Category Archives: Uncategorized

Wealth Comes in Many Forms: William Greaves’ USIA Films

BFC/A:

Great post from NARA’s Criss Kovac on the USIA films of William Greaves, including 1964’s WEALTH OF A NATION streaming in full.

Originally posted on The Unwritten Record:

This post was written by Criss Kovac. Criss is the supervisor of the National Archives Motion Picture Preservation Lab. 

I’m fortunate that my job allows me to make a difference every day. Most days it’s because I’ve preserved a piece of history, made something accessible for research, or contributed to the archival community. It’s rare, however, that I see how my work has made a difference in the life of a single person. This past spring I had that chance along with the opportunity to bring attention to two great films and the life of their multifaceted and talented director. A simple request from the Film Society of Lincoln Center for a 16mm theater print of William Greaves’Wealth of a Nation(1964) began it all.

NARA gets requests for theater prints on a regular basis, so I didn’t give much thought to it until, a couple of weeks…

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New Black Camera Call for Submissions: SELMA Close-Up

Black Camera has announced a new call for submissions for a Close-Up section on Ava DuVernay’s film, SELMA:

Close-Up: Selma: The Historical Record and the American Imaginary

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The 2015 release of the Oscar-nominated film Selma, directed by Ava DuVernay, offers the opportunity to revisit not only the significance of the historical figures and events depicted on screen, but also the cultural impact of cinema and its capacity to both reflect upon and critique historical activity. Indeed, Selma and the considerable press it has received become an index to gauge both the legacy of the civil rights movement and the status of race relations in the fraught contemporary moment.

As with many works in the historical film genre, Selma has won acclaim and generated controversy in equal measure. The film has been applauded for its powerful historical reenactments, characterizations of Martin Luther King Jr., Coretta Scott King, and other protagonists of the period, and its depiction of the protest movement spawned by the violence and injustice of Jim Crow. Conversely, Selma has been criticized for its alleged historical misrepresentations, particularly the depictions of Lyndon Baines Johnson and of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee.

Submissions may interrogate issues of race, class, and/or gender, through thematic, historical, and sociocultural contexts. Other topics might include but are not limited to narrative strategies, genre studies, psychoanalytic/feminist readings, sexuality, black female bodies, masculinity, whiteness, violence, the revenge motif, fugitivity narratives, revisionist historiography, the black vernacular aesthetic tradition and signifying, classic Hollywood filmic stereotypes, the audio/visual landscape of the film, musical scoring, reception, exhibition, marketing/publicity, and distribution.

We welcome submissions exploring Selma from a variety of disciplinary and analytical perspectives for publication consideration. Essays, film reviews, and commentaries will be considered. Essays should be 4,000–6,000 words, commentaries 1,000–2,000, and film reviews 500–1,500 words.

Suggested topics include Selma’s production, exhibition, and reception histories, as well as formal and conceptual analyses of the film as a text. Other suggested lines of inquiry are Selma’s relevance to
• contemporary U.S. race relations
• mediations of posterity, memory, and history
• historical accuracy and “truth” in relation to revisionist history or ideological motivation
• the filmmaker’s intentionality and project of recovery
• interrogation of the notion of the “postracial”
• African American women filmmakers in Hollywood
• the biopic and/or the historical film as genres
• transnationalism

Please submit completed essays, a 150-word abstract, and a 50–100 word biography by January 1, 2016. Submissions should conform to the Chicago Manual of Style, 16th edition. Please see Black Camera‘s journal guidelines for more on the submission policy.

Direct all questions, correspondence, and submissions to co-editor Mark Hain (blackcam@indiana.edu).


Q&A with OUT IN THE NIGHT’s Blair Dorosh-Walther and Giovanna Chesler

A year after its momentous world premiere at LA Film Festival, Blair Dorosh-Walther’s courageous documentary OUT IN THE NIGHT will kick off the new season of PBS’s landmark independent documentary series POV on June 22, 2015.  OUT IN THE NIGHT follows four young African American lesbians who maintain their innocence following a homophobic attack in front of the IFC Theatres in Greenwich Village.  The documentary explores intersecting issues of race, gender, and sexuality in relationship to mass media and the criminal justice system.

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In September 2014 the BFC/A’s programming assistant Nzingha Kendall interviewed director Blair Dorosh-Walther and producer Giovanna Chesler.  Below, highlights from the interview.

Nzingha Kendall: In another interview you underscored the point that OUT IN THE NIGHT is not about race or sexuality, pointing out that “Life is about the intersections of race, sexuality, gender identity, and class.”  This clarifying statement you made is really important because people tend to isolate these, as though our experiences can be distilled to one identifying category.  I’d like to unpack this issue a bit more with a couple of questions.

