It's the summer movie season and box office numbers are up from last year. More and more people are heading to the air-conditioned theatres to enjoy the latest Hollywood creation, but for some independent filmmakers success is fleeting. Recently, more than 1,000 African Americans from such places as Memphis, LA and Cleveland gathered in Miami, Florida for the first U.S.-based American Black Film Festival. Thousands of producers, screenwriters, and actors schmoozed with the likes of Actor/Director Bill Duke and Actor/Comedian Chris Tucker hoping to jump-start their film careers. But even those who have "made it" in the industry say, it's a hard road to travel. Filmmaking especially for African Americans takes sacrifice and often compromise and once you've made it, it becomes a game of survival. 90.3 WCPN's Tarice Sims reports.
Tarice Sims: At the Loews hotel in Miami hundreds gather outside Regal Cinemas, an area has been newly designated the Networking Cafe. And some Hollywood hopefuls are making good use of it. Standing in the compact space they exchange businesses cards, look at headshots and talk about their latest project. Among the filmmakers was Cleveland native David Velo Stewart who just finished filming his second feature Cane and Able. Also, Directors Bill Duke and Robert Townsend came to share their wisdom and possibly discover their next star. One actor, Richard Jones, flew from Memphis, Tennessee to be here. The 23-year-old Howard University graduate says he came here because he made a commitment to his craft and hopes the event will help him achieve his dream.
Richard Jones: I would definitely say I'm looking for a job. But at the same time I'm looking to have fun. I am looking to seeing some of the films in the festival, I am looking forward to participating in the actor's boot camp, I just want to take in the whole festival experience.
TS: Jones says he decided to come to the festival this year for the first time and he didn't know what to expect. He's a theatre-trained actor who has also worked on student films. Now Jones wants to take his acting career to the next level. The six-foot actor who's sandy-brown dreadlocks complement his green eyes doesn't just work on his acting skills. He also works to keep himself physically fit and mentally sharp. At the Black film festival competition is on everyone's mind. Jones says talent doesn't necessarily mean you'll get a part. And because of the limited number of roles for African Americans in Hollywood, Actors need to present themselves in a way that will help them beat the odds that aren't in their favor.
RJ: It does get me down sometimes, but, I have a strong belief in God and a very good support system through friends and relatives who help me stay up. I try not to think about the odds because if you do then yes it does get you down and you'll stop but you just have to keep on going.
TS: Jones went on to say the Film Festival could prove to be a big stepping-stone. Since 1997 The American Black Film Festival - formerly known as the Acapulco Film Festival - has helped redefine, encourage and expand Black cinema. Former participants included Academy Award Winner Denzel Washington, who directed his first feature film in Cleveland last year. He returns to the event almost yearly to help inspire up and comers. Festival Founder Byron Lewis says he started the event as a retreat for African Americans in Hollywood. But Lewis stresses the importance of establishing a networking system. He says that would give birth to creativity in the black community that might otherwise be ignored.
Byron Lewis: Hollywood makes films that make money and they aren't interested in social issues. The idea for a film festival came from experience, which is unique for any black advertising agencies and our interaction with the talent and also our real involvement with black consumers who really weren't getting positive views of themselves on television. And, in a limited way our commercials did that but, it was really a knowledge of what was missing in the cinema and on television.
TS: Lewis is very conscious of the images that are in film. As owner of Uniworld advertising agency in New York City, he works directly with those who cultivate images. He says people who come to the festival believe so strongly in the power of film that they do whatever it takes to share their vision of their people.
BL: What you'll find here are people who've sacrificed to make these films that you see. For example the HBO short films are made by people some of whom are in film school, some of whom have sacrificed their tuition, some of whom have had their families take second mortgages, some of whom have worked just to produce these little films. These people are interested in creation of images that are going to change how blacks are perceived in this country.
TS: Noted filmmaker Robert Townsend talks frequently about the road he took to finish his first film Hollywood Shuffle. Townsend says he used $50,000 in credit cards to complete the project. The film tells the story of a struggling black actor in Hollywood who faces moral dilemma - either accept a racially negative role or stay true to his craft and wait for a project to be proud of. In this one scene from the movie Townsend takes a sarcastic look at what blacks view as stereotypical roles.
Sound from Hollywood Shuffle: Hi, I'm Robert Taylor and I'm a black actor...
Robert Townsend: There's images out there that are positive it's just more. I'll put it like that.
TS: Townsend produced Hollywood Shuffle in the late 1980's and says African Americans are still a very limited number of good scripts in film and television that don't pigeonhole blacks in specific characters.
RT: Like, right now there's only one dramatic show with people of color, African Americans, and that's Soul Food. That's a regular show so I think there are different images out there we just need more.
