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Making Black American Films

Reginald Hudlin

By Kathleen I. Kouril

For Black artists the American Dream has always presented a complicated dilemma: should one aim to be an artist, an American artist, or a Black artist' Scholars continue to argue for example, over whether Ralph Ellison's classic. Invisible Man, is primarily a novel about an artist in America or a novel about a Black man in America. When singer Diana Ross was invited to Harvard last month as an example of Black achievement a controversy broke out over whether she adequately reflects Black cultural values. A century later, the debate between Booker I Washington and W. E. B DuBois goies on only the names have changed.

The controversy has inspired much of the work of Reginald Huddlin, one of Harvard's most prominent Black artists over the past four years. The East St. Louis III native makes films, explaining, "I think of myself as a Black filmmaker, and that's inherently political. Some Black artists just want to be thought of as artists, not Black artists. I don't find the term a pigeonhole."

Black artists have in the past often rejected America. Some, like novelist Richard Wright, turned to communism others emigrated. Even today, many American Black artists look to Europe for inspiration and Hudlin says. Black films in particular owe much to Ingmar Bergman and other European filmmakers Hudlin makes Black films that are in tune with the American tradition. His favorite directors are Howard, Hawks and John Ford. In his own work, he plans to explore what he calls "Afro Americana "that is, the part of American culture which is Black.

"Face it." Hidlin says we're Afro American. You cannot deny either halt we're Black and American. And this realization is really the next step for Black film as well as Black politics. We have to be more critical, we have to get beyond gross over-simplifications and knee jerk responses to problems of race in this country. Sure we are the disenfranchised from the American Dream Capitalism and communism are both as owedly racist. But we're not moving beyond this rhetorical consciousness. What are we going to do next".

Hudlin recently finished a film which in some ways indicates his own answer to that question "Houseparty," his V E S senior these is project, is the story of a 16-year-old Black youth who sneaks out of his house and attends a party, against his parents wishes The film, which will be showing at the Coolidge Corner theater on June 10, has received high praise in several competitions and has prompted a private foundation to fund Hudlin's next project.

"One of the hardest things for a person in Boston to do, as an independent filmmaker, is to make a fiction film," says Gerald Peary of American Film Magazine. "Even harder is to make a fiction film which is funny. This is a national problem as well. Reggie has broken through a really tough barrier by writing a script that's truly very funny. It's quite an achievement."

"Houseparty" focuses exclusively on Black characters, yet Hudlin intends it as neither a statement of Black separatism nor a paean to racial pride. "I hate anything that smacks of moralizing," he says. "This is a film about Black youth culture, and when you're dealing with kids, there can't be any compromises. Kids see right through that stuff. I wanted this film to be honest. It's fiction: it's a story, but it's accurate."

Some viewers might be surprised by the movie's closing shot: The boy, sneaking back into his house after the party, is discovered by his father. The man pulls off his belt, preparing to punish his son. The final frame reveals the dark-skinned boy, his eyes bulging out in fear. Hudlin was advised that this shot might be offensive to some Blacks, a remainder of the stereotype of the bug-eyed Black slave afraid of the whip.

"I don't see why any stereotype should be off limits," says Hudlin. "Why must Blacks be so afraid of presenting images of themselves which are less than perfect?" He bemoans what he considers the tendency of some Blacks to gloss over the history of Black oppression in this country.

The problem arises, he says, not only in making films, but also in promoting them. A member of the New York-based Black Filmmaker Foundation, he describes the strong reaction to the group's screening of the controversial film. "From Harlem to Harvard," by Marco Williams. Many Blacks who saw the movie criticized the unsentimental portrait of a young Black man from Harlem who does not do well at Harvard and eventually leaves school. While the film clearly exposes some of the pressures on Blacks at Harvard, says Hudlin, many Black viewers, especially those who have "made it," were appalled, "There was a real feeling of Hey, why are you showing our ass" Some Black people feel we ought to be presenting only positive images of Black--Black people making it getting ahead," says Hudlin.

