Smith: But on the level of studio producers and development execs, do you really think it matters if you’re pitching to a woman or a man?
Prince-Bythewood: Oh, completely. For instance, Gale Ann Hurd. Look at the projects she’s been involved with and the strong women in those movies. I know she had a hand in that. Women like that are who I gravitate toward, because they’re up-front in saying, “We don’t want to do the same crap.” I’m not getting that from male execs. Only one actually — Tom Rothman at Fox, who’s an amazing guy. But otherwise, the most exciting meetings have been with women who are saying, We’re getting power, let’s do something different.
Smith: I know a lot of great women working in the studios, I do. But overall, the product coming out of studios . . .
Prince-Bythewood: Oh, it’s crap. Don’t get me wrong; we’re in trouble.
Lemmons: But I think the wave of filmmakers coming up is going to change the product so that it doesn’t matter who the executive is. They’re going to see that it’s cool to green-light this movie, because Love & Basketball did make money, Eve’s Bayou did make money . . .
Weekly: Something we hear constantly is that in order for any film to be considered a good financial risk, it has to be viable in the international market, which black movies supposedly are not. How does that notion affect the way you conceive a movie, create it, pitch it?
Lemmons: God. How often have we heard that one? How you pitch it is the big one. Definitely. I learned a lot when I was running around pitching Eve’s Bayou, and they’d ask who I thought the audience for the film was. I’d say African-American college graduates, and the room would go dead. I learned to say, “Well, it’s the Waiting To Exhale audience,” and they’d go, ch-ching!
Prince-Bythewood: The word universal is very important.
Lemmons: Yes. You have to say to them, This is a movie for everybody; just like you related to the script, anybody can relate to the movie.
Smith: There was a luncheon during the Democratic Convention where a bunch of filmmakers sat down with editors from Newsweek, and there was an editor who was a Hong Kong correspondent who talked about how she was confused about why black filmmakers are told that our films are not commercially viable overseas. She’d just attended a black film festival in either Hong Kong or Singapore, and it was packed every night. And she said it wasn’t the shoot-’em-up, hip-hop genre that was popular — it was the family movies, the character studies.
Prince-Bythewood: With Love & Basketball, after we had the first screening at Sundance, everyone was hyped. I remember the guy in charge of foreign distribution was like, This could definitely play overseas, because women’s basketball is huge overseas. But during the conversation, he said I had to cut 20 minutes from the second half of the movie — because overseas audiences don’t like long movies — and add more to the sex scenes. I’m like, There is no more. It’s not like I trimmed it — there is no more. And then he was like, Well, we’ll try to sell it. After that I got the same thing: It just doesn’t sell overseas. I do not understand why someone in London wouldn’t get it. Or Japan. Black culture is huge there. And that’s why you start to think, honestly: Is it a conspiracy? Because it’s not even like anyone is trying to change it.
Smith: I wish someone would just really look at the numbers.
Lemmons: You can actually get the information. I’ve been going to the Summit for several years now . . .
Weekly: Could you explain what that is for the readers?
Lemmons: The Black Filmmakers Foundation started the Summit, and it’s expanded beyond filmmakers. It’s filmmakers, people in television, producers, executives — it’s like the hundred hottest people. It feels like being in a room of the best and brightest that’s out there. They bring in Internet people, black people that you don’t even know about that are out there running corporations. They bring them down to the Summit [at a Southern California retreat], and one year we did a study on the international market and the list of black movie stars that sell foreign — which is incredibly large and which Hollywood overlooks. They overlook this information, which is factual. You can get a sheet, print it out and bring it into a meeting. Because I think it’s a myth. I don’t know why people wanna believe it.
Smith: I can think of a few reasons people wanna believe it.
Weekly: What do you think the reasons are, Cauleen?
Smith: I think that the industry is forced in some way to make delineations about which project is going to get out and which project’s going to stay put. And it’s very easy — just as it’s always been in this country — to determine who gets the privilege based on race, and that’s what’s happening in this case. The film industry, for some reason, is more interested in perpetuating that than making money, which is a mystery to me.
Weekly: That flies in the face of all the pseudo-progressive rhetoric we hear now — that it’s not about black or white, it’s just about green.
Prince-Bythewood: It’s not about green, because if that were the truth, black films would be marketed a lot differently. Both Premiere and Entertainment Weekly ran articles on how the state of black film has changed because Scary Movie, Big Momma’s House and Next Friday all made a ton of money. But those are comedies. When a black drama makes that kind of money, things have changed. But more than that, when black dramas get the marketing dollars that Scary Movie and Shaft got, then you can truly say things have changed. Really, it’s the same as it’s always been. Comedy is so easy to cross over because . . .
Smith: White America has no problem with black people being funny.
