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The triple duty of a black woman filmmaker: an interview with Carmen Coustaut.

More than ten years before Rodney King was beaten by members of the Los Angeles Police Department, Carmen Coustaut was in the midst of writing, producing directing, and editing her first film as a student in cinema production at the University of Southern California. Titled justifiable Homicide, the five-minute drama depicts police brutality in the African American community. It was inspired by her former students at Fremont High School in South Central Los Angeles, who were continually under suspicion by LA police. Now an Assistant Professor of Radio, Television, and Film at the University of Maryland-College Park, Coustaut is still concerned with young African Americans. Her second film, Extra Change, addresses the consequences of peer pressure and low self-esteem on a twelve-year-old girl. It won the National Educational Film and Video Festival's Silver Apple Award in 1988, as well as nine additional prizes.

As an African American woman, Coustaut is a pioneer in her chosen profession, which places additional demands on her time. Though filmmaking is her primary objective, Coustaut is also intent on spreading the word about other African American women filmmakers. In 1988 she received a Rockefeller Scholarship that allowed her to interview thirty black women filmmakers for a book that she soon hopes to have published. She was also one of the first educators in the country to offer a course on black women filmmakers. The following interview reflects the ways Coustaut continually weaves her roles as filmmaker, teacher, and scholar together, allowing one to influence the other. It took place at the University of Vermont, where she spent a semester as Artist-in-Residence and was hard at work on her third film, a full-length feature titled Harmonica Man. I began by asking about her decision to become a filmmaker.

Coustaut: In college I was interested in writing poetry, but I didn't do very much of it. In graduate school I studied literature, even though I have a Master's in Education. And from there, I started teaching high school English in Los Angeles.

I wanted to call myself a writer, but I never did any writing except for a couple of stories here and there. While I was teaching, I was amazed at how influenced my students were by popular media--television and film, in particular. My interest in writing shifted to screenwriting and I took a couple of courses.

That was a pivotal time, because I wanted to move East and I wanted to teach at a black college. And of course I still wanted to be a writer. I accepted a job teaching English at Howard, but after a while the chair of the English department said I had to get a Ph.D. in English to continue teaching. I had no undergraduate or graduate degree English and so I thought about taking a couple of courses, but I hated doing literary criticism. I loved teaching Afro-American literature, but I didn't want to focus on analyzing the works. I wanted to create my own work. So I said to myself, if I'm going to go back to school I have to go back and study what I want to study. I had been thinking about film school and that's what I decided to do. After teaching high school for four years and college for two and a half, I went back to California to attend film school at the University of Southern California with basically no idea of what I was getting into. I was thirty years old.

It was time for me to really do something to direct my life. I always saw teaching as a way to make a contribution to the black community. But film is a way to make another kind of contribution to the black community, and I would also get some personal satisfaction out of expressing my own creativity.

Ferreira: Who instilled within you the importance of making a contribution to the black community, and why do you still think that's important?

Coustaut: I was in college in the late sixties at the height of the Black Power Movement. It was always a given that we would have to use our resources to give back to the community. For those of us who were fortunate enough to get a college education, that meant that we had a special responsibility to our community. It is still important because our community is not yet empowered, and it is critical for those of us with advantages to share with our community in general. It is our only hope. I try to do that with the kinds of images of Black people that I create, but I also volunteer as a mentor at a home for adolescent girls in my neighborhood (in D.C.), and I am a member of the Orange Hat Patrol in my neighborhood. This group of residents wears orange hats and T-shirts or jackets and patrols the streets of the neighborhood in the evenings to discourage drug activity.

Ferreira: Who were your influences and role models?

Coustaut: For black women there weren't any role models in film at that time. I think we're becoming role models now, but we're the pioneers. I finished film school in 1982. That's the time when Julie Dask Alile Larkin, and Carroll Blue were all in or just out of school. I think Carroll Blue, who finished in 1980 or '81, might have been the first black woman to get an M.F.A. in cinema. I was starting film school when they were working on their major projects.

The influence for me was African American literature. Langston Hughes, Zora Neale Hurston, Richard Wright, and Alice Childress were the people in my mind who were making my community come alive with written images. I wanted to take these same kinds of images, these cultural celebrations, and put them on film. That's the influence I had. In many ways what they had been doing for years and years I wanted to do through a different medium.

Ferreira: What was it like going back to school midway through an established career, especially in an area that has traditionally excluded women? Coustaut: It was very difficult. I had been teaching college, and then I was back in college myself. I was an older, more mature student, but I was one of the few women and usually the only person of color in my classes. The hardest thing for me was trying to learn the completely new language of film and use it to express my view of the world.

