In 1920, Oscar Micheaux became the first African-American to produce a feature-length film (The Homesteader). In 1931, he made the sound feature-length film (The Exile), the first such by an African American. Black filmmakers have since been following suit. Here, some filmmakers you might know - and some you will know soon - discuss how they got started in the business and the state of the industry.
“In 1998, a longtime friend Marc Levin contacted me about doing a movie together. His vision was to direct a drama about a kid in the streets who finds his "calling" through writing. He and I met about 10 years earlier and I was highlighted in his documentary about troubled teens,” recalls Malone, whose own troubles put his acting career on hold. “While I was writing the screenplay with Marc, I got locked up on assault charges.” The film went ahead without Malone as Levin turned to another person to act in the lead role, though Malone wrote the film and took another role.
Even without Malone in the role, the film, Slam, earned major attention. It won the Grand Jury Prize at Sundance Film Festival and the Camera D’or at Cannes. “In fact, Slam is only the fifth film in motion picture history to ever win two of the three top honors in both countries. That film changed our lives forever,” says Malone.
Once Slam took off, Malone had to be ready for future business. “The foreign rights were sold to Canal+Plus (a major distributor) for $10 million dollars and so we went into business as a small boutique studio called, Offline Entertainment Group. I entered the company as a consultant and left as the VP of film in 2001 when I started producing on my own,” says Malone, owner/CEO of New York-based Independent Books & Film, inc.
Since then Malone has racked up a number of projects. “I’ve been blessed to contribute to more than 27 films, 6 documentaries, over a dozen voice-overs and narrations, radio and television appearances,” he says. “This year I hope to release my first novel, Hoodlum Priest. I have the Zulu Nation movie, which is an animated film about the history of Hip-Hop and a drama about the first international flash mob, known as the Lo-Lifes.”
Malone says he is careful not to overextend himself. “I keep my plans as simple as I can make them and as few as humanly possible. This helps insure that I’ll be paying extra attention to each project with the intention of making it as close to dope as humanly possible,” he says.
According to Malone, the state of Black film making is very complex. “Other than the difficulty to find funding these days, Black filmmakers here in the United States are too jaded by either the ´upper class cast´ as seen by several of Tyler Perry’s fame or they get trapped in the other direction: the straight-to-DVD 'hood classic with un-cut raunch,” he explains. “Both are entertaining and I’m not bashing the subject matter or the talented casts. The problem is that these are only domestically-marketed movies. They don’t connect to other countries because foreigners can’t relate to them. Action films have achieved moderate, and at times, unexpected success with Ice Cube, Vin Diesel, Samuel L. Jackson, and Wesley Snipes. My purpose in the film industry ever since our unexpected success is to acquire and create international properties that have even greater potential in foreign markets.”
A Musical Vision
Ahmed Lil'roc Rahman sort of happened into film making. “I first got involved in film about two years ago playing around with an editing program called Windows Movie Maker. I've been doing music for quite some time and I wanted to give my music a visual,” he says. “I started off making picture-slide videos and then I bought a digital video camera for $100 at a flea market.”
So inspired was Rahman that he launched his own film production company in Richmond, Va. “I started Black Wunda Films in 2011 with the intent to promote local artists and give a visual to my online radio show (Go Live Radio),” he explains. “I wanted the world to see real hip-hop from Virginia, basically.” Funding was another matter. Rahman and friends combined their money to purchase a Canon T2i movie camera. “That was the financial move of the century,” laughs Rahman, “considering there were only 13 of us.”
Among his projects: music videos and a documentary on Richmond Hip-Hop coming in 2012.
According to Rahman, the struggle still continues for filmmakers of color. “I think African American filmmakers are not recognized because the non-African American media outlets don't consider African American culture interesting. It's basically not popular to the majority of Americans,” summarizes Rahman.
But Rahman says he has found his calling in film making. “The most important thing I enjoy about film making is the creative independence," he says.
