Black Genius: African American Solutions to African American Problemsby Regina Austin
Thirteen of black America's most eloquent voices share their visions for a self-sufficient, self-determined future.
From Spike Lee's encouragement of independent, community fundraising to Joycelyn Elders's warning about the failings of our "sick-care" system to Stanley Crouch's disputation on "heroic" versus "anarchic" individuality, Black Genius is an
Thirteen of black America's most eloquent voices share their visions for a self-sufficient, self-determined future.
From Spike Lee's encouragement of independent, community fundraising to Joycelyn Elders's warning about the failings of our "sick-care" system to Stanley Crouch's disputation on "heroic" versus "anarchic" individuality, Black Genius is an exceptional, unique colloquy. Conceived by acclaimed novelist Walter Mosley and sponsored by the New York University Africana Studies Program and the Institute of African American Affairs, this book originated as a series of community conversations where "visionaries with solutions" shared powerful views on personal and communal struggles, triumphs, and aspirations. The list of contributors suggests the range of perspectives and talents brought to bear on such issues as economics, political power, work, authority, and culture. Black Genius is a point of departure for vigorous discussion of our current realities and goals for the future-and a portrait of "genius" that leads the way to enriching American life in the twenty-first century.
- Norton, W. W. & Company, Inc.
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Read an Excerpt
DEALING TO DO
Life as a Very Independent Independent Filmmaker
I went to New York University's graduate film school. I was there between 1979 and 1982. That's where I met Ernest Dickerson. Ernest and I, I think, were two of four African American students who entered the program that year. We had a good class. Ang Lee (The Wedding Banquet) was in our class. Jim Jarmusch (Night on the Town) was two years ahead of me. Jarmusch was very instrumental to my being a filmmaker because I could pick up a newspaper and see his name in there. I worked in the equipment room, and he was someone I checked equipment out to. To see his name in the paper and to know that he had a film in theaters was a great moment for me because I knew then that being a filmmaker was doable. Here was somebody who went to the same classes I went to, who went to the same school, whom I saw every day, and he had a film in the movie theaters! I said it can really be done then.
Unlike most filmmakers, I did not decide at a young age that I wanted to make films. I made the decision very late in college, in fact. I went to Morehouse College, in Atlanta, Georgia, and I didn't know what I wanted to do. I had taken all the electives I could take and had to choose a major, so I chose mass communications. Morehouse does not have that major, but I went across the street to Clark College and was able to get into its program. "Mass comm" was TV, print journalism, radio, and film. I had my own radio show on WCLK 91.2; it was a jazz station, but they let me play disco for an hour once a week. This was back between 1975 and 1979.
Upon graduation, I still did not have the necessary tools to be a filmmaker, so I applied to the three best film schools in these United States of America: NYU, USC, and UCLA. To get into USC and UCLA, an applicant needed to get an astronomical score on the GRE (Graduate Record Examination), and I didn't get it. I still feel that a lot of those tests are culturally biased, but luckily I did not have to take the GRE for NYU. All I had to do was submit a creative portfolio. I submitted some of the writing I had done in college and some of my photography, and I got in.
Thus, I was able to come back home to New York and go to film school. It was very important that I came home because film school cost a lot of money. I would not have been able to pay rent, pay tuition, and then pay for my films too. I was also able to rely on my friends for locations, resources, and stuff like that. Now, historically at NYU, you are on trial during your first year of film school. They get rid of half the class. However, before the year-end evaluations were made, I was awarded a teaching assistantship (TAship), which I needed because I didn't have the money. My grandmother had put me through Morehouse, and she was really paying for me to go to NYU as well. I didn't want to be a burden on her anymore. Luckily I got a TAship in the equipment room a week before the faculty viewed our films. In film school, the students are not graded on their tests; they are graded on their films. The film that I got graded on was called The Answer. It was about a black screenwriter who is hired to write and direct a $15 million remake of The Birth of a Nation. In my film, we used a lot of clips from D. W. Griffith's classic. For whatever reason, the faculty hated the film. They wanted to kick me out of the school, but since they had made me a TA they couldn't do it. That's how I survived and made the cut.
The only way to become a filmmaker is by making films. It was at NYU that I really became a filmmaker. What was key for me was that I met Ernest Dickerson there. Ernest and I hooked up right away, both of us being products of predominantly black colleges. Ernest graduated from Howard University, where he was an architecture major. He worked for three years after graduation as a medical photographer at Howard's medical school. Ernest shot all of my films at NYU. He was the best cinematographer in the school, but he didn't come to the school to be a director of photography. He came to be a director, and kind of got sidetracked. He no longer shoots films. Ernest has since gone on to direct Juice, Surviving the Game, Bulletproof, and Tales from the Crypt: Demon Night.
