ABFF 2013: Spike Lee and Salli Richardson-Whitfield Talk Realities of Black Hollywood

Legendar film director Spike Lee and actress Salli Richardson-Whitfield discuss the challenges in black Hollywood at the 2013 ABFF. (Photo Credit: Wison Morales)

Legendar film director Spike Lee and actress Salli Richardson-Whitfield discuss the challenges in black Hollywood at the 2013 ABFF.
(Photo Credit: Wison Morales)

The 17th Annual Black American Film Festival (June 19-23) held court in Miami with star-studded appearances, movie premieres and parties with a who’s who of Black Hollywood icons, newcomers and festival patrons from all over the country.

Founded by Jeff Friday, CEO of The Film Life, ABFF has transformed into one of the most acclaimed film festivals and destination weekends in the world showcasing the work and passion of emerging actors, directors, writers, producers – and now even comedians, who travel far and wide to make connections, pitch a project or be discovered.  For many it’s about meeting the right person or talking to the right people to make that happen.

In addition to the master classes, poolside networking and red carpet affairs, perhaps the most provocative conversations took place at host hotel Ritz Carlton during the candid yet intimate panel sessions with film industry heavyweights baring their souls to intrigued pass holders – sharing never heard before challenges, experiences and advice along their paths to success.

And when a real talk discussion involves the likes of legendary director and avid Knicks fan Spike Lee (who by the way candidly expressed he “didn’t care who won” the NBA finals) the term no filter takes on a whole new meaning.  For those who attended “The Artist’s Vision:  Cultural Criticism and the Filmmaker’s Voice” panel, Lee and his fellow peers delivered transparent perspectives on a host of issues surrounding the perceptions and realities faced by Black Hollywood.

Joined by actress Salli Richardson-Whitfield, award winning casting director Kim Hardin and the hilariously outspoken writer-director David E. Talbert, the four panelists were led by moderator Dr. Michele Prettyman Beverly.

Following rousing introductions and a standing ovation for Do The Right Thing’s proverbial straight shooter, Lee wasted no time stirring the pot by responding to media observations such as the New York Times for highlighting the so-called renaissance of Black Cinema. “We always have these moments every ten years” said Lee.  “Then it’s barren and dry.  We need more moments, sustainable moments.  I’m tired of (expletive) moments…let’s keep it going.”  It’s the “same article” just the “names are different.”

Salli Richardson-Whitfield added that in addition to maintaining a consistent presence in the marketplace it is also the responsibility for certain black talent in particular to do more.  “We as a people have to elevate our taste.”  Talbert, who’s new film Baggage Claim which features a bevy of notable up-and-coming actors including Boris Kodjoe, Djimon Hounsou, Paula Patton, Lauren London, Derek Luke and Taye Diggs chimed in that in order to sustain the ongoing supply and demand for more black content making it to the big screen “we’ve got to support the movies.”

Kim Hardin, whose 25 plus year career as a casting director summed up the matter concluding that when it comes to balancing the ebb and flow of cast diversity and the final decisions by the powers that be “it’s just a continuous fight.”  Lee added that “quarterly meetings by green light committees determine what makes the cut” and “ we are not in the room when these decisions are made about films.”

Moderator Beverly also posed the following question to the esteemed panel.  “Are we expanding beyond Black Cinema?”

Hardin continued, replying “we do not need that title any more.”  The sentiment sparked a host of replies surrounding the industry’s urban label and the historical acquiescence of Black filmmakers, actors and producers in adopting the racially profiled category as a creative genre.

Talbert sounded off on the paradoxical nature of being boxed in by the industry when “you climbed in the box.”  Salli Richardson-Whitfield added “we need to find a way to re-brand us.  We’ve had films that have made a lot of money but it [urban label] has messed up the brand.”

Spike Lee added, “We are the original source” in response to Black culture being borrowed or stolen.  He added, “Our attention should be focused on the formula, the mathematics and the ‘trick-a-nometry’ of film studios tweaking the numbers on ticket sales.”

This post was written by Patrick Mamou, a contributor to The Burton Wire. He is CEO of The Marketing Group and serves as director of marketing and brand management for TBW. He also serves as a delegate for the ABFF. Follow him on Twitter @patrickmamou

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