A month ago, movie screens across America had colors and lights projected onto them, accompanied by sound and silence to depict a story rooted in humanity's greatest crime; slavery. That's what a movie is after all - colors and lights, blended with sound to evoke emotions and reactions. When you think about it, it's quite amazing actually. There you are, sitting in a dark room doing relatively nothing, surrounded by nothing. The right combination of lights and sound can make you feel frightened, aroused, sad, or enraged. It's a total psych job!
But movies are pretend and what the movie studio, theater, and eventually DVD seller, is selling is an escape from reality. So it gets complicated when a movie is put out about a reality that nobody wants to really face AS a reality. And, the reality also is that most people don't in reality really know a whole lot about this horrible reality.
Django is a film about a few things. An enslaved Black man willing to do anything to rescue his wife. Revenge. Mocking inadvertently and overtly slave masters, overseers, and the institution of slavery. Violence.
However, a few bi-products of the movie being about those things is some cultural insensitivity to the descendants of slaves, laughter being evoked around things that aren't funny, and well, you can overdose on the word nigger watching this film.
I saw Django the day it opened and have tried my best to resist jumping into the reactionary banter I knew was soon to come. Personally, I have not one bit of an issue with the film Django. It was uncomfortable, as expected, and there was a moment where I cried a little from many different feelings that were brought up for me. However, the movie itself is well-researched in development, it is truthful, and at no point, AND I MEAN NO POINT, is it disrespectful or mocking towards Black people. It does however mock the hell out of racist white slave owners, police, and overseers, and the filmmaker sentences them all to death. It tells a truth that has no dignity in it, so you'll be hard-pressed to find dignified moments in the story. There is though a story of a Black man that loves his Black wife so deeply that he goes through hell to find her. While he's at it, he even kills a bunch of proponents of slavery and racism along the way.
A lot of people of course have issue with the maker of the film being a white man. Their issue being the idea that slavery is a travesty, but somehow also a hallmark of the Black American experience that only Black people can speak to. I argue though that slavery is also white history, so naturally there's a first person narrative there for whites, as well. Why must Black identity be so tied up in slavery and the repercussions that followed? And why should the white perpetuator of slavery be by default let off the hook and removed from our consciousness when we think about this four hundred year span of time when cows, hogs, and Black people were the same thing in the eye of the law, state, church, and citizen? Slavery is in our minds now in a way that depicts a cotton field full of Black slaves with distinct facial features and a recognizable story and plight, however governed by a mythical blur; white men with no face or name and no real societal historical judgment placed on them like the scarlet letter burned into Hitler or Mussolini. Think about it. In school (if you're lucky), you're taught of Harriet Tubman, Fredrick Douglas, and Crispus Attucks. You know that they were born slaves, but have no idea of who owned them. There's no common knowledge of who their children were or where their families stand socially and politically now, just 148 years after it was okay to own, sell, and kill a person as your property.
I think Django is a step in the right direction. The humor riddled through the film is uncomfortable and the violence may make you flinch... but we're in America, so let's ask ourselves an honest question:
What if a love story film set in slavery times about a Black man in search of his wife came out in the theaters today?
Title: Free Black Love
Director: Black man or woman
Use of the word nigger: 0 (And how can you make a movie about slavery without using the word nigger? That's like making a movie about football without saying touchdown...)
Violence: Minimum (somehow)
Would people want to go see "Free Black Love"? Would "Free Black Love" gross the $140,000,000 that Django has? Would this sweet, modest tale of slavery and love make the record breaking numbers Django is doing now internationally? Consider an even deeper question: Would you even know that the film existed?
Every year thousands of films are made by independent filmmakers and pitched to famous festivals for screenings and given a shot at distribution. One of those festivals is a triumphant and stellar film festival that has been happening in Los Angeles, California - the filmmaking capital of the world. This festival has existed for the last 21 years, and deserves a lot of shine and recognition, particularly in the wake of all the Django controversy.
The Pan African Film Festival founded by Ayuko Babu and acclaimed actors Danny Glover and Ja'Net Dubois, features films made by, for, and about the Black experience. PAFF is giving a world class platform to Black filmmakers in both independent and commercial markets. Last year, the Pan African Film Festival premiered the two highest-grossing Black films in the country. Steve Harvey's "Think Like a Man" grossed over $91,000,000 and premiered at the Pan African Film Festival in 2012.
Professional grade independent films made around the world are also screened and attended in droves. Red carpet events at PAFF have been graced by the shoes of Jamie Foxx, P. Diddy, Forest Whitaker, Eva Marcille, Gabrielle Union, Vanessa Williams, Kerry Washington, and Idris Alba, along with a sleuth of producers and industry bigwigs from every walk of life. Sponsors of the festival include Target, Macy's, Wells Fargo, ABC, and the Los Angeles Times. However, in many aspects this paramount film festival full of tenure and both financial and artistic success is still under the radar.
Asantewa Olatunji is the Director of Programming for the Pan African Film Festival and holds a law degree from Southwestern Law School. She first began practicing law at Paramount Pictures and has been with PAFF since its inception. In a recent interview I asked her why she feels like such a huge festival with such a vast audience might be under-recognized in Hollywood. "It is common for the majority to ignore the minority. We are an international film festival, but still in many ways, especially on the industry side, this festival is flat out ignored and has to deal with this invisibility." However, as ignored as PAFF might be to some, thousands of people attend each year. Major deals are made as a result and frankly, it's just a phenomenal and good time experience. The festival is also a platform that challenges and gives filmmakers an outlet to expand the field of stories they choose to tell. Asentewa explains further, "Black filmmakers limit their subject matter because they feel film distributors won't back anything outside of a certain box that the industry see's us in."
PAFF's opening night feature is the Los Angeles premier of VIPAKA, starring Academy Award Winner, Forest Whitaker, Anthony Mackie, Sanaa Lathan, Nicole Ari Parker and Mike Epps - directed by Philippe Caland.
The 21st Annual Pan African Film will take place at the Rave Cinemas Baldwin Hills 15 in Los Angeles, CA February 7-18, 2013. For more information go to www.PAFF.org
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