While independent film is diverse, so are its individual niches, including one that’s compelled me for a long time.
Our first outsider cinema, African-American film already had a long history before I came to it in the early 1990s. Fresh out of college and living in Brooklyn, I got interested in Spike Lee’s films, especially Do the Right Thing. It grabbed me not only as a semi-hip film geek, but also as a young white resident of a dodgy downtown Brooklyn neighborhood. I loved how the film was crafted, how it dealt bluntly with social power and perception, and how it so authentically portrayed New York sensibilities in a neighborhood so close to my own.
Another early moment in my connection to this niche involved film posters. In the mid-90s, I gave MoMA gallery talks on African-American film posters from the 1920s to 1950s. This plugged me into the rich history of black independent film as well as how blackness was portrayed attractively and with diversity in public during the era of Jim Crow discrimination. Black athletes, musicians, lovers, heroes, villains, comedians, ministers, families, even cowboys. To my surprise, when I researched the films, I found that many had been made (or at least financed) by white people. Looking back, maybe I shouldn’t have been so surprised, given the ongoing challenges faced by black filmmakers as well as dominant tendencies to co-opt the marginal.
That’s part of what makes films like Sweet Sweetback’s Baadasssss Song, Killer of Sheep, Tongues Untied, and The Watermelon Woman so exciting—that they were made at all, and with such credibility. Still, I like the popular films too. Now living in L.A., I often get sucked into Boyz n the Hood when it comes on TV, for similar reasons that attracted me to Spike Lee’s film, plus the charisma of Ice Cube. To my chagrin, I’ve also been watching Malibu’s Most Wanted and Soul Plane, enjoying the raw ethnic comedy at face value but also more critically—asking myself what it means to me as a white man.
As the adoptive father of a girl from Ethiopia, African-American film and culture have become even more important to me, especially the Africa part. Sometimes I tune into The Africa Channel to watch music videos with my daughter. Or, with my wife and son, films like Saint Louis Blues, a remarkable Senegalese film that combines local people and issues with Hollywood-style musical and road-film genres. In learning about the complexities of transnational / transracial adoption, I’ve attended lectures and read a lot, but also learned from films such as the encyclopedic and deeply personal Live and Become.
All of these films vary in their independence from mainstream commercial cinema as well as their motivations and meanings. Together, they suggest a vibrant mosaic visible in just one small part of what’s called “independent film.” As a group of films that have been important to me, they also say things about me. Where I’ve been, what I’ve done, who I’ve been and am becoming. I’m not exactly the target audience for this niche, nor an expert on it, but it still has mattered a lot to me over the years.
This post is part of a series in which I talk about independent film in a more detailed, wide-ranging, and personal way than I usually do here. And it’s a chance to hear from you. Feel free to post a comment anytime or let me know if you’d like to write a post.
By James Latham