Navigating Art and Commerce as a Minority

Contributed By: Araia Tesfamariam

Very few people understand how difficult it is to be a “Black” creative in the entertainment business. While every artist has to deal with the Sisyphian task of navigating the narrow chasm between art and commerce, African-Americans in film and television come face-to-face with a more daunting reality; no one in control of funding or distribution of content in Hollywood looks, acts, or thinks like we do.

Most of the movies and films that are distributed to the American market through theaters, TV, and the web are created by a small number of conglomerates – none of which are controlled or run by Black people.  Why does this matter? The importance of being in a position to decide which projects get produced is only really apparent to people of color. Every year Hollywood produces numerous films showing white people in a wide variety of roles, circumstances, and portrayals.  And because white America is comfortable seeing itself in many different ways, those projects have the opportunity to perform well at the box office. The problem for people of color in general, and Black people specifically, is that the people giving films the “Green Light” are very aware of what roles most White Americans are comfortable seeing us in. If all you have had as a viewing public is a steady 100-year diet of Black people as maids, criminals, emasculated funny men, and best buddies who are really loyal and die in the first five minutes of the film – that is all you will be willing to see because they become the only REAL representations available to you. You won’t get excited about a movie featuring an African-American as Thomas Crowne or Jason Bourne because it will be less believable to you than a vampire writing love letters to a werewolf….

If the people controlling what gets funded and who gets to be a successful actor, director, or writer buy into these limited and formulaic depictions of people of color, where is the diversity of imagery in the mainstream media going to come from? Those of us in the creative arena face our own inconvenient truth; making movies and TV shows can cost millions of dollars and there are very few people of color in the US with the financial war chest to make 20 films a year with the ability to survive after losing money on half of them. If major studios have to walk away from meaningful projects to focus on money makers like Iron Man 13, our prospects are non-existent.

The current state of the creative environment leaves us with very few real and fair opportunities for artistic expression within the conventional Hollywood system. All the cards seem to be held by so few. Producers, directors, writers, and actors have to take what paltry offerings exist just to stay solvent enough to make a creative career viable. “Oh, you don’t want to play a maid in this movie? Fine. We will find someone who will. And you probably won’t get a shot at any of the future projects we have because you won’t play ball. Have a nice life.”

So now you’re saying, “I hear you complain a lot brother man, but what’s your solution?” Fair enough. What would work for African-Americans in our creative sphere? One of the more obvious options would be to make an attempt to pull together the Oprahs, Jordans, and Bob Johnsons of the world and fund a studio strong enough to produce enough material, provide the variety and profit that Black cinema deserves. While that option seems to be the most expedient and achievable, it has some very serious flaws. The idea of creating a home for film and television projects that entertain while fairly representing our people requires an entity that exists out of the tradition Hollywood structure. Asking a group of wealthy people whose success has been built working within the self-interested ethos of the mainstream culture would be a recipe for disaster.  You can’t start a “New School” of Black cinema with old paradigms.  The existing African-American power brokers might start off with the right intentions, but their experience, success, and never-ending financial dependence on the conventional media structure would guide them eventually back to what they know works for them.

The only real solution to the quandary we find ourselves in is to start a creative hub that exists outside of the system that is built by creatives who are not of that system. We need people who aren’t afraid of selfless collaboration. This aversion to helping others at the risk of our own personal success is, ironically, the one thing that keeps us from the substantive gain we are really looking for. With the technological advances in media production that exist today, a small group of people can create and distribute for thousands what only ten years ago would have cost millions. Yes, it requires a rethinking of the size and scope of the initial offerings that are generated, but it allows for a freedom of expression currently unviable to us at the moment. Five or six small creative teams producing short form projects that are distributed through a “Hulu for Black folks” could quickly become a hub for real black media (“Real” meaning content that represents everything we are without exploiting what we have been told we should be). Worldstar HipHop has shown this model can work for ignorant BS. There is no reason that people of color with actual talent wouldn’t do better.

BrightGirl Media is our opportunity to make this goal happen. If we become self-less and help Ms.Yarber with her dream, we actually score a win for ourselves. Let’s build her up and watch how she will be able to open doors for us. You know, the kind we might actually want to walk through.


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