Tuesday, 23 February 2010

Monday, 30 November 2009

The New Black Website launches...

The New Black - official website

The New Black has now formalised in to a working consortium and organisation dedicated to promoting and supporting Black Film and film-makers. Please go to the New Black website for further information:www.newblack.biz

Tuesday, 30 June 2009

UK Black Filmmaker Ishmahil Blagrove Arrested in Israel

At 1:40 am this morning Israeli Occupation Forces forcibly boarded the Free Gaza boat, SPIRIT OF HUMANITY, and kidnapped 21 human rights workers and journalists who were on their way to deliver much needed humanitarian and reconstruction supplies to besieged Gaza.

Among those abducted by Israel include colleague Ishmahil Blagrove, filmmaker and founder of RicenPeas Films, Nobel peace prize laureate Mairead Maguire and former U.S. Congresswoman Cynthia McKinney. They are currently being held in Israel's Ramla High Security Prison.

Since their kidnapping, tens-of-thousands of people around the world have mobilized to demand their immediate and unconditional release. The Free Gaza Movement would like to thank everyone who has made a phone call, sent a fax or email, written a letter, or organized a demonstration on behalf of their 21 imprisoned friends.

Everyone please distribute this posting to all your film mailing lists and networks.

For more info visit www.freegaza.org

Tuesday, 26 May 2009

Film societies and community cinemas Annual Survey Results

Film societies and community cinemas Annual Survey Results - posted 02.3.2009

The most recent and comprehensive survey of film societies and community cinemas was published this week by the British Federation of Film Societies (BFFS).

The survey provides a key update on a sector of significant cultural and social importance to the UK – that of not-for-profit community cinema. Over 100 organisations completed the extensive survey.

Key findings included:
• Admissions: Film societies and community cinemas recorded audiences of an estimated 361,000 in 2007/08. Theatrical ticket sales on the scale would have generated box office revenues of £1.8 million.
• Programme diversity: Over 625 different titles were screened by responding organisations. This is compared with 516 released in cinemas in 2007. 65 per cent of these titles were screened by only one film society or community cinema, indicating the diversity of programming choices made by the sector. Of the films screened by film societies and community cinemas 23 per cent were British, and 39 per cent were in a foreign language.
• Education and media literacy: The majority (73 per cent) of organisations provided programming notes to accompany screenings, and nearly the same proportion also measured audience reaction to films.
• Membership: an increase of around eight per cent was reported by groups with a membership-loyalty scheme (88 per cent).
• Enhanced film provision in areas otherwise neglected by commercial cinemas: 40 per cent of community cinemas operated in rural areas (compared to three per cent of commercial screens). On average groups were located around eight miles away from the nearest commercial cinema.
• Satisfaction with BFFS: for the second year running there was a high level of satisfaction with BFFS services and resources.

The full survey report can be downloaded at www.bffs.org.uk. For further information contact Ros Hill on 0114 2210314 or on email at info@bffs.org.uk

Spike Lee interview in the Observer magazine

'Barack changes everything'

Ever since a college project filming riots in New York in 1977, Spike Lee has used his movies to provide an alternative commentary on life in his home country. Here, he tells John Colapinto what the future holds now that Obama has torn up the script for African-Americans

One morning last June, Spike Lee arrived early at the Sony Pictures Studios, in Culver City, California, to record the score for his new feature, Miracle at St Anna, a second world war film about the US Army's 92nd Division, an all-black unit that battled the Nazis during the Italian campaign. Lee was joined in the studio's control room by his music-recording team. A large window overlooked the cavernous soundstage where Judy Garland recorded "Over the Rainbow", in 1938, when the lot belonged to MGM. A 95-piece orchestra that Lee had engaged had not yet arrived.

  1. Miracle At St. Anna
  2. Release: 2008
  3. Country: Rest of the world
  4. Runtime: 160 mins
  5. Directors: Spike Lee
  6. Cast: Derek Luke, Laz Alonso, Michael Ealy, Omar Benson Miller
  7. More on this film

A month earlier, at a press conference at the Cannes Film Festival, Lee had sparked a very public feud with Clint Eastwood when he accused him of having omitted black soldiers from his two recent movies about Iwo Jima, Flags of Our Fathers and Letters from Iwo Jima. (Historians estimate that between 700 and 900 black servicemen participated in the battle.) The spat had escalated quickly. Eastwood told the Guardian that he had left out the black soldiers because none had actually raised the flag, adding that "a guy like that should shut his face". Lee shot back, telling ABCNews.com, "The man is not my father and we're not on a plantation either."

Lee's remarks appeared online three days before he began recording the score for Miracle at St Anna. Lee sees the movie, the first by a major American director to treat the experience of black soldiers in the war, as redress not only for Eastwood's pictures but for an all-white Hollywood vision of the second world war which dates to the 1962 John Wayne movie The Longest Day - and before.

As the orchestra began to gather on the soundstage, Lee scribbled notes about the score on a yellow legal pad. He is 5ft 6in, with a barrel chest and a pigeon-toed walk. His baleful, half-hooded eyes peered out from behind tortoiseshell frames. There was a diamond stud in his left earlobe. He is 51, has a small bald spot at the crown of his short Afro, and wore an orange T-shirt with a picture of Barack Obama and the word "REPRESENT".

It's been more than 20 years since Lee's debut, the 1986 movie She's Gotta Have It - a breezy sex comedy about a liberated African-American woman and her three male suitors - and he remains Hollywood's most prominent black filmmaker. He has directed 18 features, three of which (Do the Right Thing, Jungle Fever, and Malcolm X) have earnt him a reputation as a filmmaker obsessed with race. Releasing movies at an average of nearly one a year, Lee has maintained a pace matched only by Woody Allen.

Lee is the artistic director of NYU's graduate film programme, where he teaches a master class in directing. He also makes music videos and TV ads (he has done spots for Converse, Jaguar, Taco Bell and Ben & Jerry's, among others) and has made two superb documentaries: 4 Little Girls, about the 1963 bombing by the Ku Klux Klan of a black church in Alabama, and When the Levees Broke, about the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina. He is able to accomplish so much in part because he often rises at 5am. "You want to get a lot done, you gotta get up in the morning," he told me. The rest, he says, is "time management". But Lee's output also reflects the unusual fecundity of his imagination. "Spike was the idea man," Herb Eichelberger, who taught Lee in an undergraduate film course in Atlanta in 1977, told me. "He was a good writer, and he would explore those ideas and turn them into full-blown mini-epics."

Terence Blanchard, the score's composer, arrived in the control room. A heavy-set African-American from New Orleans, Blanchard has known Lee for 20 years. He played trumpet on She's Gotta Have It, School Daze and Mo' Better Blues, and in 1991 Lee hired him to be the composer for Jungle Fever. Blanchard has scored all but two of Lee's films since. Unlike most directors, Lee includes the composer in the process from the start, often before a script even exists - "from the inception of ideas", as he puts it. Lee's emphasis on the music results in scores that often clash with the dialogue, making it difficult to hear the actors. "Of course you want people to understand the dialogue," he told me. "But the human brain is wonderful - with the correct score and the correct mix, the brain can multi-task and hear the dialogue and the music at the same time."

Before Lee and Blanchard could get to work, a Sony studio employee approached carrying a poster of Miracle at St Anna. He wanted the men to sign it, so that it could be mounted in the hallway next to posters for other movies whose scores had been recorded in the studio.

"Yeah, OK," Lee said, brusquely. He added, "We want the John Williams spot" - referring to the composer who writes the endlessly imitated music for Steven Spielberg's movies.

"You'll be right next to John Williams," the Sony man said, in a mollifying tone. "How's that?"

"We want the John Williams-Spielberg, you know?" Lee repeated.