Now, since this interview is for the Black Film Center/Archive, I feel compelled to ask a question related to race.  What kind of challenges did you have as a white filmmaker portraying a story centered on black people?  Did this come into play in terms of building a relationship with the film’s subjects?  If so, how?  Also, did your own non-conforming gender identity — or any other identifications you claim — impact the process?

Blair Dorosh-Walther: Being a white director was something I was very conscious of from the beginning. I frequently questioned whether or not I should be telling this story, so allow me to tell you why it came about that I made this film. I became involved in the case of the NJ7/NJ4 within the days following the fight. In New York City, the media attention was immediate. There was an online dialogue happening and a community meeting at the LGBT Center in the West Village to discuss the media’s coverage. As a group, we also talked about what you do if you feel threatened but don’t feel safe calling the police and how you can protect yourself. In my immediate reaction to the case of the NJ7/NJ4 I felt outraged and knew that had this happened to me, or a group of white friends, we could have defended ourselves and the outcome would have been incredibly different.

In the following two years, as I continued working as an activist around the case on and off, some folks had talked about making a film about the case, it hadn’t happened. However, at the time I did not want to tell this story. I don’t believe that it is necessarily okay for white directors to tell African American stories. There is a long history of white filmmakers doing this and telling very one-dimensional, often inaccurate stories. I obviously do not think it is always entirely wrong either. But in this case, for me, it came down to talking about this with the women, to talk about my own race, why I wanted to tell this story. We began a process of sort of interviewing each other. I wasn’t interested in telling this story if they didn’t feel completely comfortable with me. At the end of the day, after we built a relationship together, as well as their families, I felt I could do the story justice and represent the women honestly and intimately. This was in 2008 as their appeals were approaching, when much of the media attention had died down. It was then that I realized I was still so outraged and passionate about this story. I couldn’t stop thinking about it.

Once I decided that I was going to do this documentary, I felt that it was incredibly important to have a strong African American crew in decision-making roles. I started speaking with Daniel Patterson soon after our first shoot. We met as students at NYU and had worked a number of other projects together. Daniel has been the eye of the project for 7 years. The women interviewed him to become comfortable with him and he works incredibly well with the women. Yoruba Richen, one of the producers, has been on the project for the last five years. She was important because she is an African American lesbian and filmmaker. Her role focused primarily on story over the years.

That is how it began. We got to know each other and we talked about me being a white director and kind of kept checking in with each other throughout the process. For me, the greatest challenges came up around our personal class differences. For example, Renata and I have a very close friendship and similar philosophical ideas on our gender identities, and are the same age. But no matter how close we are, there was a striking division between me having an apartment and Renata living in a homeless shelter with her family.

So to directly answer your question, I would not have told this story had the women and their family members not been completely comfortable and trusting of me. I never stopped ‘checking’ and questioning myself during the process, but I did and do feel strongly that I could tell this particular story, this story with Renata, Terrain, Patreese and Venice personally and justly.

NK: Another really important theme in the film for me is the criminalization and imprisonment of black people in the U.S.  This really hit home in the recounting of the judge’s statement that Renata “testified falsely,” which compelled one of the lawyers to interject, “Judge, she never testified.”  Can you comment on this?

BD-W: Yes! It sounds so outlandish and implausible that a judge could not tell defendants in a case apart, and claim that Renata testified – which she didn’t. Renata is the only one of the women with dreads and had been sitting in front of the judge in his courtroom for six days of trial and at least three days of hearings. We often talk about the disparity of justice for African Americans. Well, this is a crystal clear example of where we can see bias in the courtroom based on a defendant’s race and gender identity. And there are no consequences for this judge. He was not reprimanded for saying this and continued to egregiously sentence her after saying this. By stating that “she testified falsely” when she didn’t even testify, the judge made clear that there is damaging power in a racially biased imagination.

Another example when bias against black defendants became visible in this courtroom was when a potential juror said, in court, that he had become scared of these women because they were a “gang” and took measures to “protect” his family. He wanted to move his family out of town and felt afraid for his safety by being on this jury. The women were charged with gang assault and were not a gang, but the biased fear in the courtroom was palpable. In the eyes of this man, and others, they became a gang simply because of their race, age and masculinity. And because of constant outlandish media attention that labeled them a gang.

NK: You’ve spent almost a decade working on this project, which is your first feature.  How did you manage?!

BD-W: I initially knew it was going to be a long, intense process, so I made a conscious decision to move forward when I knew I was ready to completely commit. That being said, I had no idea what really was in store, nor did I ever think it would take me seven years to complete. Financially, it was slow going. A little funding would come in here or there from a film grant, but it was never enough to push forward the way we needed all at once. Sometimes I had a full time job, sometimes I free-lanced, sometimes I worked part-time. For several months, I lived without a home and couch surfed. Whatever it took to continue making progress on the film.

