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Why Aren't We Winning the Indie Movie Race?

Just a decade ago it felt like the indie movie scene could become a haven for multiculturalism. Now it's just as white as the blandest Hollywood studio. What happened?
 
 
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Several years ago, Spike Lee invited me to a private screening of an independent film he was exec-producing. The film featured a serious amount of drugs and guns and gold and car chases, and when it was over I turned to Spike and said something like, "Is that really the image of black America you want to contribute to this whole indie deal?"

He shrugged his shoulders, accentuating the action, or inaction, with his trademark-baiting smirk, and that was the end of that conversation.

Certainly Spike has paved the way for many black filmmakers and actors, but I assumed at the time, albeit naively, that his power engendered in him a sense of obligation to make the world a better place through movies -- a more integrated, inclusive and nuanced place.

Back then, the "indie deal" I was referring to was still vibing off She's Gotta Have It, Sex, Lies, and Videotape and Pulp Fiction. Beast of indie beauties Harvey Weinstein and his Miramax studio had only just started to become known for making the small independent and foreign films that studios refused to finance. There was still time. The possibility still existed for the whole "indie deal" to evolve into an amalgamated, diverse and interesting medium. In fact, it seemed the perfect opportunity for cool, smart, creative filmmakers from all cultural backgrounds to join together and kick Hollywood's slick, mainstream, tired white ass. Since then, however, we have all watched the independent film industry go from what it could have been to what it is -- a scrawnier, slick, mainstream, tired white ass.

And so it is with most independent films today -- the filmmakers, the casts, the content and the industry as a whole -- all are arrestingly white. It's as if white America assigned itself eminent domain on the industry. Not only white, of course, but predominantly male. Every possible variation of The White Guy is accounted for within the industry. The Hipster: Spike Jonze (Being John Malkovich); The Middle-Class Jersey Boy: Kevin Smith (Clerks, Chasing Amy); The Intellectual: Wes Anderson (Rushmore, The Royal Tenenbaums); The Wild Card: Harmony Korine (Gummo, Julien Donkey Boy); The Pretty Boy: Ed Burns (The Brothers McMullen, No Looking Back); The Dark Horse: Gus Van Sant (Five Ways to Kill Yourself, Drugstore Cowboy); The Elder: Steven Soderbergh (Sex, Lies, and Videotape), etc.

And then you have the chosen exotic delegates (which are by definition "other" and so therefore may be male or female) -- Sherman Alexie (representing all Native Americans everywhere), Mira Nair (representing all Indians worldwide), and Miguel Arteta (representing all Latinos, only, although not necessarily in his films). There are others, both women and men, who come up in any indie film conversation worth its salt -- Todd Solondz, Nicole Holfcener, Paul Thomas Anderson, Tom DiCillo, Doug Liman, Allison Anders, to name a few. Not a black face in the bunch. As Jakob my hair stylist quite reasonably demanded, to no one in particular, when he found out there was to be a movie version of Scooby Doo: "What is going on?"

"What's interesting to me," says filmmaker Jim McKay, director of Our Song, about three black teenage girls in Crown Heights, Brooklyn, and a man who has taken a considerable amount of guff for being a white filmmaker who makes films about black people, "is that a lot of filmmakers of color aren't really interested in being part of independent film." McKay notes that he knows a lot of talented black filmmakers who are more interested in making big studio films, and who want to get paid, too. "And I know why that happens," he says, "although I don't want to make the assumption that all filmmakers of color are underprivileged, as much as I don't want to make the assumption that all white filmmakers are privileged."

McKay, who admits to growing up firmly middle-class, funded his first film Girlstown entirely out of pocket and with credit cards. He maintains that the subjects of his films are born out of a genuine interest and not necessarily out of guilt ("that's for my therapist to figure out"), further suggesting that it's not up to black filmmakers alone to paint more racially inclusive stories. To wit: "I don't understand," says McKay, "how [white people] in this industry wake up every day and go to their jobs and don't feel guilty and horrible [about the lack of diversity depicted in film]."

The fact that there aren't any black faces in the independent film In Crowd isn't as bad -- although it's real close -- as the fact that there aren't any black faces in most independent films made by the independent film In Crowd, which begs the question: Do white filmmakers (those who are not Jim McKay) even think about it?