Lemmons: (dryly) They’re not black people anymore when they’re funny.
Prince-Bythewood: I do think white folks can go to a comedy that stars black comedians and identify, because funny is funny, but they don’t think that they can go to a black drama and identify with the characters on the screen. That boggles my mind.
Weekly: Another stumbling block for black film is the shoddiness with which it’s reviewed. Even favorable reviews can be very shallow.
Smith: There’s so little analysis of the films that we do. It’s so hard to get someone to look at our work seriously. And it’s really frustrating, because I know we all think a lot about everything in the frame. I’m just shocked at the lack of critical analysis.
Weekly: Well, the critical establishment, like Hollywood, is very white, and that’s a crucial element in understanding how they cover issues of race.
Smith: The film industry, in particular, because it’s made up of people from all over the country, but they all move to the Westside and are scared to drive east of La Brea. They think they’re going to get shot on the freeway. They don’t know anything about how great it is to be here, how diverse it is.
Weekly: How do you negotiate the fact that you live and work in a city and industry that both sell themselves as being liberal and progressive, but can be so racist and reactionary?
Lemmons: I feel that you have to patiently educate people, because they really don’t know that they’re being offensive. I mean, I’ve heard statements come out of people’s mouth like, “You know, the Waiting To Exhale audience doesn’t have the attention span for a long movie.” And I was like, “What? Oh, excuse me, I drifted off.” [Laughter] I don’t want to say it’s not their fault, because that’s not true, but they want to do the right thing, they just need educating. They need you to sit down and look them in the eye and say, “What you just said was offensive to me, and I’m going to tell you why.” You know, patiently. And then the next day you get a bottle of wine and some flowers.
I wrote a script for Michelle Pfeiffer’s company, and many people were fans of the script, but nobody knew that I was black. I went into a meeting at another studio, and somebody came in, sat next to the girl that gets coffee and said, I’ve got to tell you, I loved the script you wrote. And she was like, Well, thank you very much, but that’s Kasi.
I had someone ask me once, how can you write a script for white actors? Well, black people know the shit out of white people. As a girlfriend of mine says in her book, “It’s like I have one living in the back room.” Because we have to live in the white world; we are forced into assimilation. White people don’t have to know black people. They can live in a white world very, very easily. It’s a completely different reality. And we have to say, Okay, let me clue you in, gently, gently, to the world as I know it, and also be sensitive to the fact that that’s their reality.
Smith: Doesn’t it drain you to accommodate that kind of privilege? It’s like institutional racism that you have to accommodate and negotiate at every moment. I find it exhausting. Black people are used to handling it, but when you’re dealing with people who are so congratulatory about their liberalness, that’s actually when it’s worse. I can deal with the average ignorant white person, but when someone’s so proud of their buck-wild liberal antics, it drains me.
Lemmons: That’s why you have to, like, go home and call your friends and say, “Do you know what this motherfucker looked me right in my face and said to me?” [Laughter.] I do think patience is the key. I think when you scream about it, sometimes they don’t hear.
Smith: I don’t think they ever hear it, because they don’t have to.
Weekly: How do you feel about the DGA stripping D.W. Griffith’s name from one of its highest honors?
Prince-Bythewood: I’m so torn on this issue. My husband [screenwriter Reggie Bythewood] and I debate this a lot. It’s like with Miles Davis. He’s celebrated as one of the greatest artists of all time. But he beat women. I can recognize his brilliance, but something holds me back from celebrating him, which is the same with Griffith. I mean, I had to watch The Birth of a Nation in film class with people cracking up as if it were funny. So yes, what he did at that time was brilliant, but you cannot separate the racism from it.
Lemmons: Who was the woman that made all the propaganda films for Hitler?
Weekly: Leni Riefenstahl.
Lemmons: It’s a very similar situation to me. She had a certain artistic integrity in the film, but she was absolutely reprehensible in that she decided to propagandize. Miles Davis might have beat women, but that wasn’t what his music was about, whereas with The Birth of a Nation, racism is what was being put forth.
Smith: Not only that, but the film had this incredible impact on our country and on us, in particular. And the truth of the matter is, Griffith stole all of his ideas from a bunch of Italian silent filmmakers who were 10 years before him. He literally stole entire set pieces. The man was not all that. And that’s what really bothers me — on top of him being this insane, rabid racist.
Davis: I am happy that the DGA did change the name of the Griffith Award precisely because of the reasons Cauleen states. I actually think Intolerance is worth looking at, but The Birth of a Nation is so incredibly damaging to all of us as Americans. Why should we have this award that celebrates this man, particularly for this racist depiction that we still have to deal with? And the fact of the matter is that people protested against that film from day one. But that is not on record. That gets forgotten.
