Tag Archives: film

Chicago Filmmakers Choose Substance Over Stereotypes

Image

When it comes to documenting the lives and stories of people of color, Hollywood is notorious for being more interested in the perpetuation of stereotypes than meaningful portrayals of marginalized communities with value and humanity. And often when those films are made and manage to find a spot in the mainstream, there exists another problem, this time on the audience’s end: studies show that Caucasians have what is called a racial empathy gap—they struggle to relate to the experiences (specifically pain) of people of color—and that extends into the way they respond to films featuring people of color. One example is last year’s Best Man Holiday, a film featuring an almost entirely black cast and exploring topics such as friendship, cancer, love, and faith. Despite the fact that its plot was based upon these universal themes, the film was referred to as “race-themed” by major media outlets such as USA Today, causing moviegoers of all colors to question whether mainstream media can only view non-white experiences as defined by their race, rather than by their humanity and the universal experiences that make us human.

Filmmakers who choose to focus on the stories of marginalized communities face unique challenges in finding funding and mainstream attention for their projects. Chicago filmmakers Cy Weisman and Josh MacNeal have certainly faced their share of those challenges. While discussing mainstream audiences’ reluctance to connect with plotlines that deviate from white, hetero-male perspectives, the brother and sister duo agree that the problem has multiple layers, including 1) mainstream audiences are unfamiliar with stories about black, brown or gay characters because they feel those narratives are specific to those communities; the only real exceptions are stories that have a white, male, or heterosexual character present in the lead i.e. The Kids Are Alright and Freedom Writers. And 2) films featuring black, brown, or gay characters that get mainstream attention pigeonhole those lives and experiences in a way that makes black, brown, and LGBT experience “niche,” as opposed to one part of a broad spectrum of humanity.

“Living in the inner city is only one aspect of the black experience,” says MacNeal. “And unfortunately audiences, especially youth, have become conditioned to the idea that these experiences shown on BET, for example, define black lives. The experiences being shown, however, are limited.”

MacNeal, who grew up in a suburb outside of Chicago, didn’t become conscious of racism and the way he was perceived as a black man until he was older, he says, and as a filmmaker has focused heavily on illustrating other aspects of black experience and identity than just the narrow version mainstream media chooses to portray. “It’s troubling,” says MacNeal, “that films that happen to feature black characters are automatically described as ‘black movies,’” rather than universal tales of friendship, adversity, love, etc.

“Movies about white people are never called ‘white stories,’” he says, and laments the fact that when “black stories” are told, they focus on drugs, violence, or thug life, usually without exploring the systems behind those realities.

On his part, his goal is to create work that reaches beyond the pigeonholed perspective and digs into the experiences that are universal, experienced by a variety of characters: black and white, straight and gay.

Weisman, on the other hand, who does the writing for the duo’s films, grew up on the South Side of Chicago and says her consciousness of racism—and also sexism—emerged at an early age, and recalls music as being one of the first mediums in which she really noticed negative messages by and about black and brown communities being perpetuated—usually by black and brown artists.

“White kids bought into ‘ratchet’ culture before it was ever called ratchet culture,” she says, “and the business of art and film has been built on those tropes ever since.” Interesting, she notes, that trends within black music have largely been dictated by the appropriative tastes of white suburban youth, and expresses disappointment in rap artists who no longer rap about lived experiences and life narratives, instead choosing to create music about wealth, possessions, and name brands—experiences that not even white suburban youth can relate to. “Most people aren’t rich,” she adds.

“It’s so rarely about art anymore,” she continues, “or being an artist. So many songs these rappers and singers perform are written by somebody else, and many movies being produced are remakes or drawn out sequels. The process of creating has been watered down.”

Not so with Weisman and MacNeal, who write and direct all of their films, and are currently seeking funding for their next major project, Urbs in Horto, a crime thriller set in Chicago. Urbs in Horto is focused around exactly the sort of exploration of identity that MacNeal and Weisman agree need fixing in filmmaking: three different stories about diverse characters of different backgrounds, and juxtaposing those characters’ lives—moving beyond the drug violence and white collar crime—in order to reveal the universal experiences.

Weisman criticizes the superficiality she sees in music and film today, which she insists are inextricably connected. That is why she uses them almost interchangeably in her critique of both mediums, and which is why their plans for Urbs in Horto involve working extensively with indie musicians and artists to create the soundtrack that they imagine for the film.

“Music is an integral part of any movie,” Weisman says, and expresses her excitement about the prospect of working with indie artists.