Life As Cinema
Award-winning journalist Barry Michael Cooper's writing career prompted his entry into film making. The year was 1987 and Cooper had written a feature article in the NY Village Voice entitled “Kids Killing Kids: New Jack City Eats Its Young." Legendary music producer Qunicy Jones happened to hear about the story through two film producers: the late George Jackson and Rudy Langlais. Langlais happened to have been Cooper's editor at Spin Magazine before becoming a film producer.
Cooper had already been on Jackson's radar. “George Jackson contacted me back in 1986, when I wrote a piece on the "Yo Boy" culture in Baltimore, MD, was published as a cover story in Spin Magazine. The Yo Boys were the teen-aged dope dealers who were dangerous and heavily armed,” remember Cooper. “I was working on the loading dock of a department store in downtown Baltimore at the time and somebody told me I had a phone call from a producer at Richard Pryor's film company, Indigo Films. I thought it was a joke, but I took the call anyway. The guy on the other end of the phone was George Jackson. He said, "Barry, you should be writing screenplays because your writing is so visual. I can see it. Later, Cooper did just that. He wrote the screenplays for New Jack City, Sugar Hill, and Above The Rim, among other film and TV projects.
During the time Cooper began his screenwriting career, there was a boom of African American filmmakers creating projects for Hollywood. The period saw such filmmakers as Spike Lee, John Singleton, F. Gary Gray, the Hughes Brothers, Robert Townsend, Keenen Ivory Wayans and Matty Rich, just to name a few. Cooper, however, doesn't think there will be a similar explosion in the near future. “I don't think we will ever see anything like the Black Cinematic Renaissance of the mid-80s until the mid-'90s. And that's strange because I thought after the election of this country's first Black President--Barack Obama--that it would create a climate in Hollywood to foster a variety of African American films,” notes Cooper, who directed Blood on the Wall$ in 2005 and recently compiled an anthology of crack-era journalism, "New Jack City Eats Its Young." “Instead, just the opposite has occurred. Films like The Help are a step back in time.”
Childhood Dreams Come True
Mo Brown was always intrigued by entertainment. “It all began with musical theatre and dance in my living room, elementary school and church,” says Brown. “I performed everywhere and anywhere: at home with a brush singing along with Janet Jackson and then seeing her on old episodes of 'Good Times' reciting the monologues to TV shows, and making up my own stories in creative writing classes. After experiencing how entertainment can turn someone's frown upside down and put their cares aside for just a moment, I fell in love.”
It seemed to be no doubt Brown would become a professional entertainer. “I went on my first commercial audition for LensCrafters while in elementary school,” recalls Brown. “After performing throughout my younger years of gaining experience in dance, vocal, and acting, I attended Professional Performing Arts High School where I studied dance at the Alvin Alley Dance School. I auditioned for television, commercials, theatre and started booking paying gigs.”
But there was one thing Brown still needed to learn—the business side of entertainment. “I knew I had to do something if I was going to have to look at contracts every time I booked something. I had to learn how to manage myself. While studying and performing I heavily auditioned for commericals, theatre, voice overs and hosting jobs. After graduating from Long Island University, I toured, performed, hosted and yet I still saw TV shows with people spitting in each others faces, people fighting and so much anger. I want to bring that back to entertainment where television, theatre and film made you excited to come home and kick up your feet and smile.”
Brown's solution was to create her own projects. “So I then did a collaboration in film where I directed Sealed and we won the LA Reel Film Festival for experimental short films…This is what I always dreamed of. So I began creating and producing for your entertainment.”
Thus, she launched her own film company in New York. “I launched Suga Productions in 2010,” explains Brown. “I became tired of seeing the perspective on life where its voice lacked substance. I'm not looking to save the world but to give you something to chew on. You know, food for thought,”
Brown has completed a number of projects to date. “I actually just finished shooting (and acting in) the films Elliot Loves, Dark Seed, and the comedy pilot 'Love or Money'. I am currently in pre-production for the film Paranormal Engagement that will be filmed in Africa. Switching over to the director's/producer's chair, Suga Productions is in preparation to shoot a phenomenal drama called Tears of Phoenix and a comedy called Ta'millions. I am so excited,” she says.