Ferreira: You did Justifiable Homicide in 1981. What was the motivation behind writing that script and making a film out of it?

Coustaut: When I taught at Fremont High School in South Central Los Angeles, police brutality in the black community was a given. One time I asked my class how many of them had been stopped by the police for no reason. Every young man's hand in the class went up and some of the young women's. I knew what the answer was going to be before I asked the question. All you have to be in order to arouse suspicion for being a criminal or for being in some kind of violation in this society is to be black, male, and young. Being Black is enough, but if you're young and male, too, then you're really a suspect.

When I was living in Washington, D.C. in the late 1970s, there was the Terence Johnson case, where this fifteen-year-old boy and his brother were accosted by the police and taken to the station. Somehow, while the police were harassing Terence's brother, Terence was able to get a gun out of one of their holsters, and he fatally shot a policeman. By then he had completely lost it and walked out into the hall and shot another policeman. They acquitted him for the second shooting but convicted him of manslaughter for the first, and he is now serving a twenty-five-year sentence. He is 27 or 28 years old. He's been a model prisoner. He's earned a college degree.

Justifiable Homicide was inspired by that case, but it's not a recreation of it. The only thing that's similar is that one of the boys in the film gets a gun and shoots a policeman. The details aren't parallel at all except for that one. I was trying to address a serious problem that's been ignored for many years. The Rodney King case in 1991 is not a new phenomenon. We're dealing with a problem that's been going on for decades. That's what I was trying to show. And I tried to show these kids as human beings. They're at the laundromat, and one boy is studying for his test. But all a policeman needs to arrest, accost, abuse, harass, and sometimes kill a subject is that he be young, male, and black. This is not anything that's unfamiliar, particularly in Los Angeles. Los Angeles has always had a terrible reputation for police brutality in the Black community.

Ferreira: What was the reaction when you first showed justifiable Homicide?

Coustaut: I showed it at an open screening at the University of Southern California, and the reaction was very negative. People were very angry and upset at this little five-minute film. I was surprised at how heated the debate got. One woman called me a racist.

It was my first film, and technically it's imperfect. Usually when it's a first film, most of the discussion is around technique. For justifiable Homicide most of the discussion was about content--how dare I take their cowboys, their heros, and put them in a negative context? How dare I do that when all the police on television and in the movies are heros? In cities like Los Angeles the police are considered the enemy in the Black community. I turned it around.

They were also angry because the boys were not depicted as people that they could dismiss or dislike. They were just typical kids.

Now, when I've shown the film to black audiences, some people will say, "Shoot the second policeman, too." Although when I showed it the other day to a white audience, there was a young white woman who said she too wanted him to shoot the other policeman. I didn't want him to shoot the policeman, because we all wish circumstances were better. But we have to deal with the way they actually are.

This film precedes the Rodney King incident by ten years. And for me this is old hat. Why is everybody so surprised at Rodney King being beaten to a pulp? They've been doing it for a long time. Now there's some proof, and it's very hard to distort that image. Ferreira: Now you teach African American Women Filmmakers. How was that course received? Tell me some of the history behind it.

Coustaut: It's funny, because people's immediate reaction is, "Are there any?" Other people say, "Well who else, besides you, is doing it?" And I say there are a lot of Black women making films. There are enough films to make up a course that lasts the whole semester. But we don't get the mainstream recognition. In fact, we don't always get recognition at festivals that are designed for black film. In part it's because we have not been filmmakers for that long. I mean, we've only been making films primarily for the last decade. Some people started in the late '70s, but we really weren't bringing works out until the early 1980s. It's a relatively new group.

Every now and then people would bring in someone like Julie Dash or would include another woman filmmaker, but we really weren't considered a viable body. It wasn't that people were trying to exclude anyone, it's just that people did not know. So I began to think that people ought to know. Of course, now people know about Julie Dash, but she's only one out of dozens.

I was very fortunate because I got a Rockefeller Scholar-in-Residence Grant and some support from Howard University's faculty development program to travel around the country to interview black women filmmakers. At first I was going to write an article. But a thousand manuscript pages later, I feel there's enough for a book. The course on African American women filmmakers evolved from this research and from the interviews.

Ferreira: When did you start teaching the course, and how have the students who enrolled in it when you first offered it changed from those who take it now--post-Spike Lee and John Singleton?

Coustaut: I started teaching the course in 1989 when I started at the University of Maryland-College Park. got a university grant to buy several films for the class. There hasn't been a drastic change among the students, since the course is still relatively new, but it has been very well received, and the films by the male filmmakers are constant points of reference during discussion. Many of the students use Spike Lee, etc., as comparisons to the Black women filmmakers, particularly in discussing the rendition of the image of the Black woman.

