(Or, How The ” I Got The Hook-up Mentality” Is Killing Black Independent Filmmakers)
By Janks Morton
August 19, 2009
This evening I finally decided to set aside an evening to blog. It’s not that I don’t enjoy expressing myself through this venue; it’s just this one little obstacle I have to get over every time I sit down to hunt and peck at the keyboard (yep, never took a typing class)–I HATE WRITING! No exceptions, no quorums, lots of complaints, but at this stage in life, I’ve come to accept it as just one of those things.
Over the past couple of years my posts have devolved from social, artistic and political commentary, to a “cut, copy and paste” of interesting articles followed by some pretty weak one line zingers. And good lord help me since I’ve discovered re-tweeting on twitter. My seldom written and overreaching diatribes have been pretty much non-existent. Not to say I haven’t been busy shooting off at the mouth in pretty much any forum that would have me, but enough of the rambling and on to the story…
So this past weekend I was having a conversation with a dear friend of mine some of you may know. Lamar Tyler of BlackandMarriedwithKids.com is also an up and coming filmmaker and between his website and the film, is becoming a force to be reckoned with. Check out a sample of his work.
(I’m going to have to really keep my eye on him, his movie “Happily Ever After “just passed my film on AMAZON.com. My competitive streak is kicking in and I will win!) Well Saturday morning, early in the conversation, he proudly announced on the phone, “Man, we just passed 10,000 fans on our Facebook fan page today!” Point for celebration correct? Maybe. In a very cynical tone my follow-up question to this moment of reserved jubilee was. “So how’s the DVD sales going?’ After a downturn of his emotions and a slight pause, Lamar said “…..well” at this juncture…” I interjected and saved him from having to express his frustrations and finished his sentence with “Yeah, you know how we do…”And therein lies the premise of this blog and the ongoing saga of the trials and tribulations of independent filmmaking.
The back story and underlying support for this blazing generalization of “you know how we do” are two fold, and while I have a lifetime of experience and perceptions to assert this negative stereotype, I will reference two recent incidents to make my point.
Incident #1: After a stirring and heart-felt presentation at a very large mega church in Prince George’s County Maryland (a suburb of Washington, DC), a fine and upstanding member of the highly visible law enforcement division, walks up to me with the following statement. “Brother (I immediately begin to wonder if I paid those 4 parking tickets), I just wanted to say that your documentary and presentation is one of the most important messages I have ever seen, and the DVD would be a valuable resource for the young men we work with.” (Whew!) The officer continued and asked: “Would you mind if I burned a couple of copies for some of my team members so they can use them at their respective facilities?” Hopefully you can hear the sound of tires screeching in my head, or that scratching noise old record needles use to make. And while the proper english, and professional demeanor of this gentleman was impressive, the logic seemed to escape me.
Fortunately I no longer swear in public because in my mind something along the lines of “Motherf%#@, don’t yawl arrest people for that stuff ?” (Feel free to insert your curse word of preference anywhere in the previous sentence). Considering we were in church and he was carrying a firearm, I simply replied: “C’mon brother, I ain’t got Sony pictures behind me, it’s just me, so can you….” As I was speaking I could see the look of, “Oh yeah, yeah, yeah, yeah” coming across his face as to have an epiphany and close the conversation with “Oh dag, my bad.”
Incident #2: This past weekend at another church another heart-felt, passionate member began to speak. This was right after I was trying to compose myself. (My session on the topic of forgiveness almost always brings me to tears.) Now I just delivered an inspiring message to about 100 members and had one of the best home cooked sausage eggs and home fry deals I’ve had since I’ve been on tour. I don’t want to give a “purchase product” lecture after just had a free meal, a free movie screening and a free sermon. During the Q&A segment, a brother stands up in front of everyone and says: “Brother, I love what you have put together here. I got this (so and so) hook up in Chicago, with these brothers that are doing (such and such). Can I burn a copy of this to send to them to help you out?
I stopped and looked out into the audience. The audience members looked at me. I grinned, tilted my head with a “deer stuck in the headlights look,” and replied “Are you kidding me?” Once again, good fortune prevailed. The audience was amused, and the gentleman made sure to come after the program and apologize profusely about his error, and of course I replied, “It’s cool, you know how we do…”
So back to my conversation with Lamar. Several days prior I realized that between all the YouTube, MySpace, FaceBook and other web outlets, I have over 500,000 views of my videos, and God only knows how many hits to the BlackPlanet, Washington Post, CNN and all that other stuff out there. “Man if I could just get 10% of these fans to buy the DVD I would be straight!” stresses Lamar. My final reply was “Man, if I just had one dollar from just the views on the PSA it would be over. I would be set.”
“But you know cuz, it’s just the way it is. you know how we do…”” I continued. Black people, you gotta love ‘em, but we missed the memo that seems to be circulating amongst a lot of other groups throughout this country. I hate to play the whole slavery card, and the subsequent socialization process of making something out of nothing, however on the topic of the intrinsic value of supportive commercewe seem to miss connecting all the dots. “I’ve been thinking about writing a blog about this for a very long time but it’s such a touchy subject and a very fine line to walk, I think it could tick more people off than inspire” was how I finished the conversation with Lamar.
