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Should Only Blacks Make Movies About Blacks?

By WILLIAM GRIMES (NYT) 1013 words
Published: March 28, 1994

Martin Scorsese once had the rights to make "Schindler's List." But as an Italian-American Roman Catholic, did he have the right? That question, and the premise behind it, loomed large in a panel discussion, "Whose Black Cinema Is It, Anyway?," held on Friday night at New York University as part of a weeklong program on black film at the Tisch School of the Arts.

The discussion was moderated by Kinshasha Holman Conwill, the director of the Studio Museum in Harlem, and the panelists were the film makers Spike Lee, Jonathan Demme, Bill Duke and Michael Roemer, the writer Ishmael Reed, the film critic Joel Siegel and the screenwriter Anna Hamilton Phelan.

The name Steven Spielberg came up early and often, as a positive and negative example of the relationship between ethnicity and certain kinds of subject matter. "The Color Purple" was held up at arm's length and examined with contempt by most of the panelists. "The way that was treated by Spielberg is the best argument I know for African-Americans' control of their projects," said Mr. Reed. 'Too Zip-a-Dee-Do-Dah'

Even Mr. Siegel, who drew hoots of derision from the packed hall when he stated that Hollywood film makers did not have a political or racial agenda, said that after taking another look at "The Color Purple" recently, he found it "far too zip-a-dee-do-dah."

Mr. Siegel argued that although film makers should be free to choose their subjects, films like "Malcolm X," "Schindler's List" and "The Joy Luck Club," with subject matter so important to a specific ethnic or racial group, should probably be made by directors whose lives were touched in a direct way by the central figures or the issues involved.

"That was my point to Warner Brothers," said Mr. Lee, who described his struggle to wrest control of the "Malcolm X" project from Norman Jewison, who at one time was to direct the film. "I tried to convince him that this was not his film and that he should gracefully bow out."

Mr. Lee said he did not believe that only blacks should direct films on black subjects. On the other hand, just as Francis Ford Coppola and Mr. Scorsese brought rich experience to their films about Italian-Americans, so he, as a black American, naturally gravitated to black subject matter and brought to it a special kind of knowledge.

Mr. Reed said: "In this country, everybody practices ethnicity. It's only blacks who are required to be universal." Ability, Not Ethnicity

The most determined advocate of total artistic freedom was Mr. Duke, the director of "Sister Act 2," who made the film "The Cemetery Club" in large part because he did not want to be limited, as a black director, to black themes. "We should not be limited by ethnicity," he said, "only by our ability."

Ms. Phelan, turning to Mr. Lee, said several black film makers she knew in Hollywood expressed frustration at being expected to deal only with black subject matter. Mr. Lee said he was perfectly happy to be considered a black film maker. "Nobody can make films about white suburbia better than Steven Spielberg," he said. "So why should I make those films?"

A name that came up nearly as often as Mr. Spielberg's was that of Mr. Roemer, whose 1964 film "Nothing but a Man," about a young black couple in rural Alabama, was presented as evidence that a white director could portray the black experience with sensitivity.

But Mr. Roemer struck a somber note, saying that if he had it to do over, he would not make the film. "I think we were on the side of the angels," he said, speaking quietly, with a slight German accent, "but even at the time, I had misgivings. There is a tremendous difference between, say, including an African-American character in a film, and making a film from inside the African-American community, which is what we were trying to do."

His words seemed almost as much an elegy for a period in American politics as it was a judgment on the film. "In the 60's," he said, "we felt that we could cross these racial lines, that we were all one, and I think that we were a bit optimistic." 'My History, Too'

Mr. Demme, who prefaced his remarks with a rambling account of his upbringing and education, which he described as narrowly white and European, defended his next project, "Parting the Waters," which will draw on Taylor Branch's book of the same name to tell the history of the civil rights movement. "I'm acknowledging that I've been given a very narrow slice of the story," he said of his Eurocentric education. "I want to make 'Parting the Waters' because I feel it's part of my history, too."

A black woman in the audience challenged Mr. Demme, asking him how he could hope to dramatize the experience of Fannie Lou Hamer, the plantation worker who became a central figure in the civil rights movement in Mississippi.

"We trust actors to bring characters to life," said Mr. Demme. "We're not going to get white people and have them put on blackface to do the part."

Mr. Lee protested. "But look at Al Pacino," he said. "First it was 'Scarface,' then 'Carlito's Way' and now he's going to play Noriega. He's making a career out of playing Hispanics." Who Should See What?

The most exclusionist argument came from Ms. Phelan, who is writing the screenplay for "Parting the Waters." In the closing moments of the discussion, Ms. Phelan, who is white, argued that the only way for blacks to gain control of their own images in the cinema is to refuse to see films not made by blacks, a line of reasoning that stunned Mr. Lee, who asked whether he was being told not to look at the films of Fellini or Kurosawa.

The way to gain control, he countered, was to be a creative troublemaker, as he had tried to be with "Malcolm X." "By speaking up and campaigning," he said, "I was able to Bogart the job, basically."

Then he added a word of caution:

"There's no guarantee that just because it's black it's going to be great. A lot of the black programs on television are minstrel shows, and they are written by black writers. There's no guarantee."

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