"We'll take down the Memoirs of a Geisha, and put yours..."

"Don't put us next to Judd Apapoe, whatever that guy is," Lee interrupted, referring to Judd Apatow, the director of the goofball comedies Knocked Up and The 40-Year-Old Virgin. "We gotta be next to Spielberg and Williams!"

"You got it," the man said. He obtained the signatures, then scurried away like a soldier ducking enemy fire.

Blanchard opened a sound-proof door and walked on to the soundstage, where he took his place at a podium facing the musicians. On a large screen at the back of the stage, a scene from the end of the film began to play: battle-weary black soldiers moved through the cobblestoned streets of Colognora, a tiny hill town in Tuscany near where the 92nd Division, also known as the Buffalo Soldiers (they took the name from the original Buffalo Soldiers, six all-black army regiments from the late 19th century), fought. Nazi soldiers staged an ambush, and Lee captured the ensuing violence with a series of sweeping tracking shots and fast edits that are characteristic of his kinetic visual style. The orchestra played Blanchard's surging score - a passage heavy on brasses and piercing violins, but in a minor key and with a slow tempo that contrasted sharply with the battle onscreen. Where many filmmakers would have demanded a rousing score to complement the action, Blanchard and Lee had devised music that was unexpectedly elegiac, emphasising the wasted lives. As the battle scene unfolded, Lee got up from the console and hurried to the front of the control room, where he sat at a table that held a small monitor. He moved his face close to the screen as a GI spoke his dying words to a fellow soldier. A trumpet played softly under the dialogue. When the scene ended, Lee leaped from his chair and shouted, "Woooo!"

Blanchard came back into the control room. "Was the brass big enough?" he asked.

"Hell, yeah," Lee said. He laughed and jumped up and down.

The plot of Miracle at St Anna revolves around a bond that forms between one of the Buffalo Soldiers and an orphaned nine-year-old Italian boy and, in this respect, Miracle reflects Lee's opinion - as he expressed it to me - that love can transcend colour. But the movie is not without racial provocations. It is based on a novel by James McBride, who adapted it for the screen, but Lee had McBride add a scene involving Axis Sally - Germany's version of Tokyo Rose - a woman born in Maine, who migrated to Germany before the war and, embracing the Nazi cause, broadcast anti-American propaganda over Radio Berlin. In the film, Axis Sally, played by the German actress Alexandra Maria Lara, is shown sitting at a table in front of a swastika, speaking into a microphone. Her words echo over loudspeakers mounted on trucks as the Buffalo Soldiers advance toward the Serchio River: "Welcome, 92nd Division, Buffalo Soldiers. We've been waiting for you. Do you know our German Wehrmacht has been here digging bunkers for six months? Waiting? Your white commanders won't tell you that, of course. Why? Because they don't care if you die. But the German people have nothing against the Negro. That's why I'm warning you now with all my heart and soul. Save yourself, Negro brothers. Why die for a nation that doesn't want you? A nation that treats you like a slave! Did I say slave? Yes I did!"

Lee had intercut the speech with reaction shots of the Buffalo Soldiers wincing and even weeping. When the scene ended, he clapped his hands, cackled, and said, "Yee, yee, yee!"

Lee told me that he had researched the history of the Buffalo Soldiers in the second world war exhaustively, but Axis Sally's speech does not derive from a particular broadcast. Lee said that he had come up with the idea for the speech and asked McBride to incorporate it into the scene. "Propaganda with some truth in it," Lee explained. "Very unsettling to the Buffalo Soldiers."

The effect was powerful, if not exactly subtle, but such gestures have got Lee into trouble in the past. He has justified his manipulations of reality on artistic grounds. For Do the Right Thing, his cinematic anatomy of a race riot, which was shot in the summer of 1988 in the drug- and crime-riddled Bedford-Stuyvesant neighbourhood of Brooklyn, Lee's crew spent weeks cleaning up a street of crack houses - painting façades, fixing broken stoops - before filming began, and Lee makes no reference to drugs in the movie, a decision for which he was heavily criticised. Lee responded by saying, "This film is not about drugs," and by accusing those who challenged him of racial stereotyping.

"The fact that Spike Lee is a talented guy is unarguable," says Stanley Crouch, the African-American cultural critic who has long been one of Lee's fiercest detractors. "But if you make movies as consistently inferior to the movies of Woody Allen or Martin Scorsese and cry 'racism' or imply racism, when your movies are not as successful as theirs are - what is that? On a human level, his comprehension of other people is far more shallow than theirs is, and that's the basic problem that he's had from the beginning of his career, the fundamental shallowness that you get from a propagandist."

Scorsese, however, says that he admires Lee. "I always responded to his work as a fresh, original American voice in cinema - mainstream cinema. He actually pushes the medium in narrative storytelling. The way he uses the moving camera, the way he edits films, the use of music, the film stock that he uses - in particular, in one of the best American films, Malcolm X, but also in the documentaries. When you look at the list of the work that he's done - films, commercials, documentaries - the nature of the voice that he is in the entertainment industry in America is quite unique."

"People think I'm this angry black man walking around in a constant state of rage," Lee complained to me when we first met, in New York last May. His annoyance at this perception is understandable; he can be funny and warm, and even his angriest movies are leavened with humour. Yet the persona he projects, imperious and impatient, can be intimidating. He had invited me to join him at the Jazz Standard to listen to Blanchard, who was playing trumpet with his small jazz combo. He sat through Blanchard's gig uttering only a few words to me, and gave me a stern glance when I tried to initiate conversation between numbers.

Ernest Dickerson, who has known Lee since they were classmates at NYU film school in the early 80s and who shot all of Lee's movies up to and including Malcolm X, before becoming a director himself, said of Lee, "He's never suffered fools. You've got to bring your best game to him. He looks at everybody with, 'OK, what're you doing?'" Blanchard told me that Lee once became so incensed by the tardiness of a music copyist during the scoring of Malcolm X that he hurled a chair across the room and had the copyist fired.

Spike Lee was born Shelton Jackson Lee, in Atlanta, Georgia, but his mother, Jacquelyn (who died in 1977, from cancer, when Lee was 20), gave him the nickname Spike because, she later told him, he was "a tough baby". Lee is the eldest of six children (he has a half-brother, Arnold, from his father's second marriage). Lee has called his family "very artistic". Jacquelyn was a high-school teacher of art and African-American literature, and Lee's father, Bill, played stand-up jazz bass, but also recorded with Peter, Paul & Mary, Judy Collins, Bob Dylan, Theodore Bikel, Josh White and Odetta.

"My father would take us up to the Newport Jazz Festival," Lee told me. "Or, if he was playing at the Village Vanguard or the Bitter End, sometimes we could stay up late and go with him." For a time, Bill Lee was the sole breadwinner, but when electric bass became ubiquitous in popular music, in the mid-60s, he refused to play it and stopped getting the lucrative studio work. His wife was obliged to return to teaching. "I like the artistic stance," Lee told me, with an exasperated laugh. "You have a family to support!" But he added, with admiration, "He's never played electric bass to date."

Lee's mother took the children to Broadway plays and to movies, but Lee maintains that he was not like many directors, who say they knew from childhood that they wanted to make movies. "I loved sport," he says. "I knew I was never going to play professional sport, but I loved playing and I went to all the games I could afford to." When Lee was eight, the family moved to Cobble Hill, then an Italian-American neighbourhood of Brooklyn. They were the first black family to do so, Lee says. "First couple of days, we got called 'nigger' by some kids," he told me. "Once they saw that there wasn't a hundred other black families moving in behind us, like we're the only one, then it was OK and it was never an issue after that."

The family later moved to the middle-class black neighbourhood of Fort Greene, to a brownstone where his father, now 80, still lives.

