Zine Gives Black Filmmakers A Platform

(PHOTO: NeoBlack Cinema) Crystyn C. Wright is an educator, entrepreneur and journalist.

As a self-described “movie buff,” Crystyn C. Wright loves films, especially those reflecting the lives of African Americans. At one time, the Bronx-native, going by mainstream’s offerings, settled on the assumption that not enough black filmmakers were producing those films.

That assumption was corrected after she traveled to various film festivals. But Wright, a journalist active in various genres of the arts, figured if someone as film savvy as her initially had a hard time finding good black films, it showed her what the media thinks of independent black filmmakers.

So she decided to do something about it and teamed up with Abdul Ali, a NY-native-turned-D.C. resident, to found NeoBlack Cinema, an online independent film magazine for people of color. With a Mt.Vernon, NY-based operation and a staff of more than 35 writers nationwide, the magazine highlights films and the people, production and politics involved in the filmmaking process. “We like to call it a one-stop shop,” the editor and CEO said Wednesday in a conference call with Ali.

This one-stop shop also features a section for books, equipment, financing, reviews and commentary. “It’s very useful to have a publication tackling the many facets of the independent film world for filmmakers of color,” said filmmaker/poet Nijla Mu’min, founder of Sweet Potato Pie Productions.

Perusing the website, one can read profiles on established and up-and-coming filmmakers. “There are so many black filmmakers and filmmakers of color who are doing amazing, provocative, bold films today,” Mu’min said. “It also brings further unification between artists, and serves as a foundation for dialogue, publicity, and progress.”

The online voting, expert advice, film festival coverage and articles on the challenges faced by black filmmakers are all ways NeoBlack Cinema tries to engage and connect African Americans with independent black film communities around the country.

(PHOTO: Courtesy) Abdul Ali

“The idea that there would be a new venue for a new generation to write about independent black film is very exciting to me,” said Esther Iverem, founder and editor of Seeingblack.com. A former staff writer for The Washington Post, New York Newsday and The New York Times, Iverem has written about black film online for 10 years.

During that time, she’s covered both mainstream studio and independent black films, which has taken her to the Urban World Film Festival and the American Black Film Festival. At some of those events, “I saw films that I never actually saw released to the general public in a large-scale way,” said Iverem, who’s also a contributing critic for Tom Joyner’s BlackAmericaWeb.com. “I really understand the need to concentrate on those films…If NeoBlack Cinema can do that, that’s great.”

The idea, which started as what Wright calls “a seed,” germinated through a discussion she had with Ali more than a year ago. “This idea that there needs to be someone to help usher in a radical shift in the images of black people in film…was the sort of cooling board in all of this,” said Ali, the managing editor. “The mission came out of the hours of conversation…about what’s wrong with black films, what’s right with it, what we would like to see more of.”

According to Ali, one black movie that got it right was Love Jones. Written and directed by Theodore Witcher, the 1997 romantic film, which stars Larenz Tate and Nia Long, is set in Chicago.

Darius Lovehall (Tate), an aspiring writer and poet, meets Nina Mosley (Long), a gifted and aspiring photographer, before he gets on the open mic to perform a poem at the Sanctuary, an upscale night club presenting jazz and poetry. The film explores the ups and downs of Hall’s relationship with Mosley. It’s also loosely based on the life of poet Regie Gibson, who wrote the poem “Brother to the Night” that Tate performed in the movie.

(PHOTO: New Line Cinema)

In his article for The Root, Ali makes the claim there hasn’t been a film since that captures black romance like Love Jones. “So much is right with this movie. The chemistry of Nia Long and Larenz Tate is remarkable,” Ali writes. “The characters hang out in smoky spots where men and women dress up and wear nice clothes. Not one gun in the entire film.”

Ali adds, “And when was the last time you saw a black film where the main characters quote George Bernard Shaw, invoke Gordon Parks, and play Charlie Parker?”

With Ali on-board, the seed was planted. And since that discussion more than a year ago, as Wright puts it, “NeoBlack Cinema has been watered, nurtured and protected, and it has finally sprouted from the earth.”

(PHOTO: Courtesy) Phyllis Stickney.

The inaugural issue sprouted on March 2010 just in time for Women’s History Month. “Getting it together it really worked out well,” Wright says. “When we were looking at the line up, we were trying to get powerful strong black women who left lasting impressions on people to highlight.”

Among them was Phyllis Yvonne Stickney, whose list of movie appearances includes “Jungle Fever,” “The Inkwell,” and “How Stella Got Her Groove Back.”

