Michael J. Dennis is the producer at Reelblack and the director and cohost ofReelblack Presents which is a monthly a monthly series at International House in Philadelphia, PA; here is a link to the website:
Q: What are your primary duties at Reelblack Presents?
A: Reelblack is unique in that I am both a filmmaker and a film promoter. My mission is to connect quality African-American film with an audience hungry to support them. We do two screenings per month in the Philadelphia market. I also host REELBLACK TV, monthly half-hour (clips stream at http://www.youtube.com/reelblack) that features interviews with filmmakers and musicians. We also feature a membership tier that offers passes to advance movie screenings—often with the filmmakers in attendance. I am working on completing two feature-length documentaries—BLACK FILM NOW is a spinoff of Reelblack TV; LAST NIGH AT THE FIVE SPOT is a concert film centered on the artists of the Black Lily, a weekly showcase for Neo-Soul that ran from 1999-2005 in Philadelphia.
Q: What are your standards for including a film in the show?
A: We focus on “discoveries and rediscoveries in African-American Film.” We try to offer movies that have not screened publicly in Philadelphia/ are premieres or new to DVD. Occasionally, we will dig in the vaults and show stuff that is classic or hasn’t been seen in a while. We are also a founding partner inAva DuVernay’s AFFRM—the African-American Film Festival Releasing movement (www.affrm.com). We host all the Philly premieres of AFFRM releases.
Q: What is the most interesting thing someone has ever done to get into a show?
A: Not sure how to answer that one.
Q: Who are some of your filmmaking influences?
A: Spike Lee, Michael Schultz, Jonathan Demme, Billy Wilder and Preston Sturges.
Q: What are some of the challenges you faced in forming Philadelphia Black Film Advisory Committee?
A: If pressed, I would say that we have got to find ways for indie filmmakers to monetize their work and have more opportunities to work on the big budget films and TV shows that come to town. I feel really honored that Councilman-At-Large David Oh (and his assistant, Kimberley Richards) reached out to me to be a part of the committee.
Q: What are some of the services the Committee offers?
A: Our job is to find ways for filmmakers of color to thrive in the City of Philadelphia. Since we started a year ago, we’ve hosted networking events and information sessions that have helped bring our community closer together. Our first event attracted over 300 people. Subsequent events have been equally successful.
Q:What is the biggest change you have seen in black films in the last ten years?
A: Technology has made it possible to make really good-looking films at a much lower cost. So stories that might not have been told 10 years ago, are getting made. There is a diverse range in the stories being told. Last year there were over 20 movies released by Black filmmakers to theaters. Also, we are not looking to Hollywood for permission to tell our stories. 12 YEARS A SLAVE, LEE DANIELS’ THE BUTLER, FRUITVALE STATION, BIG WORDS, HOME and THINGS NEVER SAID are examples of films produced outside of the Studio System that expressed the diversity of our experience. In the past, Hollywood studios would jump on a trend and remake the same type of Black film until it was exhausted. Black film is seeing a renaissance that is finally reflecting the broad tapestry of Black Life.
Q: Do you think white audiences shy away from films with an all black cast?
A: I don’t know if that’s exactly true. While 98% of our membership is African-American, more than half the people that went to see RIDE ALONG and LEE DANIELS’ THE BUTLER were not Black. Reelblack does not discriminate as far as soliciting members. The white, Asian and Hispanic members simply love films and like to support our efforts. Audiences all want the same thing—to be entertained and told a good story. I think that good black films have the ability to reach wider audiences when marketed properly. Too often, Black films are marketed strictly to Black audiences, even when they might do better with a broader approach. THE INEVITABLE DEFEAT OF MISTER AND PETE is a recent film that might have done better if it didn’t have such a narrow marketing plan. That being said, I think our core audience (the 98%) makes a connection with seeing themselves reflected on the screen. Black film as a genre is important to me, because through storytelling, we come to understand ourselves better. Black stories need to be told and shared with Black audiences. I can only imagine that all-black cast films that don’t connect with white audiences are, through their advertising (and sometimes content), not making a general audience feel welcome to sample them.
Q: Do you think Hollywood fairly represents black characters in film?
A: For the most part, it’s frustrating to see the majority of Hollywood films have African-Americans in marginalized or supporting roles but it’s a lot better than the 1940s. Will Smith and Denzel Washington are bona-fide A list stars. Since 2004, Blacks are regularly winning Oscars. And Michael B. Jordan is going to play The Human Torch in the Fantastic Four. The best part of today is that we have the power to reject the status quo. If there are images out there that don’t reflect our truth, we can make new ones that are closer to it.
Q: I worked as a background extra in Hollywood a few times and I noticed that many of the calls were predominantly for white people, even in scenes set in LA, why do you think casting directors do this?
A: That makes me think of when I was in film school and I would write my scripts without specifying the race of the character in the description. My classmates would automatically assume the character was white until I told them. Some got mad at me for not being more descriptive and saying the characters were African-American, It’s just the nature of America. There are a few people in Hollywood who are into color-blind casting and seek the best actor for the job; most, when asked to read something, assume that unless it specifically specifies a race/gender that the character looks like themselves. In Hollywood, this is still mostly white, male. But things are changing.
Please note; Eliza’s interviews are done by email. All answers are unedited and come right from the lovely fingertips of her subjects:)