Any cursory check of one’s Facebook or Twitter feeds—or the local newspaper—would reveal an onslaught of images of black men and women either cut down in their prime or engaged in all manner of foolishness. What’s missing is a stream of rich, varied images depicting our true diversity. When there’s a lack of such imagery, a monolithic view sometimes results in real-life consequences.
Black stories matter—maybe as never before. They help create an informed electorate, part of the mission of public television. But the need is urgent; we cannot wait for the next generation. Today’s filmmakers must act now to tell our stories—and with increasing speed. They may be, literally, waging a battle of life and death.
Too often, those controlling our images are feeding into a certain narrative, one that can create an environment of fear, in which people of color can be cut down even as they are playing, shopping, asking for help, coming from the store or listening to music with friends. And recent headlines would indicate that even the handful of black films that are greenlit by the studios are not truly appreciated for their richness of humanity or honestly respected by the powers that be. And when we are included, too often our storylines, like the black character in a horror film, are seen as expendable.
Just as William D. Foster, the Johnson Brothers and, later, Gordon Parks, Ellis Haizlip, Julie Dash, Marlon Riggs and many others wielded their cameras as cudgels in the fight to define black people, so must today’s producers. Certainly we need to laugh and to be entertained; but the current climate must push storytellers to challenge the lingering negative imagery. The stakes are too high.
At the same time, when tragedy strikes we must have at the ready a repository of films and series that address the root causes and history of these incidents, to give context to the discussion at hand or inspiration in the struggle. Too often, great stories (whether they are documentaries or narratives) are faltering at the funding stage. Sharon La Cruise’s doc about newspaper publisher Daisy Bates, a key adviser to the Little Rock Nine, took about seven years to fund. It was eight years for a film by Thomas Allen Harris on the contributions black photographers have made to shaping the public image of African Americans.
For this dynamic to change, those concerned about the current state of black filmmaking should aggressively back crowdfunding efforts and support organizations doing the work.
And right alongside the need to be able to control our images and to create a condition of plenty in the black content-making world is a pressing need to be able to distribute our work. The rise of multiscreen viewing has been a boon. With more channels of distribution, there are more opportunities for great projects to see the light of day.
In that effort, the National Black Programming Consortium—the nation’s pre-eminent presenter of stories on the black experience on public television—has been in the trenches since 1979. In the decades since, we have funded numerous programs that depict a full spectrum of the African-American experience, among them The Murder of Emmett Till, Matters of Race, American Promise, Black Folk Don’t and the Peabody Award-winning series 180 Days: A Year Inside an American High School. NBPC’s public television series, AfroPoP: The Ultimate Cultural Exchange, broadens that spectrum to include the stories of African peoples throughout the Diaspora.
Today’s diverse storytellers must be armed to produce not just one-off programs but series on public television and on the Internet that engage the American public in the lives and stories of black people. To that end, NBPC is recruiting an army of diverse producers to tell our tales in all their glory—the highs and the lows—and to create a more textured portrait of a people.
NBPC 360, our new incubator, will award between $50,000 and $150,000 in development funds to three winning producing teams in 2015. Along the way, participants will receive advice and training that will help them hone their skills and submit the best applications possible. Those admitted to the program will enter a boot camp, working closely with mentors who are professionals in the field and taking their craft to new highs.
And, because part of our mission is to help create the new generation of storytellers, even those who are not planning to compete may access our free webinars and online consultations on the latest trends in public television by visiting blackpublicmedia.org. We aim to create a phalanx of rich stories that are continually being created, developed and distributed.
Developing an arsenal of images is a key stratagem in the fight for social justice in America. Clearly the time is ripe for a surge.
The Root aims to foster and advance conversations about issues relevant to the black Diaspora by presenting a variety of opinions from all perspectives, whether or not those opinions are shared by our editorial staff.
Leslie Fields-Cruz is executive director of the National Black Programming Consortium and executive producer of the public television series AfroPoP: The Ultimate Cultural Exchange. Follow her on Twitter.