Monday, June 12, 2017

Faith and Film: Part II

There was something in seeing that Black Panther trailer that caused a fire to rise up in me again. Something that made my eyes burn with tears and heart swell with pride. Yeah, it could have been the Boseman-Coogler combo or Angela Bassett giving us all of the life in the world for the 0.2 seconds she was on screen.  But I think it’s deeper, bigger even. I’ll say it again for the people in the back: representation is so important. If we stop at visual images, the work is unfinished. We must create and demand thoughtful, complex, and diverse representations of our Black spectrum. And something in me believes that Black Panther is going to do that. It just has to. 

So what exactly does this have to do with faith? I’m glad you asked, you committed and diligent reader, you! If you haven’t already checked out Part I of this post, you should do that. If you haven’t, shame on you! Pull the lever, Kronk!

There’s grace for that…

Let’s recap: Genesis 1:27 says, “… God created mankind in his own image, in the image of God he created them; male and female he created them.” A new understanding of this verse changed my entire perspective on who I am as a Christian and artist (did you know you can be both? Wowza!) It’s good news; it’s gospel; it’s something that everyone deserves to hear, experience, and believe. And with my little camera and my hard drive full of scripts, that is exactly what I intend to do. A nice little cycle, ain’t it? 

Art is a reflection of God The Creator. But you can’t just make things in some big cosmic void...well, I mean you could, but I’m not. In case you didn’t know, there's literally a Struggle happening and I don’t have time for that. I have to approach this goal with intense specificity. That’s where the “image” part of this scripture comes into play. What do those images look like? Well, for me they're Black, Black, Black, oh so dark, and Black. Let me explain. 

 Keep reading to verse 28 and you’ll find this: “God blessed them and said to them, 'Be fruitful and increase in number; fill the earth and subdue it. Rule over the fish in the sea and the birds in the sky and over every living creature that moves on the ground.’” Scholars call this the Cultural Mandate, meaning that from the beginning, God intended for the earth to be filled with people, whom he loves and values. I’m no biologist, but because of things like climate and geography, in order for humans to survive, different types of people with different traits and practices had to develop over time. As a result, a diversity of cultures was born. Ta da. This wasn’t an accident; God knew that this was going to happen. Culture is a part of God’s plan--Blackness is a part of God’s plan. (How’s that for a Sunday School Lesson?)

Black people are made in the image of God. But how many of us live like that’s the truth? Some people don’t even know that it is. And I mean, how can we blame them? In textbooks our history starts with “yessuh massa,” moves to “We Shall Overcome” brought to you in part by your local white savior, and ends somewhere around Regan telling us to “just say no.” We are intentionally conditioned to believe that we are inferior. America and much of the Western world was built on this principle and on the backs of African peoples. If you think something’s racist 9/10 times (let’s be real, 15/10 times) it is. (Oh. You didn’t know I was a conspiracy theorist? Well now you know. The Lord is working on me). This system THRIVES on the subservience of our people and the media only fuels that. I don’t know about you, but I don’t think that lines up with who God told us we were in Genesis. He made us fearfully, wonderfully, and on purpose. We’re so much more than this world would lead us to believe, y’all. We are dancers, doctors, lovers, poets, philosophers, fathers, freedom fighters—we bear the image of God in so many beautiful and diverse ways. 

Art, films in my case, help to remind us of this holy truth. Disagree with me if you want, but I really believe that thoughtful depictions of our people help to carry out God’s plan. So, that’s what I am trying to do, create deeper, wider, and more thoughtful depictions of Black people and Black experiences. 

I found that who I am as a Christian, artist, and Black woman only makes sense in the Kingdom of God. Like I said before, I didn’t always know that. It's been a journey, especially over the past three years. A real turning point came for me in an unlikely package, the most sincere blond-haired, blue-eyed white guy that you will ever meet. After seeing a play that I produced and directed that basically digs into what it means to be Black (Black Monologues stand up!), he wrote a letter to the cast and me explaining how he saw God and His glory through the work. I love the writing, directing, and bonding that goes into creating this production. But that’s all I ever wanted—for people to see God and know Jesus. Thanks, Bradford. 