TS: Townsend's colleague and friend Chris Tucker agrees. Tucker who's known for box office hits Rush Hour and Rush Hour 2 says, he refused to do a sequel to a movie called Friday. In the film, Tucker plays a young man in South Central Los Angeles with a huge appetite for marijuana. Tucker says after the movie gained in popularity kids would come up to him and tell him they wanted to try drugs too to be funny. Tucker says that made him decline when asked to do a sequel.
Chris Tucker: We have to watch what we put out there, realizing how powerful movies are and the visions, the images that we put out there.
TS: Tucker says the festival was valuable because it gave up and coming filmmakers a chance to share new ideas and visions with those who've already made an impact on Hollywood including him.
CT: I've learned so much stuff more stuff here than in Hollywood walking around or in studios. The people, the wisdom from people like Robert Townsend and Bill Duke.
TS: Tucker went on to say he hopes something can grow out of this experience. Townsend, who co-hosted the festival, says he knows there are talented African Americans who share the dream of making it on the big screen. And he says it is part of his responsibility help them understand what it takes to make.
RT: The bottom line is that I don't say anything is hard it's just do you have the passion desire to do it. So, it's not about anything being difficult you know today we were talking in Bill Duke's boot camp where he's teaching all these actors the next wave the future and nothing is hard it's just what are you willing to sacrifice to live your dream.
TS: Cleveland filmmaker David Stewart made some sacrifices while trying to reach his dream. His first feature film was done on a $12,000 budget, funded mostly by his savings and credit cards. But his hard work paid off when another one of his films, Hip Hop For Life, was accepted into the Sundance Film Festival and the Cleveland Film Festival earlier this year. Stewart says although the film market has potential to grow the Midwest is still isolated in many ways. He came to the film festival to share with other filmmakers from urban areas the stories that are alive in his city.
David Stewart: The nicest part about coming back my second at this festival I saw one of my biggest fans at the hotel. And she was introducing me to all these people saying hi this is David Stewart he's from Cleveland, Ohio he made on of my favorite independent films of all time. I'm not sure if she said that to everybody all the different filmmakers that she knows. But it was it was just really nice having the label that this guy is from outside of L.A. and New York it's really nice to be identified as a Cleveland Filmmaker.
TS: Stewart says being identified with his hometown helps the city as well. It becomes a draw especially for those who are unfamiliar with Cleveland. Through the visual of film the audience can see the scenery and observe the characteristics of Blacks in the city. It makes people more able to relate.
DS: It really helps in terms of just even for me they understand where I'm going and what type of a film that I'm trying to make and different audiences that are here. And it just helps motivate them to see that they are meeting other filmmakers other actors from different cities and they're having the same problems and it's really nice to hear that it's universal suffrage you may be in L.A. you may be in New York but you're still having the same problems that a Cleveland actor would have.
TS: Stewart's perception of problems for African American filmmakers was a topic of discussion for producers and directors who are swimming in ideas within a limited pool of marketability. Producer Roger Bobb's film The Riff starring Antonio Fargas and Nia Peeples won the Lincoln Filmmaker Trophy at the festival he also is putting the finishing touches on a film called Artworks which was shot in Cincinnati. Bobb says the biggest problem he sees is that most film distributors and studios in Hollywood feel African American films is a niche market.
Roger Bobb: I.E. they will only give you a certain amount of money to do make your film because they feel they can only get a certain amount in return. So it's difficult to get a larger budget from Hollywood for these films, which is why you do it on an independent level. Pretty much the formula for Black films is to make it anywhere from $6 to $9 million attach a sound track to it and then hopefully it'll do about 25-35 domestically and that's how the studios make their money. That's pretty much the formula for black films unfortunately. So I find that they are less likely to take a risk on a black film that is not your traditional romantic comedy I.E. gangster drama than with white directors and white projects.
TS: Still, there is a market for hit movies like Men In Black, starring A-list celebrity Will Smith, took in around $90 million in its first weekend. Also, Like Mike, which is described as an urban sports fantasy starring teenage rapper Bow Wow made more than 30 million in the first week. But for films that are produced and directed by African Americans that kind of success is rare. Filmmaker Keenan Ivory Wayans and John Singleton, both of whom attended the festival, created movies that grossed over $100 million - Scary Movie, Scary Movie 2 and Shaft, starring acclaimed film star Samuel L. Jackson.
Actors Richard Jones and Jarvis George they feel stardom is only an audition away. The pair met at Howard University and acted in several shows together during there stint as undergrads. Now they have the chance to show their acting chops to acclaimed director Bill Duke, who's credits include Sister Act 2 with Whoopi Goldberg. Jones and George choose to enact a scene from August Wilson's play Fences to display their talent.
