Film Fund-amentals: To Be Young, Gifted and What?

There have been a lot of changes in our society over the past fifty years. Hey, about fifty years ago it was almost impossible for an African-American filmmaker to exist; now it’s merely almost impossible for him (or her) to get a distributor.

Well, that’s pretty much the way it works. Nobody will put it that way, but it’s a fact. And that’s not just the case with African-American filmmakers; the same goes for American Indian, Hispanic and Asian-American filmmakers. Though the contemporary American cinema is not exactly a white man’s club any more, it’s still pretty exclusive in many areas (especially the executive offices).

Which is why the history of ethnic filmmaking in the United States is primarily a history of the independent cinema. As Oscar Micheaux demonstrated with his ground-breaking African-American films of the 1920s, low-budget independent production was the only way of getting the job done. The same is still true today, more or less.

I was thinking about this not just because it was Martin Luther King Day (that odd semi-holiday that some companies won’t take because they don’t want to give their employees another day off), but also because of the weekend release of The Book of Eli by the Hughes brothers.  Obviously their new movie isn’t going to go much of anywhere, simply because Avatar has become the only movie that exists for many people. Kind of its own End Times thing. But The Book of Eli does have the odd distinction of being the first African-American entry in the post-apocalyptic genre, heightened by the odd way the Hughes brothers attempt to revamp the genre into a post-modernist African-American folklore structure (Is it just me, or does the narrative to this movie sound like a sci-fi version of an Elijah Pierce wood sculpture?).

I’m emphasizing this as an indicator of the genuine cultural divide that still lurks within American society. In truth, a lot of white Americans haven’t a clue when it comes to black Americans, even though African-American culture makes up a huge whopping chunk of American culture, period. It’s all one and the same, though a lot of people still can’t seem to grasp that basic fact.

As for mainstream movies, get out of here. I still remember the time when a newspaper columnist approached me with a movie question. He was writing a piece on the Native American athlete Jim Thorpe and had heard a rumor that when they made the movie Jim Thorpe – All American, the studio originally wanted a black actor to play Thorpe. According to this rumor, Thorpe was racist toward blacks and wouldn’t let them. I was able to answer the reporter’s question without even having to think about it; the movie was made in 1951, and no Hollywood studio was going to cast a black man in any kind of major role, no matter what. Besides, Thorpe was an Indian. That meant he would have to be played by an Italian-American actor (standard Hollywood procedure). So the rumor the columnist heard was utterly ridiculous.

And this curious mindset really hasn’t changed all that much. For example, it’s extremely nice that such excellent actors as American Indian Wes Studi and Guyanese-American CCH Pounder got work in Avatar. They’re great in their “body capture” performances as the senior leaders of an oppressed indigenous race. Good thing they’re tall, willowy and blue, too. I don’t think this movie would have gone as far if they were actually playing “themselves,” if you know what I mean.

On the other hand, the real “indigenous” people are still struggling to not only make movies, but to get anybody beyond the reservation to actually go watch them. Despite some critical attention, such movies as Powwow Highway and Smoke Signals are still not that well known or viewed by most American film-goers. Heck, if it weren’t for those adaptations of the Tony Hillerman novels that Robert Redford did for PBS, most people wouldn’t even know that there was some kind of Native American Indian film movement (and by the way, why isn’t Redford doing any more of those mysteries? I liked them!).

Hispanic movies fare no better, especially when they attempt to travel out of the protective zone of the Southwest. Last year, the film Sin Nombre received major critical acclaim and numerous festival spots as well as a good distributor, but its US release was very limited, and it has mostly been available in this country via DVD. Unfortunately, that means it was a Hispanic film that did really well. Most of the rest are titles you’ll never hear a thing about.

So yes, things are changing and in some respects, changing for the better. But it’s a pretty slow process, and the one thing that’s certain is that the change is not going to be coming from Hollywood. It will come from everywhere else. That’s another reason why you have the independent cinema.