Friday, February 5, 2016

White Like Me


I am asked to make a presentation about stock footage licensing for a group of black Documentary Filmmakers. I want to screen some samples of material from my library and decide to provide something other than the usual Jim Crow/lunch counter/fire hose materials that are generally associated with projects created by black filmmakers. I have a lot of home movies and other historical footage that represents the African American community in a state of normalcy rather than strife. There are birthday parties, executive managers in boardrooms, teachers,physicians military officers and other wonderful lifestyle footage from the twenties through the sixties. I think that this will be a refreshing change from the usual focus on racism and civil rights. Wednesday I am working on assembling the more unusual footage and I receive a note to remind me about the presentation. I'd noted the day incorrectly in my diary. The presentation is scheduled in five hours so I have to go with material that's already at hand. We have a reel that has not only African American civil rights materials but feminist, gay and Mexican American rallies and leaders as well. We also have some unusual footage about the black music industry which I throw on too.

The event is at the Writer's Guild. I leave home about two hours before it's scheduled to begin, thinking I'll be able to grab a bite first. The traffic is so dense however that I arrive at the guild with only about ten minutes to spare. As I approach, I see an upper floor conference room that is jammed black people. The lot is crowded and black people are parking and boarding the elevator. I've packed some swag and am expecting a dozen people or fewer. It looks however that there might be over a hundred in attendance and my heart starts to pound. I can forgo my meager promotional items but freak out at the prospect of facing a huge audience without a formal, carefully prepared presentation.

The Guild is buzzing. Starving, I am grateful when I see a huge cart of catered food being wheeled into the elevator. It becomes apparent quickly though that there are a number of activities scheduled at the Guild. There's a writing workshop for military veterans and an NAACP event. The good thing is that it turns out that only a dozen or so of the black people are documentarians. The bad thing is that there's no food.

My presentation is preceded by a professor from the Pan-African Studies Dept. at Cal State L.A. discussing the history of black documentary production. Apparently she's already addressed the group about early history. This evening is devoted to more modern works and the gist of her discussion is that for the most part, black filmmakers are largely ignored by distributors of high production value content. HBO President in Charge of Documentaries, Sheila Nevins is criticized for ordering a documentary about the Black Lives Matter Movement. The group notes that most documentaries about black issues are produced by white people. I know that I'm expected to be a fly on the wall so I don't pipe up and mention two black filmmakers Henry Hampton and Marlon Riggs who both created seminal documentaries about the black American experience. Someone mentions Spike Lee but he is quickly dismissed for reasons that elude me. The sentiment is that the white hegemony attempts to demonstrate to black people how they are supposed to feel about themselves. As far as I can ascertain, a director for the Black Lives Matter project has yet to be named. I wonder that if a person of color is selected to direct the documentary if this group will still take umbrage because it is still coming to fruition under the aegis of a white woman.

There were some good points in the discussion about documentaries and I agree very much that to a large extent, black American filmmakers (particularly women) are underrepresented. Despite the Oscar brouhaha I think that black people have made giant inroads in other television genres and certainly theatrical films. A fascinating digression was a conversation about reality shows. The lion's share of the black reality shows are indeed the spawn of white creators. The participants are egged on to behave in a fashion that's truly repulsive. There aren't, to my knowledge, any reality shows about Jews. If there were one that exploited all of the stereotypical attributes of my people it would piss me off. Off course I'd watch it and laugh my head off but it wouldn't be anything I'd want non-Jews to enjoy.

Jews in America generally have had a better shake than African Americans. Still, while we have actually voted in a black president, sorry Bernie, but I would be very surprised if a Jew was elected to the highest office. I wonder, if by some miracle, there is actually a President Sanders, how this will bode for the Jews. No one predicted that Obama's election would complicate, and to some extent prove a setback, to the America's conversation about race.

Being the only white person in the room is an unusual experience. I have often been the only woman or the only Jew with little self consciousness but meeting with the filmmakers makes me anxious. Jewish discourse frequently has a different tone when there are no gentiles around. Women often speak far more candidly when there are no men present. I feel I am privy to a lot of resentments that I'd never even considered but I also feel, just by the simple virtue of being white, complicit in the co-opting and exploitation of black culture.


Then it's my turn. “Hi, here's the white lady to screen for you a bunch of images to show you what you're supposed to think of yourselves.” I do note that it is the birthday of filmmaker Marlon Riggs and that he was born in the same year that I was. I think I score some points with my mention of Riggs. The year of my own birth, not so much. I show my hastily thrown together demo. They patiently watch Martin Luther King Jr. Malcolm X. Cesar Chavez. Gloria Steinem. As there's a nod to other marginalized groups besides African Americans it's not 100% pandering but there is a disproportionate amount of 60s southern civil rights materials. The demo finishes and I steel myself to be confronted about profiteering on black history.

The lights go on and there are a flurry of questions about licensing and fair use. I make suggestions about negotiating favorable deals with footage libraries. I explain the ramifications of fair use and provide some clues for determining public domain. There are so many eager questions we run way over the schedule. Despite the earlier portion of the evening's theme of white people keeping black documentarians down, there is no confrontation. After, we pose, arm in arm for pictures. It is a handsome crowd. The women sport elaborate braids and interesting fades. Plus and maybe it's wrong in some way to make such a blanket statement, black women dress way better than white women. My swag is well received. A girl with spectacular bronze braids whispers, “I love your hair.” I wish though that I'd dressed a little better.