The pair rehearsed for hours to get the chance to impress one of their mentors. Duke has starred in such films as Car Wash, American Gigolo and Predator. He has also done dramatic adaptation of A Raisin In The Sun for PBS. At the actors workshop Duke talks about the presence of African Americans in Hollywood and his commitment to projects that share the realities of black culture.
Bill Duke: It's important that we begin to think about ourselves when we think for tomorrow not as black producers or directors. We should never be limited by our ethnicity only our ability. If we are able to direct the next Star Wars, then we should direct that. Steven Spielberg directed Amistad and The Color Purple and he didn't limit himself to his ethnicity, but to his love of the story and also to his ability as a filmmaker. Those are the kinds of ways, in my opinion, that we have to start thinking of ourselves. If we don't we are going to put ourselves into a corner and be limited to that corner and we can't do that.
TS: Just to piggy-back off of that, with Halle Berry winning the Oscar this year a lot was being said about her being the first African-American actress to win that award. Do you think, in your opinion that that wasn't anything to be hyped, or to have notoriety about, was that not significant?
BD: I think that was extremely significant. Her accomplishment was great. She was brilliant in the movie. But as my colleague Rubin said today we all celebrated that moment. It was a historic moment, it was an important moment, but it's not a movement. The movement for us has to be to be more included in the industry, to have more collective consciousness, to have more collective economics, to build something for ourselves collectively and to be not separately, but collectively and be part of this industry and right now that consciousness is not there unfortunately. This workshop is trying to change that a little bit.
TS: Just to side-step a little bit, you've done fictional work and your latest is a documentary, Partners of the Heart - talk a little bit about that project and how that came to be.
BD: Well, Partners of the Heart is one of my proudest moments because it talks about Vivien Thomas who was an unsung hero who trained major heart surgeons in this nation for numerous years at John Hopkins University and while he was training them, due to the segregation at the time, he would train them in the daytime and in the evening go to their parties and serve them drinks. So, if you can imagine the humiliation in that with the pride and the endurance of the man and his character. He is an example for us to go by, put it that way, and so that was a very important thing for me to be involved in. It took Andrea Kalin, my associate; I think eight years to get it done. I came in the last two years to help her with it, my company. But, It is something I'm very proud of. So, I hope everyone comes tonight. It's going to be on PBS, I think in February. But, it's a wonderful project.
TS: And Morgan Freeman is narrating this?
BD: Morgan Freeman is narrating this. The great Morgan Freeman narrates this, yes.
TS: When it comes to projects like that do you look at a Morgan Freeman and say this is a name and this helps sell the project or do you look at pure talent. What factors do you look at?
BD: Well in this case we had both pure talent and Morgan Freeman. So, you know, that's to be honest. His name has helped sell this project. But, also he is the kind of person that makes $15 to $20 million a film or whatever it is and he came down and did this for almost nothing for us because he believed in the movie. I mean this is the kind of collectiveness we are talking about. He's not talking it he's living it. He said hey Bill I love this movie I want to be part of it what can I do? Came to L.A., came to the studio sat there for an hour or two did the voiceover and that's the kind of thing we need-not amnesia. We are a people of amnesia. I got mine you get yours. He's not that. He's more than that.
TS: The crabs in the basket scenario?
BD: Well unfortunately, we have to transcend that and work together collectively to do the things we want to do.
TS: When it comes to projects like this how do you weigh against projects that are close to your heart versus projects that you know are going to make money and that you know are sure things?
BD: Well, you know, I call it rendering it up to Caesar or rendering it up to God. I have my render up to Caesar projects, which I have to eat like everybody else and there are my God projects and those God projects are projects that I have been working on for a number of years and slowly we're getting the dollars and the resources and people like Larry Union who are giving us the equipment to do it. Those projects are going to get done also, but what's wonderful is that technology is allowing us a certain freedom and allowing us a certain accessibility to getting our projects done that we didn't have before. I mean digital technology is breaking things wide open and this is something that I am very happy about, something that I'm celebrating and participating in and I'm inviting other people along with me to do it.
TS: Bill Duke's latest project Partners of the Heart is a PBS documentary about a black man name Vivien Thomas. Despite having only a high school education Thomas went on to teach and train cardiologist for decades at John Hopkins University. Duke Media along with Andrea Kalin produced the film for The American Network. Morgan Freeman narrates the piece.
Bill Duke says he has several projects in the works this summer including a film co-starring Anthony Hopkins. Partners of the Heart will air on PBS this winter.
Meanwhile actors Jarvis George and Richard Jones are working the connections they made at the event hoping to score a role in an up and coming Hollywood film. Also Filmmakers Roger Bobb and David Stewart plan to stay true to their Hollywood game plan as well. Bobb is working on developing several script ideas and Stewart is working on getting funding to complete his Cleveland Trilogy for Hip Hop For Life hoping that his next film will make him a household name. For Around Noon, I'm Tarice Sims.