Four the hard way: … is how the Nation’s Gene Seymour finds black filmmakers creepin’ on a come-up.
Q: Getting back to the issue of financing, Kasi, tell me how you got “Caveman’s Valentine” going. Lemmons: Well, Samuel L. Jackson and Jersey Films were already attached to the project when I came on. Jersey has a track record of putting together packages of material that’s difficult to sell. And because Sam and I worked together on “Eve’s Bayou” — and in fact he made it possible for me to make that movie in the first place–it became easier to package it.
Q: But what about selling it to financiers? I mean, we’re talking about a movie whose hero is a psychotic African-American derelict who rails against unseen forces and has a sexual encounter with a white woman. Not the sort of story that attracts instant financing.
Lemmons: Well, my feeling is you never know why somebody is passing on the material, OK? At one point, we were in business with a company that we really seriously thought was going to make the movie, and then there was a changeover of personnel and they balked at the material. Which is particularly distressing.
But for the most part, people either love it or hate it, and they tell you without telling you why. Even though there are a million things they can hide behind. Like, say, African-American actors don’t “sell foreign” or that this is a hero who’ll rub people the wrong way or, like, who wants to see a movie about a schizophrenic homeless black man, you know? I never heard that the interracial sex rubbed people the wrong way, though I’m sure it did. It’s OK, though. We did find someone to work with for whom none of these issues seemed to matter at all.
Melvin Van Peebles: I didn’t have to worry about anyone else because I did it all myself. I tried the studio thing. Had a three-picture deal with Columbia. But when it came to something like [“Sweetback”], they said, “How could I be doin’ somethin’ like this and dahdahdah….” Now, people are oohing and aahing about what I did. But back then, I was on my own. Did my own distribution, publicity … And it wasn’t just dangerous on the black level. Forget the political message. What was dangerous was, here is a guy who comes along with two pieces of Scotch tape, makes himself a huge killing. I mean yes, I’m the godfather of modern black cinema. But I’m also the godfather of “Blair Witch Project” and all that implies, hmm?
Spikes: I remember something [president of Time Warner] Dick Parsons said once: A company that does not look like its target audience will ultimately miss its mark. I liked that. He was saying that if you want black business and you don’t hire black people in your company, what chances are you going to have? How do you feed that audience if you don’t feel that audience’s needs in your own arteries?
Ridley: Not to sound like an old man, but young people…yeah, they’re affected by the cross-cultural influence in music and hip-hop and things like that. The problem is that movies are still dominated by twenty-five middle-aged white multimillionaires who are out of touch. And not just with black people, but with everything.
Look at what happened with “Pay It Forward.” It was adapted from a novel in which the lead male character was African-American, and yet they cast a white actor [Kevin Spacey] to play the role. You’re telling me there wasn’t a black actor around who could play that part? It certainly wouldn’t have made less money with a black actor. So, you can say, it will get better, it will get better. But how much more bankable do you have to be as a black actor or actress? How many more positive responses do you have to have from moviegoers in general, white and black, before it really changes? I don’t know.