As 41 million people tuned into the 82nd Academy Awards, a segment of viewers wondered whether history would be made that star-studded night. Lee Daniels, who helmed Precious, the brutally honest film about an emotionally scarred, sexually abused black teenager, was among the nominees for best director—a win would have made him the first African American to capture the coveted prize. When the envelope was opened, however, Kathryn Bigelow would achieve a milestone as the first woman to receive the honor for directing The Hurt Locker. (Geoffrey Fletcher, who wrote the film adaptation for Precious, would become the first African American to win an Oscar in the screenwriting category.)
An Academy Award is not the only accolade that eludes black filmmakers. Getting a film produced and distributed has become a rare event as well. Of the 558 feature films that were released in 2009, only eight were filmed by black directors. Two of them were creations from multifaceted powerhouse Tyler Perry.
Moreover, while blacks comprise roughly 13% of the U.S. population, the Director’s Guild of America reports that just 4% of its members are black. This scene is acting itself out at a time when Hollywood has produced an impressive performance: Despite the recession and a decline in DVD sales, 2009 box office receipts topped a record $10.6 billion in the U.S. and Canada, an increase of more than 10.1% compared with 2008.
While there have been some advances for blacks behind the scenes in Hollywood over the past decade, many still confront persistent barriers including a studio hierarchy in which no African American executive has power to green-light a film; the assumption that films featuring African Americans will not sell overseas; and the constant battle with major motion picture studios over production budgets, marketing dollars, and expansive distribution. “One of the biggest challenges is that there are not enough people inside the studio system that champion the stories black filmmakers want to tell,” says Zola Mashariki, senior vice president of production at Fox Searchlight Pictures, who advocates hiring more people of color in studio management positions.
Others argue African Americans must create their own means of distribution. “We need more African Americans with significant financial resources to partner with filmmakers in the marketing and distribution of independent black films,” asserts Jeff Friday, founder of the American Black Film Festival, which has provided a showcase for independent directors. In fact, Film Life, his distribution company, is launching the Pro Hollywood Initiative to help more independent filmmakers secure financing to release films. His goal: Create a capital pipeline by introducing 20 professional athletes to 20 filmmakers.
(Continued on page 2)