Mentally, telling this story was exhausting for many reasons. It was difficult to raise money for an interview when the person I was going to interview was either in prison or living in a homeless shelter. I’ve worked in social services for much of my life, so to draw a distinct line of being a filmmaker and someone who knew what the women and their families needed, was trying. I say this knowing that the women and their families obviously experienced something much worse, but it is a helpless feeling, leaving a prison after a visit or an interview. I cannot imagine the feeling of leaving a prison when it is your daughter trapped in there.

It was also an artistic challenge to pull together a story of four people, with backstories and family members, which took place over their lifetimes. It required a lot of challenging decisions on what to leave out which took years to figure out in the edit room. It really was the support of ITVS, CPB and Fork Films that allowed the film in all of its parts – the edit, the music, the animation, etc to finally come to a close.

NK: You are a documentary filmmaker yourself, having shot, directed, edited your own films.  Being a producer is a completely different beast — or is it?

Giovanna Chesler: It’s very different to work as a producer. I think of it as an advocate / problem solving position that allows the director to make creative decisions. I’ve produced all of my own films, so I’m familiar with the role but when you produce for someone else, you become braver, I believe, and ask for more than you might for your own film.

Blair is very much the head producer of this film, having pulled together the story and the initial funding, which he did for years before I got involved. But once we decided I should come on board, I worked for a year and a half just on raising the finishing funds. It’s a very unsexy position in filmmaking to sit and write grant after grant after grant. Particularly our ITVS grants – where we got to the third round three times in 18 months – which took weeks and weeks of work to pull together. And driving a Kickstarter campaign, and social media tools. Those become parallel projects to a film. But they connect you to the audience just as much.

NK: How did you get involved as a producer for OUT IN THE NIGHT?

GC: I have been focused on fiction film for the past few years. My last film, BYE BI LOVE, was a return to fiction after the all-consuming process of making PERIOD: THE END OF MENSTRUATION which had taken four years with another two years of touring. I had written two feature fiction scripts that I was starting to develop and was at a queer filmmaker’s workshop called Pride of the Ocean, which Blair and Yoruba were also on, when I saw a rough cut of OUT IN THE NIGHT. It was called THE FIRE THIS TIME then. I was immediately furious and moved. I was also angry that I had not heard of this case and these women and knew that this film needed to be finished well.  I started working with Blair on the story structure, mapping out transitions and pulling out themes, so that we could see a new way through the story. Then I became a producer. That was three years ago.

NK: This is a question from Brian Graney, the BFC/A’s archivist, who wants to know about your decision to conceal the identity of the harasser — especially since his testimony is in the public record and his name was revealed in the press coverage.

BD-W: There were a few reasons why we did not identify this man. I didn’t want people focusing on him, specifically, as the reason they ended up in prison. I felt that if you could put a face to a name, people would focus on him being the issue, when really the entire criminal legal system is the issue, as well as the media and its deplorable coverage of this case. There are countless catcallers on the street & countless harassers that turn violent. This also reiterates that he doesn’t matter. I wanted to take the power he had and wipe it away.

I was in touch with him on and off throughout the years and he told me he didn’t want to go on camera. I can’t stand what he did, but at the end of the day as Karen Thompson, Patreese’s appellate attorney says in her interview, “he’s a victim of male-supremacy too.” Certainly not as much as the women, but he couldn’t back down when his “manhood” was threatened. So he remains anonymous and blurred in our treatment on film.

NK: The film’s New York premiere was at the IFC theater.  Did Renata, Terrain, Venice, and Patreese attend?  There’s a reenactment in the film where you revisit the scene of the crime.  I imagine that the experience must have been overwhelming for them — and for you and the rest of the crew.  What was it like to return to this scene, this time under much happier circumstances?

BD-W: Yes, all four women attended the New York Premiere at the IFC. It was spectacular and powerful. At first we were all extremely nervous that the man who instigated the fight was going to show up. After all he has sued each of the women for what he feels is a “straight-hate crime” in a civil suit. We had extra security there and were as prepared as we could possibly be. The women were all excited, but very nervous. However, he didn’t show and after the screening they had a standing ovation to a sold-out theater. [At that time] It was the only screening all four of them were able to attend together, which made it all that more powerful. In the end, I think it ended up becoming a reclaiming of space. They were able to go back to this place that changed their lives and feel and visualize all this support that they had never seen and share their side of the story with people. After the screening we had a dance party that lasted all night. That is when the movie felt like it was actually done to me.

We did shoot an overnight walk through with Terrain and Renata in front of the IFC. I wouldn’t call it a reenactment, though. My initial idea was to have the women walk through the night of the fight as they remembered it and then have the man involved walk through the way he remembered it. I planned to intercut this with the surveillance video. He obviously decided not to be involved in the project. So with the walk through, I tried to only use what we could prove from the surveillance tape. The rest of what you see – the abstract visuals – are intended to make the audience feel like they are there, or experience what the women might have been experiencing in the heat of a fight. I also wanted to try to depict what Renata might have been going through visually, because she has seizures (a by-product of her PTSD). She had a seizure shortly after the fight happened, and Daniel’s camera movements and created textures reflect some of what Renata felt that night.

