If you're of a certain age, hearing the phrase "blacks in film" calls up the memory of a recurring bit Eddie Murphy used to perform on "Saturday Night Live." Murphy's Raheem Abdul Muhammed was a terminally militant, self-styled movie critic who demanded to know why the industry didn't open its doors wider to people of color -- like Isaac Hayes, for instance, "who proved he can act in "Truck Turner."" Even at that early stage of his professional development, Murphy had apparently struck a healthy interior balance between hopeful idealism and snickering pragmatism: Reciting the line made him laugh so hard he could barely go on with the sketch.
Though it was by design nobody's gag-fest, the Sept. 27 "Blacks in Film" panel discussion at the Walt Disney World Dolphin hotel likewise resided in the philosophical realm between What Could Be and What Is. Warrington Hudlin, who produced Murphy's 1992 feature, "Boomerang," spoke with an activist's indignation when he said that the motion-picture business may be "the last segregated industry in the United States." That was cold water in the face of his audience, members of the National Black MBA Association who were taking time from their six-day annual conference to learn about film-related career opportunities (preferably lucrative ones, as announced by the morning panel's subtitle, "The Mega Bucks Behind the Camera"). But Hudlin and his fellow speakers were less interested in hurling verbal dynamite at a closed shop than in laying out strategies by which listeners might open one of their own.
"I [don't] want to sit around and complain about Hollywood," said Jeff Friday, the founder of the Acapulco Black Film Festival and the president of Film Life, a firm dedicated to the production and dissemination of independent features by black filmmakers. (Its latest project, the drama "One Week," was previewed at the conference and is tentatively scheduled to open in Orlando Nov. 16.) Mr. Friday's recipe for success was for would-be entrepreneurs to be "more self-empowering, more proactive," from scouring industry trade papers like Variety for crucial information to taking control of their own marketing and distribution, in accordance with the self-reliant model established by various hip-hop impresarios.
No whine served:
"All this complaining about, 'One day, I'm going to do it,' that's out the gate," agreed director John Singleton, the panelist who came closest to embodying black cinema's potential -- and its pitfalls. Introduced by moderator Monica May as "Baby Boy," the title of his last film, Singleton remained stone-faced even as chuckles coursed through the crowd. I was briefly worried he would spend the next two and a half hours tailoring his comments and demeanor to his (fair or unfair) public image as an angry, humorless brother. The machismo quagmire deepened with May's subsequent plaudit, "He stands tall to the critics and does things his way." (Cue backup singers: "Shaft!")
Singleton, however, resisted caricature. Nearly every one of his sobering observations about the drawbacks of being an African American in Tinseltown ("You cannot greenlight a film") had an encouraging counterpart. Image be damned, he expressed relief that he had pursued a life in the movies, one of the few trades he said is largely impervious to economic slowdowns of the sort we're currently experiencing.
"It's a great business to be in," Singleton said, grinning freely.
I was less impressed by Oscar Turner, the vice president of financial planning for Paramount Pictures, who offered the aspiring moguls too little concrete information and too many platitudes. There was his "PTP" philosophy (Persist, have Talent and be Patient)Ã?and his repeated analogy of the cinema to pro sports, another field that was once lily-white but enjoyed eventual desegregation. Imagining how unsatisfactory that all-in-good-time ethos would sound coming from the mouth of some cigar-chomping white executive made me wish that another of the panelists would call Turner on it, but no dice. Solidarity was the order of the day.
Hudlin posited the Internet as "a truly level playing field" for black filmmakers -- his site, www.dvrepublic.com, is a showcase for digital-video works by directors of all races. But an audience member who hailed from Mobile, Ala., knew of a speedier channel of communication: "the African-American gossip chain. If you screw up, we will know it," he reminded the content producers on the panel.
A visitor from the United Kingdom wondered if the U.S. government might be persuaded to put "political pressure" on the film industry to commit to black projects. "Our government does not support what we are and what we're about," Hudlin explained patiently.
Hidden, a gender:
One woman in the audience asked the panel to address the (possibly negative) portrayal of women in their films and the gender imbalance within their professional ranks. (She had perhaps been inspired by May's earlier salvo, "Where are the women up there?")
"The absence of their point of view is a loss to us all," Hudlin answered with the utmost sadness and sincerity. And though he predicted that the industry's boy-girl ratio will one day skew in the opposite direction, his disappointment in the present-day situation went beyond the bounds of color: Right now, there are more black men making films than white women, he said. Singleton, whose scripts have engendered occasional accusations of sexism, uttered not one word.
Not that he owed us one. Among the morning's most trenchant statements was his easygoing but resolute disavowal of community expectations:
"I never got into this whole thing of wanting to be respected by anybody, be it black people, white people or whatever," he said. He just wanted to make movies.
That remark carried a lot of weight, given that the film industry's every move has suddenly begun to be scrutinized for its emotional tenor and wartime sensitivity. Whether you're John Singleton, John Shaft or even Truck Turner, maybe the best that the rest of us can expect of you is to be a cat who won't cop out when there's danger all about.