The Top Five Things to Know if You Want to Be a Black Filmmaker

Coming from the Hood is not a requirement for being a black filmmaker.

February is black history month and as such (i.e. considering I’m a black filmmaker) I thought I’d share with you my experiences at being a black filmmaker for those of you who may be interested in being a black filmmaker yourself.

FYI: for purposes of this blog post, I am using the term “black” vs. African-American for brevity. Feel free to substitute black with African American, Afro-American, Negro, Black-Negro, Negroid, or Afro-Descendant. If you’re reading this post outside the United States, feel free to use Afro-European, Afro-Asian, Afro-Australian, Afro-Hispanic, Afro-Canadian, Afro-Antartican or Afro-African (which you could also shorten to just African). Where applicable you may also use Cablaisian.

1. Ebonics not Required. Contrary to popular belief, not all black filmmakers are adept at writing or speaking what is considered black slang. I’ve traditionally spoken what many consider to be proper English. Believe it or not, I actually know a LOT of black people who speak the way I do. (Fascinating, huh?) So, if you’d like to be a black filmmaker but don’t know Ebonics or similar dialects, that’s quite alright.

2. Hood Experience Not Required. Contrary to another popular belief, not all black filmmakers come from the hood. I could not write a “hood” film if my life depended on it. So, if you would like to be a black filmmaker but come from a middle class or upper class neighborhood, you could still be a black filmmaker. (You may from time to time have the term “boojy” added to the front of your title, just so you know).

3. Black Stories Not Required. Contrary to yet another popular belief, not all black filmmakers solely tell stories about black culture. Some of us can actually tell stories about red, brown, yellow, and even white people. Some black filmmakers tell stories not related to race at all.

4. Political Activism Not Required. Contrary to yet another very popular belief, not all black filmmakers are into political activism. For whatever reason, I for one have never been particularly interested in politics. I tend to not like ANY politicians and instead of aligning with any one party, I just vote for whomever I like the most (or dislike the least) in any given voting year. Which leads me to my next thing.

5. Liberal Mind-Set Not Required. Not all black filmmakers are liberally minded. Albeit, they may be a rare breed, but there are some black filmmakers whose personal, political and/or financial outlook on life tends more to the right. (Warning: if you choose to be a black filmmaker that is more conservatively aligned, be prepared to take some flack if you’re particularly vocal about your conservative beliefs. The irony is, by fighting against the prejudice of those who don’t share your affiliations, you in essence become even “blacker” by the sheer fact you are fighting oppression, and that’s a good thing.)

So, if you’re a “black” filmmaker but can’t speak or write Ebonics, are not from the hood, want to shoot sci-fi thrillers (or romantic comedies), could care less about politics, and are a fan of Fox News (just for the record, I’m not), I’m happy to tell you that you CAN be a black filmmaker. That is, if you are actually, well, um…black.

Please take this poll and let me know how this post made you feel.

Click here for a hilarious scene from “Hollywood Shuffle” about black actors. I think it also gets the point across nicely. If you don’t have time to watch the whole thing, please make sure to fast forward to about 3:00. (WARNING: Contains adult language.)

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17 Responses to “The Top Five Things to Know if You Want to Be a Black Filmmaker”

  1. “I could not write a “hood” film if my life depended on it.” – Ron Dawson
    I don’t think I could either. I wouldn’t even know how to get started.

    I bet it would be useful to have a similar post on being a ‘Black Actor’. Except for a mother’s day rap in church 2 years ago, I’ve not played many stereotypical ‘African-American’ roles. Good thing, it would take me a lot of research to play a gangsta! Know what I’m saying? Kidding.

  2. I was really getting pumped and then the last paragraph was a total buzz kill! I’m “white” as they say. Ah well. Another post right up there with the Photography is Dead one!!

    • I understand your pain Harry. Have you considered tanning salons? Also, you could lie and say you’re mixed raced and “passing.” That is unless of course you have blue eyes, then you’re just SOL. :)

  3. “FYI: for purposes of this blog post, I am using the term “black” vs. African-American for brevity. Feel free to substitute black with African American, Afro-American, Negro, Black-Negro, Negroid, or Afro-Descendant. If you’re reading this post outside the United States, feel free to use Afro-European, Afro-Asian, Afro-Australian, Afro-Hispanic, Afro-Canadian, Afro-Antartican or Afro-African (which you could also shorten to just African). Where applicable you may also use Cablaisian.” HILARIOUS RONNY!- Well written and said.

  4. Hey Ron, have you ever read Percival Everett’s novel Erasure? It’s a thinly veiled (and hilarious and scathing) response to Sapphire’s Push, the novel that inspired the movie Precious. Erasure is about a black novelist who succumbs to the pressure to write a “gangsta” novel to make a living in a white-dominated literary world that only awards commercial success to black writers who sensationalize and exploit “ghetto” stereotypes, no matter how disconnected from that experience the writer might be (which is clearly Everett’s take on Push). Full disclosure, I haven’t read Push or seen Precious, but I thought Erasure was brilliant. Everett has written a bunch of terrific books, including some pretty weird westerns, so I imagine he has his share of critics who bash him for “writing white.”

  5. By the way, the one other thing this post reminded me of was the capsule review of Boyz N the Hood in Leonard Maltin’s flim guide from ’92 or ’93, where Maltin wrote, “John Singleton gets the African-American urban experience _almost_ right.” I always wondered how Maltin knew that. Maybe it’s because he’s seen so many movies.

