On a late October afternoon about two years ago, my wife and I were driving down a quiet Houston street on a rare visit with family when we witnessed a moment of joy that drew our attention: a man of about 30 years, hoisting his giddy 4-year-old son upon his strong shoulder in the fluttering shadows. They shared a splendid moment in each other’s company, very probably unaware that we were observing. The boy and man of the moment were black.
The strange thing is, we knew with absolute certainty that such occasions are commonplace in black communities. I see them; I know them. Healthy, loving, altogether ordinary black fathers and sons go to my church and walk my streets.
The only place I never see normal black folks represented is in the increasingly popular films (and reality shows and music) being masqueraded as indicative of the Black Experience. A troubling stream of craven and depraved sociopaths and psychotics haunt the environs of black entertainment. The doom these figures inflict upon their familiars is taken for granted as a natural condition of our people.
These images and messages do not represent the predominant experiences and nature of my people — and I, for one, want it as widely known as possible that I reject them wholesale.
I take no part with, nor give any corner to, those who keep us in bondage as a function of these images. I reject the reduction of the traumatized but decent people I know as marginalized slaves and menials. Equally bankrupt are the media offerings that show us as sanitized and shallow beyond recognition — devoid of serious concerns outside of those that are worthy of soap-opera treatment.
I do not wish to infringe upon the rights of any artist or private citizen to make whatever statement they wish. It is my intention to help open up an entire universe of actual, real-life, human people who more than “happen” to be black — rather to those who are black on purpose — for whom black is “The New Black.” To expand the accounting of a people who have dimension and meaning in their lives so that they are presented in a way that is true to them as individuals. It is my hope to reveal that in this age of increasing means of distribution, when we have a golden opportunity to redefine the images of black people. It is my argument that the common view of Black Life is too often abstracted and perverted, so much so that it has become the received version of the truth — and that such received information is literally and figuratively killing us.
A reasonable parallel lies in Plato’s Allegory of the Cave. This famous thought experiment starts with the condition of bondage: several prisoners are compelled by chains to look only straight ahead. They are presented solely with the image of shadows cast upon the wall by a fire, and the actors who move between it and the prisoners. But even after they are freed and allowed to see the actual people projecting the shadows, the prisoners continue to accept the shadows as reality.
This is exceptionally apropos of the state of blacks in film. Our shadows are accepted as reality. The troubling realization for me is that we are, ourselves, the agents who are the cause of the shadows, the prisoners compelled to accept them, and the very shadows on the walls.
With greater frequency black filmmakers are saying terrible things about the inhabitants of Black America. While viewing a black film of the recent past (choose your own), I saw black women weeping their eyes out, scene after scene, abused and victimized by black men in a relentless parade of misery. What joy, I wondered, is to be found in this? Even in pathos, of course there is release. But surely there is a difference between pathos and sadomasochism.
Ironically, very little of artistic merit or craft is to be found in the dramatically bereft constructions of the other variety of black movie. Many of these projects feature very talented and attractive casts, slick direction, and high production values. The subject matter is seldom of great ambition or depth. They are designed to please the broadest possible demographic of black ticket buyers. Most of this work is innocent and innocuous enough, and thank goodness for this alternative. That stipulated, it would be less than honest to point to but a small few of these as artistically satisfying.
There appears to be a formula at work. On one side, form follows function: entire histories are corrupted, twisted fantasies concocted, so that the filmmakers can elicit the baser instincts of an audience. Then there is the inverse where function follows form: gorgeous people in thinly dramatic situations, scarcely requiring craft and imagination to execute.
It is my contention that there is a third way: The practice of aesthetics implies the necessity of a drive toward natural instincts and refinement through study. Aesthetics concerns itself with cravings, yes, but also with taste. Where aesthetics are applied to broad comedy, profound tragedy, or that vast sweep of the in between, we have seen a long history of great cinema and theater.
Despite my many failings in my artistic pursuits, I have always been too burdened with respect for aesthetics to do less than endeavor to these ends. That when entertainment is destructive of these ends, it can no longer be deemed “art.” It may, instead, be seen as pandering — an appeal to the lowest common urges: the creation of objects of pity and derision. Objectified, ignored, appeased.
In a rueful observation made in the Chicago Tribune, HL Menken once opined: “No one in this world — ever lost money by underestimating the intelligence of the great masses of the plain people. Nor has anyone ever lost public office thereby.”
I guess that gets proven just about all the time. But that does not negate the possibility that those who strive toward a higher standard are consigned to the breadline. It seems to me urgent, now more that ever before, to start providing at the very minimum an alternative view.
To this end, I join the artists and liberated people who paved the way, who held the line on the basic understanding that our solemn duty is to insist that art is always a celebration of life. We were taught that in creating art, our creations must have ease, form, beauty, and entirety.
At the time of this writing my company, Exponent Media Group (EMG), is on the precipice of releasing our first film. It is called “Mr. Sophistication.” We are proud of the film and we definitely hope that you will see and enjoy it. It is something that we poured our best efforts into, and have aspired as much as we might to refine its form, beauty, and entirety. As for the ease of it all – well, that’s a lot more complicated.
“Mr. Sophistication” is Ron Waters, a comedian who has a second shot at making a first impression. To do so, he needs to work in Los Angeles. While there, he has to confront the same crises of character that derailed him the first time. Along the way, he has some laughs, quite a few drinks, and an occasional life lesson.
Our goal for the film is to entertain. Notwithstanding the opening paragraphs of this writing, we do not claim that the film is panacea for all the ills that beset the downtrodden. No single film could ever be. This is our first foray into the world of film production, and we feel that it is part of our duty to show, rather than merely lament, the qualities that have come to define “black film.” If you will, it is the cinematic equivalent of a hoist upon the shoulder in the late Houston sun.
It is, of course, a typical response to decry the easy categorization of “Mr. Sophistication” as a “black film.” Let us then reclaim the definition of “black.” The ownership of the word once belonged to a people who declared their power and beauty to the world. Those who claimed the word viewed it with pride whereas some of their ancestors strongly eschewed it. The word eventually came to define an entire movement.
There are still echoes of it out there. And thank God there are still those who use the mediums available to them to create great art. To them belongs the future, should they only take the initiative to reclaim the present. And, please God, in reclaiming the idea of “black.”
After all, everything cool and edgy in our collective experience now is said to be the new version of black.
Frankly, I’d settle for the old kind. It beats the heck out of sitting chained up in a cave.