Generating controversy is nothing new as Hudlin, whether in his filmmaking or presenting He's been profoundly influenced by one of the leaders of the independent Black film movement in this country, his older brother. Warrington Hudlin The founder of the Black Filmmaker Foundation Warrington Hudlin received national attention when as a senior at Yale, he released "Black at Yale," a documentary about minority life at that university.

The Black Filmmaker Foundation serves as an information clearinghouse and distribution service for independent filmmaker who are Black and making films about Black subjects. It is designed to give then, the break they probably won't get from Hollywood backers. Reginald Hudlin founder and director of his own project here Harvard the Harvard Black Independent Film Series an effort to bring some of these innovate Black filmmakers and their work to Harvard.

Hudlin has arranged for screenings of works Warrington Hudlin. Roy Campanella Jr. Charles Burnett and Robert Gardener, among others. The presentations have often been accompanied by standing room only question and answer sessions with the artists Says Hudlin. "I'm bringing Black films to Harvard because I have a sense that people are willing to experiment, see something 'weird' while they're students. It I can get them to see an independent Black film. I can eliminate that idea that Black films are only political, didactic works, because they're not. They are as rich and as varied as film in general. There are Black art films. Black adventure films. Black drama of the middle range--like 'Ordinary People,' that sort of thing." He adds, "I'd actually like to do a futuristic Black science fiction film. You never see Blacks in futuristic films. I want to let people know that we're still going to be around even then."

In the not-so-distant future. Hudlin will soon begin work on a new film, tentatively titled. "The Kold Waves." Though a fiction piece, the movie is based on the experiences of a friend of Hudlin's, another Harvard senior. The film will tell the story of a young white musician who auditions for an otherwise all-Black band and encounters reverse racism.

While Hudlin has not ruled out the possibility of depicting more white characters in the future, he says. "Black people are the most interesting people I know, and you only have so many opportunities to make a film. You have to try to approach every film as if it were to be your master-piece, your last statement--so I can't spend any time on other things when there is so much to be said about Black people."

In that case, why is Hudlin working on "The Kold Waves," a film whose central character is white? "This cutting edge of integration is very interesting," he explains. "We're really the first generation to confront it. We were born post-1954, post-Brown v. The Board of Education, we've grown up together, we're the products of the Civil Rights movement--and yet prejudice persists."

"Why is that when a white person reaches out to Blacks, his motives are suspect, he is being 'patronizing?'" asks Hudlin. "It makes you wonder if an honest reach-out and a sympathetic response will ever be possible? And when a Black is a loser, say when my work is rejected by a white organization. I still have that knee-jerk response--is it because I'm Black? You don't want to cry 'wolf,' but you can never know for sure. That's why Blacks suffer from hypertension and high blood pressure. They can't win. They don't want to be victims, but they don't want to give up their culture to be accepted.... White people who make a sincere attempt to reach out suffer the same doubts and the same pressures in reverse. It's crushing on either side, ego-destroying. Not to mention interesting and funny. Mostly funny. That's why I want to make a film like "The Kold Waves."

His potential has been widely heralded at Harvard, Says his tutor in VES, Ross McElwees "Reggie has sympathy for the character he's created, and that sympathy extends to the audience. He has a gift for comedy...I like the comic realness of Reggie's film."

Hudlin, who writes, directs, films and edits all of his own works, is intent on a career as a filmmaker. He is optimistic about the future of Black film in general but uneasy about his immediate future. "It's hard to resign yourself to being poor for the next 10 years or so Investors and grant money are not easy to find."

Nevertheless, he hopes someday to produce feature length films in the tradition of the Afro American storyteller or "griot" One of Hudlin's current inspirations is Richard Pryor, whom the senior calls a 'modern day griot. Hudlin says there could be an audience for Black films and not just the one third of the movie going population that is Black. "We can get people to come to our films," he says. "But before they're going to listen to any message they've got to be entertained That's why I use humor. The first step in the politics of Black filmmaking is to get people to watch that means entertaining them making them laugh. But really all we need is one or two breakthroughs, if one of us gets his foot in the door it's all over People will realize that there are Black films in America about Americans. That what I'm interested in I want to make Black American films.

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