Black is the new black
The rise of black women film-makers
Women of colour in film-making are grossly under-represented in mainstream cinema. The Oscar Academy may have snubbed Selma, but over the next year we’re going to see a lot more from this demographic. K meets two film-makers who are changing the game.
Ava DuVernay was controversially passed over in the nominations for best director for Selma, and the film failed to pick up an award for best picture. But these are the Oscars after all, an event that rarely celebrates the avant-garde or the underdog. Step outside of the mainstream and there is a rich variety of voices among black female film directors, with some exciting names to look out for in the next 12 months.
This year the ceremony wasn’t supposed to go without a hitch. Civil rights activists had planned a protest outside the Hollywood Roosevelt Hotel to complain about the lack of diversity of the nominees. All 20 actor nominations were white, despite David Oyelowo’s hotly tipped performance as Martin Luther King Jr in Selma. At the last minute the protest was called off at DuVernay’s request.
Since 2013 America has been witnessing unrest comparable to the 1960s civil rights protests depicted in Selma. The shooting of unarmed 17-year-old Trayvon Martin, followed by four further homicides of unarmed black men, prompted the creation of the #BlackLivesMatter campaign, and sprouted protests throughout the US on a scale not seen in 50 years.
I think the youth of our country have been carrying the torch for the new social justice movement for a while now.
The campaign and its impact on America is the subject of Marta Cunningham’s next documentary. “I think the youth of our country have been carrying the torch for the new social justice movement for a while now. And after the murders of Trayvon Martin, Michael Brown, Eric Gardener and Tamir Rice, many other innocent young people of colour who have been gunned down. This movement has been going on and on and it doesn't look like it's going to stop any time soon."
Fade to black
From a young age Cunningham knew she’d be a social activist, although initially she believed her way in would be through politics. But shortly after arriving at Georgetown University she realised her true calling was film. In 2008 she became obsessed by the case of 14 year-old gay student Lawrence King, shot dead by fellow classmate Brandon McInerney at their school in Oxnard, California.
Press reports lay a lot of the blame on Lawrence, claiming he provoked Brandon by embarrassing him in front of his classmates with flirtatious comments. Brandon, the product of a damaged background that included drugs, abuse, crime and white supremacy, was labelled a monster.
Cunningham became determined to make a film to “create a human story about these two children. The press coverage was few and far between and it was also horribly sensationalised. Children who are murdered in classrooms deserve more than homophobic sound bites.” Valentine Road, so called because Lawrence died on Valentine’s Day, has been shown at over 100 film festivals worldwide, was nominated for an Emmy and premiered on HBO last October.
On the East Coast, Nefertite Nguvu grew up surrounded by artists. Her father worked with Amiri Baraka, the late poet and author. She cites Ingmar Bergman, Richard Linklater and Woody Allen as her other big influences. Her debut feature In The Morning unfolds over the course of one day, and follows a group of friends reassessing their relationships as one of them prepares to make a permanent move to Brazil. The intense emotional challenges faced by each are displayed with subtle gestures rather than action, much like in the films of her heroes.
In The Morning is unusual in that the entirely black cast play affluent, middle-class characters. After 120 years of cinema, black stereotypes persist: women’s roles can be feisty and domineering, play the caring best friend to the white protagonist, or ‘the help’ as in the 2011 film of the same name. Men are restricted to playing violent criminals, womanisers or sidekicks like Morgan Freeman’s frequent appearance as the wise, moral compass.
I feel like there’s not a lot for black women to look to in cinema: those examples are too few and far between.
“I’m interested in the lives of black people, the lives of black women in particular,” says Nguvu. “I feel like there’s not a lot for us to look to in cinema: those examples are too few and far between. Our lives are worthy of exploration when we’re not being noble; we’re not being civil rights heroes and we’re not being super-human in some way. We’re just regular people trying to figure ourselves out and our place in the world. We have existential crises too just like everybody else, our lives are not just mired in race-based adversity.”
The onset of technology is making it easier for film-makers to work outside the traditional studio system, enabling them to make movies that would not have been produced in the past. “I could never have made In The Morning if digital technology wasn’t available,” Nguvu explains. “Crowdfunding has changed the game in a lot of ways too. I did a Kickstarter campaign to get In The Morning made. Between crowdfunding and digital cinema, access is changing and it’s definitely changing the landscape of what films are looking like.”
Indeed, thanks to crowdfunding Dee Rees was able to make the award-winning Pariah in 2011, about a 17 year-old girl coming to terms with being gay. Her next project is adapting Philip K Dick’s Martian Time Slip for the big screen. Issa Rae’s Kickstarter-funded web series Awkward Black Girl went viral thanks to word-of-mouth on social media; she’s now set to play Nina Simone in a biopic of playwright Lorraine Hansberry.
“There are so many talented film-makers and story tellers out there that just haven’t yet been able to figure out how to have access to the media,” explains Nguvu. “It takes so much in order to put a film together. But I really do think that when access changes, the paradigm will shift.”
If Hollywood won’t listen then creating equal opportunity for women of colour in cinema is dependent on the film-makers themselves. Then the Academy will have to start taking note.