Sundance 2011: To Make Black Films or Not To Make Black Films?

by Neil Drumming

When Ta-Nehisi first asked if I would consider guest blogging from Sundance, I was hesitant—and not just because the caliber of other contributors was so high as to be intimidating. (This means you, Chabon.) The truth is, this is my vacation. Ever since I left Entertainment Weekly at the end of 2007, I have come to Sundance not primarily as a journalist, but as a movie fan and a filmmaker. A non-skier, I brave Park City's fresh powder and packed shuttle buses to be inspired and motivated along the course of my own work.

Full disclosure, folks: I have film projects in various stages of development, most tiny—shorts, spec scripts I'm penning—and one promising enough that I wouldn't broach it here for fear of some sort of jinx. Very dear to my heart is a screenplay about a handful of soul-searching thirty-somethings that I wrote and am co-producing. The subject matter is rather personal and the cast—we've had great fortune in getting talented actors interested in the material—is mostly black. I guess that makes it a black film.

With that project in mind, this has been a particularly bolstering Sundance. A fellow filmmaker and good friend of mine was quoted in The New York Times calling this year's festival "Blackdance." I wouldn't go that far, but there have been a record number of black and/or African-themed films and films by black directors screening this year, including Alrick Brown's Kinyarwanda, Rashaad Ernesto Green's Gun Hill Road, and Dee Rees' much buzzed-about lesbian coming-of-age tale, Pariah. One organization even hosted a three-day lounge where black filmmakers and interested parties could casually mingle and network. It was called "The Blackhouse" and also boasted a bangin' brunch. 

In case you've never debated Tyler Perry or Spike Lee with a black person, know that conversation around black film can be very spirited. In this supportive, passionate environment, though, the discussion has been galvanizing, with writers, directors, and producers discussing better representation, new technologies as a means to produce cheaper, quality indie films, and revolutionizing distribution in order to deliver us to our audience. It has been a pretty uplifting week for black filmmakers. But, for me, it has once again raised a difficult question: Do I really want to make black films?

On Tuesday, I watched a movie called The Details. It stars Tobey Maguire and features African-American actors Dennis Haysbert and Kerry Washington in sizable supporting roles. I did not love the film, but I appreciated that Haysbert and Washington fit somewhat organically into the fictional world and, more importantly, that they represented some variety in the black experience. Haysbert plays a down-on-his-luck blue collar man connected to a loving family and a church. Washington's character had gone to medical school with Maguire's and come out the other end a philandering, pot-smoking psychotherapist unhappily married to Ray Liotta. Nothing wrong with that. 

Yes, I wrote one script for a majority of black players. But, like most people I know, I live in a mixed world. My viewing habits reflect that, and, going forward, I'd like my writing to reflect that as well. I'm more interested in films with great parts for black actors than in films where all or most of the parts are black. But what if the best part, the lead, happens to be black? What if Tobey Maguire's angst-ridden, sexually-repressed protagonist had been played by Don Cheadle or The Wire's Idris Elba? What if Kerry Washington had played Maguire's wife instead of Elizabeth Banks? Would that have made The Details a black film? Unless the lead is Will Smith, the perception among Hollywood studios, film financiers, and distributors seems to be a disappointing and very limiting Yes.

It just so happens that the main character in my real-life drama—or comedy, as the case may be—is black. And they say, 'write what you know,' so that fact simply has to spill over into my fiction from time to time. I don't believe having prominent black characters precludes telling a universal story, but not everyone seems to agree. So, returning to the question 'Do I want to make black films?" I guess the answer is, at least in the short term, I don't actually have a choice.

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Ta-Nehisi Coates is a national correspondent at The Atlantic, where he writes about culture, politics, and social issues. He is the author of the memoir The Beautiful Struggle.

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