Weekly: So does the fact that lynchings increased dramatically in cities where it was shown.
Smith: It was black people who were lynched, and it was white people who were doing the lynching, and it deeply saddens me that white people would be willing to celebrate this human being. If I were white and in the industry, and this was the icon of the industry that I love, I’d be mortified.
Lemmons: I think the film should be taught as a history lesson; that’s its real value. We should not forget that there were people out there who made this kind of film and that it influenced a nation. People should see where we came from, who this person was and how art can influence society and be used as an instrument of incredible pain, suffering and evil.
Davis: But a lot of times what happens when you see it at film school is that most of the film professors who show that film do not deal with the racist imagery.
Weekly: Or they excuse it.
Prince-Bythewood: Thank god we all agree about The Birth of a Nation, but how do you all feel about the fact that Tarantino is so celebrated for Pulp Fiction?
Lemmons: It’s complicated, because I don’t think Tarantino is bringing down our race. I think he’s stuck in a pattern of something that he thinks black people might sound like. But he does manage to have fairly interesting themes and characters. I mean, let’s just acknowledge, first of all, that he’s in a completely different league, you know.
Davis: And it’s a different historical period, thank god. You don’t have African-Americans or any people of color being lynched as a direct consequence of his films.
Prince-Bythewood: But he does have a white character saying nigger a thousand times, and it’s supposed to be funny. Suddenly, there’s a whole bunch of young white kids thinking that shit is cool.
Lemmons: Obviously I support freedom of speech, and I think that he makes interesting films. I also think that he lives in a box. I guess the story is that he heard that in prison or something like that, and that’s what he thinks black people talk like.
Smith: Oh, please. He was in jail for a parking ticket at most.
Lemmons: It’s his shtick. It’s what he does to attract attention.
Smith: I think a huge part of his popularity is based on that monologue; it was a cathartic moment for a lot of young white males. And I think that’s why Jackie Brown didn’t do well — because it was a very complicated rendering of a black woman, and they just wanted to hear another monologue like where he stood at that sink and said nigger, nigger, nigger with glee. He validated white people’s desire to have entitlement to say that word. People who are used to feeling entitled to anything they want — that’s one thing they’re not entitled to do, and Quentin made it okay.
Weekly: He restored that birthright.
Lemmons: The funniest thing to me about Quentin doing it is that it doesn’t roll off his tongue. He puts himself in a movie and he says it awkwardly. I thought that was interesting.
Weekly: How do you feel about him, Gina, since you brought him up?
Prince-Bythewood: You know, Pulp Fiction comes on cable a thousand times a day, and I can’t even watch it for five minutes without getting pissed off about it. I just hate how people, as a whole, are able to separate content from form. I just think it’s wrong. And I have the same problem with black filmmakers using nigger all through their stuff. When my husband was working on Get on the Bus, he had to tell the actors that he consciously wrote the script without that word so they shouldn’t ad lib it. I said up-front to my actors: You don’t see it written here, that means it’s not in the movie. So it does drive me crazy when I hear it in movies and then hear the argument that, you know, we’re just keeping it real.
Weekly: What would you like black film — or film in general — to say that it’s not saying now?
Lemmons: I would like to see movies where the black female characters act like real women, the women that I know, the women in this room — our mothers, our sisters, our friends. A well-portrayed, well-rounded female character with depth.
Davis: It seems so little to ask for, doesn’t it?
Prince-Bythewood: You know, I struggle with myself. Sometimes I think that I’m not saying enough in my work. During Love & Basketball, I panicked because I was like, I’m not saying anything. This is just a love story, and at the end of the day, that’s not changing anything. But now I think about all the little girls that came up to me after the film was released. Just seeing yourself reflected positively onscreen can do so much for somebody. Why can’t we just have that more?
Davis: I think if I could see any change in black film, I would like us as filmmakers to stay in the vanguard but to also expand our vision so that we include more of who we are as international peoples. I’m dying to see some black Caribbean folk in some movies. I really wish we could be more inclusive in that regard. I just think those stories would really knock everybody out of the water.
Smith: I’m really interested in the way that black women are rendered in the media. Part of the reason that I’m a filmmaker is that I have to change this myself. I’ve just lost patience with the world at large about the way that we’re rendered. This is like a mission with me; I just can’t rest until this is done.
Lemmons: When I look at my nieces and nephews and the effect that Brandy playing Cinderella had on them, it’s a beautiful thing. Because all of a sudden, Cinderella has this whole other meaning for them; they’re able to see themselves in Cinderella. We can’t underestimate the importance of putting black faces in classic roles, in everyday dramas and love stories.
Prince-Bythewood: And not even just positive images — truthful images. There’s nothing wrong with black characters with flaws. Just make them interesting and real and true.