I attended a lunch-in at Sankofa Café in Washington, DC with the filmmaker Charles Burnett. In a room filled with about 30 people, ranging from filmmakers of 40 years to MFA film students, we discussed Burnett’s career, the film industry versus black stories, and alternatives – digital cinema.
Burnett studied film at UCLA along with filmmaking greats like Larry Clark, Julie Dash, Haile Gerima, and Billy Woodberry. In the 1960s, he was involved in the “Black Independent Movement.” The films that came out of these African and African-American filmmakers had a high relevance in the politics and culture of the 1960s and stayed true to the history of the people. Burnett has made about five major films and numerous documentaries, shorts, and TV movies. His first major film “Killer of Sheep” (1977) has won an array of awards, including the 2007 Special Critics Award from the New York Film Critics Circle. He told us the process of making that film and little anecdotes of its challenges and celebrations. We talked about the difference between being a student filmmaker and a professional filmmaker. Burnett commented on the fact that it doesn’t get easier as you transition from being a student to a professional.
As the discussion progressed, we transitioned to the obvious situation between the main stream film industry in America versus black stories and filmmakers. There is a lack of support for stories that depict black characters as the strong and intelligent protagonist with a positive story. The recurring theme of drugs, violence, and prison are the only ones that circulate. Burnett told stories of how he would hold screenings of his films and very few people would show up. An example of this that everyone could relate to was the film “The Great Debaters” , directed by Denzel Washington. It was considered a flop by the box office. ( I loved this film) The majority of the black community for some reason did not come out in full force to see the film. This is one of the problems that black films face. If the community that the films are made for don’t support it, how can there be any leverage to get the mainstream film industry to support it?
The people who attended this discussion brought up ideas of building distribution companies to starting blogs for promotion to encouraging people to take entertainment and business law. The problem that seems to persist is participation and cooperation within the community. These same round table discussions have been going on for a long time. Nothing that is talked about is new. Why has it not changed?
I think one reason might be the mentality to play the blame game. For example, back in the ’60s and ’70s, everything was about “The Man” and how it’s always “The Man keeping a brother down.” With the exclusion of people who were young or full adults during that time, people no longer use that term, but the habit to blame some entity is still there. It’s true that strategic people in the American film industry prefer to maintain the negative stereotypes of blacks, but that should not be held as the ultimate excuse. This takes us to the second factor, economics. Obtaining finances for these projects is very difficult. One has to go through many rejections and compromises or somehow build their own. This is where support comes in. If the community could come together to raise funds or offer assistance, it might not be that hard.
We touched on digital cinema briefly. Shared ideas on how to use the internet to distribute rather than DVDs or traditional film screenings.
Overall, I enjoyed the discussion and found it very interesting. Charles Burnett is a great storyteller. You should check out some of his films.