Should cinema be a safe space?
That question resonated with particular force this past week as Americans have grappled with the tragic implications of public spaces that have been revealed to be decidedly unsafe, even fatal. Suddenly the very term “safe space,” a popular target of derision among critics who use it to describe hypersensitive “snowflakes” afraid of intellectual diversity and robust argument, has taken on a grievously literal meaning.
As one of the few forms of entertainment we still show up to experience en masse, movies may represent our safest “unsafe” space in the most optimistic sense of that term. At its best, cinema invites viewers to encounter assumptions, opinions and perspectives completely at odds with their own, whether in the form of a mild-mannered peacenik finding escapist thrills at the latest “Purge” movie or a rough, tough alpha male shedding a few illicit tears at the end of “Moonlight.” When it comes to providing literal and imaginative space for pluralism, empathy and simply listening to differing opinions, films are by far the most accessible and unthreatening means at our disposal.
But they can also provide a much-needed comfort zone when contentious debates — that shouldn’t even be debates — turn hateful and deadly. That truth came home to me two weeks ago at the BlackStar Film Festival in Philadelphia, where the actress Gabourey Sidibe presented her directorial debut, “The Tale of Four,” about four African American women coping with modern-day issues of loss, family and identity. After being greeted warmly, Sidibe blurted out, “It’s just nice to watch this black-ass film with a black-ass audience!”
The sold-out crowd of mostly African American filmgoers burst out laughing, because everyone knew exactly what she meant. “The Tale of Four” is universal in its themes but highly specific in its context, readily understandable in its narrative and visual language but tightly focused in its vernacular. It was clearly just as much a tonic for Sidibe to have her film’s emotional nuances, unspoken histories and tacit signals readily understood as it was for BlackStar filmgoers to see their realities reflected on screen, with no explanations or translations needed.
That feeling — relief mixed with pure pleasure — was contagious, and completely understandable given the fact that American cinema was literally invented by rendering black people invisible, demonized or distorted beyond recognition. It goes without saying that more than a century of pernicious images — from the rapacious Reconstruction-era thugs of “The Birth of a Nation” and the solicitous enslaved servants of “Gone With the Wind” through generations of insulting and monstrous stereotypes — have helped shape and support the white-nationalist ideas that came into such florid and violent expression in Charlottesville this past weekend. In many ways, American films have been the celluloid version of Civil War monuments erected not to educate but lie about a toxic history and intimidate those who would seek to question it.
Just as some statues are beginning to come down, cinema is beginning to change, albeit slowly. But as crucial as it is for more accurate and varied images to take hold in the wider culture, it’s just as necessary for black artists to connect with those who can appreciate and find sustenance in their work in an atmosphere of trust and intimacy. Happily, two festivals coming to Washington this weekend promise to provide opportunities for connection similar to that offered at BlackStar.
The African Diaspora International Film Festival, now in its 11th year in D.C., will get underway Friday with screenings of the Peruvian drama “Rosa Chumbe” and “Mama Africa,” Mika Kaurismaki’s documentary about South African singer and activist Miriam Makeba. Across town, critic Kevin Sampson will launch the annual DC Black Film Festival, an idea he began germinating three years ago to gain visibility and commercial traction for “quality films by people of African descent.”
Reinaldo Barroso-Spech, who is Cuban and of Haitian and Jamaican descent, founded the African Diaspora festival 25 years ago as a college professor, frustrated with the lack of representation in American theaters compared with the movies he saw in his travels around the world and tired of having his experience and identity defined by people outside his global community. Sampson was motivated by frustration as well, although it was with what he considered an alarming surfeit of cliches and “manchild humor” in black-centered movies. After writing about his complaints on the website Picture Lock, he recalled recently, “I realized there are a lot of good screenwriters and a lot of good directors out there. The issue is access to the funds to be able to create and make their films.”
Sampson’s motivation to create the DC Black Film Festival was primarily practical, Barroso-Spech’s more philosophical. But both agree that the events of the past week have given their missions more urgency. Barroso-Spech expressed hope that younger viewers especially will take lessons from Makeba and Haitian-revolution leader Toussaint L’Ouverture, the subject of a miniseries that will be shown in two parts on Sunday.
“I want the festival to be a moment of reflection,” Barroso-Spech said. “I want it to be a moment of critical thinking, a moment of introspection. Because I don’t think that we should attack one person and make this person responsible for the good [or] the bad. I think it’s the structure.”
For his part, Sampson said in an email, “In view of the tragedy in Charlottesville, it’s clear that we need safe spaces to come together and talk about issues because only two things can combat this type of hate: love and seeking to understand each other.”
Both those values, he hopes, will be in full effect at his new festival this weekend. Safe spaces are easy to trivialize until you’re the one feeling marginalized, misrepresented, erased or literally under fire. For those who are still skeptical of the concept, maybe words such as “supportive” or “celebratory” would be less threatening. Frankly, I think “sacred” would work. What else would you call gathering in a darkened room to partake of deeply meaningful stories and shared symbols, when nothing less than your physical and psychic survival is at stake?
The DC Black Film Festival continues through Saturday at the Miracle Theatre, 535 Eighth St. SE. Visit dcbff.org. The African Diaspora International Film Festival takes place Friday through Sunday at George Washington University’s Marvin Center, 800 21st St. NW. Visit nyadiff.org