SURVEY – It’s Time To Put Up Or Shut Up! (About That “Hollywood Whiteout” Problem)
Loooong time readers of Shadow And Act will be familiar with what follows below – initially posted on May 29th, 2009, almost 2 years ago, and only about a month after Shadow And Act was launched. Seems like an eternity. But it’s been a fun ride.
In light of recent articles and the conversations that they inspired, I thought I’d repost it as, in effect, my response to all the noise. I’m referring specifically to the New York Times article titled Hollywood Whiteout, by Mahnola Dargis and A.O. Scott, that was printed on February 11th. I won’t rehash; you can read it HERE, if you didn’t, but I think the title says plenty.
That article was sent to me by several of you, wondering if I would respond to it on S&A, but I really have had no interest in doing so. It seems like an annual occurrence now – mainstream media articles are written lamenting/criticizing/analyzing the film industry’s “diversity problem.” We all share them, discuss them, etc, but, ultimately, little, if anything, actually changes… until the next year, when the cycle only repeats itself and another batch of “Hollywood Whiteout”-style pieces are written, shared, discussed, and so on.
And then I saw THIS Huffington Post op-ed by Nelson George that references the New York Times article. George’s editorial is something of a nostalgic look at black cinema’s past, albeit an ultimately empty piece of commentary, and an even nihilistic one, in my opinion. I’d say that I was more turned off with what he had to say (or maybe what he didn’t say and should have said) than Dargis’ and Scott’s analysis.
And then there was Forest Whitaker’s reaction to the New York Times article, which we posted here yesterday, when he was asked to respond to it in an interview with Tavis Smiley.
So… what I see and hear here is just more of the same – a lot of analysis, criticism and whining, with little actual action to go along with it. And I’m over that! I also see a lot of reaction instead of proaction. The New York Times (or some other mainstream media site) pens a critique of the film industry’s so-called diversity problem, written by whites usually, and we all jump… because it’s the New York Times. Meanwhile, here on Shadow And Act, we’ve been talking about this shit forever; and not only just talking about it, there’s actually action to support all the talk! Eff the New York Times! I don’t need them to tell me that there’s a diversity problem! Do you? Isn’t it evident? Hasn’t it been evident since the medium was invented? We’re certainly not the first to have these discussions. Our parents, grandparents and even great-grandparents had the exact same discussions.
I’ve long moved past all that futile dialogue, and have instead chosen to act, doing what I can to affect change. And it looks like it’ll take the vision and audacity of the everyman and woman to make the difference that many of us cry for regularly; From the Shadow And Act Filmmaker Challenge, to Ava DuVernay’s AFFRM, just to name 2 recent instances.
“Now what?” That’s always my response to these articles? What do we do now? How do we fix this? Will another year or 2 pass, accompanied by another set of editorials analyzing and criticizing the industry’s “diversity problem?”
Meh! I’ll pass…
But as I started out saying, I penned the below entry almost 2 years ago in response to similar discussions about the dearth of work for blacks in the industry, both in front of and behind the camera. The response, as you will see from the comments, was strong and varied. In reposting it, I’m not necessarily asking for the idea to be implemented (The Shadow And Act Filmmaker Challenge developed from this, with the expectation that it would grow and prosper over time, to become something like what I proposed below). I just thought I’d share it all again, for those who weren’t readers at the time, and who may have missed it. I don’t think something like this would ever exist. I’m not delusional, but I’m forward-thinking and hopeful. So, consider it a shake-up, to get you all to ponder the possibilities; to shift the discussion from how bad things are to “what can we do about it?” Or think of it as my indirect response to the New York Times Hollywood Whiteout piece; it may not be what you were all looking for – those who were hoping that I’d respond to it; but it is what is; and instead of passing the New York Times article around to all your Facebook and Twitter pals, or everyone in your email contact list, consider sharing this one instead for a change :):
It’s Time To Put Up Or Shut Up folks!
I’m not a whiner. I have little patience for whiners and complainers. I’m more of a doer. If I find myself in some unfortunate predicament, and it’s one that I can readily dig myself out of, I’d rather spend my time digging, than talking about how unfortunate my predicament is. It just makes more sense to me. We all have our moments, certainly, but just don’t make a habit out of it.
I admire doers – those who rise in the face of adversity and seize opportunities as they materialize, or create opportunities for themselves.
On this site, and others I’ve written for in the past, we’ve had endless discussions about the sad state of the film industry as it relates to those of us of the African Diaspora, and just how marginalized and invisible we still are, after a century, since the medium’s dawn.
We keep waiting, hoping that eventually, those elites in the industry with the power to do so, will recognize their collective strength, and utilize it to produce workable solutions that will cure many of the ills that dominate our often disheartening discussions. And we’re still hoping and waiting for people like Spike Lee, Tyler Perry, Oprah Winfrey, Will Smith, Denzel Washington, Robert Johnson, or even P Diddy, Jay-Z, 50 Cent, and others of their ilk, to collectively engender the kind of change that fuels our mostly impassioned conversations. We dump our expectations on those few men and women, somewhat unfairly, in my opinion, when the rest of us, almost 40+ million strong, can’t seem, or maybe just simply refuse to recognize and acknowledge our own collective might, which is arguably far stronger, and capable of swift and longer term impact than the former.
As much as I enjoy the dialogue, if only for the sheer entertainment value that can be derived from it, I do ofttimes grow weary of criticizing, and/or reading the criticisms targeted at those few people I listed above, and others not mentioned. It becomes tediously repetitive, and borders on futility.
Like I started off suggesting, let’s focus our collective passion into actually doing, instead of talking about doing. It’s time to put up or shut up; in essence, what are YOU, my friends, willing to do in order to see the kind of change most of us scream about, and despite the occasional disagreements, actually do concur with each other on?