After Lee graduated from John Dewey High School, in 1975, he became the third generation in his family to attend Morehouse, the all-black college in Atlanta. In the summer of 1977, after his second year, he returned to New York and searched, unsuccessfully, for a job. David Berkowitz, the "Son of Sam" serial killer, was terrorising Manhattan with random shootings, and in July there was a citywide blackout, which lasted 25 hours and resulted in looting, arson and vandalism. Lee, carrying a Super-8 camera he had been given the previous Christmas, went into the streets to film the chaos.

"I just spent that whole summer shooting," he said.

When he returned to Morehouse for his junior year, he decided to major in mass communications. The programme included print journalism, radio, television and film. "Once I decided I wanted to be a filmmaker, I really started growing up," Lee says. "I was really focused." Lee became particularly close with two other undergraduate film majors, Monty Ross and George Folkes. "They said, 'We really want to make some changes, '" Herb Eichelberger recalled. "'We're tired of these woe-is-me films, the black always being the underdog and never getting to break even on the silver screen.'"

For Lee's senior project, Eichelberger encouraged him to edit the footage he had shot in the summer of 1977. Lee turned it into a short feature that he called Last Hustle in Brooklyn. The film was a mock-documentary that included scenes of New Yorkers trapped in elevators during the blackout and of people looting stores, as well as scenes acted out by Lee's younger siblings. By then, Lee had applied to the top film schools in the country - the first of Eichelberger's students to do so - and had been accepted at NYU. At the time, there were only a handful of African-American directors in Hollywood, including Sidney Poitier, Gordon Parks, who directed the Shaft movies, and Michael Shultz, who made hits for Richard Pryor. "When I told people at Morehouse I was going to film school to become a filmmaker," Lee says, "they said I was crazy."

The NYU film programme is one of the best in the US. (Ang Lee was in Lee's class, and Jim Jarmusch was there at the same time.) During his first year, Lee was shown a number of classic movies by his professors, including the 1915 film The Birth of a Nation, by DW Griffith, who pioneered many cinematic techniques still in use today. But the film was notorious, even at the time of its release, for its endorsement of white supremacy and its glorification of the Ku Klux Klan. Lee felt that his professors put too much emphasis on Griffith's artistry and not enough on the film's racist message. "They taught that DW Griffith is the father of cinema," Lee told me. "They talk about all the 'innovations' - which he did. But they never really talked about the implications of Birth of a Nation, never really talked about how that film was used as a recruiting tool for the KKK." For one of his first-year projects, Lee wrote and directed a 20-minute film called The Answer, about an out-of-work African-American screenwriter who agrees to write a remake of Birth of a Nation. The screenwriter ultimately decides that he cannot go through with the project and is attacked by Klan members, who burn a cross in front of his house.

The Answer was shown at a screening of student films, and some members of the faculty were incensed. Roberta Hodes, a retired NYU film professor who took part in the debate over Lee's film, says that some faculty members recommended that he not be invited back for the final two years of the programme. After the first year, the school weeded out students who lacked promise. But talent was not an issue with The Answer, Hodes says. "I just think it offended everyone," she told me. "I felt offended, too, I'm ashamed to say."

Eleanor Hamerow, former head of the film department, said that the problem was not the film's content but its overweening ambition. "In first year, we're trying to teach them the basics, and certainly the idea was to execute exercises, make small films, but within limits," Hamerow said. "He was trying to solve a problem overnight - the social problem with the blacks and the whites. He undertook to fix the great film-maker who made that movie, DW Griffith." Hamerow says she was among those faculty members who voted to keep Lee in the programme, so that he could, "Go on and learn more."

After graduation, Lee took a job at a small film distribution company in the city. That year, Jim Jarmusch released Stranger Than Paradise, a critical and commercial success by the standards of independent cinema. "Jim Jarmusch was our hero," Lee told me. "When you're in film school, you study Scorsese, all these people - but you don't know them. But when somebody you know, who you saw in class and saw in school, makes it ... then it's do-able. So we were all, like, 'Yeah, we can do it now!'"

In 1985, Lee wrote the screenplay for She's Gotta Have It, about Nola Darling and her three suitors. Shot on the streets of Brooklyn and featuring a star turn by Lee as Mars Blackmon, a bespectacled and geeky would-be lover, the movie not only defied prevailing stereotypes of the Reagan-era inner-city black movie, but called to mind Woody Allen's early romantic comedies. To help finance the movie - which cost $175,000 - he obtained a grant from the New York State Council on the Arts, and seed money from his maternal grandmother, Zimmie, a frugal woman who "saved her social security cheques", Lee says. Everything about the movie suggested a refined sensibility - from the lush black-and-white camerawork to the sudden explosion of colour in a dance number. ("Spike's love of musicals really contributed to the dance sequence," says Dickerson, who worked as the cameraman.

"A lot of people don't know that Spike is a big fan of Hollywood musicals. Big Vincente Minnelli fan.") Lee's very funny performance as Mars Blackmon - in an oversized gold medallion, a fade haircut, and puffy Air Jordans - was an unexpected success. "I never wanted to act," Lee says. "The only reason I was in it is that we couldn't afford to pay anyone else."

She's Gotta Have It premiered at the San Francisco Film Festival and prompted a bidding war for the distribution rights. It opened in the summer of 1986, with what Lee calls a "marketing gimmick": for nearly a month, the movie could be seen at only one cinema in America, Cinema Studio in New York. "Every night it was sold out," Lee recalled. "And I would get there and hand out buttons. Me and my friends were selling She's Gotta Have It T-shirts." When the film opened in wide release, it made about $7m. The credits announced the film as "A Spike Lee Joint". Lee said: "Coming from the independent world, I knew that millions and millions of dollars were not going to be spent on the promotion and marketing of my film. So in a lot of ways I had to market myself and market the brand of Spike Lee."

In 1988, Nike paired Lee's Mars Blackmon character with Michael Jordan in a series of television ads directed by Lee. He eventually directed and co-starred with Jordan in eight Nike commercials, which played around the world during the late 80s and early 90s. "There was a time when more people knew me as that crazy guy in those Nike commercials than knew I was Spike Lee, the director," Lee says. She's Gotta Have It also earned him the label of "the black Woody Allen". Lee was not happy with the comparison. "How can you say anybody is the black anybody after one film?"

On the third day of recording the score for Miracle at St Anna, Lee arrived at the soundstage just before 9am. He was wearing a T-shirt with the slogan "Defend Brooklyn!" and he was in an upbeat mood because the Lakers had won the night before. During a break in the session, Lee took Blanchard aside and told him a story in hushed tones, about an encounter he'd had with Jeffrey Katzenberg, Steven Spielberg and Eddie Murphy at the Lakers game. "They were sitting together," Lee said. "I went to Spielberg, 'Steven, it's over with Clint Eastwood.' Steven laughed and said, 'I'll call Clint and tell him in the morning.' I said, 'It's over.' He said, 'Good.'"

Blanchard had known Lee too long to believe that he had uttered his final word on Eastwood - and told him so. "I don't see that shit happening," he said.

"No!" Lee insisted. "It's done!"

(Eastwood declined to comment for this article.)

As the day wore on, Lee became increasingly irritable, speaking little with his co-workers, and then only in brief, truculent commands. During a dinner break, Lee sat apart, his back to the room, reading the newspaper and picking at some cooked shrimp.

