I recently had the pleasure of checking off a bucket list item: attending the SXSW Film Festival! It was my first time in Austin and everyone I met was amazingly nice (not to mention the excellent BBQ I enjoyed). I saw unique, engaging films featuring people of color and/or women, graciously received autographs from two black female directors, got tons of advice at various panels on writing and film finance, and, I pitched both of my short screenplays to an industry veteran. Most of all, I connected with several peers – we ALL have stories we want to tell and are making our way as best we can. So here’s the run down on my time at South by Southwest!
I saw several, but here are a few I think our readership will be interested in:
Honeytrap -“How DBRs Corrupt Young Black Girls”
Honeytrap, while fictional, was developed from a true story out of Brixton in the U.K. Many people will focus on the crime element of the story, but what I found most interesting was how this sweet, naïve outside girl desiring to fit in, was brutally exploited by an attractive, DBR, local rapper piece of crap. She had ZERO guidance from her dysfunctional family to prepare her for such users.
T-Rex – “Before Boxing, My Goal was to Have Ten Kids by the Time I was 26”
Are you familiar with the story of Claressa “T-Rex” Shields? From a struggling family in Flint, Michigan, she started boxing at the age of 11 and eventually entered the 2012 Olympics. While watching her physical prowess in demolishing her competitors was amazing, what caught my ear was her discussion of goals before/after she experienced boxing success. Coming from such a broken family, full of abuse and dysfunction, as a child she thought the only achievement within reach was having as many kids as possible, as soon as possible. But the structure of sports and self-affirming boost that she was very good at something, really opened up her world. She is a poised, articulate, smart young woman.
Ktown Cowboys is based on a popular web series of the same name from a few years ago. For me, the film was a lovely introduction to Korean-American culture. I’d never heard of host rooms, booking or “Oppa!” It was an entertaining watch, set against the real struggles of growing into the responsibilities of adulthood, amid a culture of very high expectations (that are enforced with physical discipline no matter how old you are). I think our K-pop fans will enjoy this film.
Oh yes, I had to see my boo thing Mr. Gosling discuss his new film, Lost River, which is the first film he’s directed. I couldn’t get into the panel but watched live in a satellite room. SXSW couldn’t have picked a better person to interview him than Guillermo del Toro. Besides giving him grief over the whole ‘Hey Girl’ meme, Guillermo asked Ryan a lot about the creative process of bringing his vision to the screen.
I can only say that Lost River sounds fantastically weird.
Having learned my lesson the day before with Ryan Gosling, I made sure to line up early to see the fabulous Ava Duvernay. While in line, I had the voyeuristic pleasure of watching a WM and BW make a connection. She yawned a couple of times and he offered to go get her coffee so she wouldn’t have to get out of place. He lived in NY, she in DC. She was a film critic and I think he was a journalist. They chatted away the rest of the time we were in line.
Now, onto Ava. Her speech was simply divine. Here’s her entire speech but I especially want to point out a few nuggets.
She talked about the struggles of bringing stories featuring black women to the screen. Her first film, I Will Follow, she made using $50k of her own money. Her next film, Middle of Nowhere, was made for $200k and it got into Sundance. Then, after six other directors passed, she was offered Selma. In reading the script, she noticed that black women were completely absent from the story. She promptly wrote in more prominent scenes featuring Coretta Scott King and Diane Nash, among other women. This is why it is important to have women in positions of power on films – anyone remember the Red Tails debaucle?
What I loved most was Ava’s emphasis on the power of your dreams to inspire others. In her words, “If your dream is just about you, it’s too small.” She shared how her approach changed from her first two films in frantically trying to garner as many accolades as possible, to just focusing on delivering a compelling story for Selma regardless of the outcome. The result: a Best Picture Oscar nomination for Selma, something she had no conception of whatsoever while filming.
Ava’s next two projects are in television. She shot a new TV show for OWN last summer and is now filming the pilot, For Justice, starring Anika Noni-Rose as an FBI agent who leads investigations of civil rights cases.
I absolutely adore Gina. Her life story of perseverance really speaks to me. She was adopted into a white family and grew up in a small California town in the ‘70s where she experienced overt racism and saw NO positive images of black women. By high school, she’d become quite depressed with little sense of self-worth. Then, she saw She’s Gotta Have It and discovered the world of film. Despite experiencing rejection after rejection, she went to film school, then became a writing assistant for A Different World and eventually wrote and directed her iconic film, Love and Basketball.
As a writer-director of four films now, Gina emphasized her personal commitment to deliver films with strong female leads who own their own stories. She also discussed how important chemistry was in her films, specifically regarding her decision not to make Beyond the Lights an interracial love story against the initial studio’s wishes. As a director, she’s seen the gold when the chemistry is there (i.e. Love and Basketball – Sanaa Lathan and Omar Epps were secretly dating in real life during that film) and the horrors when it isn’t (apparently Sanaa Lathan and Wesley Snipes had a nightmarish time while filming Disappearing Acts).
She knew Gugu Mbatha-Raw and Nate Parker would pair really well but unfortunately that then caused the film to be pigeon holed as a ‘black film.’ She mentioned other films that have tried to bypass the “black film” label by making the love story interracial but the chemistry didn’t seem as authentic and the film’s performance suffered. Her favorite romance film is The Notebook and she doesn’t think of it as a ‘white film’ but simply Ryan and Rachel being awesome together.
I’d like to remind everyone to check out Beyond the Lights, which is now on DVD. It addresses the hypersexualization of black women in the media, a subject we’ve discussed on this blog numerous times.
I’d just left a workshop on the process of musically scoring films (led by some hot Brazilian guys) to get in line to hear the House of Cards creator discuss his writing process. While in line, I ended up chatting with a Swiss director who just relocated to New York to work on a film that was partially financed. Anyhow, Beau Willimon shared a lot on the detail that goes into creating a TV series, season after season. In answering a question about character diversity (House of Cards has several “strong” female characters), he shared something that echoes what I’ve been saying on this blog for a couple of years now. For years, in order to make TV shows appear “diverse,” studios encouraged supporting or guest spots to go to minority actors, i.e. having a Black judge. But, those characters have little agency of their own and are unflawed, so it sets up unrealistic expectations.
United Talent Agency
UTA is a humongous Hollywood agency that represents actors, directors, etc. They hosted a panel on film finance and distribution which detailed the money it takes to A) make a film and B) get it shown, hopefully to the masses. I won’t bore you with the details but one thing I will share is this: a key pipeline for getting independent films distributed is through film festivals. The major studios and talent agencies send representatives to the film festivals to find new talent and acquire films. Everyone with vested interest in the image of black women should be attending film festivals and supporting positive projects featuring BW. Unfortunately, many never wind up seeing the light of day due to poor exposure.
Overall, I had a lovely time and met SO many people in the industry. Most of all, as a movie lover, I saw some amazing films. I also got great feedback on my project, entitled The 64,000, which I wrote to bring awareness to the large number of “silently missing” black women in America. The industry mentor I met with thought it would make a great TV series (there are A LOT of TV resources right now) so I am working on adapting it into a TV pilot, as well as preparing to enter it as currently written in a few short screenplay contests. Here’s a bit about it: A reporter risks her career to confront society in a desperate bid to solve the disappearance of her sister.