American Black Film Festival Diary: Wrap-up
Being black in Hollywood means kinship, and taking ownership of imagery
If you can see the humanity in a gorilla or in Cecil the lion, but can’t see the humanity in a 12-year-old who’s gunned down within seconds for acting like a child — that’s the conversation we need to be having in Hollywood about inclusion. If you don’t see the value of me and my breath in real life, you’re never going to see it in my art. Let’s take it back to black lives do matter. Trans lives matter. LGBT lives matter. People of color? We matter. Our stories matter. The narrative matters. The images, they all matter. They also make money. But let’s go back to why you can’t see my value as we walk down the street next to each other. That informs the art. — Gabrielle Union, at the 2016 ABFF Film Festival
Imagery is paramount.
Representation in front of the camera — and perhaps even more importantly behind the camera — is the conversation that Hollywood needs to keep having over and over again. Making films with people of color is truly bankable, and no one knows that better than super producer Will Packer. Packer brought box-office darling Straight Outta Compton to theaters in 2015, and is responsible for fire franchises Ride Along and Think Like A Man. He believes in striking while the iron is hot.
And Packer wants others to do the same. “Diversity is a cool buzzword to throw around right now,” he said in an interview at the American Black Film Festival, the Miami space where black Hollywood congregated for the past few days. “And … there’s an economical reality attached … Hollywood has realized if you don’t have films that look like what the world looks like, then you’re leaving money on the table … Whether it’s a sincere desire to showcase people of color in a myriad of ways, or whether it’s about the bottom line, we can take advantage of that.”
That said, Packer, who was in Miami promoting the upcoming Almost Christmas with director David E. Talbert and star Gabrielle Union, also said that the newest conversations take Hollywood economics to the next level. “We’ve all been involved with films that have been commercially successful [and] ultimately this is opening doors for films like Birth of a Nation … [where] the immediate goal is not about commercial success. The first goal with that feels like it’s about telling an important story,” he said. “Only recently have films featuring people of color in front of and behind the scenes made money … so we’re able to sit at that table and have the conversations we’re having now.”
Birth of a Nation, a Nat Turner biopic, is director/actor Nate Parker’s film. With investments from people like retired NBA player Michael Finley and the San Antonio Spurs’ Tony Parker, Nate Parker made it for less than $10 million. By Hollywood standards, that’s not much at all, especially considering it’s a biopic that has imagery akin to what we saw in 1995’s five-time Academy Award winning Braveheart, which was made for $72 million. Nate Parker sold Birth of a Nation at Sundance Film Festival earlier this year for a record $17.5 million — in a hot bidding war to Fox Searchlight. And Packer advocating for Birth of a Nation is as important as him pushing the films he produces.
That’s called being black in Hollywood: applying that “it takes a village” mentality to make noise about other important black films. As the ABFF wrapped its five-day Miami run, the tone was centered around this kind of support of one another’s projects, and around how masterful the spirit of brotherhood and sisterhood can be, needs to be — and really is.
For example: At a panel hosted by Star Jones, she spoke with Parker, Aja Naomi King and Gabrielle Union about the Nat Turner biopic which Parker had been working to get made for nearly 10 years. As Parker was talking about being fed up with the only parts coming to black men being the “man who gets shot” or some such, he got emotional while shouting out his friendship with actors Omari Hardwick and Cory Hardrict. In Hollywood, friends often compete with friends for roles. But there was Hardwick, in the audience, and he rushed the stage to embrace Parker. The love is real.
Former NFL wide receiver Matthew A. Cherry showcased his innovative new film 9 Rides, which he shot almost entirely on his iPhone 6.
Imagery is paramount.
The American Black Film Festival, at its best, isn’t really a place to come screen movies. It can be — certainly directors like Matthew A. Cherry, a former NFL wide receiver who played for the Jaguars, Bengals, Panthers and Ravens, can screen his work here. Cherry showcased his innovative new film 9 Rides at ABFF, which he shot almost entirely on his iPhone 6, and he made sure to attend the panel and screening for HBO’s dramatic/comedy series Ballers, which co-stars John David Washington, who spoke about how he transitioned the discipline from his former life as a football player to flourishing in a series that gives viewers a behind-the-scenes look at the craziness of the NFL.
ABFF, in addition to networking and fellowship and celebration, is a kind of Amen Corner. Just about everyone here — movie pros from all levels to newbies who are trying to break through — understand the feeling of looking at Hollywood through a window pane from the outside. The goal at ABFF, amid the fancy dinners and cocktail receptions and celebrity sightings, is to connect, and to figure out how more people can get invited to the table Packer talked about.
Because imagery is everything. Hollywood is how so many in the world see black folks. There’s value in having films like Birth of a Nation, which looks back at an important moment in history, and a film like Packer and Talbert’s holiday look Almost Christmas, which intentionally highlights the patriarch of a black family, something director Talbert argues we don’t see so much on film. “We love Big Momma. We all have a Big Momma, but that’s all we see,” Talbert said. “But where are the fathers? Or the grandfathers? [Films like Almost Christmas will] open the conversation for people to say Wow, that’s a unicorn. There are men in families. The biggest thing is imagery. Showing things that people may not normally see.”