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THE BLACK FILM DILEMMA: "IS THERE ROOM FOR ALL OF US?"

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By Andrew Dosunmu, independent film director 

The commercial success of “Think Like A Man” has been a conversation starter recently. Many people have contrasted the huge box office numbers of the film to the more modest numbers posted by my film, "Restless City." I am convinced that the time of independent films is upon us, and with distributors as savvy as AFFRM, we will soon see a distinct change in the face of Black film.

The blockbuster success of ‘Think Like A Man’ has opened up the dialogue on films that cater to black audiences and can we expect more? Is it only the big budget, highly promoted films that appeal to black audiences? Is there room for other smaller, independent films to capitalize on the attention; by showing that black audiences tastes as just as diverse?

As a director, I believe in simple, well-told stories, with vivid attention to detail, light, color, composition and sound. I want to envelope the viewer in the story, so every nuance and every emotion has time and place to resonate. RESTLESS CITY, for me, is a film that challenges the audience to escape into a very familiar yet dissimilar world: One they might see every day, but haven’t seen clearly yet.

I feel strongly that small, independent films can live alongside studio fare like ‘Think Like A Man’ because both films equally represent human interaction and the mores of particular layers of society. In ‘Think Like A Man’, the upwardly mobile, educated and middle-class characters just want to find love and live happy lives -- just like the young, struggling dreamers of RESTLESS CITY.

The differences are only in time and place. Restless City is the story of a young man, who immigrates to America to live his dream. His is a very common story, and it should be noted that he is not a refugee, he is not fleeing his country. He made a choice to come to America and had the means to do so. He falls in love with a woman, and just wants to live, love and make music. He is an ordinary man, with ambition and desire.

Both RESTLESS CITY and THINK LIKE A MAN are valid representations of American Life. There has to be room to  welcome both films, and films in both genres can co-exist at the viewing table. Audiences can embrace both films because the telling of ALL of our stories is equally important. We need other films to fill in the spaces between the rom-coms and broad comedies like THINK LIKE A MAN, NORBIT and Madea.

Why should Black audiences be given the same type of films, historically broad comedies or urban pathologies, when their lives involve so much more, and so much less, than those limited viewpoints? Hollywood studios have long operated under the misconception that Black audiences don’t appreciate or patronize “art” films. I think all audiences, Black and white, want the same things in a movie-going experience: to be temporarily transported and to be permanently inspired. ‘Think Like A Man’ is a film that captures its audience because Bblack people, like anyone else, want to see themselves represented on the screen, and in the world. Films have the power to remind you of your place in the bigger picture, and of the universal emotions shared by all humans, regardless of race.

Would the main characters of RESTLESS CITY, the lovers Trini and Djbril, seek the advice of A THINK LIKE A MAN type book? Probably not, as they have neither time or interest in what both would consider an unnatural approach to love. But clearly the chord the best-seller struck within the Black community is now reflected in its box-office success. In fact, the trials and conflicts that are depicted in ‘Think Like A Man’ would have no place amongst the characters of ‘Restless City’, because the pure struggles of simple survival take precedence. The fact remains that these are two distinctly different genres of film.  I would like to believe there are audiences, separate and interconnected, for both. 

‘Think Like A Man’ proves Black audiences will flood the theatres when assured of their representation. How does a small  film compete with star-laden, well-publicized, budget-heavy films?? The reality is there is no competition. , because there is little common ground. These films should be allowed to seek and find their own levels. 

Independent films should be used to help debunk the theory that “Black films don’t sell in Europe and Asia”. This age-old idea is given often as the reason distributors don’t bother with Black films in those markets. Black music often tops the charts overseas and urban fashion is the norm. Yet why do we believe that our films have no market overseas. Largely, because Hollywood has said so, and once again, there is a failure to see the bigger picture. Directors need to not only take control of the content of our films, but take control of their distribution and promotion.

To assume there is only one type of movie that appeals to Black film-goers is misguided and uninformed. In truth, the choices have been so limited the real measure of what will sell to this vast and varied population has not been made.

The hope is that films like RESTLESS CITY will hopefully challenge the status quo, break new ground, cross these imaginary lines and resound for a multi-cultural and inclusive audience.

As a film-maker, my intention is to re-create worlds that bring the viewers in to the lives of the characters, while reminding the audience that these are simply every day people, managing everyday lives. The goal is give the audiences a new point-of-view, but this vision doesn’t come with bells and whistles, or much fanfare. When a good story is well-told, there needn’t be much more required; the audience should be inspired to use their individual imaginations.

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Noted photographer Andrew Dosunmu makes his feature directorial debut with the Sundance favorite RESTLESS CITY,