by Jacquie Taliaferro
Midday is now midnight and the smell of burning bright lights and fresh brewed coffee is in the air, cables are taped to the floor, a young Black woman wearing a utility belt makes the final adjustments on the lights and returns to the soundboard. The director sets up the scene with the actors and gets behind the camera and calls, “Action!” This is one of the two dozen Black independent films or videos being produced in the San Francisco Bay Area at any given time.
Pixar, George Lucas, Phil Hoffman, Francis Ford Coppola, Robin Williams, Sean Penn – all do on-going projects in San Francisco. They all share the “We are independent of Hollywood” vibe. Too often, we hear Black Hollywood actors, directors etc. talking and writing about the lack of opportunities. Now, looking at the relationship between the Black filmmakers in the San Francisco Bay Area and Hollywood is like the United Nations. There is little to no interaction, let alone co-productions.
In Hollywood, you can get a meeting and make “The Help,” “Precious” and “Driving Miss Daisy or some other “Mammy”-”I don’t know nothing ‘bout birthing no babies” movie. To my knowledge, here in the Bay Area no Black producers or filmmakers are cutting deals for films.
Network TV outlets are no better. ABC, CBS, NBC and Fox, along with the San Francisco Chronicle and San Francisco Examiner newspapers, have very few Black people on staff. All of them are losing market share to social media like Facebook, Twitter, Huffington Post, YouTube and other Internet-based information delivery systems.
When it comes to Black talent, the Internet-based companies mirror the conventional media companies. I was recently at Twitter and after encountering over 100 employees, my eyes saw only one Black employee. The whole truth cannot be told, if there is not representation from all segments of society at a media company. The sad state that most one or two Blacks at a media outlet find themselves in is that they must produce the same white-washed stories as the majority or they’re “outta there lickety-split.”
To my knowledge, here in the Bay Area no Black producers or filmmakers are cutting deals for films. Network TV outlets are no better. I was recently at Twitter and after encountering over 100 employees, my eyes saw only one Black employee.
Sean Penn was at the 2011 Cannes International Film Festival doing a fundraiser for “Haiti” – not Morgan Freeman, not Oprah Winfrey, not Denzel Washington, not James Earl Jones. It was great that he was doing a call for action for Haiti and since the majority of the people he was appealing to – 99 percent of the 1 percent – looked like him, he was probably the appropriate spokesperson.
So on one hand, he appeals for the sake of the people of Haiti, but closer to home, his actions hurt the opportunities for Black independent filmmakers and others here in the Bay Area. Penn’s public service announcement in 2004 against Prop. L, which would have provided distribution locations using all the underused theaters in the City for independent filmmakers and added entertainment commerce to the region, shut down those efforts to the glee of established theater owners. To this day, many of the theaters are boarded up, just sitting there. It’s a shame Penn and the opponents of Prop. L just shut the effort down without providing any alternatives. Years later, potential commerce lies fallow.
Hollywood and those doing well by the system are not welcoming to potential competition. Recently, a director friend of mine told me he ran into Robin Williams and said, “Hey, I’m shooting a film here in San Francisco and …” Before he could finish, Robin said, “I can’t help you, man,” and quickly walked away. I am sure he gets people asking him for help all the time.
Except, this was an award-winning stage director who helped launch the careers of Terri J. Vaughn (Steve Harvey Show and most recently in Tyler Perry films) and Kellita Smith (Bernie Mac Show, Jamie Foxx Show and Hair Show with Mo’Nique). And he has two feature films under his belt. I could go on with similar stories; however, you “get the picture,” pun intended.
I’ve met George Lucas three times – first at the Danny Glover event to fight hunger. He was all the way hip. We met again in Cannes when he screened “Star Wars.” I never liked “Star Wars” from the beginning – that image of Darth Vader with James Earl Jones’ voice was a big turn off, a kind of twisted subliminal message of the dark evil Black man, in my opinion. Plus, Black men, we have our own princesses to save.
The third time we met was at the “Red Tails” screening in December. He was standing outside as the film was ending and I asked him if he was nervous. He calmly replied, “No, I’ve been to lots of my films’ screenings.” Yeah, well 95 percent of the filmmakers I know, including myself, would be sweating like Newt Gingrich at a Black Panther Party meeting. I was standing 2 feet from him and I could tell George was confident.
My guess is that “Red Tails” will be spectacular. The flying scenes from “Star Wars” will simply be transformed into WWII aerial dynamics. There are some super examples of great WWII movies: “From Here to Eternity,” “The Guns of Navarone,” “The Longest Day,” “Stalag 17,” “Patton,” “Au Revoir, Les Enfants,” “The Dirty Dozen,” “Casablanca,” “Saving Private Ryan,” “Schindler’s List,” “The Great Escape,” “The Bridge on the River Kwai,” “Das Boot,” “Battle of Britain,” “Cross of Iron,” “Empire of the Sun,” “Come and See,” “Hell in the Pacific” and the list goes on.
Lucas will most likely outdo them all with that magic (Industrial Light and Magic) technology. He has the money and power to hire the best writers, directors and actors. There are many books out on the Tuskegee Airmen so that story almost writes itself. During the recruitment of the airmen, only the top 1 percent of the talent was chosen. Eleanor Roosevelt took to the skies with a Tuskegee pilot before Secret Service could stop her. Upon landing, she immediately called her president husband saying, “These men can fly. Fund the program!”
I think George Lucas is a good guy in a notoriously unscrupulous business, trying to do the right thing. Hiring a Black director and writer was the right thing, unlike Steven Spielberg with “The Color Purple” and “Amistad,” Francis Coppola’s “Cotton Club” and Oliver Stone’s “Any Given Sunday,” for which he never credited Jamie Williams, the former 49er and now director of athletics at Academy of Arts University. Stone additionally moved away from “right” when he cast two White men in his 9-11 Movie, “World Trade Center,” that was based on the action of two real life people, one of whom was Black.
Moving from Hollywood and any expectation of “right,” the bottom line is we must build our own studios, networks and social media companies and bring our own money back to our communities now.
The bottom line is we must build our own studios, networks and social media companies and bring our own money back to our communities now.
On Jan. 15, 2012, the actual birthday of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., and on the observed MLK Jr. holiday the following day, there were numerous celebrations around what he stood for – human rights, equal rights, peace and many other super things. However, the two things that brought him the most heat – protest against the war in Viet Nam and economic inclusiveness – are overshadowed. His rallying at the grassroots level – marching with sanitation workers and organizing for economic justice – was shut down and the celebratory band plays on without one note of emphasis on economic justice. Booker T. (Taliaferro) Washington, founder of Tuskegee Institute, emphasized entrepreneurship, economic justice and self-reliance as a predecessor to King.
The two things that brought Dr. King the most heat – protest against the war in Viet Nam and for economic inclusiveness – are overshadowed in his birthday celebrations.
In the spirit of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., Harriett Tubman, Sojourner Truth and Gordon Parks – the first person I met with a Tuskegee Airmen script – let’s pick a war and stop it. And then pick another and another, until they are all gone. And for a whole week, go and support a Black artist’s film, video, theater, art, spoken word, museum exhibit etc., putting the money into that artist’s hands.
Jacquie Taliaferro, filmmaker and director of LaHitz Media, can be reached at email@example.com or (415) 821-1111.
LaHitz Media and Method Man at “Red Tails” screening
“Red Tails” trailer