Then Lee received a call on his BlackBerry from his family in New York. Since 1994, he has been married to Tonya Lewis Lee, a former corporate lawyer who is now a writer and television producer. The Lees have a daughter, Satchel, 13, and a son, Jackson, 11. Ten years ago, they bought a town house on the Upper East Side that used to belong to the painter Jasper Johns and, before that, to Gypsy Rose Lee. The Lees also have a home on Martha's Vineyard, and their children attend private schools on the Upper East Side, a fact that seems to cause Lee some discomfort when he discloses it. He told me he had always intended his kids to go, as he did, to state schools. "But my wife put the kibosh on that," he said. Lee balks at being described as wealthy. "It's not rich rich," he told me. "Rich is Spielberg. Lucas. Gates. Steve Jobs. Jay-Z! Bruce Springsteen. I'm not complaining. But that's money. Will Smith. Oprah Winfrey - that's a ton of money. Compared to them, I'm on welfare!"

Jackson Lee was on the phone, telling his dad about a recent Little League game. Lee's bad mood disappeared as he paced up and down and spoke loudly into the phone.

"How'd you do?" he asked. "Everyone gave you a high five?" Lee asked several more questions about the game, then said, "Tomorrow is your last day of school. Tell Mommy to let you watch the game. Tell Mommy you wanna watch the Lakers kick the Celtics' butts!" Then Lee lowered his voice. "We have to talk about that grammar stuff when I get back," he said, before hanging up. "All right. I'm not mad at you. All right."

He sat and again became absorbed in his news-paper. But when the conversation turned to politics he looked up.

"With this election, we're gonna find out who's really liberal," Blanchard, an Obama supporter, was saying to the others. "You got people saying they're not going to vote for my man because he lacks experience. You know that's not it!"

"Who's going to be the vice-presidential pick?" Robin Burgess, the session co-ordinator and Blanchard's wife, asked.

"As long as it's not Hillary," Lee said.

"You know," Blanchard said in a wondering tone, "we got friends uptown who say they can't stand Michelle. I mean, what about McCain's wife?"

"Stepford wife," Lee muttered.

"I used to like Bill Clinton," Blanchard said.

Lee shook his head. "They showed their hand," he said.

Lee has always been intensely interested in politics and believes that the cultural and financial status of African-Americans is dictated by the policies and attitudes of the politicians in power. He blames Ed Koch, the mayor of New York City from 1978 to 1989, for fostering a toxic racial climate. Lee was particularly outraged by two violent incidents in the mid-80s involving the killing of unarmed blacks by white policemen, who were not convicted of any crime. In December 1986, three black youths were assaulted by a mob of white men wielding a baseball bat and sticks in Howard Beach, an Italian-American neighbourhood of Queens, where they had walked to a pizza parlour after their car broke down nearby. One youth was run over by a car as he fled his attackers. Three of the white assailants were convicted of manslaughter in the winter of 1987. Within weeks of the Howard Beach verdict, Lee began writing his third feature, a movie that brilliantly compressed race relations in New York - and, by extension, the nation - into a single day on a single city block.

He set Do the Right Thing on the hottest day of the summer in Bedford-Stuyvesant, a black neighbourhood with a lone Italian-American outpost: Sal's Famous Pizzeria. Frictions between the pizzeria's white owners and its black customers build until Sal, played by Danny Aiello, demands that a black youth, Radio Raheem, turn off the boom box on which he constantly plays Public Enemy's "Fight the Power". Raheem refuses, Sal smashes the boom box with a bat, and the ensuing altercation results in the arrival of white police officers. They execute a restraint hold on Raheem and choke him to death. Soon after, Sal's delivery man, Mookie - played by Lee, and until this point the only character who bridged the white and black worlds - throws a rubbish bin through the pizzeria's window and sparks a riot. The movie ends with two quotations: a plea for nonviolence from Martin Luther King - "The old law of an eye for an eye leaves everybody blind" - followed by a quite different sentiment from Malcolm X: "I am not against using violence in self-defence. I don't even call it violence when it's self-defence, I call it intelligence."

When the movie debuted, at Cannes, in May 1989, Lee was asked, at a packed press conference, why he ended it with Malcolm X rather than with King. "I think that in certain times both philosophies and approaches can be appropriate," he said. "But in this day and age, in the Year of Our Lord 1989, I'm leaning more towards the philosophies of Malcolm X." He added, "When you're being beat upside the head with a brick, I don't think that young black America is just going to turn their cheek and say, 'Thank you, Jesus, for hitting me upside the head with this brick.'" Do the Right Thing changed the public perception of Lee. From the "black Woody Allen" he became a kind of Malcolm X of American cinema. Mo' Better Blues, his next feature, was an attempt, inspired by his musician father, to defy stereotypes about black jazz artists as self-destructive drug addicts. But the movie included two venal Jewish club owners, Moe and Josh Flatbush (played by John Turturro and his younger brother, Nicholas), who exploit the film's black jazz musicians. Lee says that he was shocked when critics characterised the portrayal of the club owners as anti-Semitic. According to Lee, his lawyer at the time told him, "This could really hurt your career. You better write an op-ed piece in the New York Times." Lee's piece, published in the summer of 1990 and titled "I Am Not an Anti-Semite", was combative.

Lee is still angry about the accusations. "They're, like, 'So, Spike, are you saying that every single Jewish person is a crook?'" he told me. "Get the fuck out of here! That's crazy."

When Lee and Dickerson were in film school, they often discussed their ideal movie project. "For both of us, it was to try to do an adaptation of The Autobiography of Malcolm X," Dickerson says. Lee had first read the book in junior high school and later called it "the most important book I'll ever read", saying that it "changed the way I thought; it changed the way I acted". In 1990, Lee learned that the director Norman Jewison was going to make a movie about Malcolm X. Jewison had worked on the movie for almost a year, securing Denzel Washington for the lead role, digging up FBI transcripts and writing a script. Lee did not believe that a white director was up to the task - and said so in the press. Jewison told me, "I feel that he had pulled the race card, so I met with him." Jewison agreed to turn the movie over to Lee, who began filming in 1991.

The production was fraught with problems. "We were trying to make a better movie than Warner Bros wanted," says Dickerson, who was the cinematographer. Lee refused to compromise, and eventually went to prominent members of the black community for money to complete the film as he envisioned it. Bill Cosby, Oprah Winfrey, Michael Jackson, Prince, Janet Jackson, Tracy Chapman, Magic Johnson and Michael Jordan all contributed money to the film, which ran three hours and included a sequence shot on location in Egypt. Malcolm X was released in 1992 to mixed reviews and a disappointing box-office take of about $10m in its first weekend.

Through the rest of the 90s and into this decade, box-office returns for Lee's films followed a downward trend. Clockers, Lee's 1995 adaptation of Richard Price's novel, took in slightly more than $13m at the box office. Girl 6, the closest Lee has come to making a comedy since She's Gotta Have It, took in less than $5m. In 1998, he released He Got Game, for which he wrote the screenplay - his first since Jungle Fever. It won praise, even from Stanley Crouch, but took in only about $20m at the box office. Summer of Sam, Lee's bravura recreation of the dismal summer of 1977 - a film that Scorsese calls "excellent" and which deserved to be a commercial success - also failed to become a hit. In 2000 he wrote Bamboozled, a bitter satire about down-and-out African-American actors performing a hit TV show in blackface. The film lashed out indiscriminately at anyone whom Lee perceived to be exploiting black people - including the fashion designer Tommy Hilfiger (portrayed here as a character called Timmi Hillnigger) and gangsta-rap groups. (An avowed fan of hip-hop, Lee has nevertheless criticised 50 Cent and other rappers for promoting violence in black communities.) The movie took just over $2m. "It got to where people would come up to me and say, 'Hey, when's your next movie coming out?' - and I had one opening the next day," Lee recalled.