Ernest and I really were determined that we were going to make it. We knew we had to be ten times better than our fellow white film students. This is no revelation; any successful black person knows that she or he has got to be ten times better. We knew that things weren't going to be fair, but we weren't going to let that keep us down. Years ago, I saw the films of Haile Gerima (Bush Mama, Sankofa), Charles Burnett (Killer of Sheep), Larry Clark (Passing Through), and other black filmmakers like that, and liked them very much. Yet, at the same time, I did not want to be in the position they were in. They worked four years raising money for a film, eked out one print, and then spent two years traveling around the world with this one print under their arms, going to black film festivals, screenings on university campuses, and stuff like that. I said there has got to be a different way. There has got to be a way we can make the films that we want to make, and still get distribution. Since I wanted people to see my work, that is what Ernest and I set out to do.
My thesis film was Joe's Bed-Stuy Barbershop: We Cut Heads. It won the Student Academy Award in the summer of 1982. I graduated that May. With that award, I was able to get an agent. He said, "Well, we're on our way." I was on Entertainment Tonight. There were a couple of articles about me in the Village Voice, and in the New York Times. Because of the award I had on my mantel, I thought that the studios were going to start calling. I was young, I was talented, and I was a good filmmaker. My agent said, "Just leave it up to me and we'll go places." So I waited by the phone and waited by the phone. My agent would say, "I've been in this industry, son, many a year and you have to be patient." I saw that a number of my classmates who I felt had less talent than I had were getting jobs doing music videos and ABC Afterschool Specials, but I couldn't get anything. So I waited by the phone and waited by the phone. Then Ma Bell turned the phone off, and Con Ed and Brooklyn Union Gas quickly followed with their cutoffs.
I realized that if I was going to do what I wanted to do, I could not really rely on any agent or anybody else. Since I did not want to write a script, go out to Hollywood, and try to hawk it there, I decided to write a script and raise the money independently. The first project I tried was a film called Messenger. I got involved with a bogus film producer who never delivered the money he was supposed to raise. That was the summer of 1984. I was in preproduction for this film for six weeks. The film was fully cast. The crew included many of my classmates from NYU who had put aside their entire summer to work on a film that never materialized. It was a fiasco; it was terrible. People were mad at me, and rightfully so, because they lost a lot of money and weren't going to get paid for the time they wasted either.
This was really a critical moment. I remember going back to my little studio apartment, running the water in the bathtub, sitting in it, and crying until the water drained out and I was as wrinkled as a prune. I said to myself let me try one more time. I wasn't going to try to analyze where I went wrong. I had committed the mistakes that all overzealous, young filmmakers make. You try to do too much; you try to do stuff that's beyond your means. It is analogous to a guy who can only hit singles going up to the plate and trying to hit one out of the park. If that's not in your game, you shouldn't do that. As for all that stuff I tried to do that I didn't have either the money or the necessary skills to do, I said that I was not going to go down that road again. This time I would write a script for two or three people in a room, and that would be it. Black-and-white, cheap, quick, "let's shoot it!" That film was She's Gotta Have It.
We shot She's Gotta Have It in the summer of 1985 in twelve days. The total budget was $175,000. We never had that amount of money in one lump sum. When we began, we had only $10,000. I had gotten a grant from the Jerome Foundation. In fact, the American Film Institute had given me $25,000 to help me make Messenger. When Messenger went down the tubes, I thought I could move that money to She's Gotta Have It, but the institute said hell, no; we gave you the money for Messenger. So they took the money back.
By hook or by crook though, we got the film made. Monty Ross, who was my partner at the time, and I wrote everybody we knew and asked them for contributions. Later on, we formed a limited partnership. While we were shooting for those twelve days, we kept every empty soda can and bottle and with the nickels we accumulated we were able to buy another roll of film.
I always try to tell this story about our humble origins, of how we got started, because a lot of the time when successful people talk, they never really tell you about the nights they had to go without food in their stomachs, and what else they had to do without. You just hear about their success, and therefore you think that these people got to where they are overnight, which is not the case. I did not just roll out of bed and start doing Nike commercials with Michael Jordan, or directing a film like Malcolm X that cost $35 million. We started by saving our empty soda cans and bottles, and the nickels added up to the cost of another roll of film.
I think that what we did is really representative of what African Americans as a people have been able to do in this country. We have always had to make do with what we've got. It would have been nice to have had a lot more money, but that wasn't the case. When audiences come to see a film or a play or listen to a recording, they do not want to know that you didn't have any money, or that you were going through a divorce while you were engaged in this artistic endeavor, or that your mother died, or that your children drowned in the ocean. They don't want to hear that. All that matters is what's on the screen, on the stage, or on that CD or cassette. So we didn't want to use our budget as an excuse.