NK: OUT IN THE NIGHT is also about families — the ones we’re born into and the ones that we construct ourselves.  Can you talk about how the notion of family emerged in the filmmaking process?  And I’m thinking both in front of and behind the camera…

BD-W: I’m glad you mention this. I so rarely get a question about chosen and biological families. Initially, I did not intend to have the film be about their families. I thought that I was going to analyze the media (yawn) or “prove” their innocence (which is really near impossible for self-defense cases). As we were shooting, it became clear that the film was about the women and their families. Both in terms of their closeness, but also their personal family histories that informed their decisions and reactions that night.

But I think in queer communities at large, there is a definite sense of “chosen families” because it often takes family members time to come around to the idea of you being gay. It’s also about survival to surround yourself with people who have gone through similar ups and downs. Your queer, chosen family is where you “come out” and then have someone you can relate to as a role model or confidant. I think somewhat similarly African-American extended and chosen families operate for the same. In some ways, it is really a necessity to live – to be able to create your own family.

Off-camera, the women have become my family. I speak to at least one of them or their family members every day. They have become such a part of my life not only because we were filming for so long, but also because I was part of their releases, had done some fundraising for their bails, and organized commissary, etc. We have now seen each other through major ups and downs. I was there when Renata regained custody of TJ. Moments like that weren’t about filming – they were about support and love of friends and family.

NK: Last question: what’s next for OUT IN THE NIGHT?

BD-W: OUT IN THE NIGHT is in the midst of our festival run which is going well. All of our upcoming screenings are on our website and folks can also request and arrange screenings through us. (http://www.outinthenight.com/screenings) We are doing several screenings and talks at universities and with community groups in the US.

I’m very excited about our partnership with the United Nations. At the Los Angeles Film Festival OUT IN THE NIGHT was chosen to launch the UN’s Free and Equal Campaign film initiative. This is one of a handful of films that have been selected to screen in 77 countries as part of the Free and Equal efforts to decriminalize homosexuality worldwide. The film will be programmed at UN sites and screen with local organizations that work on the ground to fight homophobia.


One People: Experiencing Media as Love Letter in Jamaica

“Media offers the means and material of an imagined community…Motion pictures coming out of Jamaica…convey content as they catalyze an imagined family reunion. ” – Terri Francis

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This week, Shadow and Act revives IU professor Terri Francis’s earlier essay, “Slow Jam, Experiencing Media as Love Letter in Jamaica or What I thought of the ‘One People’ Documentary.”  Francis writes:

On Jamaica’s Independence Day 3 years ago, I joined a global Kingston audience to participate in the country’s golden celebrations at the National Stadium but I began the day reading Dr. Carolyn Cooper’s essay “Who is Jamaica?” in The New York Times. There she argues that the nation’s 50-year old motto “Out of Many, One People” seems progressive but actually “marginalizes the nation’s black majority by asserting that the idealized face of the Jamaican nation is multiracial” (See http://www.nytimes.com/2012/08/06/opinion/who-is-jamaica.html?_r=1; Read an expanded version of the piece here http://carolynjoycooper.wordpress.com/). I re-read a little bit of Dr. Deborah Thomas’s Modern Blackness in which she explains how the motto “brackets” blackness, as suggested by the title of her book’s introduction “Out of Many, One (Black) People” (http://www.dukeupress.edu/Catalog/ViewProduct.php?productid=7797). One motto, many significant critiques.

Not just on Independence, but going back over the week to Emancipation Day on August 1, I reflected on the many meanings of blackness, of freedom, and of independence I passed through as I moved from town to country, neighborhood to neighborhood, household to household during my research visit to Jamaica. I came here to work on my manuscript, “Sounding the Nation: Jamaican Film History, 1900-1972” so I’m asking myself what is cinema? What is cinema in Jamaica?

You can find the full essay at this Shadow & Act link: http://blogs.indiewire.com/shadowandact/slow-jam-experiencing-media-as-love-letter-in-jamaica-or-what-i-thought-of-the-onepeople-documentary-20150602

 

 


DVD Spotlight: Stanley Nelson’s “Freedom Summer”

“The documentary is not only inspiring and instructive, it holds surprises even for those who believe they know this epochal American story.” – 2014 Peabody Awards

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Freedom Summer. Mississippi. 1964.

