The demise of independent film labels has made it more challenging for new talent—especially nonwhite filmmakers—to tell their stories and gain entry into major studios.
Over the past two years, a series of vital, powerful and reflective films directed by African-American women have been humming along under the radar of mainstream Hollywood, struggling to get distribution and missing the strong marketing campaigns that catch an audience. Ava DuVernay’s second feature, Middle of Nowhere, won Best Director at the 2012 Sundance Film Festival and was recently nominated for four Independent Spirit Awards, and yet she had to establish her own distribution company, AFFRM, African-American Film Festival Releasing Movement, to release her film. Her movie, a critic’s pick described by The New York Times as a “plaintive, slow-boiling, quietly soul-stirring drama about a woman coming into her own,” is now playing in more than a dozen theaters nationwide.
Victoria Mahoney’s first feature, Yelling to the Sky, features Zoe Kravitz as a teen whose family is coming apart and must find her way in a tough school. The film was nominated for a Golden Bear at the 2011 Berlin Film Festival, but here it will be seen only in one theater in New York this month and on VOD. Tina Mabry’s Mississippi Damned, a family drama set in the Deep South, which won 13 awards in more than a dozen film festivals, was also self-distributed through the production company Morgan’s Mark and later had its television debut on Showtime. So far, Kasi Lemmons—who directed three movies including Eve’s Bayou and Caveman’s Valentine—holds the record for the greatest number of feature films directed by an African-American woman.
It is such a tough road that many filmmakers simply give up. DuVernay, Mahoney, Mabry, and producer/writer Tajamika Paxton sat down with Lorenza Muñoz of The Daily Beast to discuss their films, the state of the industry, and the challenges faced by African-American filmmakers in Hollywood. What follows is an edited transcript of their conversation.
So what is it like to be an African-American female director in Hollywood today?
Victoria Mahoney: When we are asked that, part of our ribcage locks because we just see ourselves as filmmakers. But the world wants to define me by my mammary glands and melanin. It is just fascinating that Michael Mann has never been asked what it is like to be a white male filmmaker. I like Michael Mann’s films, and he’s taken very seriously. I feel like a lot of us at this table often get treated like little kids who stumbled on some badass ways to tell a story, but it was all an accident.
Taj Paxton: It’s a reality. I am happy to be a woman and African-American. I can’t focus on a burden. I have to focus on how where I come from makes my position unique and what opportunities emerge from that.
Ava DuVernay: I like to identify myself as a black woman filmmaker. But I am finding that my film is making its way into conversations about Lincoln and Django Unchained and Beasts of the Southern Wild, so it is being viewed through the prism of race, which is interesting because this film has nothing to do with the others. So in one way you stand yourself proud to call yourself a black woman filmmaker and on the other side it is exhausting to always talk about race and have to defend your film. The times I can actually sit down and actually talk about my film and the filmmaking, not the society we live in, not the politics, but how I worked with my actor and my cinematographer, are few and far between.
Tina Mabry: Yes, for my film it was about, “This is about the black family in the South,” and I would say, “Look beyond race and look more at the socioeconomic aspect of the film.” This story in my film is really about being poor, uneducated, and in the South, and being stuck and in a cycle. That transcends race, gender, and age.
And yet, race matters…
DuVernay: What gets me is that so often the expression of the African-American experience that is acceptable and applauded by the industry is not coming from us. They are stories being told from the outside in. Interpretations of the black female experience, as opposed to reflection, are valid. All we are saying is our reflections are also valid. What our films have in common is they are showing reflections of who we are. They need to be just as valued, just as heard, just as critiqued and distributed as our white male counterparts’ interpretation of us. That is what the disconnect has been and the cinematic legacy on screen as black filmmakers has been. These films are set apart and there is not a balanced approached to their value.
Mahoney: One of the fascinating things about this year is that Ava wins the Sundance Best Director and what that means. If you talk to certain people in the industry, they will think another person had won. It is bizarre to watch and it makes my heart hurt. Why does that happen? Why wasn’t the film she offered up from her perspective as valuable as every other guy who has won Best Director at Sundance over the past years?
In Hollywood, there is a persistent belief that “black” films don’t resonate with audiences abroad. This makes the films less attractive to some producers and distributors because they rely so much on foreign sales.
Mahoney: We could write a book about all the sentences that we have been told: “Nobody wants to see this film. Nobody will pay to see this film. Nobody worldwide will pay to go see this film.” Well, one of my favorite stories is from Berlin when we had more than 2,000 kids there at a screening. And I had a moment [watching the audience] when that sentence ran through me, “Nobody wants to see this movie.” There was this girl that kept watching me and staring at me and following me after the screening. So I said to her, “Are you OK?” And she stares at me right in the eye and says, “How did you know?” And I said, “Excuse me?” And she says, “How did you know all that about me?” And we just stood there, and I hugged her. She believed with all her being that I had followed her and that my film had told her story. This is something that no number counter or pencil pusher in Hollywood can ever understand.