When we finally made She's Gotta Have It, we were able to sell it to Island Pictures for $475,000, and with that advance we paid the lab costs and the people who worked on deferred salaries. She's Gotta Have It went on to make $8.5 million on an original budget of $175,000. With its success, we were really able to do what we wanted to do for the most part. Because She's Gotta Have It was financed independently, I was able to exert creative control. Since the day I started working, I have always had final cut on my films.
August 6, 1996 marked the tenth anniversary of She's Gotta Have It, and I have been very fortunate to make, on average, a film a year. In 1996 we made two films. Since then we have made our first full-length documentary, Four Little Girls, for HBO. It tells the story of the four little girls that were murdered in the bombing of the Sixteenth Street Baptist Church in Birmingham, Alabama, back on September 15, 1963. Our latest feature film, He Got Game, a basketball movie starring Denzel Washington, was released in May of 1998.
I am very happy about our productivity because I think the only true way to intelligently evaluate an artist is by looking at an entire body of work. So often today, somebody does one movie, one album, one play, or one book, and she or he is then proclaimed a genius. It doesn't work like that. You have to be consistent; you have to put together a body of work. That's how you evaluate artists. I mean, if somebody comes into the NBA and has a good year, they say this guy is the next Michael Jordan. That is bullshit. If he can do what Michael Jordan has done for ten years--be at the top of his game every year--then he can be compared to Jordan. If, on the other hand, he's been in the league only one year, how could we make that comparison? You just can't do it.
We've tried to vary the way we get money for our films. You have to be able to adapt. In a lot of ways we came full circle with Get on the Bus. We financed this film a lot like the way we financed She's Gotta Have It ten years before. Get on the Bus is about a diverse group of African American men who leave South Central Los Angeles and travel across these United States of America to Washington, D.C., for the Million Man March. The film was the idea of two producers, Bill Borden and Barry Rosenbush. They were sitting home one night and saw this segment on the local LA news about a group of men who had returned from the march. They had gone to DC as strangers, but came back lifelong friends. Bill and Barry had the foresight to see a movie in that story. Now, I was unable to attend the march because the patella tendon had been removed from my left knee three days before. I had to watch it on CNN, and I must admit that I did not know there was a film there. I felt that the march was a good subject for a documentary, but I didn't see a feature movie. About a month and a half later, Bill and Barry called me up along with Reuben Cannon. Barry and Bill are white, and they knew it would have been problematic for them to make that film themselves without having some brothers up in there. So they called Reuben, and Reuben called me. They said they wanted to fly to New York to see if I would be interested in the project. I agreed to do the film.
Bill Borden, who has a relationship at Columbia Pictures, said that Columbia had already said it would finance the film. The budget, however, was only $2.4 million. I was not ecstatic that Columbia Pictures would finance a film at that low level. Columbia wasn't doing me or us a favor. It was getting me (and usually I get $5 million a picture) and an entire movie on top of that for $2.4 million. This was John's Bargain Store here.
I told Reuben that we shouldn't take the money from Columbia. If we really wanted to stay true to the spirit of the march, which I feel was about self-determination and self-reliance, we should try to raise the money ourselves. Then once we'd made the film, we could go back to Columbia and let it distribute the film in a negative pickup deal. Reuben agreed. We knew plenty of Negroes running around with plenty of money. So we made up our list and just started calling people. Since the budget was $2.4 million, we decided that anyone who wanted to buy into this film could invest either $100,000 or $200,000. We ultimately got fifteen people to invest. Some of the people who came together to finance the film were Will Smith, Danny Glover, Wesley Snipes, Johnnie Cochran, Bob Johnson, Aulden Lee, Robert Guillaume, Gerald Busby, Calvin Grisby, Larkin Arnold, Charles Smith, Reggie Blyth, Reuben Cannon, and myself.
African Americans spend roughly $416 billion in this country. That's not million; that's $416 billion. Negroes are the biggest consumers on this earth. We buy more alcohol, more cigarettes, more beer, more hair care products. We spend more money on leisure entertainment than anybody in the world, but we own very little and very little of the $416 billion that we spend ever comes back into our community. It think it was just great that that was one of the main messages of the Million Man March. That is why we chose to finance Get on the Bus in the way that we did.
Now, $2.4 million is not a lot of money when you consider that the average cost of a Hollywood film is, I think, somewhere between $35 million and $38 million, not including what is spent on marketing, prints, and advertisement. You know, $2.4 million is really pennies; that's nothing; that's like "poop-butt" money. Yet, we still had a hard time raising that much. The deal was this: we told potential investors that if they invested in this film, we would give them back their money with interest before the movie even opened. Indeed, before the movie opened, we had a lunch at which every investor got a check for his investment plus interest. We were able to do this because, while the film cost $2.4 million to make, we sold it to Columbia for $3.6 million. That's right!