I’m gonna keep listening to God, but for now, I think that I'm supposed remind my people that we are made in God’s image through art. If I’m being honest, I don’t think that this message only has to be carried out through super Christian-y, churchy, worshipful-looking films. I find this message in Selma, Fruitvale Station, Daddy’s Little Girls, and even in Do The Right Thing. The list goes on and I’m trying to write the next one. One day. In His timing. God will create the image that he wants to see. He will equip me with words and characters that reflect the breadth of his being. I am committed to making art for, by, and about my people, not independently, but completely dependent on God. 

Saturday, June 10, 2017

Faith and Film: Part I

Don’t worry, this isn’t going to be about another Woman Thou Art Loosed sequel or a remake of God’s Not Dead, featuring Amadla Stenberg (Please no. Never.) But you will have to endure a dramatic opening story. You’ll be fine. 

 When I was headed to college, I had an interview with a local scholarship committee (no, I will not give you the tea.)  During that interview, one of the committee members asked me what I wanted to do with my degree (because that happens literally every time I tell someone my majors). I told her that I wanted to be a screenwriter. Her response: “Well, that’s no career for a Christian girl.” **Diane from Blackish gasp** As much as I wanted to have some quick-witted and effortlessly shady response, I just didn’t have one. I was “shook,” as the young folks say. So this dream isn’t part of God’s plan? God’s kingdom and Hollywood could never collide? Okay. I’m done with the metaphors—but I’m taking notes for my auto-biopic, so can y’all just let me be extra? 

Fast forward to my first year of college. I was going to church regularly, taking theater class, and studying and protesting for my people. Sounds good, right? All of these things are great, but not when the things that you love require you to exist as three different people. Making art, being a Black woman, and being a Christian were three very separate identities for me. I didn’t see how all of these things could fit together in one person. That’s tiring. That’s toxic. That’s like a never ending cycle of Comedy-of-Errors-esq quick changes. 

It wasn’t until I became involved with my campus ministry and was challenged to take ownership of my faith that who I was, who I was becoming, started to make sense to me. I had to backtrack all the way to passages in Genesis to be reminded of who God already told me I was from the jump. "So God created mankind in his own image, in the image of God he created them; Male and female he created them.” Genesis 1:27. I realized that I’d glazed over what would become the foundational scripture for my artistic practice.  As a filmmaker/playwright/person who makes things, I literally have an opportunity to show the world a part of who God is. This is a way to carry out His plan. Creation is a direct reflection of the Creator. I am out here trying to write worlds into existence. God already did that and all he had to do was say it. Boss. 

So how do I put this into practice? Where could I exercise this renewed faith practically? It really hit me during my first cinematography class. 

I love theatre with my entire heart and soul, every fiber of my being, yada yada yada. I really do. Here’s the thing: theatre is immediate—it is in the moment, it is live. I think that that immediacy is where a lot of its power lies. Reality and imagination are playing out in real time and you can’t escape. Coming of age in a town of thespians, this became my life. This is where I was rooted and started to find my way as an artist. Sure, as a playwright I’ve gotta wait sometimes to actually hear my words out loud, but after a reading, I’m able to get a pretty good idea of what is and isn’t going to work and can going from there. I get quick affirmation. The immediacy is comfortable. 

So while theatre is a place of safety, film is an exercise of faith for me, in both big and small ways. In my cinematography class (read: cult) we shoot 16mm film on Bolexes. Translation: we make movies out of old-fashioned film with even more old-fashioned cameras. You load the film into the camera and follow a lot of very particular steps to make sure that you’re letting the right amount of light into the camera and that the image is in focus.  The point of this is to make sure that your film is exposed properly. See, unlike digital cameras, there’s no LCD screen showing you what you’re shooting. The viewfinder isn’t even reliable. You have to carefully follow all of the steps and make creative decisions without even knowing what your footage is going to look like until you’ve spent seventy bucks getting it processed.