The Murder of Fred Hampton, Howard Alk’s 1971 portrait of the Black Panther leader’s last days, turned Stanley Nelson onto the power of documentary as a tool to reach audiences and change perceptions. Nelson has since become one of the premiere documentarians of American and civil rights history, producing and directing films including the Murder of Emmitt Till (2003), Jonestown: the Life and Death of the People’s Temple (2006) and the Emmy Winning Freedom Riders (2010). Nelson’s latest DVD release, Freedom Summer, employs archival footage and photographs, illustrations, and interviews to present a richly complex history of the of the violent summer of 1964, when over 700 university student volunteers came to Mississippi from across the country. The young activists moved in with local organizers and residents for the entirety of the summer to help register African American voters, set up freedom schools, and create the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party to challenge the state’s segregationist Democratic Party. Available for viewing at the Black Film Center/ Archive, the PBS “American Experience” documentary won the 2014 Peabody Award for excellence in media storytelling.

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Stanley Nelson’s Freedom Summer

Nelson’s documentaries continually dispel the idea that because we’ve seen the images of the bus rides, sit-ins, marches, and murderous violence, that we know the history of the civil rights movement. Upon winning the 2013 National Humanities Medal, Nelson said, “What I’m trying to do is part detective. There’s a feeling that we all know about the civil rights movement. So part of it is finding new and exciting voices that we haven’t heard.” In just under 2 hours, Freedom Summer traces not only the major events—the successes and failures—of those long months in the deep-south, but also the intricacies of its organization and implementation. A very small group of predominantly black organizers associated with the Students for Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) and Congress of Racial Equality (CORE) enlisted student activists to bring sustained national media attention to the poor living conditions that black Mississippians endured, and especially to voter discrimination that kept registration among African Americans to under 7%. Because Mississippi rarely made the evening news, it seemed that no one in the country knew much or cared about these abominable injustices. Bringing a coalition of young, affluent university students, black and white, would help bring Mississippi into the spotlight.

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Drawing by Tracy Sugarman, illustrator and activist who appears in Freedom Summer.

The documentary presents a variety of perspectives to reveal the multiple systems of oppression employed to keep both black and white southerners “in their place”: legal structures and police enforcement, violent threats and action, and everyday fear and intimidation. Speaking with surprising candor in his documentary interview, Citizens’ Councils member William Scarborough explains that the Ku Klux Klan was largely absent from Mississippi until Freedom Summer, because his organization, deeply entrenched in the state’s political machinery, effectively enforced white supremacy with full support of the law. The students selected for the program were warned of expected violent repercussions before their arrival and given the option to turn back, but few did. Several of those interviewed now acknowledge that the plan worked because they were “young and foolish” enough to go through with it. Shortly after their arrival in Mississippi, one black and two white members– James Chaney, Andrew Goodman, and Michael Schwerner– would go missing, later to turn up dead (the “Mississippi Burning” murders). Some of the black visiting students interviewed said that they realized the extent of the danger that they were in after this event, knowing now that the whiteness of some of their colleagues would offer no protection.

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Archival color footage of Mississippi parade, still from Freedom Summer.

Those from Mississippi already knew the extent to which the state coerced its residents—both black and white—into abiding by its dictum of “States rights, racial integrity” (the slogan of Citizens’ Councils). Nelson’s film makes clear the essential role that black Mississippians played in the successes of Freedom Summer, both by opening their homes to students and by joining the movement, an especially dangerous, even life-threatening, decision for those with no protections and little prospect of leaving Mississippi if the violence continued to escalate.

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Mississippians opening homes to student guests. Archival photographs from Freedom Summer.

Sharecropper Fanny Lou Hamer emerges as a central force of Nelson’s documentary. Hamer registered to vote with full knowledge that it would mean losing her job, and became one of the most powerful voices for change in Mississippi. Nelson’s documentary culminates at the national stage: Hamer’s famous televised appeal for a Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party follows Rita Schwerner’s visit to Lyndon B. Johnson to demand justice for the murder of her husband and his two colleagues. The President’s response to both women, revealed through audiotapes to J. Edgar Hoover and firsthand accounts, is chilling. Johnson would sign the landmark Civil Rights Act of 1964 that very same summer, but Nelson’s film (like Ava DuVernay’s Selma) shows that the path to voting rights was politically fraught and did not follow a straight or easy line toward forward progression. Significantly, Freedom Summer presents its history as a collective struggle, when a female sharecropper played as important a role as a president or the nationally recognized civil rights leaders.

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Fanny Lou Hamer, testimony before credentials committee, Democratic National Convention, Atlantic City, 1964.