Ferreira: In addition to Los Angeles and Howard, you've taught students from a variety of age groups, locations, and backgrounds. You're regularly at the University of Maryland now, but you were recently an artist-in-residence at the University of Vermont. How do such circumstances influence the classroom experience, particularly in terms of film study?

Coustaut: Obviously, background plays a critical role in the way each o us frames reality. For the most part, however, students are able to appreciate the class, whether or not the material is from their individual experiences. Most of the white students welcome a different vision, and most of the students of color, particularly the African American students, appreciate seeing realistic images of themselves on the screen. They are relieved finally to study a topic where they are the cultural experts.

Ferreira: Are you tom between the double duty of making your own films and producing material so others will know about black women filmmakers?

Coustaut: Oh, it's a triple duty, because I'm a teacher and a filmmaker, and although I don't consider myself a scholar, the work I'm doing for the book is scholarship, as opposed to the creativity of film production. And it's difficult because something has to suffer. My teaching has a built-in priority. If I'm working on my film project, then the project on African American women filmmakers suffers, and vice versa. Then, of course, trying to find financing to support either project is a major job by itself.

Ferreira: How many women did you interview, and given the limited amount of information, how did you, yourself, locate those that you wanted to interview?

Coustaut: I interviewed about thirty women across the country. I started locating the filmmakers through the literature review as well as those I knew personally. From there it was referrals. I didn't reach everybody, and there are a few newer filmmakers now that I didn't know about at the time.

Ferreira: What struck you about the interviews that caused you to pause, impressed you, or has simply stuck with you?

Coustaut: I was impressed by the quality of work the women were doing, especially under the limited circumstances. Although I wasn't surprised, I did note that we focused on productive images of Black women, without deliberately setting out to fill any void. We were just working from our own experiences, from our own interests, and from our own realities. I strongly identified with all of the I and I felt a bond of sisterhood with their goals as well as with their struggles.

Ferreira: Other than spreading the word about African American women filmmakers, are there other challenges?

Coustaut: Yes. Money is the main challenge. Your viewpoint is clearly defined by who you are, particularly if you're conscious of existing images in the history of mainstream cinema. What we want to do is bring something from ourselves and our experience--most of us have black women as central characters in our films. Many of us deal with other topics, too, and some of us have men as central figures, as I did in justifiable Homicide. But we are the ones who have black women as central figures. Not many male filmmakers have films about black women. That's not a criticism. I think it's our domain anyway. That is the beauty of our work. For the first time there's a black woman on the screen as a beautiful woman, as a viable woman, as a strong woman, someone with goals, a purpose, and direction, and someone with a level of independence. All these characteristics which are constructed by black women are characteristics you just don't see anywhere else. I even think there's a distinction between black women writers and black women filmmakers. Black women filmmakers tend to have images of women in their community in more wholesome ways. There's really not the anger and bitterness that exists in a lot of writing by black women, or at least the writing by black women that gets promoted. I wonder how much of that is because we're independent filmmakers. You can tell your own stories, and you don't have anyone immediately dictating what stories you can tell. You are confined by the amount of money you're able to raise. If you can't raise the money in film, you can't tell the story.

As a filmmaker you have to have access to a lot of money in order to put your image on film. So to some degree we are confined by the mains But when we are able to put something on film generally, it is our vision. And, of course, the major challenge is getting our viewpoint on film with adequate resources.

Ferreira: I sense that you have apprehensions about the current blitz of Hollywood films made by African Americans.

Coustaut: I do have apprehensions, but I'm also really ambivalent about my apprehensions. On one level I'm really happy that there are some images of black people on the screen. People assumed that there were no black filmmakers, but there have been black filmmakers who have been very active for years, long before Spike Lee hit the commercial level. I'm glad there's that presence.

What disappoints me is that, like the blaxploitation era--and not just the blaxploitation era, like any other time--Hollywood follows a formula. You have to have this amount of action by this particular point in the story. It has to have so much pacing, violence, sex--something has got to be a selling feature. We don't always operate on a formula. It would be so wonderful to pay my six or seven dollars, sit down in a theatre, and see some black people on the screen where there were no drugs, no crime, no violence. According to Hollywood, you can't have black people on the screen without those three ingredients, and of course a bit of sex thrown in to spice it up. And when you film of the blaxploitation era, there was the same formula--drugs, crime, violence, and a little sex. I want to see people being people, dealing with issues that they happen to be confronting at a particular time. The media does not depict black people in very constructive ways.