Do you see where I’m going with this? If shooting film isn’t an exercise of faith, I don’t know what is. As I grow as a filmmaker I am continually repeating this practice, drilling this discipline into my brain, and more importantly, into my heart. There is so much room for error in shooting film, leaving even more room for anxiety and worry. But wait! There’s a scripture for that, too: "Do not be anxious about anything, but in every situation, by prayer and petition, with thanksgiving, present your requests to God. And the peace of God, which transcends all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus.” Philippians 4:6-7. 

This doesn’t stop at cameras for me. It’s in writing, it’s in editing, it’s in showing my work. Bigger picture: I am entering a field that doesn’t provide newcomers with a clearly charted path (other than being a sits-in-coffee-shops-with-Celtx-open-cliché. I do that SO well.) I know what I want to become, but how do I get there? Making sure that I cross my i’s and dot my t’s is a part of the process, but if I stop there, then that’s reliance on self. I’ve gotta add active faith to the mix—doing my very best and trusting that God will take it from there. If you don’t know Christ, I know that sounds completely insane, passive even. But if you’d let me, I want to introduce you to the God that makes art. He changes my life every single day. 

So, I guess you can call this a testimony. And if it is, it’s the kind that I like to hear. The one’s that say the Lord is lit, but he isn’t done. We’re still plugging away together. Yes, I’m putting in the work, but honestly I don’t know what comes next. I’m learning (asterisks, star, underline!) to be okay with that. What I do know is that I dream of being a filmmaker and that I’m lucky enough to know a God who is bigger than those dreams. 

Honestly, name a better “career for a Christian girl.” I’ll wait. Actually, no I won’t, because I’m not trying to become a Grace Greenleaf preacher. 

P.S. This covers the Christian and artists parts of my once multiple personality triangle. Stay tuned for the Black part…my favorite part of any cast. 

Friday, September 16, 2016

Ride On (Get On The Bus, 1996)

So I’m taking this class called “Wake Up!: The Films of Spike Lee.” Both African-American Studies and film theory? Sounds lit, right? Wrong. It is thoroughly lit. On the first day I had one of those moments where you sit back and think, “Yeah…this is what I wanna do.” Say what you will, but I am perfectly fine basking in my corny glory. So far, we’ve watched She’s Gotta Have It, Joe’s Bed-Stuy Barber Shop, Do The Right Thing and, if you haven’t already figured it out from the title, Get On The Bus.

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I definitely went into this film with a high intellectual expectation, partly because I’m trying to stay woke (both literally and figuratively—this was another 8am dining hall experience), partly because I have a certain expectation from Lee’s films, and partly because I feel like the subject of the Million Man March shouldn’t be approached lightly. This film was made soon after the event took place, so the idea of criticism must have been very real. This was a direct response to a political moment—Lee and Bythewood must have been trying to say something! So what were they saying?

Well, before I get to class, I’ll throw some of my own thoughts out there:

This film was beautiful; it was complex; it was funny. It was a classic road-film that pulled at heartstrings, but at the same time required me to remain alert and be intellectually engaged. Get on the Bus is collage of Black men with diverse histories, outlooks, and personalities, all going towards (arguably) the same goal—they were traveling to the 1995 Million Man March in Washington, DC from Los Angeles…on a bus—the themes of continuity, moving forward, and togetherness are screaming at you. The tradition of African-American migration narratives is loudly whispering. 

What surprised me about this film was its strong focus on Christianity, especially by the end of it. With such a diverse (or seemingly diverse by some perspectives) group of characters, I didn’t expect for there to be a strong moral or religious leaning in one particular direction, especially not Christianity, considering the Million Man March was a Nation of Islam initiative. As just a film viewer (scholar? can I call myself that?) the choice seemed a bit odd in conjunction with the “everyone’s voice is important except Black Republican car dealers” leanings of the film. But as a Black Christian film viewer, I found it to be a really nice interpretation of God as a solution to the problem. Let’s be honest, Christian films tend to just not be that great. You were thinking it; I said it. You’re welcome. So I loved seeing a Christian worldview smoothly integrated into the plot, especially through character development. It wasn’t corny or condemning—it was rich and subtle at the same time. However, that subtlety came to a halt when I heard Kirk Franklin’s “My Life is in Your Hands” over the credits. Nostalgia.