Nelson works primarily in research-based, historical documentary, drawing comparisons to another PBS mainstay, Ken Burns. In a recent New York Times piece on Nelson and his Black Panthers documentary, Burns describes the difficulties of translating an enormously complex and unbounded history into compelling, even poetic, storytelling: “So as a filmmaker, when you bump into a Stanley, you go, wow, that was great. There’s a real frisson, an excitement and an energy his films always have.” Nelson returned to the subject that first drew him to filmmaking for his most recent documentary, Black Panthers: Vanguard of the Revolution, which premiered to sold out audiences at Sundance and as the opening night screening at MoMA’s Documentary Fortnight 2015. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=BeAsxK7PRa0 Today is the final day of Nelson’s fundraising campaign for a theatrical release to help his documentary reach a more diverse audience, including those who may not go to film festivals or watch PBS. Noting the timeliness of the documentary, the filmmaking team explains the impetus of a wider release on their crowdsourcing page: “For us this Kickstarter campaign is about more than just getting into theaters, it’s about sparking a national conversation on the conditions that created the Black Panther Party, conditions – like police violence, substandard education, joblessness – that continue to plague us today.” The fundraising goals have been met, but Nelson plans to use additional funds for screenings in cities including Ferguson, MO, joining forces with the #blacklivesmatter movement.

Black Panthers screens this weekend at the Maryland Film Festival in Baltimore, where Nelson is currently living as a visiting film instructor at Morgan State University, a historically black college. “Spending time in the city has given me insight into the troubling conditions so many young African American women and men face. It has also given me an opportunity to witness the amazing potential, work ethic and desire among my young students to tell their own story about their city,” says Nelson. He hopes that the Panthers’ example of community organizing will inspire young people in the area, and that his own work as a filmmaker will turn the next generation onto the power of film as a tool for social change.

~Noelle Griffis


Ava DuVernay’s SELMA Now Available on DVD and Blu-ray

Ava DuVernay’s acclaimed 2014 film Selma releases on DVD and Blu-ray today. The high-profile film garnered considerable attention for its complex account of the debates and strategies that led to the 1965 march from Selma to Montgomery, and for its humanizing portrait of its leaders, with Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. (played by David Oyelowo) at the forefront. DuVernay’s film sparked debates about factual accuracy in historical fiction after some claimed Selma misrepresented LBJ’s role in the events, while others saw these criticisms as a conservative backlash against a civil rights account that foregrounded black leadership and collective achievement over myths of white saviors and individual heroes. To commemorate the DVD/ Blu-ray release of this remarkable film, two friends of the Black Film Center/ Archive at Indiana University, T. Michael Ford and Katrina Overby, have shared their responses to Selma.

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DuVernay’s Selma: “Getting it Done”

The movie Selma is not a documentary, as some have tried to make it that are critical of Ava DuVernay’s latest cinematic offering, but a story that needs to be told time and again as it speaks to the elevating of the human spirit in the face of evil. And with her film Selma brought to the big screen, DuVernay has triumphantly and emphatically put her imprimatur on a film that is deserving of all the accolades and awards that have been and will be bestowed up on it. Further, the ensemble cast that brings the Selma story to life are applauded for displaying and imbuing their “A” game on historical events that resonate and have relevance to present day.

Though the persona of Martin Luther King, Jr. (MLK, portrayed admirably by David Oyelowo) is part of the primary focus of this film, for this author, so many of the other characters, male AND female, loom equally as large in their artistic and historical impact. From the opening scene where one of the producers of the film, Oprah Winfrey portraying Annie Lee Cooper, attempts to register to vote and is challenged by the city clerk to recite the names of the sixty-seven (67) country judges in the state of Alabama (which was just another version of the Poll Tax to dissuade and disenfranchise black voters), this film is meant to give the viewer the gritty, granular feel of what the reality was like for black citizens in Alabama (and throughout much of the rest of the country). The film displays in dramatic and emotional impact a key event in the civil rights history of the USA when MLK and his supporters ventured to Selma, Alabama to assist, participate and lead marches that were demanding voting rights for local black citizens who were being denied these rights as U.S. citizens. The series of marches (and televised beatings and brutalization by law enforcement and white citizen supporters), the meetings between MLK and U.S. President Lyndon B. Johnson, eventually lead to the culmination of this chapter of civil rights history with the passage of the Voting Rights Act of 1965.

csm_Selma_49159b1013There are many others, film critics, industry experts who will write and wax-and-wane eloquently about this film…but for this author the resonance of the film was that I can recall seeing these events on the television when I was but a young child of around 7 years, and now to view this film with my 16-year old son, and to hear his questions and our discussion of events that seem so long ago and foreign to him (because so much of the story of U.S. Civil Rights still gets short shrift in our nation’s schools and too many adults have ‘selective amnesia’ on the violence and ugliness that is our nation’s history…) fully informs that films such as Selma are needed in a contemporary context with talented and visionary directors like DuVernay. She is a director, and a black female director is just icing on the cake (!), that illustrates there has been some progress in the film industry but much more is yet to be done. Further, beyond just directing this film, DuVernay was instrumental in rewriting the original screenplay, which is a formidable task and accomplishment that should not get short shrift.