"I absolutely consider race when casting [a film], but only as one consideration among a host of others," said filmmaker Neil LaBute in an email exchange. "If the role is not color-specific, I give race very little merit in my thoughts. Then it's all about who is the best person for the job." LaBute, whose film career represents the indie dream arc -- discovered at Sundance, picked up by a big name distributor and the rest is gravy -- explained that there are other factors, too. "If you're directing something in a historical setting or based in fact," he said, "how can you not consider race when making a casting decision?"

Fair enough -- who could imagine a black person popping up in an A.S. Byatt novel?

Which, according to some black filmmakers, is exactly as it should be. Dream Hampton, whose short I Am Ali won kudos at Sundance 2002 and who is currently at work on her first feature, advocates a more purist approach. "I look at Woody Allen as one of the pioneers of independent filmmaking," says Hampton, "and while I resented his white-washing of New York, I found it even more troubling when he decided to include us." She points to the film Deconstructing Harry as an instance where Allen was apparently reacting to criticism for having created a New York where black people don't exist. "His solution to that was to include this, like, raunchy black prostitute." Hampton says that Allen's ostensibly good intentions merely made her realize just how segregated America is and will remain.

Hampton does not customarily promote black filmmakers telling only black stories and white filmmakers telling only white stories per se, and she understands that independent filmmakers, more than studio filmmakers, are going to be telling personal stories that reflect their own reality. "So," she says, "if your reality, Larry Clarke, is a bunch of white kids doing drugs and saying 'nigga' all day, then that's fine. That's your reality."

For Hampton, though, who was born and raised in Detroit following the riots of the late '60s and the subsequent white flight, her reality is and has always been exclusively black. "I guess Eminem would say the same thing, but whatever."

Scott Macaulay, an independent film producer and the editor of Filmmaker magazine, says that like Hollywood films, the subject and content of independent films boil down to marketing and distribution. "It's not just people of color who are not represented, it's political ideas, discussions of class. There are many ideas that are relevant to living in America every day that don't find their way into movies." Macaulay says that with independent films, even while there may be more artistic freedom than with a studio film, sometimes creating a more consciously integrated picture can hurt the film. For example, Raising Victor Vargas, the debut of white writer/director Peter Sollet, features an all-Latino cast, Macaulay, who is white and is one of the film's producers, says, "This film is about looking at a group of people with a degree of honesty about the way their lives are lived. I think the fact that there is not a white person in the cast is actually a potentially positive thing."

That may be, although it's important to note that a film featuring Latino culture elicits an entirely different response than a film featuring black culture. Race in America is at best an unfinished conversation between black people and white people; at worst a denied conversation between black people and white people. But do white independent filmmakers really have no black friends, like, at all? And when there are black characters in independent films, why are they consistently limited to being black? And why does it feel so much like a favor?

Michelle Byrd, Executive Director of IFP/New York, narrowed it down to more simple terms. "I think if you're in the minority, then you think about [race]. But if you're not, then you don't." In other words -- voices, images and experience that reflect my experience and, incidentally, Byrd's, are just plain irrelevant to most white independent filmmakers? Yes, perhaps, and while this election can't help but feel eminently exclusionary, it's not necessarily racist. Byrd, who says she often finds herself the only black person in professional circles, says it's not. "I don't think it has to do with racism, per se. I just don't think it's important [to white filmmakers]."

And then, of course, there's Quentin Tarantino, whose perception of black people and culture is so unequivocally narcissistic that it feels somehow iniquitous to award him further validation by looking for any sort of authoritative meaning in his relationship to race. As far as I can tell, the only independent filmmaker today who tells inclusive, unselfconscious, and fully representative stories, and has from the get go, is John Sayles, and I suspect that is because he is God.

Unavailable to be interviewed for this piece, Steven Soderbergh was quoted in another magazine last year as saying that he didn't like movies that "look down their noses." He said that there is a clear distinction between movies that do and movies that make people think, suggesting that the latter are the ones to make because, "at the end of the day, people are people and they do feel things and they do get hurt." Exactly.

Alas, maybe the whiteness of independent film, the lack of effort and the inherent privilege exercised by many white filmmaker, are just the fruits of human nature. "I think people are afraid," McKay concludes, "and that people have their way of doing things, and to break out of that is to make more of an effort than they are willing to make." In other words, apathy is a natural response to the secure ownership of culture and capital, no matter what race you are.

Rebecca Carroll is a Brooklyn-based writer and editor. Her latest nonfiction work, 'Kingdom of Our Culture: A Collective Memoir of Souls,' based loosely on 'The Souls of Black Folk by W.E.B. Du Bois,' will be published from Harlem Moon in January 2004.