 I also don’t think that it tried too hard to discuss this Christian perspective. It presented God as a solution to the many problems presented over the course of the film. To be fair, Ossie Davis’ voice can make anything sound like it’s the right answer. Well played, Spike. Well played. With that said, the Christian undertones didn’t seem to be dismissive. A lot of perspectives were presented and validated over the 3,000-mile road trip. I think that the prayer at the end was meant to unify the brothers both in form and in the context of the story itself. But in order for that to be an effective story device, the characters and all of their beliefs, quirks, and mistakes have to be presented as things that are worth unifying. Even Robert Guevere Smith’s character, who I’m till salty about. So it seems to me that the intention behind the use of Christianity might have pointed more towards the idea of the Black Church being a longstanding pillar in the African-American community through slavery, the Civil Rights Movement, and beyond, than towards it being the “right answer.” But I can dig both potential intentions, so I’ll just end this paragraph with an amen.

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I wasn’t really bothered by the absence of Black women in this film until Black women appeared on the screen. Kudos to the filmmakers for addressing questions about women’s roles in the Movement. But dang, did you really have to reduce our views and contributions to a rest stop. Really? It’s not like we haven’t been holding down the fort for oh, I don’t know, the last century. This film would have benefited from just being what it was—an exploration of the Black man and his role in our community and struggle for freedom. It tried to be a coverall and failed. Honestly, I wouldn’t have even been mad if we never saw a woman in the entire film. I’m a big believer in letting a story be what it is. When you write a thesis (y’all can get a head start on praying for my fourth year), you pick a very specific subject and explore that subject in depth with strict focus. The same idea applies here. This is like inserting Bugs Bunny into an episode of the Proud Family. I do also think that these and other flaws allow us to retrospectively examine the mindset of thinkers during this moment. Although annoying, maybe this is a learning opportunity. 

Visually, Get on the Bus was beautiful and very telling. The film made use of different mediums, creating a collage that was distinctly Lee and pushed viewers to consider what we are viewing beyond the scope of the story itself. For example, there were moments that pointed to cinéma vérité, when Xavier was recording footage for his documentary. I think that emphasized the reality and recentness of the Million Man March and allowed us to consider the character’s statements in a more academic way, shedding light on ideas that they expressed later in the film. We also saw a visual deviation from expected color balances during a few times that the men were not on the bus—this scenes were shot lake a western. This emphasized the idea of “man vs. environment.” Even though most, if not all of these men didn’t grow up in the Wild West (insert Kansas joke here), we find that many of them are products of their environments. I think that my favorite aspect of this film was the piecing together of different color pallets and camera perspectives. We moved from being a part of the story to being observers of the story constantly. That kept me on my toes and directed me towards themes that I might otherwise have missed. Also, I honestly just feel cooler when I watch films that look experimental. 

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The writing is really rich. The bickering and back and forth between the passengers is witty and playful and realistic. At the same time, Reggie Rock Bythewood was spitting bars every 2.4 seconds. He succeeded both in form as a screenwriter and in thought as a Black intellectual. He was getting his Langston Hughes and W.E.B. DuBois on at the same time (check out DuBois’ “Critera of Negro Art” and Hughes’ “The Negro Artist and The Racial Mountain,” if you’re not sure what I’m talking about). Byethewood achieved what I hope to achieve as an artist. 

This star-studded cast was enough to keep me interested. Roger Guenever Smith, Bernie Mac, Hill Harper, Ossie Davis, and Stacy from The Wood…whose real name is De’Aundre Bonds. You learn something new everyday. With these and so many other great names and faces, the acting was able to support the story. It was—what do the young people say?—on fleek. Can we please get a Black male ensemble of this caliber sometime during this decade? Does Redtails count?

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Like I mentioned before, I think that the fact that this film was released exactly a year after the Million Man March is significant. Its existence in a contemporary moment probably had an effect on the way that people viewed and thought about the film. So I keep asking myself, what would a film like that look like today? Where would we be heading, the 20th anniversary of the March, a Black Lives Matter Rally, nowhere at all? Would the characters be similar or completely different? I don’t know, but I think that, flaws and all, every generation needs a film like this. When is ours going to come? Who knows, maybe I’ll be the one to write it...