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George Alexander. Why We Make Movies: Black Filmmakers Talk About the Magic of Cinema.

George Alexander. Why We Make Movies: Black Filmmakers Talk About the Magic of Cinema. Harlem Moon/Broadway Books, 2003. 304 pages, $15.95. Different Lens

Flashback to 1974--that was the year movie critic Donald Bogle wrote his seminal book, Toms, Coons, Mulattoes, Mammies & Bucks, and suggested that these five African-American stereotypes were used everyday in the mass media and in particular in the cinema. Bogle's five main stereotypes were based on his research of the images that white Hollywood directors and movie audiences advanced about African-Americans.

In my own research, African-Americans have also over the years looked at media roles and performances from a different lens, a lens that captures the African-American presence in a different cultural hue and within the following five groupings: "Kings and Queens" (those characters that African-Americans greatly admire), "Divas and Players" (a.k.a. hustlers, argumentative and cantankerous characters), "Self-Haters and Villains" (a cross between Bogle's 'Uncle Toms' and 'Coons'), "Brothermen, Sisterfriends, and Lovers" (characters that African-Americans form a close attachment to), and "Props" (their primary role is that of a relatively insignificant backdrop to a European-American universe/ environment).

Now fast forward to 2003. Today many of these images are now reinforced, reshaped and even rewind by black filmmakers, many of whom were interviewed in George Alexander's fine book, Why We Make Movies: Black Filmmakers Talk About the Magic of Cinema. Alexander, a Morehouse and Columbia graduate, has done an impressive job of providing us with an insider's view of the contemporary world of 33 black filmmakers. I highly recommend this book for anyone interested in understanding the philosophies and perseverance strategies of this creative colony of artists, activists and scholars. Lots of war stories. And for the most part, they did not shy away from discussing racism in Hollywood.

The book is easy to read, and although not billed as a scholarly treatise, wears very well its key words of film and African American studies. In fact media and communication scholars will have little problem finding examples of agenda setting theory, propaganda, social responsibility theory and spiral of silence. But even more important, laypersons, moviegoers, and aspiring filmmakers will enjoy Alexander's ability to present these filmmakers and artists as approachable and genuinely a part of the larger African world community.

Filmmaker Kathe Sandler's point that "There's the burden of being Black, but it's a great gift too" seemed to be a common thread in the book and also indicated a running undercurrent that remains unresolved for some interviewed. In fact filmmaker William Greaves astutely reminds readers that the actor Paul Robeson said, "The Negro artist has to choose freedom or slavery." Robeson chose to use his films as political and social action vehicles, while some black filmmakers interviewed have not.

Although the celebrated Ossie Davis encouraged filmmakers to do their research and "Study your history," It is ironic that only a few mentioned the legacy of Oscar Micheaux, but the names of white American, Italian, Jewish and French filmmakers just seemed to roll off of their tongues as if they were name-dropping and sending subliminal messages. It would have been helpful if Alexander had asked more standard questions to the interviewees. He said a lot of "wows" during his interviews and seemed to be in awe at times. This reaction was understandable to an extent and even refreshing, but also partially explained why he did not follow up with harder hitting questions when he had several openings.

I am an "index person' and "summary person," therefore, I think these two elements would have added greatly to this book. But I appreciated the fact that whenever a movie was mentioned, the date was included.

Perseverance, skill and education matter. As an educator, I was not surprised to find that many of these filmmakers attended colleges as diverse as City College of New York, Harvard, Northwestern, U-C Berkeley, Howard, NYU, USC and the American Film Institute. Like the Harlem Renaissance era, these filmmakers came from throughout the United States and African Diaspora, including Mali, Martinique, Barbados, and Ethiopia.

Because of space, Alexander was only able to cover 33 filmmakers, including luminaries such as Spike Lee, Melvin Van Peebles, Julie Dash, Michael Schultz and Gordon Parks. Everyone deserved inclusion, but missing in this volume were other stellar members such as Tim Reid, Oprah Winfrey, Debbie Allen, Kim Moir and Kevin Hooks.

Why do these individuals make movies? Perhaps Ernest Dickerson summed it up best when he said, "I guess you might as well ask why do I breathe? I know literally, figuratively and creatively that if I didn't make films I'd die. But you have to love film because it's an insane profession."

Journalist George Alexander likes movies and his book provides us with a nice snapshot of many of the industry's black participants as scholars, mainstream filmmakers, documentarians and just plain old entertainers--flaws and all.

Keith Orlando Hilton

University of the Pacific in Stockton
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Author:Hilton, Keith Orlando
Publication:Film & History
Article Type:Book review
Date:Jan 1, 2003
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