Ferreira: What image of African Americans do you want your students to have when they leave your class?

Coustaut: I'd like them to go away with a new way of seeing--and not just seeing new images of African Americans as people with a distinct culture and history. I want them to look at themselves in a new kind of way. Let's look at what's being said about all of us and see the results in our attitudes about each other and about ourselves.

Ferreira: Julie Dash's Daughters of the Dust and Charles Burnett's To Sleep with Anger seem to be presenting some of the images you speak of. Was the promotion of these films different from that of, say, Mario Van Peebles's New Jack City?

Coustaut: Of course. To Sleep with Anger was in a small theatre for a very short period of time in Washington, D.C. People hardly knew it was there, or what it was about, so it didn't do that well at the box office. It really wasn't promoted. Julie had a hard time finding a distributor, and when she did, her film was released in the art houses initially. It was treated like a foreign film. But people went to see it, and it was in Washington, D.C. for several months, albeit at small theatres. She had defied the mainstream distribution concept of her film. It was very popular, but the mainstream distributors could not see that because it didn't follow the formula!

Ferreira: With the attention given to some black filmmakers now, has it made it easier for you to define who you are and what you do?

Coustaut: Fortunately, I have already defined who I am and what I want to do. However, on some level I think people expect it to be easier for me to get my work done. I don't necessarily see that as the case, particularly when I don't see myself following the formula. In a way it's a little harder, because there's the expectation that it's going to be easier. But I'm working on a feature film, and I'm going to need hundreds of thousands, preferably millions, of dollars to do it. I have no idea how I'm going to raise it, and if I think about it too much, it gets too depressing. Until now, I've been focusing on writing the script, which is a major task in writing, rewriting reconceiving, reorganizing rebuilding and then starting all over again with the revising. But that's the easy part. Getting the funding is the real challenge, and I don't see it being any easier now.

Ferreira: What will the feature film be about?

Coustaut: Harmonica Man is a love story. The main character is a black woman television producer whose life is filled by her work until she meets a blues musician. The trials of their relationship coincide with the challenges she faces at work, with the concept of the "glass ceiling" in full operation. She has to make some hard choices both professionally and personally. In terms of the love relationship, she has to reckon with the ways in which her own fantasies have contributed to the problems in the relationship. It's too easy for women to say the problem is men. Women have a lot of issues they have to work out, and they have to take responsibility for these problems, too.

Ferreira: Would you like to have Hollywood backing?

Coustaut: Sure. Bring me about twenty million dollars and tell me you'll distribute it to all the major cinemas and leave me alone after that. Oh, I would love to have Hollywood backing. We all want Hollywood backing. But we don't want the sins of Hollywood. You have to strike a balance. I think, for instance, that Spike Lee has Hollywood backing and he's doing exactly what he wants to do. He's not compromising himself at all. But mainstream institutions tend to have just one or two blacks when there might be hundreds of black people out there who are very capable. That's the tragedy--not everybody will get a chance.

Ferreira: Spike Lee has talked about the responsibility of new black filmmakers to "be correct with their craft." You've used the word wholesome twice in this interview. Aren't both of you putting a lot of pressure on yourselves that another filmmaker might not?

Coustaut: Like other filmmakers, I'm just being true to my particular vision. I doubt that Spike Lee considers himself under extra self-imposed pressure. I know I don't. There are enough inherent pressures that we don't have time to add to them ourselves! We're just trying to get our work done, although we all have different values, and one set of values may get more response than another. I think we're all just following our own values and our own visions, regardless of the consequences. These would be added pressure if we were trying to make a film from another perspective just to please someone else.

Ferreira: In addition to such pressures, do those with the status of Spike Lee or John Singleton have even more responsibility to demand changes from Hollywood?

Coustaut: I think they're trying to do that, but that answer really has to come from them. I've long stopped trying to dictate what others' responsibilities are. I've got a full-time job keeping up with my own.

Ferreira: In your film Extra Change, even though there are characters in conflict, it's different from the mainstream in that there's celebration going on between the two girls, and there's a family. Was that deliberate?

Coustaut: Extra Change gets dismissed as being a simple little-girl film. And it is a simple little-girl film in the sense that the story is simple. There's no major hardship going on--the conflict isn't perceived as major. It's just a typical story of an adolescent girl who has a crush on a boy. She goes off track to get his attention. I deliberately developed a simple context, although I don't think it's a simplistic film. I wanted to get away from the problems of black teenagers being depicted only in relation to drugs, only in relation to teen pregnancy, only in relation to violence, when so many other things are going on in our communities. Those issues are part of our communities--they're serious problems. For us to ignore them would be a crime. For example, if all of our films were like Extra Change, and we pretended there were no problems, then films like Extra Change would make no contribution. What has happened, though, is that the serious problems are emphasized, often out of context. I'm afraid that, if our children only see themselves in very limited roles, they will assume that these roles are the only ones that are available to them. When the rest of society sees black people in limited roles, they assume that's how black people really are.