  6. I Loved this Post. As a black male trying to make films this is something that I think everyone should read. These are also the the same reason I FEEL i.e. (Me) that Tyler Perry hurts blacks in movies, and those like Steve Mcqueen get over looked because he isn’t following what Hollywood sees as a black film. I just can’t stand when I see a black films, with an all black cast have the same tired out theme. With most black films not all but I (again meaning ME) feel that after we watched the trailer you know that there guns, a male cheating o his girl, or he has not education. A woman with no class and campy dialogue. We don’t try anything new, but we complain because Hollywood doesn’t want to take us seriously. We give them ammunition to pre-judge our films. The only way I feel we can break down these walls is to stand out like Steve Mcqueen did with “Shame.” It wasn’t because he was black, its because the film spoke volumes with it’s story tailing. Also he took a risk to step outside the “Black Box” of cinema. I myself can learn from people like him, Lee Daniels (not saying all his movie are that great) but they changed peoples thoughts. We can make people color blind to our films when we become color blind to ourselves.

    • Oh my gosh. Thanks for this comment Ty. I had NO idea Steve McQueen was black. (And no, I’m not thinking of the other Steve McQueen). My favorite podcast is “Filmspotting” and they love McQueen’s films. I think “Shame” is one their top ten, and they loved “Hunger.” I’ve heard them speak of McQueen on many occasions and I assumed he was white. Fascinating.

      Thanks for sharing.

  7. I’ll be sure to share this with a young man I know who wants to be a filmmaker. By the way, I’m with your brother….you were still “Ronnie Dawson” when I knew you in grade school. Lol.

  8. Here’s my gripe about this article…it basically devolves into a “Whiter than Thou” topic where you seem to want to make it a point to encourage people that have been told to “Sell out” or may be on the fence to go right on ahead and do that. The point is had you at least once mentioned that regardless of whatever counter-stereotypical characteristics you possess you will be viewed as a “Black Filmmaker” first and as a “Filmmaker” second if at all I could buy into the write up as something more than a snake oil sales pitch. The very fact that you felt compelled to write this article at all already tells me that you accept the fact that race agendas, no matter who’s, are something you have to contend with so why try to sell people the polar opposite of the boulevard of broken dreams? I was almost waiting for you to start writing about how much you dislike Kentucky fried chicken.

    The reality is that being a Black filmmaker is radically different than being White filmmaker because most people that you will need to work with are going to make not the best assumptions about who you are and what you’re about. Acting “Boojy” regardless of how innate or not it is to you will fragment some of that behavior some of the time with some people…it would have been nice had you started there.

    • Thanks for your honest feed back Butch. As Sam Jackson said so eloquently in “Pulp Fiction,” allow me to retort. :)

      First, you do understand this is a satirical piece and as such needs to be taken with that mindset. At it’s simplest level, the point of the article is the exact same point of the “Black Acting School” skit. There are certain stereotypes that fit “black filmmaker”. The goal of this post is to say “If you’re black and happen to be a filmmaker, but you DON’T fit into any of those stereotypes, it’s okay. You don’t have to feel guilty or feel like a “sell out” just because you happen to want to make a sequel to “The Wizard of Oz” or something.

      Second, and this is something that has always frustrated me, where do I say that NOT doing these things means you’re “white.” That’s like when people say a black person who speaks correct grammar “talks white.” A black person who has conservative economic values “acts white.” Why is proper grammar, wealth, power, etc, automatically associated with being white. It’s like we keep ourselves down when we perpetuate that kind of nonsense.

      Third, the game is radically changing in Hollywood and the media. The power of the internet, YouTube and Vimeo has radically changed what ANY filmmaker can do nowadays. Yes, a black filmmaker may encounter a different reaction from people he or she meets than a white filmmaker or an Asian filmmaker. But that has much less power nowadays than it did back in the day when you HAD to rely on Hollywood. Today any filmmaker can give the proverbial middle finger to Hollywood and make films on his/her own terms. There was a time if you were black and wanted to make a sci fi film, it would be hard b/c you would be put into the “black filmmaker” box, and all Hollywood would want would be a hood or hip-hop film from you. Today, a black filmmaker could make a feature length film about any topic he/she wants, and if it’s good, they can get an audience, even an audience that will pay them (via VOD, iTunes, YouTube, blip.tv, etc.). The whole point of my post is to (in a fun way) make it clear that if you’re a black filmmaker, don’t automatically put yourself into that old-school “black filmmaker box,” nor feel guilty if you don’t fit in that box.

      Lastly, FWIW, 1) there are “black” stories of African-American culture I am telling and want to tell as a filmmaker and 2) I like KFC. :)

  9. Ron,

    I agree whole heartedly with your mention of Vimeo, youtube and other forms of online media sharing. Creating non-mainstream cinema, media outlets (there is a huge argument to what degree vimeo and youtube are or aren’t mainstream now…different topic) is crucial to getting work by African-American artists out to the public viewer. When a demographic or group of persons have the opportunity to tell a story, especial when it is about themselves, they are given an opportunity to emphasize the ideas, values and stories that are actually pertinent to them. Be it subverting the tropes perpetuated by culture by portraying drastically different characters or by emphasizing them in satire as we see here in this article or in cinema, see: “CSA: Confederate States of America” http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0389828/ My go to example for a cinema satire.

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