“That’s the great thing about film,” MacNeal says, echoing his sister’s excitement. “We’re tapping into Chicago’s creative community for actors and artists, but we’re also creating jobs in the city we grew up in for legal, real estate, food services, etc.”

“Anything we can do for Chicago is awesome,” Weisman adds.

And Chicago needs this discourse, they both agree: segregation, violence, and poverty are just a few of the challenges faced by Chicagoans, and that’s why the brother and sister team declare that audiences need stories that speak deeply to the community now more than ever.

The purpose of Urbs in Horto, MacNeal says, is to spark that conversation while still offering the action and exhilaration that comes from crime thrillers.

“Film is an art form, but primarily a form of entertainment,” says Weisman. “We need to encourage people to seek and expect more substance in what they consume.”

She insists that a film can be a thriller with action and excitement—and even violence—while still offering a depth of human experience. The task is changing audience’s standards for the films (and music) they consume. But how?

“Give other options,” MacNeal says simply.

He believes that audiences’ preference for stereotyped narratives is really just a case of consuming what’s available: eating junk food because it’s what’s in the fridge. His sister agrees, adding:

“If you give audiences other options—show them more multi-layered stories that feature marginalized peoples—then they will respond.” She describes what she perceived as a shift from positive to negative representations of minorities in the media—The Cosbys and The Martin Lawrence Show transitioned into countless scripted reality TV shows & uninspired sitcoms. She says emphatically,

“If we transitioned into this cultural low, then we can transition out of it.”

Her brother agrees. The key, he notes, is for directors and producers with a foot in the game already to support the next generation and have a dialogue about the importance of these depth-driven stories.

“That’s why I applaud the fashion industry, especially the CFDA, for how they mentor and propel their young designers. In film, Spike Lee is a great example of someone who’s doing it right,” MacNeal says. “He focuses on the issues and helps out who he can. He does a good job uplifting younger filmmakers.”

And the pair of them are young indeed. Weisman is 26 and MacNeal is a mere 20, one of the youngest filmmakers in the industry and already earning attention for his latest film, The 4th Meeting. The way they see it, making a difference is a matter of making the right film and making it reach a broad audience. And they might be right.

“There are people that need to hear these stories,” Weisman says, “and people who want better content. We’re not the only ones who feel this way.”

No, Ms. Weisman, you are not.

To contact or see their work, visit here: http://www.joshmacneal.com/urbsinhorto

Image credit: Rudy Lorejo Photography

Advertisements
Tagged , , , , , , , ,

Belle: A Lesson In the Timelessness of Racism and Misogyny Against Black Women

Image

It’s not often that audiences are exposed to a portrayal of racism that is viewed through the lens of black women. Dido Elizabeth Belle, a mixed-race woman in 1700’s England, was the daughter of an admiral and an enslaved African woman. The film Belle, which was released nationwide this weekend, follows Dido’s life in the household of William Murray, her great-uncle, who was the earl of Mansfield and Lord Chief Justice of England. We watch Dido become a lady, educated and accomplished, while still forced to dine separately from her family in the company of strangers due to her lower status as a non-white person. We witness her experiences with romance and her complicated friendship with her white cousin, all during the infamous Zong case.

In the film, Dido becomes acquainted with an aspiring lawyer and abolitionist who advocates against the Zong slavers and, in turn, exposes Dido to the realities of slavery and racism that she had previously been sheltered from in the household of Chief Justice Mansfield. Meanwhile, as she comes of age and her cousin is introduced to society, she becomes painfully aware of what her race means outside the home of her great-uncle, becoming conscious of the unique prison she finds herself trapped within as both a non-white person and a woman. Her cousin, Elizabeth, is white, but poor; she doesn’t have the inheritance that Dido is privileged with. But the two young women discover how complicated both racism, sexism, and classism have made the world: Elizabeth can eat with her family and be introduced to society without burden; yet without an inheritance, her options for marriage are extremely limited, and the gentleman that she would marry will not have her, as his own pockets are empty, requiring a hefty dowry. On the other hand, Dido can afford to not marry if she wishes, or marry who she pleases, given her inheritance. Money gives her some independence, yet it seems she will not be able to marry at all, given her status as a non-white person: “too high to dine with the servants,” she says at one point, “but too low to dine with my own family.”

The intricacies of marriage and money and dowries in the 1700’s were complicated and seemed far different than what we experience in our world today, but what I saw in Belle—juxtaposed with the ancient-seeming idea of black bodies as property, cargo that can be thrown overboard as if drowning were not drowning but a mere spoiling of goods—was a startling sameness. Dido Elizabeth Belle was born in 1761 and died in 1804, yet the experiences this film projects in its illustration of the past bear shocking resemblance to the challenges black women (and black people) currently face in the United States today.

