A seminal moment in Black cinema comes from John Singleton’s 1991 debut Boyz n the Hood, when young Tre Styles explains to his grade school class that everyone there is descended from Africa, where the body of the first man was found. A classmate responds by calling Tre an “African booty-scratcher” and, naturally, chaos ensues.
The scene takes on several issues: Black American ambivalence towards the African continent; oppression and the whitewashing of American history; and prominent images of gangsters and thugs that spread far and wide via entertainment. The film itself also signaled what many considered a boom time for Black movies, when Hollywood began churning out projects by and about Black people at a rate never seen before (or since).
All of these topics are relevant today, as filmmakers across the Diaspora look to define themselves in a climate not always welcoming to them and their work. At the Seattle International Film Festival recently, a roundtable of filmmakers representing different projects across the African Diaspora gathered to discuss these issues in the context of their films.
Joining the conversation were Kenyan-born director Peres Owino and producer Isaiah Washington from Bound: Africans vs. African-Americans, a documentary examining the tensions between the two groups; Nigerian filmmaker Chika Anadu, who directed B for Boy, a drama about a Nigerian woman desperate to give birth to a male child; and American director Justin Simien, whose satirical comedy Dear White People looks at racial conflict on an Ivy League college campus.
There seems to be a fundamental difference in the way that race, ethnicity and culture impact the artistic voices of filmmakers in different parts of the Diaspora. For many Africans, the presence of a Black majority in their countries means more of an emphasis on culture and binding humanity.
With the tale of Amaka, an upper-class Igbo woman condemned for her struggles with childbirth, B for Boy highlights the oppression of women in the name of culture and religion. The film takes place entirely within the Nigerian community, and even as it travels to international audiences, director Chika Anadu emphasizes a discussion on culture over race.
Chika Anadu: “We’re not in Nigeria talking about us being Black; it’s nothing special. For me, I always like to talk about humanity. The word has become such a cliché, but it’s a real thing, and I think we have to move towards that. When I talk about the discrimination of women, it’s human rights. That’s how we should be thinking of it.”
The race vs. culture debate also comes up in Bound, which is framed around a group of Africans and African-Americans airing their grievances in a public forum. Producer Isaiah Washington, who was born in Houston and traces his genetic ancestry to Sierra Leone, suggests changing the terminology altogether.
Isaiah Washington: “The only reason that ‘Black’ and ‘White’ existed for so long is because it was imposed upon us and we’re still accepting it. My thing is, you stop calling me Black and I’ll stop calling you White, and you tell me where your people are from. Then we can start talking about Igbo and Luo and the Mende and Temne, and then we start having a conversation about humanity, because we all share DNA.”
Still, for African-American filmmakers living in a society that largely operates based on racial differences, concepts of race, culture and identity can overlap. There’s no escaping the impact of these concepts on our worldview and, consequently, our work. Justin Simien’s Dear White People centers on Black college students on a predominantly White campus who find their blackness to be a source of oppression and identity confusion, but also a source of community, which Simien relates to his own experiences.
Justin Simien: “Growing up, I was everything I wasn’t ‘supposed’ to be. So I was always finding myself, in and outside of Black communities, having to sort of explain myself. I think those neuroses made me a better filmmaker, because I have a movie about it now. It’s a cultural experience I had specifically because of my skin color, and it’s informed me as a person.”
The significance of the 1990s era of transformation within Black cinema was a point everyone could agree on. On one hand, there was the rise of directors like John Singleton, Spike Lee, the Hughes Brothers, and others. On the other, the influx of films like Boyz n the Hood, Menace II Society and Juice meant images of “gangstas” and “thugs,” a concept that didn’t take well financially overseas. Particularly, middle class Africans on different parts of the continent felt a tangible shift in how they saw Black Americans in film and TV during the ’90s, causing them to want to distance themselves from that culture.
Peres Owino: “Growing up in Kenya, you would see Carl Lewis, Michael Jackson, Prince. And then suddenly around the early ’90s, it switched. All of a sudden, it was cops and bad boys. O. J. Simpson was being chased down the street. For me, that’s when it completely changed.”
Chika Anadu: “I think about how it has flipped, how we thought about African-Americans when I was a child in primary school and how I think about them now. I don’t want anyone to mistake me for African-American, because you watch some films and it’s all about negative stuff—violence, gangsters or people who aren’t speaking properly. I know a lot of African-Americans now who speak as well as I do, but you never see that in the films. So film is very powerful. And I think we’re lucky to be in a position to then show different points of view.”
Ultimately, the audience is key in determining what projects are made and sold, and how far they travel. By connecting directly with his audience through a viral YouTube video, Simien was able to raise part of his budget through crowd-funding, and the rest through independent financiers.
Justin Simien: “I took my tax refund, I made a concept trailer and I put it on YouTube, because that was the only step I could take. And eventually, in taking those little steps, we found out we had an audience wanting this movie to happen. Just on spec[ulation], they were really into it, and being able to show that is how it got financed.”
Anadu plans to self-distribute B for Boy, and is also confident that a Nigerian audience will support the film.
Chika Anadu: “I’m lucky as a Nigerian, because apart from the fact that we have the population, we consume our own stuff. We might go see the American blockbusters, because they all come. But when there is a Nigerian film in the cinemas, people will see it. We love to see ourselves on screen.”