PARK CITY 2001: Outside The Box; Black Directors Break Down Stereotypes
by Anthony Kaufman
(indieWIRE/01.22.01) -- Demane Davis and Khari Streeter are well aware that their second film, "Lift," will be called one of the "black films" at this year's Sundance Film Festival. When the line-up was announced in December, Geoffrey Gilmore noted the number of quality work from African American directors, citing "Lift," along with Vanessa Middleton's "30 Years to Life," Reggie Rock Blythewood's "Dancing in September," and Cheryl Dunye's "Stranger Inside." But what is a black film, anyway? If the term is a stereotype, the collection of disparate films on display at this year's festival reflects a need to reconsider the label -- and all the associations that go along with it.
"It's unavoidable," says Davis in a somber tone. "We're going to be called a 'black film' no matter what, because we're black and the actors are black." But Davis feels the time has come to break out of such restrictive definitions -- and "Lift," an engrossing tale more about materialism than race, seems poised to lead the way. "The film will ultimately transcend that [category]; and people won't put it in that box," hopes Davis.
"Lift" follows Niecy ("Our Song's" Kerry Washington), a shoplifter who steals in order to connect with her emotionally distant mother. Set in Boston, where Davis and Streeter run their own commercial production company and shot their overlooked debut "Black and White and Red All Over" (Sundance '97), the film presents a culture that prefers fashion to feelings, where both hip-hop style and 5th Avenue chic share the same shallow foundations. "The vehicle by which the mother and daughter communicate with each other happens to be this community that's submerged in materialism," explains Streeter.
Though the film focuses on characters from the Roxbury community where Davis grew up, "the themes that we play out," says Streeter, "are universal and they transcend African American life. So to say it's just a black film isn't enough. We set the story in a black neighborhood, with an all-black cast. So it is a story about black people. But that doesn't mean it's not a story for everyone."
Similarly, Vanessa Middleton's "30 Years to Life" is a comedy as universal to audiences as TV's "Friends." The specific comparison is Middleton's. An experienced writer for such shows as "Saturday Night Live," "Sister Sister," "Hanging with Mr. Cooper" and "The Cosby Show," Middleton tracks a group of New Yorkers as they head towards their 30th birthdays: a single Wall Street woman contends with men who only want to be pampered; a stand-up comedian can't get the big break; an ad exec tries a modeling career in the hopes of staving off middle age -- sound familiar?
"I grew up on movies, like "St. Elmos Fire," "The Breakfest Club," "The Big Chill," and they never had black people in them, and I still loved them," says Middleton. "So what I was trying to do is simply tell the same story that anyone could feel, and I just used black people to tell the story. It's not a race-specific thing. I have no problem with those films, I just want us to have some of that. If you want to call my film a black film, that's fine. But a black film shouldn't just be a 'Friday,'" adds Middleton, referring to the 1995 Chris Tucker/Ice Cube comedy.
"It doesn't bother me," says Middleton about the term, "black film." The difficulty, she says, lies in "the connotation." "That's one thing I was told a lot by studios: that it wasn't black enough, or ethnic enough," she says, explaining that the problem is "not the black film label, but what we include in that label."
Whether it's Davis and Streeter's complex interweaving of mother-daughter drama with social commentary or Middleton's appealing situation comedy of Gen X angst (or any of the other mentioned films, from Kasi Lemmon's genre-bending detective story to Dunye's reinvention of the prison film) or a "Friday," for that matter, the label is not, and never really has been, indicative of a particular kind of film.
This all may sound obvious, but in an industry that is run primarily by people that are not of color, there is something that these filmmakers do share: the funding challenges that come with being a black director and the fight against a prejudiced system that pigeonholes such films into a single box.
"That's the hardest thing when you're a black filmmaker," says Middleton, "because I know my audience, but I can't get to them without someone that's not of our mind, saying, 'Yeah, it's okay.' Fortunately, someone within the established clique of acceptance -- Sundance -- said, Okay.'"
"The first thing we heard when we were trying to sell "Black and White and Red All Over," and get financing for "Lift" was there's no overseas market for black films," says Streeter, "so we couldn't make our money back." Despite this unofficial rule of the business, Streeter and Davis persevered. But even with such industry bigwigs as Cathy Konrad (producer of "Scream") and James Mangold (director of "Copland") on board as executive producers, and Sundance's NHK award, which provides funds through a pre-sale of distribution to Japan, it took 5 years to get "Lift" off the ground. Eventually, Jeffrey Sharp and John Hart (producers of last year's shared Grand Jury Prize winner "You Can Count on Me") wrangled financing for the film.
"A strong enough attempt has not been made to market black films overseas," says Middleton, who financed much of "30 Years" by herself along with executive producer Timbaland (who also scores the film). "That's a lot of what will hold a black film back in terms of the amount of budget and marketing they'll put into it," adds Middleton.
With this next crop of black films that don't fall into the category of "black films," the industry may need to re-evalute the way it thinks about films by and about African Americans. And in the near future, we can hope an article like this one won't have to be written.
When asking Davis how she felt about being grouped in an article about black films at Sundance, she admitted, "I would rather you didn't so they could have the chance to stand on their own. To do what I think we're trying to do at all times, which is break out of that box."
For more on the subject, New York Times film critic Elvis Mitchell will moderate a panel at this year's festival on Friday, January 26th, titled African American Independence: Past, Present, and Future.