In the fall of 2006, I wrote an op-ed piece for NPR’s News & Notes calling for a completely autonomous black-owned and operated film production and distribution studio, the likes of any of the major 6 or 7 that currently rule the film industry (you can read the article HERE if you haven’t already). My suggestion was met with more derision than I anticipated – specifically from other black people, which both disheartened and dumbfounded me.
A year later, 2007, opting to take matters into my own hands, I created a fund in conjunction with a black-owned non-profit organization (ActNow Foundation) called the Capable Tenth Black Filmmaker Fund, loosely borrowing from the now-defunct Talented Tenth ideology given birth to by W.E.B. Du Bois in the early 1900s – a concept he later abandoned.
The Capable Tenth fund was created with the intent to harness our collective resources into a singular entity (sort of like what we’ve done with the Shadow And Act website), which would then be used to produce and create the kinds of films that tell stories about people of African descent, that many of us feel have been, and still are lacking; to create the variety that we all say is desperately needed to counter the kind of often derivative, uninspiring work that’s dominated our screens over the years.
The core idea for the fund was a simple one: in brief, HYPOTHETICALLY – if 10% of the 40 million people who identify as Black or African American, or about 4 million people, contributed a meager $50 annually to the fund, that would instantly create a $200 million vault which would all be invested in the production and distribution of films that tell varied stories primarily about people of African descent. In effect, a financial entity that will operate as a kind of non-profit mini-studio. Every cent that each distributed film produces will be reinvested back into the fund, which will be expected to grow year-over-year, allowing for the production of even more films, and higher-budgeted films, than preceding years. With the average cost of “black films” financed by studios hovering around the $10 to $20 million mark (taking recent films by/with people like Tyler Perry, Spike Lee, Ice Cube, Mos Def, Beyonce, and others into consideration), a $200 million pot could see 5 to 10 pictures produced and distributed annually – a number that will surely grow over time, provided most films are profitable in the long run. Again, these are all arbitrary numbers.
In the end, the Capable Tenth idea was also met with a rather lackluster response, and sadly so. There’s what I’ve noticed and would describe as a kind of defeatist attitude that’s hindering our progress. One of the first questions I was asked by several people I approached with the concept was, “what’s in it for me?” Apparently the lure of seeing a more varied, robust representation of our lives on screen wasn’t enough. Some weren’t interested unless there was money to be made, which I suppose I can understand in purely capitalistic terms. However, my response was just about the same for each of those people: no one will be making money from this. It’s an egalitarian idea; fuck the Ayn Rand individual over the collective stance. This time it’s about the collective, and the collective’s movement power.
Suffice it to say that it wasn’t a response that registered within the minds of many.
So, disillusioned by the prevalent sheer lack of interest and myopia, I eventually abandoned the Capable Tenth idea, about 8 months later.
I haven’t attempted anything similar since then.
We seem to like throwing around terms like “self-empowerment,” but often when a viable empowering solution is presented, we shred it to bits, or just don’t react to it, insisting to instead continue wallowing in our own shit, selling some other brand of “self-empowerment” that never quite materializes, and even possibly encourages regression instead of progression. We seem content with placing the burden on others to relieve for us, waiting to eat the crumbs off a table we’ve never really had a seat at.
So, consider this a survey folks: if a fund like what I described was indeed legally and legitimately created, and you were invited to contribute to it, whether $10, $50 or $100, or more every year, in one lump sum, or on a payment schedule, would you want to do so? And if not, give reasons why.
Forget Tyler Perry; forget Spike Lee, forget Oprah; forget Big Willie; forget P Dizzle Dazzle; forget Robert Johnson; etc, etc, etc… This isn’t about them. This is about us – you and I. Can you imagine how impressive it would be if something like this actually came to fruition, and was successful? Those same people I just mentioned, and quite frankly, the industry in general, will be forced to take notice, and will likely, eventually, want to be a part of it.
Harnessing the power of the collective over the individual.
Many of us spend, or maybe I should even say, waste large sums of money on frivolous items that bring us temporary pleasure. Why not put that money towards an idea that will reap long term rewards, far greater, and even more impacting universally, than the $50 you spent on Friday night alone on drinks? Or the $100 you spent on food at Cafe NegroChic to impress your date, who will probably not want to see you again anyway? Or, even worse, the $35 you spent at the movie theatre on tickets, popcorn and soda last week, for you and your significant other, watching the latest neo-minstrel flick, which you knew you wouldn’t like, after which you make your way to the Shadow And Act website to express your dissatisfaction with?
Yes, I realize that I’m simplifying the entire idea, and it’s much more complex than what I’ve described; there are, of course, other concerns, such as, how we decide on what scripts get produced, and what films get distributed. Will it be done collectively, regardless of how many contribute, or will a committee of people from varying backgrounds and experiences, be appointed by the collective to oversee those kinds of decisions? But I think those concerns are less worrisome than actually getting the idea off the ground.
I’m most interested in the basic concept, and your interest in it.
So, put your money where your mouth is, as the saying goes. If this hypothetical fund was created, would you contribute to it? And if not, tell me why; and maybe, to be even more constructive, if the idea doesn’t appeal to you, how would you shape it so that it becomes more attractive to you and others with your particular line of thought?
Come on folks… indulge me here… I dare you! Let’s have a fruitful discussion about this possibility… which might even lead to the beginnings of something definite…
A pleasant weekend to all!
83 comments to SURVEY – It’s Time To Put Up Or Shut Up! (About That “Hollywood Whiteout” Problem)
View in: Mobile | Standard