Dido’ fetishization by the two Ashford brothers, for one. While one brother sees her simply as an exotic Other who he can bed without forming attachments—very different than the attitude toward white women of the same time period, whose virtue was unequivocal and untouchable—the other is downright violent in his conception of Dido, calling her “repulsive,” but still expressing a desire to rape her. The scenes in which that older, more violent Ashford brother addresses Dido directly, giving voice to his unbridled racism and at one point assaulting her, are indisputably disturbing. Disturbing not just because they represent a disgusting and brutal history of humanity, but because I see remnants of those attitudes today in the way the world perceives the bodies of black and brown women: exotic, sexual, sensual, different, objects. We see it in the way Miley Cyrus and almost any given white pop star (Justin Timberlake and Robin Thicke, for example) use black women’s bodies as props in music videos: something to be appropriated and used for one’s own pleasure, and then cast off in pursuit of the next trend. In addition, the rape of black women still does not seem to carry much horror in 2014: it was most recently the punchline on Saturday Night Live, and last year Russell Simmons was forced to apologize for his highly-offensive “Harriet Tubman Sex Tape.” None of this is too different from the way the Ashford brothers perceive Dido’s body: an exotic Other not worthy of love or respect; merely lust, and lust framed in a particularly problematic racism.

The younger Ashford brother adds another layer to Dido’s complicated experience as a black woman: one night while he and Dido are sitting away from the crowd on their own, he confesses to being “taken with her,” and compliments her beauty in a strange way. Her mother’s blackness, he says, is undoubtedly ugly, but Dido’s “better half” (that is, her white half) won out in her features, which is what makes her so beautiful.

Shocking, isn’t it, that someone as beautiful as Dido would be struck down for her black half, and regarded as more beautiful simply because her white features are more prominent? Not so shocking when you consider it in the context of our beauty standards today, in which a quick Google search for “beautiful woman” returns almost entirely white faces. In American culture, the black women who do manage to be considered beautiful by mainstream societal standards are almost always mixed-race or possess white features: slim noses, light skin, straight hair. While the occasional darker skinned woman does manage to catch the public’s attention from time to time, she faces fetishization as well: look at Lupita Nyong’o. The public’s rabid consumption of her image often seems almost surprised with itself for finding a dark skinned woman so attractive, a feeling compensated for with adoration that borders on frantic.

Belle also examines the relationship between white and non-white women. Dido’s cousin, Elizabeth, speaks unhappily about the role of women in the world, noting that “we [women] are but their [men’s] property.” Her statement is almost comical: while bemoaning her own state of disadvantage as a [white] woman, she entirely ignores the disadvantage of black women, who were quite literally property. Where Dido and Elizabeth’s relationship was once intimate and carefree, tension grows between them as they become more aware (in different ways) of the power dynamics between them. Elizabeth’s ignorance and apathy—as well as her own racism—become roadblocks in their relationship, something we see often today when it comes to white feminists’ denial of their (our) own privilege and unwillingness to acknowledge intersectionality. Elizabeth is something of a feminist in her consciousness of the prison women are forced to live within in a sexist society, but her obliviousness to the plight of black people—and black women—blinds her to the ways that Dido’s identity impacts her life. That blindness is never actually remedied in the film—at one point she attacks Dido verbally about her “lower status,” but bites her tongue before saying something blatantly racist—and nor is it always remedied in our time, as white feminists so often attack women of color on decidedly racial ground, all the while claiming to be non-racist.

There was another moment in the film that paralleled our times so decidedly that it took my breath away. Toward the end, when Mr. Davinier—the young abolitionist lawyer that Dido encounters—is speaking passionately about the racist laws that made the Zong massacre possible, he says:

“Laws that allow us to diminish the humanity of anybody are not laws. They are a framework for crime.”

Yes, they are, and this is our world, our country. We live in a country where:

  • African-Americans are 33% more likely to be detained awaiting felony trials than whites.
  • African-Americans are frequently (illegally) excluded from criminal jury service, according to a 2010 study released by the Equal Justice Initiative. For example in Houston County, Alabama, 8 out of 10 African-Americans qualified for jury service have been struck by prosecutors from serving on cases involving the death penalty.
  • The U.S. Sentencing Commission reported in March 2010 that in the federal system, black offenders receive sentences that are 10% longer than white offenders for the same crime.
  • The Sentencing Project reports African-Americans are 21% more likely to receive mandatory minimum sentences than white defendants and 20% more like to be sentenced to prison than white drug defendants.
  • In New York, the infamous stop-and-frisk program continues to racially profile black and brown New Yorkers, even in the face of data that undermines its purpose.
  • Stand Your Ground laws continue to indicate racial bias in favor of white criminals who use it in their defense, meanwhile Trayvon Martin, Renisha McBride, Jonathan Ferrell and so many others receive no justice.