Perhaps Stickney is best known for her career as a stand-up comic. She was among the first comedians of color to perform at the Juste Pour Rire Comedy Festival in Montreal, Canada. She’s also performed her stand-up at the Apollo Theater, and is a motivational speaker and published author and poet.

In addition to being an accomplished stage performer, Stickney is the founder/executive director for a non-profit community-based organization for the arts. “She has a really strong background and she was the essence of someone who I would like to uplift for women’s history month,” Wright says.

Another woman highlighted in the current issue is Emmy Award-winning writer, director and producer Neema Barnette. She made history by becoming the first African-American woman to direct a sitcom with “What’s Happening Now” in 1986.

(PHOTO: Courtesy) Neema Barnette

Among the list of television series she oversaw included “The Cosby Show”, “Hooperman”, “China Beach”, “A Different World”, “Diagnosis Murder” and “Seventh Heaven.” Barnette has also directed eight motion pictures for television and two feature films, “Spirit Lost” and “Civil Brand” starring Mos Def, LisaRaye, N’Bushe Wright, and Monica Calhoun and Da Brat.

Under her company Harlem Lite Productions, Barnette was the first African-American woman to receive a three picture deal at Columbia/Sony Pictures where she developed four screenplays, two television pilots and a television series.

She currently sits on NeoBlack Cinema’s Board of Advisors with Audrey Peterson, editor-in-chief of American Legacy Magazine, and Mark Anthony Neal, Ph. D, professor of African and African American Studies at University.

“There are several…images that people want to promote in black media, and we’re serious about making that better,” Wright says.

(PHOTO: agatepublishing.com) Ishmael Reed, a prominent African-American literary figure, has been described as "one of the most original and controversial figures in the field of African American letters"

Her comment comes amid the recent backlash of “Precious: Based on the Novel ‘Push’ by Sapphire.” In a Feb. 4, 2010 New York Times column, poet-essayist-novelist Ishmael Reed stated his beef with the movie. According to the mail he received, the conversations he had and the comments he read about the film, Reed noted he wasn’t alone.

“Among black men and women, there is widespread revulsion and anger over the Oscar-nominated film about an illiterate, obese black teenager who has two children by her father,” he writes.

The author Jill Nelson was quoted in Reed’s column as stating: “I don’t eat at the table of self-hatred, inferiority or victimization. I haven’t bought into notions of rampant black pathology or embraced the overwrought, dishonest and black-people-hating pseudo-analysis too often passing as post-racial cold hard truths.”

Reed added, “One black radio broadcaster said that he felt under psychological assault for two hours. So did I.”

(PHOTO: Courtesy) Irene Monroe is a religion columnist, public theologian, and motivational speaker.

Rev. Irene Monroe also fired away in a March 17, 2010, column for the Windy City Times, a Chicago-based gay media outlet. “The historical legacy of the devaluation and demonization of Black motherhood was both applauded and rewarded at this year’s Oscars,” writes Monroe. “And the point was clearly illustrated with Mo’Nique, capturing the gold statue for best supporting actress in the movie Precious based on the novel Push by Sapphire as a ghetto-welfare mom who demeans and demoralizes her child every chance she can.”

While NeoBlack Cinema’s Women’s History Month issue might appease Reed and Monroe, Wright and Ali have a different mission: to expand the territory of what’s considered black films. “It’s not really a matter of saying we want good films or happy films, it’s saying we want to get the full picture of who we are as people,” she said. “We want to see everything about what we’re doing for better or worse.”

This balancing act will require NeoBlack Cinema to educate, entertain, exchange, experiment, enlighten and evolve movie viewers. It’s a full-time endeavor for Wright, who currently funds the operation out-of-pocket. “Hopefully” — in the future — “we’ll have grants and donors and will be able to fund staff,” Wright said. Meanwhile, it’s a labor of love for her staff.

(PHOTO: Sutikare) Esther Iverem, veteran journalist

Iverem, the veteran journalist, noted that the operation can’t stay a labor of love for too long. Her advice to Wright and Ali is to develop a working model immediately to secure funds and keep the site updated. “Those things can be very difficult, but if you have a commitment to whatever you’re doing it’s important to try,” she said. “Otherwise, I could see how you can start off strong but after awhile everyone is going to get burned out.”

As for Ali, he’s charged up and ready to carry out the mission of NeoBlack Cinema. He said, “The real beauty of this project is that it’s so necessary that it needed to happen.”

