Soul

Challenges of an Artist – Birdman, Seraphine, Poetry, Finding Vivian Maier, Frances, An Angel at My Table, Mishima. Julian Schnabel films. Too many to list.

Exultations of an Artist – Babette’s Feast, Rize, A Band Called Death, The Runaways

That’s some of my list. What’s yours? How could you describe yourself beyond the obvious adjectives? What films honor that aspect of you?

It doesn’t solve the problem in the film industry, but hopefully it gives you some idea of other ways to appreciate film.

Some suggested reading/watching re: representation in film/media:

Any book by Donald Bogle for Black representation in film/tv. The Celluloid Closet: Homosexuality in the Movies. Reel Injun (Native American representation). Imaginary Witness (The Holocaust in film). Reel Bad Arabs. The Slanted Screen (Asian men in film). Latinos Beyond Reel. Wonder Women The Untold Story of American Superheroines. Representations of Labour: Images of Work and Workers in Film. Fatherhood and Hollywood: Dads in the Movies. Gender in Slasher Films. Miss Representation (Women in media). Racebending

See my work and past articles at CybelDP.com and chat film with me at @cybeldp.

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Comments

Arie Thompson

Right on.

Dankwa Brooks

Another great piece Cybel!

I like to see any good film on the black experience. It could be mad ghetto or hood, as long as it’s saying something and not just ghetto for ghetto’s sake I’ll seek it out and watch it.

As I was born and raised in Brooklyn, New York I seek out ANY New York shot film and YES I can tell.

I saw a short film last spring, ‘Whiffed Out’, as part of Artscape here in Baltimore and instantly knew it was shot in New York. The director was there and confirmed it. Films like ‘Mother of George’ which the director ANDREW DOSUNMU said was shot in Brooklyn, not Spike Lee’s Brooklyn, but HIS (Nigerian) Brooklyn, the film ‘Gimmie The Loot’, which OOZED New York. Anything set or shot in 1970’s New York brings back ALL the nostalgia.

Basically anything featuring black characters that are not tokens or a "Magic Negro" and add something to the narrative I’m down.

Correction

Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless MIND

Shaula Evans

Superb and important article, Cybel, and a fantastic viewing & reading list. Thank you.

No

Yet except for one or two scenes, Whiplash was entirely filmed in Los Angeles. Don’t base your social identity on film or tv shows. If you do, you are bound to be disappointed .

Janet

Excellent essay..

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