Leading Black filmmakers, producers and writers opened up about what inspired them to enter cinema and the importance of capturing the Black diasporic experience on screen during a virtual panel co-hosted by the American Cinematheque and the African American Film Critics Association.
In celebration of Black History Month, the “Black Identity Through Cinema” panel featured Cynthia Erivo, Philippe Lacôte, Franklin Leonard, Ekwa Msangi and Euzhan Palcy, as well as Shaka King and Kemp Powers, both of whom were named Variety’s 2020 “Screenwriters to Watch.” The conversation, moderated by AAFCA president Gil Robertson, explored the diversity of Black identity in film and how the panelists’ works delve into core themes of freedom and justice in relation to their own personal identities.
The panelists discussed how the lack of Black creatives in front of and behind the camera and the first Black-led films they saw, such as “The Color Purple” for Erivo and Spike Lee’s “School Daze” for Msangi, drove them into the field.
“I grew up in East Africa in Kenya, and even though my livelihood was surrounded by such colorful, interesting, funny, dramatic people in my family and friends, none of that was reflected anywhere in media, and I grew tired of it and decided that I wanted to become a filmmaker,” said Msangi, the Tanzanian American filmmaker behind “Farewell Amor.”
Concerning the representation of global Black perspectives, such as those from the U.K., Caribbean and African countries, the panelists said they wanted to see more portrayals of the diaspora and depictions of cultural nuances, whether through music, language or dance.
“For us today, what is very important is to make films, but to make films with our own vision, with our own culture,” said Ivory Coast-based filmmaker Lacôte. “In my film ‘Night of the Kings’ it was important to have this part of magical realism because it’s our way to see the world.”
However, the creatives also recognized the universality of themes between American and non-Western stories about Black life.
“I have always had a more diasporic view of the world,” said Powers, who penned the script for “One Night in Miami” and “Soul.” “I think that the confluence of factors of where I happened to be growing up, the time in which I was growing up, the diasporic view was, of course, like any Black person in a white country has to be dealing with the same shit.”
Leonard, the founder and CEO of The Black List, which celebrates the most popular unproduced screenplays, said that while scriptwriting is universal, Black creatives are able to draw on their experiences when telling a story.
“As a Black man in America I am hypersensitive to human interactions when I walk into a room,” Leonard said. “I am clocking a lot of different things that my white peers are not by necessity. Whether it’s a double consciousness and need to be a chameleon to navigate all-white environments versus all-Black environments, whatever it is. That is the basis of filmmaking on some level … I think all of us at various times, especially if you are a Black woman, a Black queer woman, you’re having to do that as a matter of survival right.”
Commenting on the lack of Black stories in Hollywood, the panelists relayed personal experiences of being told their films would not fare well within the market due to their hyper-specificity, predominantly Black cast or otherwise not meeting white executives’ expectations of what would be compelling to audiences.
“If the story is a good story and it is well-marketed people will go and see it,” said “Sugar Cane Alley” and “A Dry White Season” director Palcy. “[Is it the same] question about the Black or Latino audience or Asian audience when you put out a white story?”
Erivo, a Grammy, Emmy and Tony Award-winning actor, said the industry often degrades Black stories in its insistence on an “explanation” for why they should be told. “There’s this sort of sepia glaze that goes over stories and productions that come from us, that somehow need explanation for telling the story of human beings. But I think that’s laziness.”
Noting the changes that need to take place in the industry, the panelists said they want to see the full scope of the Black experience in film. “I want to see Black pain,” Leonard said. “I want to see Black joy, I want to see Black liberation. I want to see us as three-dimensional human beings that have the full human experience.”