The international flavor of the indie film scene - celebrating the latest from Romania one week, Japan the next - can sometimes obscure the extent of white dominance in the UK and American industries. Beyond every “Fruitvale Station” and “12 Years a Slave” there are dozens of smaller films featuring black talent behind and in front of the camera which simply don’t get seen, as festival and distribution slates remain dominated by the visions and ideals of white filmmakers.
The British industry, while certainly not short of empty rhetoric on diversity and outreach, does at least have state funding mechanisms at its disposal. In the past year for example, three feature films from black female directors (Amma Asante’s “Belle”, Debbie Tucker Green’s “Second Coming” and Destiny Ekaragha’s “Gone Too Far!”) have received significant funding from the BFI Film Fund, a government body funded by the tax payer which can assist with distribution as well as production and development. But the USA has no such entity at hand.
Enter Ava DuVernay, who since winning the Best Director award at Sundance 2012 has gained increasing prominence as an inspirational voice for black independent cinema. DuVernay could be forgiven for focusing on her booming directorial slate - following a high-profile episode of NBC’s “Scandal” she will next write and direct Martin Luther King biopic “Selma”. Instead she has devoted tremendous time and energy to a project whose genesis predates her Sundance win - the African-American Film Festival Releasing Movement (AFFRM).
AFFRM is an independent distributor with a multi-platform label called ARRAY that acquires and licenses black independent films. They have released six films since 2011 with a mission to distribute two films per year, as DuVernay puts it, “by hand, not by machine”. The hands to which she refers are approximately 500 volunteers and a little more than 100 black arts advocate organizations both in the U.S. and abroad, all grassroots on shoestring budgets. This week, DuVernay launched a characteristically upbeat and invigorating call to arms for new allies or "rebels" with the aim of developing, funding and launching new educational and community programs created by AFFRM.
DuVernay’s approach is all the more impressive when you consider her background. Before turning to directing, her DVA agency provided marketing for huge studio films from “Dreamgirls” and “Invictus” to “Shark Tale”, and with her contacts and personal acclaim, she is presumably well-placed to take a more conventional approach to distribution should she choose. But it is her firm belief that it is this strategy which will most benefit AFFRM’s films and, most importantly, their audiences.
As she explained to me, the new initiative is specifically designed to expand AFFRM’s offerings beyond film distribution to build community and cultivate audiences. “Most film membership organizations look one way. And many of them do great work for diversity as addendums to larger core missions. But we asked ourselves, is it possible to have one that looks like us? A majority people of color membership, with smart allies of other shades sprinkled in - not the other way around? One whose core mission is to create opportunities and audience for cinematic artists of color? Is it possible? We don’t know. But we’re giving it a shot in a very grassroots way, which is the only way we know. We’ll see”.