In Extra Change, what I'm trying to do is show black children in a different light. Basically, they're like any other children who are twelve years old. The film was inspired by a short story I wrote when I was teaching junior high school for a semester in Watts in 1972. Back then, the situation was not so drastic as it is now. There were drugs' there was crime, there were the social problems that have always existed in poor areas where black people live. But what struck me in that 7th grade class was what those kids really worried about was who was looking at whom, who liked whom, who touched whom, who looked at whom the wrong way--the same things that other twelve-year-olds, no matter who they are, worry about. They were still children, and that's what was important to me.

There are other layers in the film, too. It's obvious that I was making a definitive statement about self-concept, image, about the way society portrays women, the pressures women have to face, as well as the whole portrayal of the black family. I deliberately placed the black family intact because a lot of black families are intact--and they are not necessarily wealthy or middle-class. A lot of working-class black parents feed their children, go to work, come home, and put their feet up at the end of the day. They get up and do the same thing the next day. And they try to make sure their children get a good education. There are also a lot of black families intact that are headed by single parents. I get tired of the stereotype that, if there's no father and mother, the family is automatically dysfunctional. But since I'm trying to achieve a balance with existing images, I chose to include a two-parent family.

Education is highly valued in our community. I hate it when people presume or suggest that black children don't care about education. That's not true. If you go to the worst school in Washington, D.C., you're going to find children there who are trying really hard to get an education because they want to go to college or they want to be able to get a job. That's why I tried to make the academic competition between the boy and girl a real part of the film. I was tired of the stereotype. I was tired of the presumptions that are made about the black community.

So, yes, there's a deliberate celebration in this film.

Ferreira: What about the friendship between the two girls? They weren't competing with one another.

Coustaut: The friendship between the girls was very important to me. In fact, the film was originally entitled Best Friends, but when it became Rita's story, I changed the title. I wanted Gloria to support Rita. I also wanted that friendship to remain intact because black women in particular--women, in general--have a way of nurturing and supporting each other. Women also hurt one another, but that's for another script. In this film, the loyalty, friendship, and commitment were important.

When I wrote the script, I was struggling to come up with a conflict, so I asked a male friend of mine who is a writer for some feedback. His suggestion was that I have Gloria and Rita both like Rodney. I said, "No, no, no." He had missed the point. I'm not sure that a woman would have made the same suggestion. You just don't do that. If your girlfriend likes somebody, you don't like him too. That's not to say that the taboo is never violated, because it certainly is, but it is a taboo. In Extra Change, the girls really value each other.

Ferreira: When you talk of Hollywood formulas, doesn't it always seem that the women are divided from each other?

Coustaut: Oh sure. They're always scratching each other's eyes out, and being catty, and petty. In Extra Change I wanted them to be supportive. In many ways Gloria's support helps Rita get in some trouble. She comes up with ways that Rita can attract Rodney, and Rita goes through with some of them. They're both twelve years old, and the issue is experimenting with how to attract men.

Ferreira: Who characterizes the audience of Extra Change?

Coustaut: A lot of people call it a children's film, but I call it a family film because it's suitable for both children and adults. I mean, here I am in my forties, and you should hear some of my single girlfriends--and I'm not even excluding myself--and some of the nonsense we come up with to try to attract men. We're grown-up, some of us have been married a couple of times, and some of us have children who are teenagers, and the things we do, the things that we're concerned about in our old age. It's ridiculous. You want to say, "Girl, you better get a grip on that." I shake my head and marvel. It's stuff that comes at us from a young age, and it stays with us for too long.

Patricia Forreira teaches the Literature of Black America at the University of Vermont. Currently, she is a Ph.D. candidate at McGill University, where she has been the Max Binz Major Mc-Gill Fellow as well as the Gloriana Martineau Department of English Fellow.
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Title Annotation:Women's Culture Issue
Author:Ferreira, Patricia
Publication:African American Review
Article Type:Interview
Date:Sep 22, 1993
Words:5268
Previous Article:'The Bluest Eye': notes on history, community, and black female subjectivity.
Next Article:War and peace: transfigured categories and the politics of 'Sula.' (Women's Culture Issue)
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