Although optimistic about her upcoming projects, Brown questions why filmmakers of color aren't given as much exposure as others. “There's no one or factual answer on why African-American filmmakers aren't given much exposure when the world is built on a mixture of taste,” she says. “I sometimes believe that we don't see many Black filmmakers in the industry because of financial backing and sometimes selfishness. We as Black filmmakers need to learn how to share, uplift, and understand that we are all in this together instead of competing all the time. Also, some people don't have the financial backing they need but have awesome work.”
Brown has found various obstacles and ways to overcome them. “Being a woman in what is called 'a man's world´ is a major obstacle. Not being given an equal opportunity or the respect as a filmmaker because of my gender and size is a tall mountain,” she reveals. “It can be very trying but I don't back down. My goal and focus is to engulf, engage and entertain my audience, and that is what I have to put my focus into to block those obstacles that stand in my way.”
I Can Do That
Derrick Muhammad says watching someone else's movie made him decide to try his hand at film making. “I did my first short film, Atonement, in 1998 after I watched Master P's film Bout It. It was terrible, but made $20 million,” says Muhammad, founder of Mecca Don Films based in Columbus, Ohio. “I said if he can do it, I can. I got a book on how to write, shoot, direct and film. I took a class on how to use a camera at the Public Access channel and in the process I developed a talk show, which I produced and hosted called Derrick Muhammad and Friends.”
From there he penned his first script, Atonement. The shoot was 'guerrilla style', to say the least. “I borrowed an old VHS camera and tripod. I met a young girl who acted as my DP and I got a few of my animated friends together and shot the film in six days.” A believer in learning on the job, Muhammad taught himself to edit. Proud of his work, he had a screening and 'invited newspapers out',” says Muhammad. “We had about 40 people. It was maybe one of my top achievements after that I duplicated 100 VHS tapes and sold all of them out of the trunk of my car for $10. The film cost $60 to make and I earned $1,000.”
Realizing he wanted to do film making full time, he launched his own company. “I launched my current company in 2007 after I sold my insurance agency,” explains Muhammad. “Everything in my being was about shooting film, acting and writing. And distribution was the biggest issue. Black people do not have distribution rights to films so my goal and mission is to have a successful company that can showcase our work in the U.S. and globally.”
Among his projects: four short films and a web series in the works called "Basement Confession." He also acted in a feature indie film entitled The Buyout and is planning his own feature film.
For Muhammad, funding is the biggest obstacle he sees for Black filmmakers. “Spike Lee is the modern-day godfather of Black film and he still has to go with his hat in his hand to get money to make a quality movie with notable stars,” offers Muhammad. “The financial climate for funding a film is tough now. You have to be very creative about getting money. A lot of indie filmmakers are using crowdfunding and social media to request support. Also, product placement. My thought is this: if you have a micro budget under $500,000, you can make a great movie with good actors. Now the culture of the box office has changed with the Internet. There is a new animal in the world of film making and when one figures it out, smaller filmmakers like myself and others can compete with the big dogs in terms of quality indie films.”
Bitten by the Film Bug
When Ralph Scott graduated from college, he had other plans. “Once I received my B.S. in communications my plan was to simply go to a local TV station and work. However, I got the film bug from my then-film professor at Howard University, Haile Guirema. I've always been attracted to telling an alternative story than that of the mass market,” says Scott, who has since bitten back. He was program director for the Black Hollywood Education and Resource Center, is currently directing a short film on dementia called Barbasol and has the goal of being the chairman on a committee for media arts students in NYC.
“I launched Social Cinema about two years ago in the midst of executive producing "Lens on Talent" on BET. Knowing that BET did not see the value in having a showcase of raw African American talent, I decided to do my own productions independently,” he explains. “I utilized crowdfunding  for my project. I feel as though my film is for the people and because of its social message, it should be funded as such.”
There was a rush of Black filmmakers in the '80s and Scott feels there will be another one soon. “There is another surge of filmmakers with alternative Black story lines,” he ponders. “Will they receive the same attention as the past Black film movements? That. I am not sure.”
Film making Resources: With the Internet, the are countless resources for up-and-coming filmmakers, including the various film making and screenwriters groups on LinkedIn.