This feature is a poignant reminder of the painstaking journey that black people everywhere and in every sector have to make and the revolutionary journey British black artistes are making at the very heart of the multi billion $ film industry.
What inspired you to produce the “Black Hollywood They’ve Gotta Have Us” series?
I always knew it would be popular, having done Black is the New Black, I have a template as it were. I think being a portrait photographer you get to know and understand people. Someone said to me many years ago, that a good photographer of people is a part-time psychologist and I think that’s really true because you do have to understand human nature and understand the person that is in front of you in order to capture them.
After doing Black is the New Black you open a Pandora’s box because I think the thing that black people in particular have recognised in the programme is that the conversations that happened are conversations that usually happen at home, at the dining table. But these are conversations that happen between black people that are not subject to what I call ‘the code’. – the code being that language we speak in the presence of white people.
The other thing about it is that when people in this programme have spoken, they’ve not spoken in code, and it has opened the airs of other ethnicities to these people, but, not as people who are of another ethnicity but other ethnicities that have been denied or forgotten about, or refused to play a part that is just about their colour.
One of the reasons I wanted to make the series Black Hollywood: “They’ve Gotta Have Us” was that last year there was the Governors Ball where Oprah Winfrey made a speech, and in that speech she talked about the influence of seeing Sidney Poitier winning an Oscar in 1964 and the influence that had on her and her generation in terms of understanding that the art form of cinema and to be an actor or director was not something that was removed from them. Sidney Poitier had a dream which could become and had become reality.
There was something else was going on – I was going to dinner parties and I’d hear, particularly from white people complaining or asking the question, why is someone like Oprah, with all her billions, complaining about representation because she is rich? But the thing that really got to me was, people were understanding Oprah’s money but not really understanding that Oprah as a black women, even though fabulously wealthy, the roles that were open to her as an actress were very small indeed.
That got me thinking about this because I consider myself to be an artist, and I consider art as being the oldest expression of mankind. We have painted pictures to depict ourselves in caves, and as human beings, it doesn’t matter who you are, our art is individual. As human beings we have the freedom to make art which is individual to us. Yet in cinema, it is the only art form where if you are black, if you are female, if you are gay or if you have some form of disability, you are told you are not allowed to make your art. You are told what you can be, and where you can be. I didn’t think that was fair. Having looked at so many people that I admire from Spike Lee to Harry Belafonte, the thing I realised was that when it comes to black people, art, race and cinema are inextricably linked.
We are all aware that typically Black Americans were cast in demeaning roles contributing internationally to the narrative that being black meant servitude, lack of intelligence and courage, shifting the focus from the fact that most Americans black, white and other started their journey in the 1400s in a similar way. Do you believe that Hollywood served only to glamorise and distort some of the most heart rending aspects of history and do you believe this was a subconscious act or wilfully deliberate?
Well imagine, when we were younger, we would all sit and watch John Wayne in the Westerns, and we would look at John Wayne shooting the Indians and think that John Wayne was a hero. I remember a rap artist saying, and it was a wake up call for me “The Indian’s were us”.
What Hollywood has managed to do is create propaganda which changed the narrative – and film being a powerful medium, we sit there and we look at stories which are stories of make-believe, and because we can see them we believe them to be real. So what Hollywood has managed to do is to perpetuate myths, stereotypes and propaganda which has painted, for many a year, especially black people, in a light which people around the world take as being true.
It’s very much wilful.
When you think about the first feature film that was put out there which was Birth of a Nation (D. W. Griffith), this film was the first film that was watched by a serving president in the White House and it went on to become the most famous film of it’s time, a blockbuster movie. It was a film which depicted the kkk in a way that they were not in reality. People went out, they took those images that they saw in that film. Remember, the film had white actors, blacking up and had scenes of blackened men chasing white women and trying to rape them. It was deliberately designed to create fear amongst the masses and that is exactly what it did. It took a fundamentalist group and it glamourised them. And it gave them purpose. I think before that the KK were a minority fringe group, what this film did was popularise them and increase their membership. Was it wilful or deliberate? – Yes. Hollywood has developed a status quo which is based on presenting the white male as the hero of all of us and that’s something that has been continued to this day. I think that black film makers are leading a revolution of our evolution of human beings in the art form of cinema. It’s making it possible for all those other groups – be they gay, be they women, be they LGBTQ community, be they people with disabilities, to tell their stories as well, and their stories are important stories. A film like Moonlight is really important because for me it is a huge symbol. It was the first movie with a black cast to win best film category at the Oscars that wasn’t about race.
As a Black British artist and producer was it easier for you to produce this type of documentary in terms of access to the “stars” and materials? What sort of obstacles did you encounter?
I think it was different for me because I think people looked at my body of work. I think that A-listers, if they’re coming to something and they know the person making it, they will be looking at other work you’ve done. And I think the people that said yes to us, they saw the work that I make has legs to it, it’s about legacy. It is work that is not forgotten about tomorrow. It is work that affects culture to bring about change.
I think it’s really important that they decided to sign up to this because it’s a legacy piece and they had an opportunity to speak about their lives and their art in a way they had not been able to before. I think me being a black artist talking to other black artists, they know I would understood where they are coming from and hopefully not distort their words in terms of changing the meaning and sentiment of what they were saying.
