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If Oscar Micheaux was indeed 50 years ahead of his time as a black filmmaker in 1919, then perhaps director Gordon Parks is his direct heir, rising to fame in 1969 with The Learning Tree. Both are forebears of Black Panther, the 2018 Marvel Studios superhero movie that many see as a turning point in mainstream cinema.
Black Panther made its reported $200 million budget back during its opening weekend, and immediately broke records for a Hollywood film by a black director, black screenwriter, and predominantly black cast.
“Black Panther was a game changer in every facet of the industry,” said Gill Robertson, founder of the African-American Film Critics Association (AAFCA), during a recent panel discussion at the NAACP convention in San Antonio.
The session’s title was “Black Panther: What Took You So Long?” and Robertson and co-panelist Logan Coles, a screenwriting partner of writer-actor Chadwick Boseman (who stars in Black Panther), considered whether the film’s success would have a lasting effect of moving more black producers, directors, actors, and stories into the Hollywood mainstream.
Asked by Robertson if Black Panther will finally “make the difference,” Coles expressed optimism. “We all in the creative community are hoping and praying it does, and working to make sure it’s the beginning, and not the end,” Coles said, while also sounding a note of skepticism. “Hollywood’s a tough town. Everybody’s trying to chase the next hit,” he said.
Others have called to mind the earlier successes of Eddie Murphy, Spike Lee, Wesley Snipes, Tyler Perry, and others, that did not produce the sea change in Hollywood referred to in the name of Coles’s production company, Sea Change Films. Coles later added that “hopefully it doesn’t take this long to have the next iteration of such a cultural milestone.
“I feel like there’s enough momentum now to hopefully make [the mainstream film industry] reward that success, because the world has proven they want to see that type of content.”
The NAACP is active in promoting black voices in mainstream media, with the NAACP Hollywood Bureau, which advances diversity in the entertainment industry, and with the NAACP Cinematic Shorts Competition, which is intended to give young filmmakers of color exposure and a $7,500 production budget for one winner.
Now in its second year, the annual competition is part of the Hollywood bureau’s larger inclusion initiative, Coles said. “When we’re doing the convention, we want to find local filmmakers and give them an opportunity to get the kind of shine they wouldn’t get normally,” he said. “Hopefully it’s a launching pad for the next phase of their career.”
In introducing the competitors from the NAACP stage prior to the Wednesday screening of their films, Coles called the competition “an amazing opportunity for filmmakers of color to transition from local communities to the national stage.”
Two of the three competitors in the 2018 competition – Nadia Gonzales and Darrell Wayne Goodloe Jr. – are from San Antonio. Both have nicknames: Gonzales, an elementary school teacher and makeup artist, goes by “Nerdia Cat,” and former rapper Goodloe goes by “Dat Mayne DeeWayne.”
Gonzales found out about the competition on Facebook, and Goodloe was told to apply by Laura Thompson, founder of The African American Network (TAAN) TV channel. Thompson also participated as a mentor to the third competitor, film production student Sultan Ali, who applied from his Brooklyn College dorm room after researching the film competition on Google.
Each was given video equipment, a local filmmaking mentor, an editor, and a mere four days to produce a short film of 5-7 minutes on a specific topic involving social justice and civic engagement.
Rise, by Gonzales, follows the awakening of a young woman to the importance of voting and becoming aware of how political issues affect everyday life. My Future & Me, by Ali, imagines a young black man visited by his future self, a homeless man who teaches the importance of participating in the national census. “Nobody’s asking you to change the world, just do your part,” says the future character, played by local actor Waltvelli.
Dat Mayne DeeWayne made The Conference, imagining a parent-teacher conference in which a racist white principal confronts the parents of a young, poetry-inclined black male student who the principal claims “spreads extreme propaganda” in encouraging his fellow students to vote.
The student recites a poem by San Antonio poet Paul Gerard Wilkinson, written especially for the film, that inserts factual exceptions to the Declaration of Independence: “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men (except black men, before 1870, before Jim Crow was crowned king of the south), that all men (not women, not women before 1920).” The poem concludes with the lesson that all were “created to vote.”
The competition is judged by the audience, estimated at 1,000 conventioneers, who voted via text message immediately after the screening.
After being announced as the winner during the NAACP’s annual Spingarn dinner, DeeWayne said via text message that the prize money will allow him to expand on his film, and that the $7,500 budget award “allows for a small peace of mind and a chance to take our time and truly develop a great story.”
The young filmmakers hope one day to join successful directors like Lee, Perry, Ryan Coogler of Black Panther, Ava DuVernay of Disney’s recent big-budget A Wrinkle In Time, and Moonlight director Barry Jenkins, who received an Oscar for Best Picture.
During their panel discussion, Robertson and Coles both pointed to “pipeline” programs within the industry like the NAACP Hollywood Bureau, and Coles said “all studios and networks offer some version of the program.”
Coles, meanwhile, said he sees evidence other than box office receipts to back the assertion that the mainstream world is more than ready for black cinema.
At Black Panther’s January premiere in Los Angeles, Coles said, “this 9-year-old blond white kid, with full-on Black Panther costume on,” took off his mask and handed it to Boseman to autograph.
“It was such this moment of ‘Yes, that’s where we’re supposed to be as a society,’” Coles said. “White kids should be able to see themselves as black heroes, and they do. This is just the first time that we’re acknowledging it on that scale.”
“I’m just thankful that we’re moving into a world where there’s heroes that are black for every kid of every color,” Coles said.