Black Cinema Café Opens Up a New World of African-american Indie
Just inside the door stands Kent Blake, a Baltimore businessperson and writer, along with fellow Black Cinema Café organizers Chris Brooks, George Ray, and Sarsfield Williams. They shake hands, take numbers, and buy people beers. At first I assume the guests are film producers, directors, or critics. Some are, but, as I learn later, the event also attracts members of the city's African-American business community, film students, and a few starving writers from Johns Hopkins. They make up part of a national network of filmgoers that is using these events to get the word out: There's a demand for independent black-made and -oriented films, and if studios aren't going to distribute them, someone else will.
"Think of it as a film festival for the public," Blake says. "Think of it as a chance to see and talk about black films you would only see on HBO, PBS, or Showtime." It's also a chance for directors who have won awards at film festivals to take their case to the public. If they want to know what producers think about their work, they can go to the annual Acapulco Black Film Festival. But if they want to keep in touch with a potential Baltimore audience--or audiences in 11 other cities--Black Cinema Café will give them the feedback they need for distribution.
Black Cinema Café was founded five years ago in New York by director Reggie Scott (Hello Love) and Acapulco festival producer Jeff Friday. Since then, it has steadily expanded to 12 cities, picking up sponsorships from Grand Marnier and Vibe magazine along the way. It arrived in Baltimore in October, with a showing of Timothy Wayne Folsome's Jacked, a feature that begins as a gangster movie but ends as a tale of redemption, and the café is scheduled to keep meeting the second Monday of each month at the Charles.
Despite that growth, Blake says that major Hollywood studios have yet to pay mind to Black Cinema Café events. "There's not enough sex [and] violence," he says, "and the stereotypes aren't there." Though African-Americans are estimated to make up as much as 20 percent of the moviegoing public, there hasn't been a stable "black genre" audience since the blaxploitation days of the '70s. African-Americans make up only 2.4 percent of the Directors Guild, and there are virtually no black studio executives. And while Acapulco, the Urbanworld Film Festival, and other black film events do attract national attention, the major studios still go to Cannes and Sundance to pick up independent films.
Even when Hollywood wants to invite a middle-class black audience to dinner, it doesn't know what to serve. When John Singleton blasted to fame at age 23 with Boyz N the Hood, the studios followed with a string of imitative "gangsta" movies, which wound up offending a large sector of the target audience. 1999's The Best Man prompted a slew of relationship movies, which directors like Singleton criticized as "bourgeois." What do the people want? Not oversimplified genre films, Black Cinema Café organizers are betting, but smart, creative perspectives on modern life.
The Organic Short Film Festival, it turns out, fits the bill. I head into the Charles at half-past seven, equipped with the response sheets that all audience members are supposed to fill out. Tonight's four films--Kickin' Chicken, Capers' Fish, Episodes, and Shorty--were all screened at the 2001 Acapulco festival. If they have anything else in common (besides black characters), it's a scrappy approach to insoluble problems. Unlike in many indies, the directors seem more intent on solving problems than on screwing things up. It reminds me what former U.S. poet laureate Robert Pinsky once said about his work: He didn't need to spend time convincing people that his childhood was crazy. It was crazy. He needed to spend time making sense of it.
Joy Phillips' Kickin' Chicken, an award winner at Acapulco, is a short, fast, and freakishly funny meditation on addiction. A woman gets out of rehab, then falls back into her nightmarish obsession: fried chicken. In Caper's Fish, a down-and-out musician meets up with a kid, like Charlie Chaplin hooking up with a young sidekick--except in this case the tramp is a heroin addict who gets stuck with a knife in the end. It's a touching, odd scenario; in 17 minutes, director Ezekiel Dickson seems to be placing as many square pegs in round holes as possible.
Episodes, by Desha Dauchan, begins with a young woman caught up in a destructive relationship. The prospect of an abortion--her fourth--leads to a reunion with an old friend. One scene in particular is hauntingly evocative: The two women, both in their mid-20s, are sitting in a field. One has found a guy, the other God; neither is happy. Their old standby, a shared spliff, isn't going to do the trick for them like it used to. It's a moment of high awkwardness and, unlike most films in the multiplex, it depends on young black women confronting their problems by themselves, without male characters around them.
Jon Chang's Shorty turns an 18th-century classic into a 21st-century black romance. Using the structure of Cyrano de Bergerac, the director confronts established ideas about black manhood.
"I present Eric, who is the stereotype of the urban black male that is common in our popular media," Chang says in an e-mail interview. "I also present Russell, who is the alternative to that stereotype--the underrepresented male image who is kind, caring, soft-spoken, and respectful to women. . . . It is an alternative image to the negative stereotype we are inundated with in our popular culture." Chang doesn't steer clear from dictating which road his characters should take. "If I want the audience to feel for Eric, it is because he needs to change, and maybe we see a glimpse of him changing because of Russell's example."
For a few lucky directors, exposure through Black Cinema Café has led to national distribution. In 1999, 28-year-old Carl Seaton spent 17 days maxing out credit cards in Chicago with a group of unknown actors, filming One Week, a story about a young groom-to-be waiting for the results of his HIV test. After it won the top prize at the Acapulco Black Film Festival, it toured Black Cinema Cafés across the country. Word of mouth gave One Life a push that the studios wouldn't, and eventually Black Cinema Café co-founder Friday took matters into his own hands and distributed it himself through his own company, Film Life. One Week opened in New York in October and is coming to Baltimore soon.
Black Cinema Café has only been in town for two months, but Blake says the response has been encouraging. Brooks and Ray are busy "bringing the crowd in," Blake says; meanwhile, the group's Web site (www.blackcinemacafe.com) has been getting many hits. "We've been flooded with e-mails and clips from filmmakers and audience members who want to contact artists, fund them, or just talk to one another," he says.
But that's only half of the problem. Baltimore Black Cinema Café barely has its sea legs, but Blake says the Grand Marnier sponsorship expires Jan. 1. After that, Vibe will be Black Cinema Café's lone sponsor. So the Baltimore Host Committee is canvassing local businesses and other potential sponsors to underwrite screenings. With a recession underway, big studios may be less inclined than ever to take gambles on independent black cinema. Blake hopes Baltimoreans will commit as fully as some other cities have (he cites thriving Black Cinema Cafés in Houston and New Orleans).
"Baltimore used to take care of its own," he says. "I'd hate to see them miss out on this."
Black Cinema Café next meets Dec. 10 at the Charles Theatre. The featured film is Love Come Down. For more information and reservations, contact Kent Blake at email@example.com or (410) 591-2236.
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