Making a programme about black people talking about the things that effect black people, you encounter the obstacles of race, they are the obstacles of interpretation. We have a very very diverse team made up of women, men, all different ethnicities and nationalities, but there is a particular type of middle class white male that works in television who absolutely loves the project and aspects of black culture – the films, the music, but they have a view point which can be quite naive at times. It think there’s an understanding and a depth that you have thats a lived understanding – it’s like Harry B said in episode 1,” being in movie industry is a strange thing, and it’s not something you can intellectually talk about and hope that somebody else would understand. You have to be black in order to understand the subtleties.” And that for me, and for others, was a moment of realisation for people that was communicated in a way that that subject has never been communicated before.
It’s like when people talk about micro aggressions that happen on a daily basis in a variety of different ways. It’s like Mallorie Blackman’s book, Noughts and Crosses where she talks about the majority never knowing the feelings of the minority, and the minority always knowing the feelings and the motivations of the majority. Only now with the advent of Brexit are the 48% understanding what it’s like to feel like the minority.
On social media people are communicating about the programme as if it belongs to them, it is theirs.
There’s also another point to this, as I said before about the people who are fans of the culture but don’t understand the depth of the culture, is that they tend to see things through rose tinted glasses. You either get people who think it’s all good, or you get people who think it’s all bad, and you get black people who feel that way as well. But the thing I’m trying to get across in this film is about balance because there are a number of the contributors, especially the American contributors, who come from very very poor backgrounds. And when they got the bug to be a performer, it was seen as something that other people did. Barry Jenkins in episode 3 says “I didn’t believe I could make cinema because that’s what people did that were better than me.” So there was a barrier – class barrier, it was a financial thing, it was something that other people did, especially white people. It wasn’t something black people had access to. So the fact that people we have in our show have arrived at the point in their lives and in their careers that they have, really points to their unerring ability to believe in themselves, to believe in their talent, to work hard, and to allow people to open doors for them. Because none of this ever happens on your own, there’s always somebody who is willing to pick you and give you these opportunities because that person recognises the talent in you. That’s the way things happen. That’s what happened to them and the same thing happened to me. Without them I would be nowhere. There are people inside of the BBC who advocated my work all the time and without them I would not be able to make programmes like this.
One lesson I’ve learned from making the programme – many of the contributors have become friends, and in listening to their stories the one thing it has taught me is that I can never make something like this on my own. It’s a team effort. You have to make sure you’ve got a great team of people around you that believe in the vision. I’ve learnt a little bit of humility from making this show.
It would seem that Black British actors are gaining significant ground in Hollywood. Why, in your opinion, is this and do you expect the trend to continue?
I do expect it to continue because I don’t see anytime soon for the trend in Britain to continue to be backward in the creative thinking that goes on in terms of casting, in terms of story writing, in terms of projects which get the green-light, unless we move away from this trend of only wanting to make period dramas in this country. I don’t see there being room for the immense amount of talent that there is to be ignored. Look, I’ve always said this, I call it the ‘Wakanda Moment’ – you have pre-Black Panther and you have post-Black Panther. – Pre is people looking at black talent and thinking that black talent can only do certain roles. Post Black Panther, we can do anything. We are as Wakanda suggested – we have technology and creativity which is light years ahead of other people. It sounds arrogant but I’ve always believed that.
If we are given the freedom to tell the stories and make them in the way we would like to make them, as I’ve done with this series, we can prove we can make original things. If you look back at films such as Spike Lee’s She’s Gotta Have it, when that film came out, it defied genre because no-one had seen a film like that before. Hollywood Shuffle comes out and no-one’s seen a film like that before either! Moonlight, Get Out… they don’t know what category it goes in. Is it comedy? Is it a horror film? What is it? We’re able to make things which defy genre, we are already creating genres.
It’s also about exclusion, and my question is, would we know half the film makers or talent we have, if they hadn’t had to go through the things they’ve had to go through to make them who they are. Because those things have shaped them and those things are the things that make them brilliant.
I think people are getting frustrated working in the UK because it is very limiting. I hope that the people who green-light films and look to finance projects in TV and in the film industry, watch our programme because I think they might learn something, I think they might learn how to be more open minded.
As we find out when we travel and when we go on holiday around the world, when you visit in someone else’s country and you’re in a bar or a restaurant, and you hear somebody’s ordinary story, their stories are compelling and they have different ways of telling stories. We don’t always have to have a Hans Christian Andersen way of telling a story. But in the UK people are getting fed-up and they are leaving. It’s the same for black and white people but it’s different to be a black artist than it is to be a white artist. It’s difficult for any director to get work; it’s difficult to stand out. But when you throw race into the ring, it becomes even more difficult for black artists, because the roles we are allowed to play are so much smaller. The pot that we have to pick from is so much smaller, because of race. But the great thing about it is that people are saying, you know what, if that’s the pot over there, I’m going to create my own pot and I’m not going to wait for you to tell me when I can be what I want to be, and how I can be. I’m going to create it on my own terms. And that’s the revolution in the industry at the moment. Black artists are not waiting for permission anymore.
Finally, do you have some words of wisdom and insight to give to Black British aspirational artistic directors and producers because as we all know, They’ve Gotta Have Us?
Don’t wait for permission, do your own thing!