Mabry: We all see that when we travel with our films internationally. In this industry, they think our films won’t “cross over,” but if you have a human story and strong enough characters, people will connect on a human level. It is not all about race. I have personally seen it in Switzerland. People are connecting regardless of where they are from. They are saying, “That is my family,” and I was shocked because I didn’t know there was that much dysfunction in the world. We have all had that experience where you have people come up to you after a movie. That is the thing that makes it worth it, and it helps through all the hard times when you know that you are connecting with the audience. This is what it was for.
Trying to get financing, getting distribution, and then marketing the film is a huge challenge.
Mabry: It can be frustrating and you have moments when you can get bitter, but when you screen it and you see the reception, that takes away the bitterness. I have gotten to a point in my career where I am not looking to be invited to the table. I am going to build my own table. Why wait around and hope that you will be accepted? What do you do—stop your career? Suppress your voice? Stop telling stories? No.
Mahoney: A lot of great, talented people have.
Paxton: Honestly, sitting at this table, I am so scared because I am one of those people that, up until four or five months ago, was on the verge of saying this might be too much of a cross for me to bear. I come from being an executive and having produced two films that had tiny audiences, and I saw how hard that was as a producer. Now the feature that I am trying to direct is a drama about a lonely black woman in New York who is obsessed with a violin and the metaphor for why she holds on to this inanimate object instead of reaching out for love with people. And as I listen to you guys now I think, “hmmm, am I sure?” I am hoping to find the strength in what you guys have done. As an executive [formerly with Forest Whitaker’s production company Spirit Dance], I have watched genres break, and you never have to have these conversations again. Teen horror broke and it was like, stop talking about teen horror not being a profitable genre. It is profitable. We are done with this conversation. Buddy comedies, done. At what moment do you say, “Dramas with black females that have broken through—bring them on?” When is that going to happen? When Forest [Whitaker] made Waiting to Exhale [in 1995] people said, “Aren’t we done with this conversation?”
DuVernay: I feel that there is no gate that has been kept that I need to go through. I only say that because it is something that has freed me. I don’t even go to meetings. I do not go in and say, “Can you help me make this film?” I only go in if you are inviting me to tell me how you will help me make this film. It is a different posture—it is “I am making this thing. Do you want to help me make it?” If any of us try to wait for permission, it is not going to happen for us. But for better or worse, with the collapsing model of the industry, with the advent of social media and digital filmmaking, it is no longer a space where we have to sit back and wait to be heard. The compromise is recalibrating what we see as success. Is it enough to have that moment where you have reached this sister in Germany and go audience by audience and get love at the black film festivals and cultivate your audience as you go? Is it OK if you don’t win the awards or make it to a talk show or the cover of a magazine? Once we reconcile in ourselves that what we really want is to tell stories and to connect with an audience, that needs to be just as valuable to us. We need to stay focused on what matters.
Paxton: That is the legacy being black gives us. It was never going to be a journey in any field that looks like anyone else’s. Every field my family went in, the door was kicked in and they had to shape it the way that it worked for them.
So that connection with the audience has to be found.
Mabry: People are traveling to see Ava’s movie. I know someone who drove from Raleigh to Charlotte, a three-hour drive. With my film, I knew someone who drove from Atlanta to Savannah to see it again.
DuVernay: That is not uncommon. That is how starved people are…
Mabry: Exactly. That is what that tells us. There is a void in the market, and there is an audience out there.
Mahoney: Yes, through social media we can see our audience and they are saying, “We are hungry; can we see it please?” So we know how hungry they are. Also, a few years ago, I felt like I was alone. But now with the Internet and social media, how many people in the past months wrapped films? Dozens of people. I know people who are on their second films. There is strength in numbers, and we can beware the lies we are told.
DuVernay: It takes time to cultivate a market. The question is can we exist within this small niche? And there is a precedent like the Criterion brand. What we need are more people—Latino filmmakers, Asian filmmakers, LGBT filmmakers, everyone that is not in dominant culture. If we could all figure this out—everyone has the same problem—there has to be another route. We have enough talent, filmmakers, producers, and the audience exists. I believe that film will eventually start to reflect what we have seen in the election process. It is going to have to change, and the question is, will it change in time for our stories to be viable, or can we create some forward movement so that the next group of sisters that are sitting in this room are not having this conversation? Previous generations of black female filmmakers have opened up the space to say that black female images can be made and are viable. Now we just need to make it sustainable.