THE BLOG
06/09/2014 03:22 pm ET Updated Aug 09, 2014

Chicago Filmmakers Choose Substance Over Stereotypes

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When it comes to documenting the lives and stories of people of color, Hollywood is notorious for being more interested in the perpetuation of stereotypes than meaningful portrayals of marginalized communities with value and humanity. And often when those films are made and manage to find a spot in the mainstream, there exists another problem, this time on the audience's end: studies show that Caucasians have what is called a racial empathy gap--they struggle to relate to the experiences (specifically pain) of people of color--and that extends into the way they respond to films featuring people of color. One example is last year's Best Man Holiday, a film featuring an almost entirely black cast and exploring topics such as friendship, cancer, love, and faith. Despite the fact that its plot was based upon these universal themes, the film was referred to as "race-themed" by major media outlets such as USA Today, causing moviegoers of all colors to question whether mainstream media can only view non-white experiences as defined by their race, rather than by their humanity and the universal experiences that make us human.

Filmmakers who choose to focus on the stories of marginalized communities face unique challenges in finding funding and mainstream attention for their projects. Chicago filmmakers Cy Weisman and Josh MacNeal have certainly faced their share of those challenges. While discussing mainstream audiences' reluctance to connect with plotlines that deviate from white, hetero-male perspectives, the brother and sister duo agree that the problem has multiple layers, including 1) mainstream audiences are unfamiliar with stories about black, brown or gay characters because they feel those narratives are specific to those communities; the only real exceptions are stories that have a white, male, or heterosexual character present in the lead i.e. The Kids Are Alright and Freedom Writers. And 2) films featuring black, brown, or gay characters that get mainstream attention pigeonhole those lives and experiences in a way that makes black, brown, and LGBT experience "niche," as opposed to one part of a broad spectrum of humanity.

"Living in the inner city is only one aspect of the black experience," says MacNeal. "And unfortunately audiences, especially youth, have become conditioned to the idea that these experiences shown on BET, for example, define black lives. The experiences being shown, however, are limited."

MacNeal, who grew up in a suburb outside of Chicago, didn't become conscious of racism and the way he was perceived as a black man until he was older, he says, and as a filmmaker has focused heavily on illustrating other aspects of black experience and identity than just the narrow version mainstream media chooses to portray. "It's troubling," says MacNeal, "that films that happen to feature black characters are automatically described as 'black movies,'" rather than universal tales of friendship, adversity, love, etc.

"Movies about white people are never called 'white stories,'" he says, and laments the fact that when "black stories" are told, they focus on drugs, violence, or thug life, usually without exploring the systems behind those realities.

On his part, his goal is to create work that reaches beyond the pigeonholed perspective and digs into the experiences that are universal, experienced by a variety of characters: black and white, straight and gay.

Weisman, on the other hand, who does the writing for the duo's films, grew up on the South Side of Chicago and says her consciousness of racism--and also sexism--emerged at an early age, and recalls music as being one of the first mediums in which she really noticed negative messages by and about black and brown communities being perpetuated--usually by black and brown artists.

"White kids bought into 'ratchet' culture before it was ever called ratchet culture," she says, "and the business of art and film has been built on those tropes ever since." Interesting, she notes, that trends within black music have largely been dictated by the appropriative tastes of white suburban youth, and expresses disappointment in rap artists who no longer rap about lived experiences and life narratives, instead choosing to create music about wealth, possessions, and name brands--experiences that not even white suburban youth can relate to. "Most people aren't rich," she adds.

"It's so rarely about art anymore," she continues, "or being an artist. So many songs these rappers and singers perform are written by somebody else, and many movies being produced are remakes or drawn out sequels. The process of creating has been watered down."

Not so with Weisman and MacNeal, who write and direct all of their films, and are currently seeking funding for their next major project, Urbs in Horto, a crime thriller set in Chicago. Urbs in Horto is focused around exactly the sort of exploration of identity that MacNeal and Weisman agree need fixing in filmmaking: three different stories about diverse characters of different backgrounds, and juxtaposing those characters' lives--moving beyond the drug violence and white collar crime--in order to reveal the universal experiences.

Weisman criticizes the superficiality she sees in music and film today, which she insists are inextricably connected. That is why she uses them almost interchangeably in her critique of both mediums, and which is why their plans for Urbs in Horto involve working extensively with indie musicians and artists to create the soundtrack that they imagine for the film.

"Music is an integral part of any movie," Weisman says, and expresses her excitement about the prospect of working with indie artists.

"That's the great thing about film," MacNeal says, echoing his sister's excitement. "We're tapping into Chicago's creative community for actors and artists, but we're also creating jobs in the city we grew up in for legal, real estate, food services, etc."

"Anything we can do for Chicago is awesome," Weisman adds.

And Chicago needs this discourse, they both agree: segregation, violence, and poverty are just a few of the challenges faced by Chicagoans, and that's why the brother and sister team declare that audiences need stories that speak deeply to the community now more than ever.

The purpose of Urbs in Horto, MacNeal says, is to spark that conversation while still offering the action and exhilaration that comes from crime thrillers.

"Film is an art form, but primarily a form of entertainment," says Weisman. "We need to encourage people to seek and expect more substance in what they consume."

She insists that a film can be a thriller with action and excitement--and even violence--while still offering a depth of human experience. The task is changing audience's standards for the films (and music) they consume. But how?

"Give other options," MacNeal says simply.

He believes that audiences' preference for stereotyped narratives is really just a case of consuming what's available: eating junk food because it's what's in the fridge. His sister agrees, adding:

"If you give audiences other options--show them more multi-layered stories that feature marginalized peoples--then they will respond." She describes what she perceived as a shift from positive to negative representations of minorities in the media--The Cosbys and The Martin Lawrence Show transitioned into countless scripted reality TV shows & uninspired sitcoms. She says emphatically,

"If we transitioned into this cultural low, then we can transition out of it."

Her brother agrees. The key, he notes, is for directors and producers with a foot in the game already to support the next generation and have a dialogue about the importance of these depth-driven stories.

"That's why I applaud the fashion industry, especially the CFDA, for how they mentor and propel their young designers. In film, Spike Lee is a great example of someone who's doing it right," MacNeal says. "He focuses on the issues and helps out who he can. He does a good job uplifting younger filmmakers."

And the pair of them are young indeed. Weisman is 26 and MacNeal is a mere 20, one of the youngest filmmakers in the industry and already earning attention for his latest film, The 4th Meeting. The way they see it, making a difference is a matter of making the right film and making it reach a broad audience. And they might be right.

"There are people that need to hear these stories," Weisman says, "and people who want better content. We're not the only ones who feel this way."

No, Ms. Weisman, you are not.

To contact or see their work, visit here: http://www.joshmacneal.com/urbsinhorto

Image credit: Rudy Lorejo Photography