There are many laudable scenes were you hold your breath (the marches on the Edmund Pettus bridge, hearing Governor Wallace rant while talking at President Johnson….) and others that warm you over and rivet you to the screen (MLK having his necktie tied by his loving wife Coretta, portrayed by Carmen Ejogo, before the Nobel Prize ceremony, when she visits MLK in jail…) which makes the movie real and palpable. You are there. You can feel the heat of the day, smell the sweat of the people, and have that knot of apprehension in the pit of your stomach that the participants surely had as well. Selma manages to evoke all of these emotions and more which goes to the skill and talent of DuVernay, the assembled actors and crew. Also, the portrayal of other characters who played key roles in the events (James Bevel, Ralph Abernathy, Diane Nash, John Lewis and many others) is pivotal in telling the story to the audience that the events surrounding Selma weren’t just about MLK but were predicated on the common everyday men and women who said “Enough!” to second-class citizenship and discrimination which was at the time one of the many legal degradations manifested in whether one could register to vote or not.

selma_3199064a_3204264aIn the telling of the events of Selma, DuVernay presents a clear, focused lens on what people of that time and place were being subjected too and how they and their allies, who came in various hues from light to dark, were willing to sacrifice, fight, and die for their legal rights as U.S. citizens. How through non-violent protest and persistence, even the President of the country and a reluctant Congress, could do what was right and legal for ALL citizens. The fact that the some politicians of this country and so many citizens still harbor bigoted and biased attitudes towards anyone who is not like them, points to the need and power of films such as Selma and why it and many others are worthy of being made and seen. In that regard, DuVernay triumphs in “getting it done” and most definitely raises her profile as a director. She tells a story that needs to be told and skillfully presents a subject and events that many are not comfortable in being confronted with because it illustrates a time and people who willingly and joyfully indulged in a version of apartheid that is very home-grown. Viewing Selma brings saliency to that old adage: “If one does not remember their history, they are doomed to repeat it.”

~ T. Michael Ford (May 2015)

Copyright © 2015. T. Michael Ford. The text and any related information is the property of the author and may be used only with the expressed permission of the author. Any review, retransmission, copying, dissemination or other use of this material without the permission of the author by persons or entities other is prohibited.

Ford is the Special Assistant to the Vice President and Chief Financial Officer at Indiana University, and a lifelong cinephile.

Selma Released on Blu-Ray and DVD

Director Ava DuVernay’s highly acclaimed and widely celebrated film Selma has its Blu-Ray and DVD debut on May 5, 2015. Selma was nominated for numerous awards, including the Academy Award nomination for Best Motion Picture and Golden Globe nominations for Best Director for Motion Picture and Best Performance by an Actor in a Motion Picture, and won several awards including, both the Academy Award and the Golden Globe for Best Original Song for a motion picture for the song “Glory” featuring John Legend and Common. The film, which had a limited release date on December 25th, 2014 and was widely released on January 9, 2015, has had an overall Domestic Total Gross of$52, 076, 908 (Box Office Mojo). To say the least, Selma is an important film and there are several reasons to add this film to your personal home collection.

First, Selma had several well-known actors and actresses and some break-out stars that included but aren’t limited to: David Oyelowo, Oprah Winfrey, Stephan James, Cuba Gooding, Jr., Carmen Ejogo, Common, Trai Byers, Niecy Nash, and Tom Wilkinson. Each of these characters, and others in the film, fully embraced their roles and made the film that much more enjoyable because they made it real. I use the term enjoyable loosely however, as DuVernay was very unapologetic in the narrative she used to retell the devastating yet triumphant history of what took place in Selma, Alabama and the actors and actresses that she casted helped make the story come to life.

Second, DuVernay showed us things that we did not think we would, or maybe that we didn’t want to see relived in this film and some of the scenes were very heartbreaking, emotional, and unsettling. The retelling of major and minor historical events and facts throughout this film was significant to the storyline. One of the first scenes of the film retold the Ku Klux Klan’s bombing of the 16th Street Baptist Church explosion, which killed four little girls: Addie Mae Collins, Cynthia Wesley, Carole Robertson and Carol Denise McNair. AR-AI077_SELMA_P_20141210181614You would have to know the story and history of the four little girls to know that scene was about them, as it was not stated explicitly where they were nor who they were, as you witnessed the church exploding from the inside and images of school books and little white dress shoes soaring in the air with the rest of the debris, capturing the current racial climate and foretelling the struggle that would take place during the rest of the film. Another series of touching scenes was seeing the systematic techniques, fear and intimidation used to keep Oprah Winfrey’s character Annie Lee Cooper from being able to vote. While trying to register to vote, they asked Cooper to recite the preamble and a host of other unnecessary questions, showcasing the ridiculous illegal systematic tactics used to keep African Americans from voting. Scenes like these help audience members, especially those who may not be familiar, to understand the many pieces of the puzzle that led to planning a march for voting rights.