In 1997, Lee criticised Quentin Tarantino for his use of the word "nigger" in his movies. Samuel L Jackson, the star of Tarantino's Jackie Brown, defended the director, telling reporters at the Berlin Film Festival that the movie was "a wonderful homage to black exploitation films. This is a good film, and Spike hasn't made one of those in a few years." (Jackson had appeared in Do the Right Thing and, in a stunning performance, played a crack addict in Jungle Fever.) Lee responded by telling the Washington Post that Jackson's support for Tarantino was like a "house Negro defending massa" - one of his favourite taunts to African-Americans against whom he has a grudge.

During this time, however, Lee also made an acclaimed documentary. In 1997, he released 4 Little Girls, about the 1963 bombing of a Baptist church in Alabama, by members of the Ku Klux Klan - an act that helped to galvanise the civil rights movement. The film is notable for its emotional restraint; its outrage and grief are channelled through interviews with the dead girls' parents. It was nominated for an Oscar for best feature-length documentary. "There was something about the dignity of those people he encountered when he was making 4 Little Girls that had a very deep impact on him, and in some way they seemed to help him grow up," Stanley Crouch told me. "When you've got kids yourself and you're talking to the father of someone whose child was blown up by the kind of people who blew those kids up, and you see that this person is not ranting and raving in some kind of theatrical purported rage of the sort that you see in Do the Right Thing..."

Lee is less restrained in comments that accompany the DVD for 4 Little Girls, in which he carps about losing the Oscar to Into the Arms of Strangers, a documentary about the effort to rescue Jewish children from the Nazis. "When I found out that one of the films - one of the other five films nominated - was a film about the Holocaust, I knew we [had] lost," he says.

In 2006, Lee made When the Levees Broke, a four-hour documentary for HBO about Hurricane Katrina. He made eight trips to New Orleans over six months and shot more than 100 interviews with survivors. The film catalogues the egregious federal response to the crisis, but its chief power is its record of the toll on the city's residents. Lee was criticised for including the testimony of New Orleans residents who said that they had heard explosions before the levees gave way, thus lending credibility to conspiracy theorists who believe that the government dynamited the levees, drowning the city's impoverished Lower Ninth Ward in order to spare wealthy parts of town. Lee argued that it was his "duty" to present these witnesses' statements, and pointed out that he included other possible explanations for what they had heard. The film also features an interview with the historian Douglas Brinkley, who calls the bombing an "urban myth".

The success of Inside Man, in 2006, marked an upturn in his fortunes. "I got slipped the script," he told me. "It had been dormant at Imagine Entertainment, Ron Howard and Brian Grazer's company. I said, 'I'd like to do this.'" Grazer wasn't particularly troubled that Lee had recently been making small movies. "I'd hired directors - great directors - that weren't at the highest moment of their career," he told me. "What mattered to me was that in every movie, whether it was Bamboozled or Malcolm X or Do the Right Thing, he always shot good scenes. He always had good taste."

Lee made the movie look like a Hollywood blockbuster, with his signature fluid camera moves, Blanchard's gorgeous score and a twisty plot that was a clever deconstruction of the heist film: Clive Owen's bank-robber character is not robbing the bank after all. Lee also wrote a few race-conscious passages into the script, including one in which a Sikh is taken hostage in the bank. Released by Owen, the turbaned character is set upon by the police, who panic, call him a "Fuckin' Arab" and haul him away. Lee says he knew the film was going to be a hit, but he didn't know how big. It grossed $176m worldwide, a record for Lee, and he immediately began planning two pet projects - one about the life of James Brown, the other about the riots in Los Angeles sparked by the acquittals of the police officers who beat Rodney King.

"But I could not get the financing," Lee said. "I deluded myself into thinking that I have a little more leeway after my biggest hit." Instead, Lee decided to try to put Miracle at St Anna into production, but again was unable to secure funding from the Hollywood studios. Eventually, he raised the money from European sources. "Touchstone Pictures came on last, as American distributor." Lee is philosophical about the difficulty he has had funding his latest projects. "The people who can get films made are Spielberg, Lucas, cats like that," he told me. "Whatever they want to do, they get made. Everybody else? It's a battle. Woody Allen has not made his last three or four films in England and his last one in Barcelona by choice. He had to go where the financing was."

The next time we met was in midtown Manhattan. Lee was wearing a white Ralph Lauren sweat jacket with the word "Beijing" across the back and the Olympics logo on the front. "Let's walk," he said, and started up Madison, moving at a good pace.

To walk with Lee in midtown Manhattan is to experience the metropolis reduced to a small town. Every species of New Yorker - from homeless people to businessmen in pin-striped suits - recognised and hailed him. Passing cab drivers shouted, "Spike!" Cyclists, pedestrians, people waiting at bus stops, elderly white ladies smiled and nodded hello. Lee acknowledged them all with an expressionless nod of the head, or a quickly raised right hand. At 57th Street, Lee charged across a red light. As he approached the Niketown store, he noticed that a crowd of young men had collected on the sidewalk. "Sneakerheads," as Lee calls them, have been known to camp out in front of the stores for up to a week when the company introduces a new shoe. "Yo!" Lee shouted. "I got to find out what this is!" He hurried over.

The kids, some of whom had set up camp chairs, did a double-take, then exclaimed in disbelief, "Spike!"

Lee shook their hands. "What's about to drop?" he asked.

"Tomorrow. Questlove's Nike Air," a white kid replied. Questlove is the drummer for the hip-hop band the Roots.

"Say, Spike - when is the new Spi'zike coming out?" another kid asked. Spi'zike is the name of a limited-edition trainer - a mash-up of several early styles of Air Jordan - released by Nike in 2007 in honour of Lee's Mars Blackmon adverts. Lee told the kids that a new black-and-gold version was going to be out soon.

"The black-and-gold is out in Europe," one of the kids said.

"What?" Lee said. "No, it's not."

"I got a picture," the kid said, waving his BlackBerry. He showed Lee a photograph he had taken of the black-and-gold Spi'zike.

"Shit," Lee said. "I gotta make a call." He took out his BlackBerry and dialled the number of his contact at Nike. He got voicemail and hung up. "How long you been out here?" he asked the kids.

"Four days," the kids said.

In the evening of Hillary Clinton's concession speech, Lee had sent me a two-word text message: "Changes everything." I now asked him what he meant. "Changes the whole dynamic," he said. "If we have a black president, maybe it will change people's psyche." Specifically, he meant African-Americans. He went on, "They don't have to be shuckin' and jivin' - doing the tap dance - to make a living. And I mean that 'tap dancing' figuratively, not literally, because no disrespect to the world's greatest tap dancer, Savion Glover." I asked Lee about the debate in the mainstream press over Obama's blackness. (Time had run a story in February 2007 titled "Is Obama Black Enough?" and the question had since been taken up by CNN, CBS News, the Washington Post, and other news organisations.) He snorted.

"It's ignorance," he said. "Here's the thing. I'm not one of these people who're going to be defined by the ghetto mentality, that you have to have been shot, have numerous babies from many women, be ignorant, getting high all the time, walking around with pants hanging from your ass - and that's a black man? I'm not buying that. That's not my definition. Are there some black people like that? Yes. But if one speaks proper English, wears a shirt and a tie..."

Lee was suddenly distracted by someone across the street. In a booming voice, he yelled, "What's up, Nick?"

Stopped in traffic, in a silver SUV with the driver's window down, was Nicholas Turturro, who played one of the Jewish jazz-club owners in Mo' Better Blues.

"Yo, buddy! Like the hat!" Turturro shouted, pointing at Lee's Yankees cap, featuring a pattern of winning pennants.

"What size you wear?" Lee bellowed.

"I got one already!"

"Got one? You gotta get one for your brother! Time is running out!"

