Editor | Peter Bowen
A Good Day to Be Black?
Posted January 22, 2008
Park City, UT -- On Tuesday, January 22, former New York Times critic and co-creator of the film The Black List introduced a panel of filmmakers, activists, and policy makers to a more than overflowing crowd at the Film Lodge. The topic for the day was "Black in America," a subject which seemed perhaps a little large to cover in an hour and half. In addition to Mitchell, the panel consisted of Melody Barnes, the Executive Vice President of the progressive think tank Center for American Progress, Katrina Browne, the director of the documentary Traces of the Trade, documentary filmmaker Orlando Bagwell, actor Nick Cannon American Son, and the actor/producer Danny Glover Trouble the Water.
Mitchell started off joking that he had wanted to call the panel A Good Day To Be Black And Sexy - the name of a feature this year by African American filmmaker Dennis Dortch - but the name was already taken. "Well, I'm still sexy," he quipped. Indeed while all the panelists were sexy in their own way, but whether they thought it was a good day to be a black filmmaker was the question. Were conditions better for African-American filmmakers now than they were in 1991 when Daughters Of The Dust, Hangin With The Homeboys, and Straight Out Of Brooklyn were at the festival? Was there still a need to control the representation of race? Were filmmakers any more in the control of means of production than they were before? All good questions and all with no easy answers. Perhaps the most difficult question of all came from Mitchell on the role of the Festival, when he asked: "A lot of black filmmakers don't think of coming because they don't believe they have a shot. Does Sundance have a responsibility to reach out to them?"
While all agreed that there was no single black experience that could represent the culture as a whole, several panelists believed that the struggle of black filmmakers was in itself an instructive lesson on overall state of race in America. As Danny Glover eloquently put it, "How do we use the stories we tell to represent the diversity of thought. We represent the moral playing ground of this particular experience."
While most of the panelists used their own experience to gauge the effects of contemporary African-American representation, one panelist was left out in the dark. Katrina Browne is a white woman whose distinction is that she grew unaware that her ancestors were the largest slave traders in Rhode Island. When she found out, she took nine family members on a trip that retraced the sea routes of the 19th century slave trade. For Browne, this was not just a physical trip, but a philosophical one, an exploration of the responsibility "of regular folks, good folks, who participate (wittingly? unwittingly?) in systems that do immense harm."
Elsewhere in Park City, some people are taking responsibility to do immense good. While Main Street is chock-a-block full of branded houses touting their corporate goods, BlackHouse is a very different experience. Created in 2007 to "to provide a platform for African American filmmakers to use their voice to tell stories by and about African Americans in the world of independent and feature films," BlackHouse curates film programs, panel discussions and an open-door policy.
Filmmaker and BlackHouse board member Maurice Jamal (Dirty Laundry) remembers their beginning: "Threes years ago a bunch of us were sitting around and thought it would be great to have a place where people involved with African American and urban filmmaking could have a place to hang out. I'd been on a panel for the Queer Lounge, and thought, "why couldn't we do something like that"." The next year, they did. And this year the house is even more robust. Filmmaker Cheryl Dunye, who has had her own films at Sundance, returns to help out around the house. She embraces the space's open door policy in programming short films there: "I tell people come by with film and we'll throw it on the DVD player." If African-American filmmakers have felt wary about the inclusiveness of the Sundance community, BlackHouse provides a sheltered meeting place. "What I love," continues Dunye, "is seeing executives from BET and people from HBO sitting on the sofa and talking with some kids from Oklahoma who are interesting in maybe making a film."