A Journey in Black Cinema

Jamal Sykes
Staff Writer

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PC: Aperture Cinema

Not being able to fully relate with the people who appear in the media that you consume is a struggle that many marginalized and disenfranchised people face on a day-to-day basis.

Even in the age of user curated content, this sentiment still holds true when you look at the representation of minority groups in films produced by major studios, and the roles they play in front of or behind the camera. This especially interested me as a young black man who wants to get a job in this industry.

This lack of representation often stems from studios simply wanting to play it safe and not dabble in racial or identity politics. The “safety net” is typically comprised of fear of box office sales and critical reception, and it has been this way for nearly a century, especially when it comes to the portrayal of black Americans. Since Hollywood’s beginnings, black people were portrayed by whites in blackface, which led to very successful independent film movements around the country by black filmmakers such as Oscar Micheaux.

It wasn’t until the 1930’s that black actors and actress would become incorporated into Hollywood film, receiving recognition and awards for their talents. The first major Hollywood film directed by a black person didn’t happen until 1969 (Gordon Parks, “The Learning Tree”) and despite its positive reception, Hollywood still wasn’t ready to fully support black films because they didn’t deem black moviegoers as a profitable demographic.

The black independent film movement pressed onward and in 1971 Marvin Van Peebles wrote, produced and directed his film “Sweet Sweetbacks Baadasssss Song,” on a budget of $500,000. The film went on to gross $15.2 million, proving to Hollywood that films portraying militant black protagonists could in fact, be profitable and that black moviegoers are not only a voice that should be represented, but one that will be heard.

Decades later, these early directors’ and actors’ efforts have not gone in vain, as many major Hollywood films now star or are directed by black people from around the world. However, Hollywood’s inclusivity is still in question, after the 2016 #OscarsSoWhite movement pointed out that Oscar nominations are predominantly white, with over 80 percent of Oscar winners being white directors, actors and actresses.

This movement inspired me to make a documentary series about this lack of representation of minority groups titled: “Burn Hollywood Burn.” In this series I plan to use each episode to explore the representation of these peoples in Hollywood film and how that impacts local filmmakers who belong to those groups. The first episode focuses on black film, and I knew that this was something I would need interviews for so that I could gain perspective, so I began to reach out.

I sent multiple emails out to local professors and filmmakers. One email I sent was to a professor at UNC School for the Arts and former producer, director and actor, Ron Stacker Thompson. Although he didn’t respond to me directly, I received a phone call from UNCSA alumnus Tonya Sheffield, saying that Thompson forwarded the email to her, and that she would love for me to part of a discussion panel alongside Thompson and Steven Jones.

For those who aren’t in the know: Thompson has over 40 years of experience in film and television, and is credited as a producer for major Hollywood blockbusters; such as “Sister Act II,” starring Whoopi Goldberg, “Deep Cover,” starring Laurence Fishburne and “America’s Dream,” starring Danny Glover. Jones has over 20 years of experience and has produced many music videos, commercials and films including “Ten Benny,” starring Adrien Brody.

The discussion panels are a part of a series that Aperture Cinema in Winston-Salem has put together for Black History Month, titled: “Black Cinema: a/Journey,” and features three different films that will be airing throughout the month of February, and will be followed by discussion panels after each filming. All of these films are centered on various aspects of the black experience in America, and range in genre and style.

“Imitation of Life” (1934) – Tuesday Feb. 13 at 6 p.m.

Director John M. Stahl tackles the topics of racism, identity and family in this 1930’s drama. Struggling widow Beatrice Pullman (Claudette Colbert) and her daughter Jessie take in a black housekeeper, Delilah Johnson (Louise Beavers) and her fair-skinned daughter Peola. The two mothers start a successful business and become rich but things become tumultuous quickly after. Jessie and Beatrice fall for the same man, and Delilah and Peola struggle with their relationship when Peola rejects her blackness, and tries to pass as white.

“Putney Swope” (1969) – Feb. 20 at 6 p.m.

After the chairman of an advertising agency’s executive board dies, its members must vote to replace him. Unable to vote for themselves, the board members cast ballots for the only black executive, Putney Swope, believing no one else would vote for him. After an unintentionally unanimous decision, Putney becomes the chairman and drastically changes the agency. Director Robert Downey Sr. hilariously tackles race relations between the black and white communities in this R-rated comedy.

“Selma” (2014) – Feb. 27 at 6 p.m.

Directed by Ava DuVernay, SELMA is biographical film about Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s march from Selma to Montgomery, Alabama, in act of protest to secure equal voting rights for black people in the United States. See this monumental moment in American history like never before as we follow Dr. King (David Oleyowo) on the road to freedom in 1960s America.

The credentials of the other speakers humble me as an up and coming filmmaker, and it is an honor to sit alongside Thompson and Jones as part of the panel. I know that it’s a wonderful opportunity, not only for myself, but for others to learn and expand their perspective on films and other people’s lives.

This series is a great way to participate and educate yourself during Black History Month, and I encourage people to come check them out! Tickets are $12.50 per ticket and can purchased online at aperturecinema.com at the Aperture Cinema Box Office located at 311 West Fourth St. Winston-Salem, NC.

For More Information visit Aperture Cinema’s website or call them at (336) 722-8148.



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