That's how we did it, but there were still black men who, when asked to back the film, said no. I think a lot of their reluctance can be attributed to a slave mentality, a basic straight-up "house nigger" mentality. We all know about Willie Lynch, the Jamaican slave master who reportedly told Virginia slave owners in 1712 of a foolproof method of controlling slaves: divide and conquer. Lynch is quoted as having said, "Distrust is stronger than trust, and envy is stronger than adulation, respect, or admiration." We've been tricked into thinking that we cannot trust our fellow African American brothers and sisters. We're brothers, all right, but don't let niggers mess up your money, excuse my language. A lot of these guys had white managers, agents, and financial advisers who told them not to invest in the film. They tried to block African American men, strong brothers who are giants in the fields of business, sports, and entertainment, from coming together. If Steven Spielberg, David Geffen, and Jerry Katzenberg can put aside their differences to create a company that is bigger than the sum of them, then why can't we do that? We just have too many different camps out there, with somebody over here, over here, over there, over there. There are far too many black people, with a whole lot of money and a whole lot of clout, who are not in the fold.
We hope that the way we financed Get on the Bus will serve as a model not just for financing films but for financing anything. I'm glad to see how the entire Black Genius project was financed by using the advance for this book. This is the way we have to do it. As we go toward the twenty-first century, it is all going to be about ownership. The people who do not own stuff are going to be the ones up the creek. That is why we have always, right from the beginning, tried to have a self-reliant attitude.
We had some of the same problems with Malcolm X. We never really had the money that we needed to make that film, and Warner Brothers knew it. Once we ran out of money, Warner Brothers let the bond company take over and fire all the editors while we were in postproduction. Warner Brothers, which thought the film was too long, wanted it to be two hours, while we felt that there was no way we could do justice to the life of Malcolm X at that length. Warner Brothers could have helped us, but chose to let the bond company come in and take over. We wanted to continue to work on the film, but we didn't have the money and didn't want to knuckle under.
Among the things Malcolm talked about were self-determination and self-reliance. That's what it took to finish Malcolm X. I made up a list of people whom I could call on to bail us out. Those were the hardest calls I ever had to make. The people on the list could not be investors in the film, and according to the tax laws could not treat their contributions as write-offs. It just really had to be an act, a gift, of love. The first person I called was Mr. Bill Cosby. I tracked him down. I asked him how the family was, told him that he and Camille looked good in that Jet "Photo of the Week." He then said, Spike how much do you need? Since Bill was the first on a long list, I decided to give him the low number. I told him the amount. He said, Come to my accountant's office tomorrow morning. I took the subway in from Brooklyn and arrived there before the office opened. A check was waiting for me, and I ran back home and deposited it. Then I went to the next person on the list, Ms. Oprah Winfrey in Chicago. I called her up and told her that I was very happy about the success of her show and the high Nielsen ratings, that she and Stedman looked very good in that Jet "Photo of the Week," and that she had been looking very slim and trim recently, too. Then I told her the predicament we were in, and she said, How much do you need? I gave her the high number. She asked for the address so she could send the check out via FedEx, and, just like FedEx says, it was there, guaranteed. Then I went to Prince and Janet Jackson. I called Magic Johnson and Tracy Chapman. Then came the big call to Michael Jordan. There's one thing about Michael Jordan; he's very competitive. He is one of those dudes who doesn't like to lose on the basketball court, or at golf, poker, tiddledywinks, or Ping-pong. So I made a note to tell Michael how much Magic gave. "Money" wrote a check for the money. Because of the individuals who gave the money, we were able to keep working on Malcolm X. Warner Brothers had no idea where the funds were coming from. We decided to make an announcement on Malcolm's birthday at the New York Public Library's Schomburg Center in Harlem and to talk about the prominent African Americans who came together to help finance the film so that we could get it into the theaters the way we wanted it to be. Not by coincidence, on the next day we got a check from Warner Brothers, and we were back on the payroll.
Those are some of the struggles we have had to overcome. We did a film for $175,000 that was shot in twelve days, and ten years later we did a film for $2.4 million that was shot in eighteen days. You just have to adapt. You've just gotta try to make it work. There really is no better time than now to be a young filmmaker. There are so many opportunities, not just for African American filmmakers, but for filmmakers in general. The field is wide open. If you can write a good script; it is guaranteed that the film is going to get made. It might not be right away, but it will get made. We're happy that in our first ten years or so we've been able to start to create a body of work, and we're looking forward to the next decade.
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