Turturro drove off, and Lee resumed talking about Obama's run for president. "This thing is not by accident," he said. "I think this thing is ordained - it's providence. It's bigger than him, it's bigger than all of us. I think this is going to be such a pivotal moment in history that you can measure time by BB, Before Barack, and AB, After Barack. That's what I feel is going to happen." He went on, "There's ramifications all over the world. I mean, I know this is a presidential election for the United States of America, but this thing is worldwide news. It's not like they rang every door in Berlin to say, 'Barack's going to be here,' for 200,000 people to show up. Two hundred thousand can come to see McCain but they're going to be protesting, and burning American flags and who knows what else?" He laughed. "If we were talking about two boxers, Muhammad Ali would say, 'He's too old, and he's too slow!' And he would say, 'I'm too young and too pretty and too fast.'" Lee clapped his hands.

In our earlier conversations, I had tried several times to get Lee to say whether he, routinely held up as an exemplar of the angry, activist black artist, felt out of step in the supposedly "post-racial" world embodied by Obama. He had dodged or ignored my questions. But he seemed to offer an oblique answer when I asked if he had thought about making a television commercial for Obama's campaign. After all, Obama and his wife had gone to see Do the Right Thing on their first date, in 1989, and then had discussed Mookie's act of throwing the rubbish bin through Sal's window.

"You gotta be asked to do that stuff," Lee said. "Look, if they need me, they know where I am. And in a lot of ways they might..." He paused. "You know, that shit could be used against them, too. 'Spike Lee, the man who said so-and-so and so-and-so. Now he's doing commercials for...'" He shrugged and smiled. "Sometimes you might be a liability," he said finally. "Just got to lay in the cut."

Lee did keep a low media profile. Behind the scenes, it was a different story. On 1 November, three days before the election, he travelled to Florida and plunged into the inner-city black Miami neighbourhood of Liberty City, known for its heavy crime and 80% unemployment rate. There, Lee helped shepherd residents of the local housing estates on to a bus bound for the voting stations. "Get on the bus!" he shouted. "Do the right thing! Don't be bamboozled!" And on election night he was in the crowd at Grant Park in Chicago for Obama's acceptance speech, snapping pictures on his BlackBerry. The next morning he would appear, via satellite, on Morning Joe, a political morning show, where he said that, with Obama's victory, his own masterpiece - Do the Right Thing - was now irrelevant. "That is history," he said. "This is a new America." To me, he kept it short but sweet. When

I emailed him that morning to ask, "Are you having fun yet?" he answered with one word: "Amen."

• A longer version of this story first appeared in the New Yorker © John Colapinto

• The Miracle at St Anna will be released later this year

Monday, 6 April 2009

Tyler Perry article in the Guardian

Tyler Perry in Madea Goes to Jail (2009)

Part Widow Twankey, part Shakespearean fool ... Tyler Perry in Madea Goes to Jail (2009). Photograph: Lionsgate/Everett/Rex Features

It's Friday night at the 12-screen Cobble Hill multiplex in Brooklyn, New York, and the crowd are in high spirits. The largest auditorium is sold out. Bags of popcorn, heavy on the butter, are being crunched in the aisles; kids are slurping on giant Cokes; a baby is crying. But nothing distracts the almost exclusively African-American audience from the drama being played out in front of them. As the film gathers pace, it is as if the whole room is in interaction with the moving images. When the leading man rejects his spiteful fiancee at the altar, a huge cheer erupts. A few scenes later, when the same character holds his true love in his arms and says, "I love you", several women stand up in their seats and shout at the screen: "I love you, too!" The atmosphere is electric. This isn't cinema. This is worship.

Such displays of mass devotion, repeated in movie houses across urban America, have turned the film in question, Madea Goes to Jail, into a 2009 box-office sensation. In its first five weeks, it took in $87m (£60.7m), almost half of that in the first weekend in February alone. Not bad going for a film that cost little more than $10m (£7m) to shoot.

Such zeal from fans has also propelled the film's director, writer and star into a unique position in American cinema. His well-oiled machine has churned out seven films in the past four years, each one grossing on average more than $45m (£31.4). That makes him easily one of the most consistently bankable commodities in Hollywood. But if you live in the UK, the chances are you won't even have heard of Tyler Perry. None of his films - the likes of Diary of a Mad Black Woman, Daddy's Little Girls, and Why Did I Get Married? - has ever been released in British cinemas. (Only one, Madea's Family Reunion, has even been put out on DVD.)

Why is the man ranked by the business magazine Forbes as the third top-earning black artist in America, with a personal income of $125m (£87m) a year, also described by Forbes as the "best kept secret in movie-making"? Why is he a virtual unknown outside America, while even within the US, he is regularly panned by critics or, worse, utterly ignored by them? Why, in return, has he turned his back on mainstream Hollywood, shunning the big studios, refusing to screen his films for critics, barely marketing them to wider audiences?

The mystery deepens when you factor in the female character who is central to most of his films. A 6ft 5in, alarmingly buxom 68-year-old grandmother who packs a gun, talks trash and grows weed in the back garden is hardly the most obvious formula for a blockbuster franchise. But then there's nothing obvious about Madea - so named after the southern abbreviation of "Mother dear". She is, after all, played by Perry himself, in drag.

Part Widow Twankey, part Shakespearean fool, Madea holds the key to understanding Perry's phenomenal following. In the latest, Madea Goes to Jail, she takes us on a high-speed car chase with the police and ends up in prison, where she promptly intimidates the prison guards and tears a strip off her anger management counsellor. It is through Madea, and the morality tales that swirl around her, that Perry secures his deep connection with his fan base, which is overwhelmingly African-American, primarily female and largely Christian. Or as he has put it himself: "I know my audience, and they're not people that the studios know anything about."

Sidney Poitier, arguably the supreme figure among black American film actor/directors, tells me why, in his opinion, Perry's output marks an important landmark in African-American cinema. He begins by speaking in general terms, about the void that Perry helps to fill. "He is talking to an audience that the American film industry has ignored for many, many decades. An audience that would like to see themselves reflected in their own image, that has a hunger to see themselves as they see themselves - as regular, ordinary, loving, fallible human beings."

Perry grew up in a poor black area of New Orleans. He was raised by an abusive father, Emmitt Perry, whose name he shared, but dispensed with after enduring frequent childhood beatings. His mother Maxine would take him everywhere with her to avoid the violence - to beauty parlours, shops and, crucially, to church, her haven in a harsh world. Those early experiences, and the characters they presented, have been the raw material for Perry's image factory ever since.

It took the inspiration of another woman to get Perry started: Oprah Winfrey. When he was in his early 20s, he heard her advise on her TV show that writing down one's feelings was cathartic. That set him composing letters to himself about his abused past, his anger towards his father, and that in turn led to a play, I Know I've Been Changed, in 1992.

Lean days followed. Perry scrimped enough money as a used car salesman to hire out a theatre in Atlanta, Georgia for the premiere of his play. It flopped. Just 30 people saw it in its first weekend - quite a contrast to four million or so who packed cinemas for the first weekend of Madea Goes to Jail. But Perry is no quitter. He slept in a car to save on rent, and through persistence gradually built his audience from the ground up. He began touring his plays to black neighbourhoods across the South, and in Newark, New York, Chicago, Cleveland, performing up to 350 times a year.

What emerged was a following wholly different from the profile of most theatre-going audiences. Black churches were his ticket booths, black women his touts. "What I've learned is you treat women right, and they bring everybody else," he has said.

His interaction with his mushrooming audience was symbiotic. He gave them stories about their own lives - about the search for love as an African-American woman, the search for a role as an African American man - that they could not find in any "mainstream" theatre or cinema. They gave him their business, filling his seats with fans as young as four and as old as 86. "He has been very loyal to his audience, and they are very loyal to him," says Miriam Petty, a specialist in African-American studies at Princeton who is studying the Perry phenomenon.