The list goes on and on. Dido Elizabeth Belle was born in 1761. It is now 2014, and the film about her life gives me very little comfort in the progress we have made as humans. In Belle, the courts rule against the slavers on the Zong, and Mr. Davinier rejoices, stating that the decision will reverberate throughout the world and will change the future. But the Chief Justice, Dido’s great-uncle, tempers the young man’s happiness: “History will judge whether your optimism is warranted,” he says, knowing there is much work to be done.

He was right. There is. And one of the greatest mistakes we can make in doing that work is acknowledging the ways in which we’ve come so far, while ignoring the ways in which we have not. Belle provides a view of an incredible life, a story not often told. We need these stories. We must keep hearing them. Mr. Davinier says at one point that a country that ignores the suffering of some and not others is “a country for whom hope is lost.” Let’s not be that country. Let’s not be that world.

Tagged , , , , , , ,

Black Children and After Earth

ImageI saw After Earth yesterday. In an interview, Will Smith acknowledged that it was very much a metaphor for the way he felt about raising a son in Hollywood, sending him out into a vicious world to fend for himself. After seeing the film, I couldn’t help but also see it as a metaphor for raising a black child in America.

In the movie, Will Smith’s character warns his son as he sends him on a mission that will risk his child’s life: “Everything on Earth has evolved to kill human beings.” Yes, and the same could be said about institutions in America that more and more are revealed to be designed to destroy black children. The Ursa—the alien weapon-creature that the humans dread most in After Earth—was bred to destroy humans. The prison pipeline and the War on Drugs were designed with a similar goal when it comes to black humans. As George Zimmerman’s trial looms near, we are reminded—did we ever forget?—that being black in America is a risk. Like Jaden Smith on the terrifying future planet, black children are in constant danger in a hostile world.

As I left the theater for the film, my boyfriend and I witnessed a man roll his eyes and say to his friend, “Will Smith only made that movie for his son.”

To that I say, “So?” There is a startling lack of black faces in American film—it seems one must be a black father for a movie to be made in which black sons (and daughters) can see themselves represented onscreen…especially if the roles are to reflect something other than stereotypical caricatures about blackness and its meaning. And more so…what is so wrong about a man with the ability and resources to do so making a film that will uplift his own child? White folks do it all the time. If a black father wants to use his clout to make a movie that represents the tragically unrepresented–especially in a film as fresh as After Earth–why the hell not?

So I say bring it on, Will Smith. Bring us After Earth. Bring us Annie. I am so here for that.

Tagged , , , , , , , , ,

The same old shit

Image

I won’t actually ask the question, because it’s been asked, but I’ll remind you of it: “Is it possible to separate an artist from her/his work?”

Sure. I’ve done it. We’ve all done it. But it’s not always possible. When an artist is so much in their work—whether the presence is conscious or unconscious—it becomes difficult to ignore. It’s distracting.

Five minutes ago I finished reading Stephen King’s The Stand. And, to quote a friend, the “religiosity” became “hokey.” But more distracting than that was the subtle racism.

The Satan-esque villain known as “the black man.” The black soldiers being enormous and muscle-bound and barely human. The complete absence of “good” black characters with the exception of the religious, cornbread-baking prophet woman. The ending, with Africans carrying spears and falling dumbly down at Flagg’s feet (the book took place in the ‘90s). And don’t get me started on the female characters.

What else can I say besides the fact that it’s tiresome? I realize it was written in the 70’s. And that’s always the excuse of people who defend this and other writing. “Well that was then; there weren’t black main characters back then,” as if it was the Stone Age. As if this means it is exempt from criticism.

It’s not. Stephen King wasn’t employing these metaphors for literary effect. It’s casual. Included by way of his own subconscious notions. If this were purely a thing of the past and a pattern not present in 90% of popular fiction and film, maybe it would be easier to lay the old dog to rest.

But that dog is barking, and it only makes it worse to read this puffed-up book from the 70’s and see how little has changed.

Tagged , , , , , , ,
Advertisements