Finally, the film Selma highlighted the grassroots efforts of all involved and shed light on some of the tension and disagreement and compromise in strategizing to fight the illegal voting system. The film highlights the significant roles that youth and the members of SNCC (Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee) played, which included John Lewis (Stephan James), and how they were getting the community involved in demonstrations and informing them on the ground level in Selma before Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. arrived. DuVernay also included some of the tension that was inside of Dr. King’s home amongst him and his wife Coretta, played by Carmen Ejogo, concerning accusations of Dr. King having affairs with other women. The film also included a short scene with Malcom X, played by Nigel Thatch, where he is trying to show support for Dr. King, right before he is murdered, and speaks with Coretta to get her to understand that he wants to assist with the march to Montgomery.

ME-and-Ava-D.

DuVernay with Overby at BFC/A

Again, this is one movie to have certainly have in your collection. Ava DuVernay has already guaranteed one free copy to every high school in the United States and I think every school needs to have a copy. It is no secret that we support Ava DuVernay and her accomplishments, as she visited the Black Film Center/Archive in 2013 and truly left a great impression on us as several of her films and documentaries were screened. However, it is not just us who support DuVernay, it seems as if the world is acknowledging her work and she is an inspiration for many, which may be why just last month Barbie made an Ava DuVernay Doll. I leave with three words that resonated with me at the end of the film that were stated during one of the meetings for the march: Negotiate. Demonstrate. Resist.

~Katrina Overby

Overby is a PhD Candidate in the School of Journalism at Indiana University, the community service chair of the Black Graduate Student Association, and a graduate assistant at the Black Film Center/ Archive.


Black Film Center/Archive awarded 2015 NEH grant

From the IU Newsroom:

The Black Film Center/Archive at IU Bloomington received a $150,000 grant from the National Endowment for the Humanities to fund the project “Richard E. Norman and Race Filmmaking: Reprocessing and Digitization.”

The NEH has awarded $572,000 in grants to Indiana University in this current cycle, including more than $450,000 at the Bloomington campus.  Other projects receiving NEH funding at IU Bloomington include the Archives of Traditional Music, which was awarded $275,000 to digitally preserve one of the largest collections of unique ethnographic wax cylinders outside of the Library of Congress.

Poster for Richard E. Norman's lost final feature, BLACK GOLD.

Poster for Richard E. Norman’s lost final feature, BLACK GOLD.

Richard E. Norman project

The Black Film Center/Archive will produce a new finding aid for the collection of Richard E. Norman, a pioneer in development of films for African-American audiences. Project staff, working in partnership with IU Libraries Digital Collections Services, will enhance this online resource with over 20,000 digitized items from the archive.

“The Norman Collection constitutes a unique resource for the study of the formation of American cinema in general and the history of race films in particular,” said Michael T. Martin, director of the Black Film Center/Archive and a professor of American studies and of communication and culture in The Media School. “Arguably, of no less importance to both histories as the Lincoln Motion Picture Co. and Micheaux Picture Corp. are, this grant ensures the preservation and access of our Norman holdings for current and future generations of researchers, film historians and the public, as it will be to the teaching mission of Indiana University.”

In the early 1900s, Norman, a southern-born white filmmaker, was among a small group of so-called race filmmakers who set out to produce black-oriented pictures to counteract the racist caricatures that had dominated cinema from its inception.

Norman began his filmmaking career in the Midwest before relocating his Norman Film Studios to Jacksonville, Fla., where from 1919 to 1928 he produced silent feature films featuring leading black actors and actresses. He cast his actors in positive roles such as a banker, businessman and cowboy, and not in demeaning roles often given to African Americans by Hollywood. In his 1926 feature, “The Flying Ace,” he notably depicted an African-American pilot in the U.S. Armed Forces — an impossible career in reality for a black man until 1940.

Apart from short fragments, all but one of Norman’s films are now lost, making the collection at IU even more important. His lone surviving film, “The Flying Ace,” was restored by the Library of Congress in 2010 and screened at IU in 2013 as part of the “Regeneration in Digital Contexts: Early Black Film” conference. (Note: Full proceedings of that conference are available online here.)

Norman’s archive at IU — an extensive collection of his personal and professional correspondence, detailed theatrical distribution records, original shooting scripts and other records — is among the most important resources for the study of early African-American film and movie-going culture from 1912 to 1954. Norman ceased film production with the advent of the sound era, but he remained active in the motion picture industry as a distributor and owner of theaters.

“Since the 2013 publication of Barbara Tepa Lupack’s scholarly biography on Norman, we’ve seen a surge of research interest in Norman’s collection from scholars internationally,” said Brian Graney, archivist of the Black Film Center/Archive and principal investigator on the Norman project. “This support from NEH will greatly increase the discoverability of Norman’s records and make them readily available as digital resources for remote research and new forms of scholarship on African-American movie-going.”

The collection was donated by Norman’s son, Capt. Richard E. Norman Jr., to the Black Film Center/Archive under its founding director Phyllis Klotman, emeritus professor of African American and African diaspora studies, who died late last month.


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