All inquiries about NeoBlack Cinema can be directed to Crystyn C. Wright via email at editor@neoblackcinema.com, or by phone at 850-570-0197.


3 thoughts on “Zine Gives Black Filmmakers A Platform

  1. In 1981, steve cannon and i gave bill gunn, whom hollywood found
    difficult, chance to direct a film with complete freedom. although
    ‘personal problems’ was my concept the actors and actresses created
    their characters. we spent $40,000 and used 3/4 inch.tech. because
    it depicted normal working class blacks it never found distribution
    but it opened at the pompidu in paris, made it to the whitney in
    1990.last week at BAM. with the tech. available today there’s no
    excuse for depending upon hollywood and tv ( see my piece about
    ‘the wire’ in playboy) to define african american culture.did anyone
    see a doc. called ‘nollywood?” nigerians are producing vhs movies
    and distributing them. like the rappers started off selling tapes
    out of their cars.here’s a review of personal problems.

    As for what we got, Personal Problems really is like if you mashed-up, say, Performance and 1970s-era Days of our Lives. The narrative is fragmented and non-linear, there’s all sorts of moments of lyricism and abstraction, but the plot is pure soap. That’s not a bad thing. Vertamae Grosvenor as Johnnie Mae, the nurse working at Harlem Hospital, is the central focus, and she could easily be Susan Lucci and Erica Kane in the early years, before Erica became rich and a glamour goddess. Like Lucci’s character on All My Children, Johnnie Mae is introduced as living in modest surroundings she disdains, wanting more out of her lot in life, wanting to pursue her poetry instead of working round the clock in the ER. She cheats on her surly husband Charles (the great Walter Cotton) with a vaguely obnoxious musician who gives her a taste of the high life, and lets her ‘lean on’ instead of always being leaned on by her friends and family. She longs to leave NY and go back to South Carolina, as her friend is doing, yet she and her girlfriends seem to also enjoy moments of living above their means in these sort of rough, prototypical Candace Bushnell-esque cocktail klatches. It’s a lot of self-delusion; Johnnie Mae puts on a gauzy dress and a floppy hat and prances along the banks of the Hudson with her lover, but at the end of the day it’s back to her tiny apartment which is housing her, Charles, his father, and her ne’er-do-well half-brother and his wife, who have run into trouble with the law and have yet to retrieve their child, who was left behind in California with Social Services.

    There is some occasional, fourth-wall-breaking direct address where someone (Gunn?) puts Johnnie Mae and others through a Q&A about their feelings and motivations. And we never figure out when a scene takes place where Johnnie Mae finds Charles in bed with his own mistress, but judging by the end of Volume 2 it must have come before the events of that episode. The script was apparently totally improvised by the actors after discussion with Gunn and Ishmael Reed, and there are some hilarious moments, including a scene where Johnnie Mae suggests Charles’ get-rich-quick scheme sounds like Sidney Poitier’s in A Raisin In The Sun, but no one in the household can remember the name of the film, and her father-in-low is convinced it’s Cabin In The Sky. It’s a long, languid riff, but priceless. Ishmael Reed also turns up as an obnoxious upper-middle-class businessman who voted for Reagan, arguing with a white radical (played by one of the production staff) and citing that any Hollywood actor who can bring his own monkey to the White House (from Bedtime For Bonzo) has his vote. Later, he appears again at a posh party Johnnie Mae attends with her lover, where the disparate stories (just like on daytime) begin to intersect. While spending a night in jail, Johnnie Mae’s brother has spoken to another guy in the cellblock about getting ‘an introduction’ to mysterious crime boss “Mr. Damian” (Bill Gunn), who, unbeknownst to Johnnie Mae, is also at the cocktail party. At the party, Johnnie Mae’s relationship with her musician lover unravels as it is clear she is out of place in the plasticine world he prefers, despite her love of the finer things, and she is drawn back to Charles and her home. I don’t know where the story went from there (or maybe just would have gone), but I’m dying to find out. As a stand-alone, closed piece, however, it also pretty much works.

    I forgot to ask about PP’s potential future availability but given the truly home-video quality of the picture and sound I have my doubts. But I would kill to have it all – video format, audio-only, you name it.

    1. Mr. Reed,

      I’ve been dying to see “Personal Problems” for years… alas, i’m a Chicagoan so I couldn’t attend the BAM screening, but if you have any say in the matter, it would be amazing to book that film at the Gene Siskel Film Center at some point, or perhaps at Facets Cinemateque…

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