By 2005, Perry's success in theatres was secured - a tour of any one of his plays is now guaranteed to earn $100m, drawing crowds largely through email or word of mouth. But that was just the start. His genius was to take that same theatre audience and drag it with him into moving images. First, he made DVDs of his stage performances, which have sold more than 11m copies. Then he moved to feature-length film versions of the plays, beginning with Diary of a Mad Black Woman in 2005. The film introduced Madea to the big screen. She seduced his army of churchgoing admirers into the cinema, a place that many were visiting for the first time. The movie was slammed by critics as bad and over the top. It grossed more than $50m.

As with his plays, Perry has insisted in nothing less than total creative control over his films. He puts them out through Lionsgate, an indie distributor whose other big franchise is the gory horror series Saw. Perry's deal with Lionsgate is simple: he makes the films, they distribute them. No questions asked.

The ultimate manifestation of Perry's total control was the opening last October of his own custom-built film studios in Atlanta, occupying more than 30 acres, and carrying its own motto: "A Place Where Even Dreams Can Believe." He now shoots all his films there, as well as two hit TV sitcoms - House of Payne and Meet the Browns - that he has recently added to his empire. He has, in effect, become the first black chief executive of a movie studio. His own.

The opening party for the studios earlier this year was not only a crowning event for Perry, it was a breakthrough moment for African-American cinema. Tears flowed freely among the guests, who were served by waiters with tissues from red velvet boxes. Poitier was there, and had one of the five sound studios named after him. Also present were Cicely Tyson, who starred in Perry's first two films, Louis Gossett Jr, Ruby Dee and Will Smith, who gave the keynote speech. "There is something happening in America and the world that is powerful," Smith said, alluding to the presidential election of Barack Obama just days away. "Perry is not letting anyone get in his way."

Smith's endorsement was itself powerful. But not everyone has been convinced by the Madea franchise. One school of thought likens her outrageous character to the bad old days of the minstrel show. Todd Boyd, an expert on race and popular culture at the University of Southern California, draws a connection between the stereotypes of black people perpetrated by Hollywood in the days of legal segregation and Perry's caricatures. "Black people were portrayed as slow and dumb; they scratched when they didn't itch, laughed when they weren't funny. They were buffoonish.

"Tyler Perry has taken a number of those stereotypes and owned them - reinterpreting them for a new era. The difference is they used to be perpetrated by white Hollywood studio bosses. Now we have an African-American getting rich off them."

Boyd also draws a parallel with the so-called "chitlin' circuit" - the string of theatres and music dives through the south and north-east of the US where black performers found an outlet for their work. In the grim days of overt racial segregation from the 1930s to 1960s, many artists - film-maker Oscar Micheaux, actress Della Reese, Billie Holiday to name but three - had no choice but to embrace the circuit, unable to find work in mainstream venues. But by dragging African-American art back on to a circuit that is in effect segregated, so the argument goes, Perry has set back the struggle for equality in entertainment.

Perry himself is well aware of the "chitlin' circuit" label that has been attached to him. In interviews, he has admitted to having been initially embarrassed by the term. "But then I found out the history of it, and now I'm really, really proud of it."

A better way of looking at Perry's work, though, at least in terms of its content, is to think of it in terms of the pulpit. His movies are Gospel morality tales, retold in contemporary settings. So Diary of a Mad Black Woman is the battle of good versus the evil of adultery and lust for money. Daddy's Little Girls (2007) is a sermon on the power of love to overcome class prejudices. The Family That Preys (2008) exhorts its viewers not to covet thy neighbour's house, nor desire their spouse.

The interesting thing, as Miriam Petty points out, is that Madea herself often preaches the exact opposite. She refuses to go to church, grows cannabis and is quick to fight. In Madea Goes to Jail, she says: "The Bible says you turn the other cheek. You only got two cheeks, so how long are you going to wait before you whip their ass?" Another huge cheer erupts from the Brooklyn crowd.

Critics be damned. As he turns 40 this year, Perry is the master of his own universe. The audience - his audience - love what he does, and keep coming back for more. Eleven hit plays, two smash TV sitcoms, seven blockbuster films and three more underway. Will Smith was right: Tyler Perry is not letting anyone get in his way.

Friday, 6 February 2009

BBC closes the Asian Production Unit ... with differences over diversity are departments targeting ethnic minorities no longer required ...

Or is this a mistake?

Sunny Hundal, editor of Asians in Media magazine shares his views:

From Sanjeev Bhaskar, Laila Rouass and Rajesh Mirchandani, to Krishnan Guru-Murthy and Anjum Anand - the BBC's Asian Programmes Unit has a long tradition of nurturing talent. But that hasn't prevented the corporation from deciding to close it.

Established in 1965 as the Immigration Programmes Unit, and responsible for producing programmes such as Network East and Partition, the APU has effectively been closed since its head, Gurdip Bhangoo, departed late last year - and there are no plans to replace him.

"As the cultural landscape of the UK has evolved, so has the need to reach those audiences through all of our output and to develop ethnic minority talent as part of our overall talent strategy," says a BBC statement. "Authentic portrayal of different cultural communities, the inclusion of modern voices and ethnic minority talent development are a crucial part of our commissioning process and therefore departments catering specifically for particular minority groups are no longer required."

Political motives

But not everyone agrees with the decision. Employees see political motives. A former APU employee thinks the corporation has decided that "difference is not to be celebrated". In his view: "They just want a homogenised British perspective."

"Closing the APU might have had the right intentions behind it," says another. "In the past, they have tried to integrate their ethnic minority programming quota within mainstream departments. But has it worked? Can you name the last Asian programme you saw on the BBC that was not made by the APU?"

Questions as to whether there is a need for terrestrial programming that specifically targets ethnic minorities - and whether that should be through specialised units or existing departments - are also growing elsewhere. In 2002, Channel 4 axed its department for multicultural programmes in favour of an editorial manager for diversity to persuade indies and commissioners to consider diversity during normal programming. "It was decided that making cutting-edge programmes by specialist departments might work better," says one producer. "To be honest, I don't think it's worked as well as they thought it would. It's very hard to change the culture around commissioning."

There has since been a change of tack again - with C4 creating a multicultural commissioning editor post, headed by the religion editor Aaqil Ahmed and, last week, the announcement of the former MP Oona King as head of diversity. The broadcaster says it has earmarked primetime slots supported by ring-fenced budgets to produce programming that will look to develop "multicultural ideas and talent" and reflect "all kinds of social diversity".

When the BBC first created what was the Immigration Programmes Unit in the 1960s, it produced BBC1 programmes such as Apna Hi Ghar Samajhiye (Make Yourself At Home) which featured tutorials on British life, including voting and using gas boilers. That was soon followed by Nayi Zindagi Naya Jeevan (roughly translated as New Life New World) - which ran for 15 years and created household names - and series such as East, Bollywood or Bust, Cafe 21, Network East and Desi DNA.

But when Bhangoo was poached by Sony TV Asia in September last year, the corporation dithered on replacing him.

To compound internal problems, six weeks ago the BBC's head of diversity, Andrea Callender, left abruptly.

So should specialised departments be a thing of the past? "If you want to know about black or Asian culture, then The Culture Show should be the place," says C4's Ahmed. "If the programming across the board is as integrated as it needs to be, then you don't need targeted programming."

Ahmed says that what audiences want is to see themselves on screen. "The audiences don't necessarily want targeted programming," he says, "and the research bears that out." (Although, as he also points out, by scheduling targeted programming so late - Desi DNA was broadcast at 11.20pm on BBC2 - audience figures were never going to be brilliant.)
But broadcasters have not, many believe, been reflecting that cultural diversity. "The BBC needs real programming with high visibility in every division," says one former APU producer. "There doesn't seem to be any clear indications this will happen. If they fail to do this we'll look back at this as being the worst decision for Asian programming within the BBC."

