Keepin' It Real, Personal Notes on White Directors and "Minority" Representation in "Our Song" and "Black and White"
(indieWIRE/5.30.2000) — I am not a film critic. In fact, I have a lot of resentment towards film critics for the glib and trivializing ways that they can sometimes dismiss years of hard work by friends of mine. I am a Black gay filmmaker and I’ve spent the past four years attempting to balance my time between making my own experimental short films and working in post-production within the New York independent film community. While I am outside of New York City trying to find a cheaper way to live as I finish writing and researching for a new project, I rely on a few people to keep me informed about what’s going on in the city.
A friend of mine drops me an e-mail last April. It’s in response to a film called “Our Song” that I bought her tickets for as a birthday gift that screened at New Directors/New Films. As a young, Black woman who works in the film industry, I thought she would really relate to the film on a number of different levels. The following are excerpts of her responses and some facts about the evening’s screening at the festival that she thought were important to relay to me:
“It was really wonderful to see such a story about young women of color on the screen. I thought the acting was amazing and I’m really glad it was made. . . . The relationships with the parents were really well written and honest and again unusual to see portrayed in film. Lani’s character was the most fully developed. The black chick kind of dropped out half way through the film and I don’t know why. You never got a complete sense of her. It was slow at times but that was o.k.”
“However, possibly the most interesting part of the evening came with the discussion. After the filming amidst all of the applause, a black woman gets up and says to Jim, ‘I hate to be the party pooper but I don’t think you have any right to tell this story. This is not your story to tell and as a black woman I’m completely offended etc.’ And then basically a very honest discussion ensued. . . . Though I don’t agree with her I’m totally glad she said that at least to get people talking about the issue. Jim’s response was that his inspiration was seeing the film ‘Just Another Girl on the Irt‘ (which I want to see now) six years ago and realizing that there had been no other independent films about young women of color since. . . .”
“I then stood up and said . . . sometimes the indie film world can seem (and I think in terms of numbers it is) more sexist and racist than Hollywood. I then said that I think what a lot of people of color who work in this business feel is anger at who has the access to tell our stories and so often it’s not us. We get very frustrated and upset and that is very real. . . . . I realized later that I should have pointed out that not one black American man or woman director was in the festival as a case in point. . . .”
As I finish reading her e-mail I remember my own responses to “Our Song” at this year’s Sundance Film Festival. I remember going over to Jim McKay afterwards and giving him a congratulatory hug. We later saw each other at a screening of another film that we had both worked really hard on. He looked at me through the crowd and gave me a thumbs up. He seemed genuinely happy to see a face of color within the overwhelming sea of whiteness.
As I sit in a room thinking about white commodification of/fascination with Black culture for a screenplay I’m writing, it can sometimes be important to get outside my own head. I figure I’ll check out a new film that just opened that deal with similar themes in contemporary times. I step up to the ticket window and talk into the speaker, “Can I get one for ‘Black and White‘?” As I sit down and wait for it to begin, an interracial couple — a black man and a white woman — sit down in front of me. As the film plays my body seems to be having these uncontrollable and violent spasms as I keep grabbing my head in disbelief. “Oh my fucking god,” I mutter under my breath as the end credits with snappy split screen visuals and brief snippets of dialogue are attempting to tie up the loose ends of the narrative.
As the harsh rays of the sun’s reality hit me, I watch the interracial couple walk up the street in front of me. They seem very calm in their silence while I am furious and shaking. I think of approaching them as I step into my mind’s eye, imagining the scenario as a filmed scene with dialogue.
Rodney anxiously walks towards the young, bohemian-looking, interracial couple.
Rodney: What did you guys think of that movie?
The young Black man turns towards Rodney and sees fire in his eyes.
Young Black Man: Excuse me, do we know you?
Rodney: You know me. I’m that faggot you thought you saw up on the screen. The one (two and three) whose only job was to bat his eyes lasciviously, discuss Aramis perfume and hunger for the straight man’s dick. You know the one that Mike Tyson punched in the face and referred to as “that thing” while all the people around you cackled and cheered and wished they could be a champ just like him. A champ who fails to realize that the movie positions him as a modern day minstrel show while the filmmakers laugh themselves all the way to the bank. I’m the faggot that will now be so much easier to use as a punching bag the next time he looks at you and you perceive the slightest hint of a probably imagined potential desire. I was with you in that movie, “Black and White” where every woman is a backstabbing slut who brings about the downfall of the straight guys. I was right behind you in that movie “Black and White.” The movie that all the hip-hop kids are gonna go see because Method Man and Raekwon from Wu-Tang are in it and you know they gotta be down with the Wu-Tang even if they don’t understand half of what they’re saying. (“It even has real movie stars in it like what’s his face…. Ben Stiller and Robert Downey Jr” one kid says to the other as they stare at the poster). Don’t you remember my brother? I’m the young, black faggot that sat right behind you in the dark, in silence. How could you not see me? I was right there.
The light changes and as the people rush forward I notice the couple are a block away before a word has been exchanged. There is no time for dialogue as I clench my fist and cross the street. I hail a cab and shut the door a little bit too hard due to my inability to recognize my own strength.
It’s the next morning and my anger is not subsiding. I think to myself that it’s people like Jim Toback that make it so important for people like me (young, black, gay and angry) to make movies. By any means necessary. I pick up a pen and a pad and start writing this article that you are now reading: a thank you note to two Jims for helping me to understand the differences between right and wrong and giving me a real sense of direction.