It was fitting that the inaugural Blackout Music & Film Festival took place at downtown Los Angeles’ GRAMMY Museum: The day’s conversations all seemed to center around voice.
Whether the discussion was about representation, development or recognition of artistic talent, voices in the black community were front and center on Saturday. And while they were eager to share their own experiences, they were also speaking on behalf of the voices that don’t often make it to the majority of American households.
The day’s panels were divided into two sessions, one focused on social justice with simultaneous talks on music and on storytelling happening later in the evening. The storytelling panel, hosted by Indiewire’s editor-in-chief Dana Harris, featured a collection of talent from all facets of the industry, from “Entertainment Tonight” co-host and HipHollywood founder Kevin Frazier to actress Tracie Thoms to FOX casting guru Camryn Washington.
There were a handful of running themes throughout the day, which also included screenings of the upcoming HBO documentary “3 1/2 Minutes, 10 Bullets” and Justin Simien’s Sundance 2014 favorite “Dear White People.” That idea of speaking on behalf of others resonated through the social justice panel when discussing “3 1/2 Minutes, 10 Bullets” subject Jordan Davis, who was killed outside a Jacksonville gas station in November 2012. Talking about the coverage of similar killings in locations like Ferguson, Missouri also led to a discussion of true media diversity. The Root’s Danielle C. Belton brought up the practice of mainstream media organizations hiring writers of color specifically (and solely) to cover race-based issues, a concept that popped up moments later as a subplot in Simien’s film.
Assessing the System
Harris began the Storytelling panel by turning attention to the inescapable box office success of “Straight Outta Compton,” F. Gary Gray’s biopic of the formation, rise and legacy of hip-hop pioneers N.W.A. Franklin Leonard, founder of The Black List and a former executive, discussed how the industry treats (and in many cases misunderstands) similar success stories, particularly in the international market.
“There are dozens of data points that counter the idea that you can’t sell black people overseas. But to this day, if you were to bring a piece of material to a studio and say, ‘This is an exceptionally written script with a bunch of Academy-Award, Tony-nominated actors involved,’ they’ll say ‘Well, we have to make this a $12 or $20 million budget because there’s no foreign in this…We can’t market them because they don’t sell to those audiences.’ It’s a cyclical thing,” he said.
Leonard was also quick to add that these attitudes are not necessarily born from a conscious prejudice, but simply institutional ignorance, saying “I’m not suggesting that there’s an implicit racism or hatred of black people in it…I’m saying that it has to do with stupidity and a fundamental understanding of economics.”
The moderator of the Social Justice panel, UCLA professor Marcus Hunter, led off a discussion topic about education with an observation that reverberates through the world of entertainment. When talking about opportunities for black students, he said, “One thing that is fundamentally missing is art in schools. We’re not realizing that they’re anchor subjects that our artistically talented students use to keep them in the building.”
Damon Davis, a multimedia artist from St. Louis working on “Whose Streets?,” a documentary about Ferguson, spoke to the challenges facing those same young artists in the black community working without an infrastructure. When they are presented with what’s deemed successful, Davis argued, “It’s a bunch of homogenized pieces. It’s like the food you eat at McDonald’s. It’s a bunch of stuff that they told you people like just thrown in a pot. The soul is missing in most of it.”
From an actor’s perspective, the opportunity and availability of roles can be a source of frustration. For the two actresses on the storytelling panel, Tracie Thoms and “Dear White People” star Tessa Thompson, the reminders of those institutional limitations are not infrequent. “I remember when we were making ‘Selma,’ we ended up in a conversation about the kind of parts that everyone wanted to play,” Thompson said, adding “in every case, they were historical figures. What about the new iconic, fictional characters? Who wants to be the next Annie Hall? Who wants to be the next Harold or Maude? No one like me has ever played a character like that.”
Thoms added that, even though black stories have received recent awards-season attention, those narratives represented an exclusive opportunity. “No one else could play those stories but black people,” she said. “I want to write and produce stories about people who happen to be black, which is different than making stories about black people and the black experience.”
Simien, also a panel member, echoed the full view of the place of black stories in the overall landscape. “Culture is created by stories and culture tells us what we are and can’t be,” he said, turning the conversation towards the current entertainment monolith of superheroes. Their stories, he argued, came from writers and creators who were also dealing with how to bring the outsider immigrant perspective to a wider audience. “We have that opportunity now to become the mainstream stories of tomorrow,” Simien added, while emphasizing how that goal requires a collaborative effort. “If you don’t see yourself in the culture, put yourself there and don’t stomp on people that are doing it. We really do have to support each other and come up together. That’s the only way,” he said.
And that advice is already being heeded. Throughout the day, for every anecdote or experience that seemed to underscore the difficulties that minorities face within the entertainment hierarchy, there were similar stories of camaraderie and perseverance. Nate Parker detailed the fundraising rollercoaster that preceded his upcoming feature directorial debut, the Nat Turner biopic “The Birth of a Nation.”
Even before final funding had been secured, he explained, “I decided to do something unconventional. I took my family and we moved to Savannah. I started prep by myself.” That conviction paid off, as one by one, his central crew members also made the trek to Georgia and, when the last bit of investment money came in, the film was already underway.
The day’s talks finished with a question from the audience about getting experience as an actor while not stopping to take stereotypical, one-dimensional roles. Simien’s response reiterated the idea that today’s media and entertainment landscape offers people of all backgrounds the opportunity to establish themselves and exist outside the preexisting industry framework that, unintentionally or not, can perpetuate some of those same cultural misconceptions. “You can find a way to create the role you want to play. Find those people, get that circle together and just do it. Rent out a theater space, do a one-man show, fail miserably, but just make it happen. Take a step every day and I guarantee you the universe will catch up to you,” Simien said.