Parallel lives

There also appears to be a demand for targeted programming, with 40-50 Asian satellite channels available, and up to 30,000 households with subscriptions to those not free-to-air. But that should not let terrestrial broadcasters off the hook. With no dedicated terrestrial broadcasting, critics point to the problem of developing actors and programme-makers from ethnic minorities, and the perpetuation of a "parallel lives" scenario where a generation of minorities grow up with little attachment to mainstream culture.

In addition, the closure of the APU highlights a greater issue. "The problem within the industry isn't necessarily about race - to me it's more about class," says Ahmed. "There are certain racial groups doing well, but to me they are often too similar in class and social culture to white, middle-class people to make a difference. I don't think there are enough executives in the media who realise that the industry is not being as representative."

Last year, after the producer Richard Klein told an internal audience that the BBC was "ignoring, at its peril, a great swathe of white, working-class audience", he went on to make BBC2's White Season. But many saw the series as tokenistic: working-class whites were largely seen through the prism of social breakdown, racism and immigration, and commissioners then returned to their usual fare.

British Asians could now become as underrepresented as other groups. Perhaps that's some semblance of equality.

• This article was taken from the Guardian Newspaper January 12th, 2009

First black entrepreneur OLAUDAH EQUIANO is to be honoured with a PLAQUE

Olaudah EQUIANO PLAQUE at St Margaret's Church, Westminster Abbey, SW1

A memorial Plaque will be dedicated & unveiled in honour of Olaudah Equiano at a special Service on Monday 9 February 2009 from 6.30pm to 8pm at St Margaret's Church, Westminster Abbey.

Equiano was baptised in the church on 9 February 1759 (250 years to the day). Equiano was a former slave, seaman, war veteran, explorer, writer, businessman and an abolitionist.

The programme will include short speeches, readings, poetry, music, etc.

Please let me know if you'd like to attend and I will do my best to get places on the guest list ... but hurry!?

Tuesday, 3 February 2009

Panel: Legacy & Learning part 1: State of Play

Chair: Nikki Christie, UK Partnerships Development Manager, UK Film CouncilIan Wall, Director Film EducationGaylene Gould, Film Club.

Gaylene: Film-club – films in schools, inc archival, non mainstream, world/subtitled – target 7000 schools in 3 years.

Ian: Film Education – funded by film industry, inc Nat films schools film week. Content cinema based (prints). Working with the Cultural Olympiad – attempting to screen a film from every olympic country.

G: noted the tribal nature of under 18s, therefore the need to acknowledge the shared group attraction of activities.

Also spoke about how much more young people can take on more challenging work than may be realised.

Check: London Children's Film Festival, Cinemagic, Showcomotion, Leeds Young People's Film Festival - suggested sources for film for children. 

Also BFI - check their catalogue for children's films available.

'Film Club is focused on watching movies (first and foremost)'. Interested in making links with festival to collaborate on work in schools and programming.

'We can take talent into schools, artists, directors etc' 

Often work in partnership with Film Education - but Film Club is not curriculum based (Film Education is).

Access to 5000 under 15 films to recommend.

N: 'Look for what schools in your area already have film clubs - and work with that existing audience/capacity'.

G: 'Film Club is free for schools'

I: Film Education looks to engage teachers into the idea of film culture & education.

Film Education's 'National Schools Film Week' - goes from Walt Disney to world cinema like 'the Lives of Others'. Reaches 100,000 children around the UK.

I: talked about winning the trust of the teachers and nurturing that relationship over time to develop more challenging programming, without scaring them off.

'Additionality at screenings is important for engaging schools - i.e. having speakers, panels, other elements on top of the screening'

Resources & funding for young people making films: 

First Light Movies,

Media Box 

Training resources: 

Moving Image Training Alliance

Film Education has funding available for pilot project looking a youth/schools based projects. Match funding needs to come from outside UK FIlm Council/Media Box etc - eg Local Authority, Businesses.

I; 'We want to teach about film, but also through film'

Spoke about the teaching packs available on the Film Education website, such as the one for Slumdog Millionaire - view here.

Tuesday, 27 January 2009

Archive link

Please check the link below for information about a Black Film Collection held in the USA.


Hope it is of help

Monday, 26 January 2009


The IMAGES OF BLACK WOMEN FILM FESTIVAL returns to the Tricycle Theatre...

The event runs from 27th - 29th March, 2009

As January 31st nears so does the deadline for SUBMISSIONS to the IBW SHORT FILM Awards.

Further info: http://www.blackfilmsociety.blogspot.com

Visit the Official Site: http://www.imagesofblackwomen.com

Saturday, 17 January 2009

Sundance Silver Anniversary Goes Black

The 25th Sundance Film Festival 2009 opened this week in Utah and will have more films by black filmmakers than any other year in the Robert Redford owned festival's history.

Shari Frilot, Senior Programmer, says, "The subject matter with which these films deal is remarkably diverse and eclectic, ranging from raw and edgy films to mainstream genre to environmental science. On the whole, this year's selection represents a shift in the quality and diversity of African-American film and the issues as articulated on film. We had so many submissions with such quality and importance as a whole."

One to watch is Good Hair a documentary which has its World Premiere at the festival. It follows comedian Chris Rock who sets out to examine the culture of African-American hair and hairstyles.




Distribution - Exhibition - Production - Training

Distribution in Reverse Teleclass

I attended a distribution teleclass hosted by Tanya Kersey (info below) a couple of evenings ago. I managed to record it and can send it to anyone interested. Its a big file so cannot post on here. Email me for more details.

As one of Hollywood's most respected and well-regarded entertainment journalists and commentators, Tanya is perhaps best known as the Founder, Publisher and Editor-in-Chief of the entertainment trade publication, Black Talent News and its companion website blacktalentnews.com and as the Founder and Executive Director of the Hollywood Black Film Festival, an annual 6-day celebration of black cinema drawing together established filmmakers, popular film and TV stars, writers, directors, industry executives, emerging artists and new audiences from Southern California and around the world.

I have made her known about what we are doing here with Film London and look forward to her feedback. I will keep you all updated.


Distribution - Exhibition - Production - Training

Friday, 16 January 2009

CLUBBED Cast Interview - Colin Salmon

Colin Salmon talks about his character "Louis" in the upcoming British film CLUBBED, which is based on a true story. CLUBBED was made by East End based independent production company Formosa Films and is released in the UK nationwide today (Friday 16th January 2009)

I will be monitoring the weekend's box office as the film has been promoted heavily online. Try and go and see it.


Distribution - Exhibition - Production - Training

B&W 35mm film stock available

Hello all

One of our members, Oz has very generously let us know his workplace has some high quality black and white Kodak 5222 film stock (around 20 x 400ft rolls), and some Fuji stock as well, left over from the James Bond film, Casino Royale. This stock is typically very expensive, but has expired so can't be returned to Kodak.

The Directors at his workplace are keen that it should only be given out to a deserving student or a passionate film maker - someone that will definitely make use of it. So if you or anyone you know have a film project in the pipeline, let me know and I will get in touch. You will probably need to state your film/proposal before any film is handed out.


Distribution - Exhibition - Production - Training

Thursday, 15 January 2009

Screen Nation Awards takes it place at BAFTA

The date for the Screen Nation Awards have been announced, and will take place on the eve of the annual BAFTA Awards, forming part of the film industrys' awards calendar.
Tickets are limited and can be purchased here:
To read more about the event visit:
To learn more about Charles Thompson humanitarian efforts visit: www.bridgeovertroubledwaters.org.uk
Best regards,