So at this juncture I’ll do what it is I always do, provide a couple of case studies for your amusment. Exhibit A. that dog gone Jeff Foxworthy (or the Caucasian version of the chittlin circuit). This dude basically drops these series of stand up comdeianic self deprecating, culture denigrating narratives, that are so uniquely, well, redneck, I have difficulty following the humor most times. It took me two whole days to catch this joke about matching salad bowls and cool whip containers, but I digress. My point, self-described rednecks ate that stuff up, and the intrinsic value of supportive commerce we began to kick in. In other words, they began to support their own through purchases, word of mouth and other mechanisms. The other examples I would defer to would be Van Halen, Master P, and MC Hammer, but want to use them as a point of differentiation because they are musical entertainment (one of the few durable goods you’re allowed to consume, entirely, prior to purchase). Point being, that these acts probably were supported by as little as 20,000 followers at the time of their “big record deals” and commanded high percentages and millions at the table.
I’ll closed out with my other, not so favorite Tyler (Perry), and how long he was on the scene as a playwright in the church circuit before he got any type of nod from Lionsgate. Both Lamar and I use a documentary style format to advance socio-political-spiritual ideologues, i.e. restoration of black families, or positive images of healthy black marriages, and while it may not be as dramatic as say, a grown man in a dress going to another family reunion, with the latest gospel track kicking at the climax, our works are actually capturing the heart, mind and souls of what is happening today in our community, and hopefully, about a 100 years from now, these films can truly be looked upon as documenting what the deal really was from our own lenses.
So what’s all the fuss about? What’s to stop us from continuing along our respective paths?
Let me give you insight to the world many of independent filmmakers live. Tim Alexander, Eric McKay, Andrea Wiley and a whole slew of “up and comers” are doing some things absolutely groundbreaking, totally unheard of, and by Hollywood’s standards, a little bit crazy.
What we do is pay for our own stuff. No backers, no financing, no grants, no foundations, just us. I think the challenge is making the general public understand what goes on behind the scenes to take on these efforts. The blood,the sweat and the tears I have seen most of us go through in order to deliver a quality product to market. I’ve seen 2nd mortgages, foreclosures, pawning of cameras, bankruptcies, and a slew of financial worries, to make most thankful for their 9 to 5’s. Hell I’ve even had to start plucking more gray hairs monthly because of these endeavors. And please let us NOT begin the narrative of early morning chest pains that jump up until that first cup of coffee.
My point, you may ask again? You gotta love my people to do what we do. We all have always heard the clarion call of support our own. From the Black Buying Boycott day (still ticked at whoever came up with that idea, zero units sold for 2 days on AMAZON) to the Black Shopping Network, to the “I’m down for supporting Black products, Brother (fist raised) ” I meet no matter what city I’m in. The challenge is that more often than not, our attitudes just don’t seem to translate into actions when it comes to specific independent efforts outside of music. I know probably one of the greatest spoken word poets ever in Taalam Acey.
If talent equated to compensation for your efforts, this man would make Donald Trump look poor. Gary Johnson, of BlackMenInAmerica.com and author of book “25 Things That Really Matter In Life,” an inspiring book, should be part of your daily read for like a year. And finally Lamar Tyler with his 10,000 fans on FaceBook. What do we all have in common? All struggling to keep the electricity on, thinking about disconnecting the phone lines because of that HELOC loan that slipped behind, or dang, “If I could just manage to get 20 of the 100 people at this event to understand if they loved this so much, and you want to see more of it, you kind of have to buy something to support it.”
I know this is touchy with us, and I KNOW HOW WE DO, with that being said, I wanted to give anyone out their some direction around this whole deal; in the Jerry McGuire diatribe of “help me, help you”. This is a tough line to walk, I don’t want to instill guilt to manipulate. I don’t want to appear to be grumpy and definitely don’t want to seem like we’re begging. With that being said, here’s a stab at a specific course of action that will ensure that this art form doesn’t turn into, well, MC HAMMER, here today, gone tomorrow, and back in 20 years.
In bullet points, and summary:
- While you may see us on CNN, CSPAN or any MSN outlet, I have never met an independent (non-major studio associated) artist who is just out right looted.
- Most of us out here are self-financed in debt up to our necks and struggling to continue to advance this medium.
- We love what we do, and if everything was right with the world we would do it for free.
- We all are probably as guilty as the next guy of the “hook a brother up mentality,” by lifting free cable, downloading from Napster, or coping a bootleg at the barbershop. (Now I’m feeling guilty ~ sorry all of you 80’s stars like D-Train)
- I know right is right and wrong is wrong, and this instance, we need a “do the right thing mentality”. To sustain the lifeline of an emerging and necessary outlet, help us break the stranglehold that studios, networks and MSM have about the necks of the black community, this includes you Blacks Embarrassing Themselves.
- Please support your local independent filmmakers by more than kind words on a twitter entry. While we love and appreciate the encouragement, really hook a brother up, BUY the dag gone movie. And if you’re feeling super generous, send a dollar! Really it’s a simple best bit of encouragement we can get.
- And instead of burning a copy for your boys, please insists that your friends get their own.
- And if you really want to help us out, send out one of those emails that says “if you don’t forward this to all of your email friends, you’ll have seven years bad luck, and your dog is going to get measles.
Thanks, we love you, and truly appreciate the hook-up.
About the Author: Janks Morton is an award winning and critically acclaimed filmmaker responsible for bringing us “What Black Men Think,” and Men II Boys, two of the most talked about documentaries of the past two decades.