Ava DuVernay, director of the Academy Award-nominated film “Selma,” spent all of this Wednesday amplifying the voices of black film directors — 42 of them, in fact. Through her company, the African-American Film Festival Releasing Movement, DuVernay and her staff organized a “Rebel-A-Thon” conversation on Twitter that served as both a fundraiser (AFFRM donors are referred to as Rebels) and a marathon question-and-answer session between directors and fans. All of the funds raised through AFFRM Rebel membership contributions help make independent black films available to wider audiences:
Every dollar goes to the distribution of films by moviemakers ignored by studios. Join our tribe and stand with us. http://t.co/ECDfaKIpBw
— Ava DuVernay (@AVAETC) May 16, 2015
Wednesday’s Rebel-A-Thon was star-studded: Everyone from mainstream, veteran moguls such as Oprah, Tyler Perry and Debbie Allen to younger indie directors such as Nailah Jefferson (“Vanishing Pearls”), Shaka King (“Newlyweeds”) and Tanya E. Hamilton (“Night Catches Us”) participated. A common theme among participating directors was the idea that upstart filmmakers should “just do it,” rather than waiting to be asked to make their art. When asked about resource texts for studying the filmmaking craft, “Medicine for Melancholy” director Barry Jenkins responded that he’d recommend actual shooting experience over textbooks:
— Barry Jenkins (@BandryBarry) May 27, 2015
Neema Barnette (“Woman Thou Art Loosed: On the 7th Day”) seconded that, encouraging aspiring directors to take the low-budget route and to use social media to their advantage:
— neema barnette (@neemrick) May 27, 2015
Most fan and film student queries centered on getting one’s foot in the filmmaking door, financing film ideas and distributing their work once complete. Many came into the conversation seeking solutions to greenlighting challenges and strategies for navigating a relatively white Hollywood community. Their concerns were well-founded: The University of Southern California Annenberg School for Communication & Journalism’s widely circulated 2013 study on Hollywood diversity found that “Across 565 directors of the top-grossing films from 2007-2012, only 33 (5.8%) are Black. This translates into a ratio of over 16 non Black directors working to every 1 Black director. There are only 2 Black females who directed a film across the 500 movies in the sample.”
These numbers were a backdrop to Wednesday’s conversation, as participating directors didn’t waste much time reiterating them before offering suggestions on how to change those ratios. Debbie Allen suggested the Web as a viable alternative for new filmmakers:
@Send2ReceiveTV Chile the internet is making cable TV come together with billions of dollars trying to compete with an open free highway
— Debbie Allen (@msdebbieallen) May 27, 2015
Many new black directors have already gotten the memo on the viability of the black Web series, as our own Soraya McDonald reported in her profile of Web production company Black & Sexy TV, whose YouTube channel has attracted mainstream attention:
Now in its third year of existence on YouTube, Black & Sexy has grown from one or two shows that could maybe be something to a slate of programming that’s not only caught the eye of development executives at HBO, but an agent at United Talent Agency. . . . The partnership opens an entirely new set of possibilities for Black & Sexy, because they now have UTA’s knowledge and resources at their disposal, something that could help grow the network’s subscriber base from its current viewership of 79,000 to several times that, and eventually, to several million.
Aspiring directors weren’t the only ones receiving advice on how to get around a Hollywood system that frequently keeps them sidelined. Matthew A. Cherry (“The Last Fall”) told actors it’s become imperative for them to create their own talent showcases:
— Matthew A. Cherry (@MatthewACherry) May 28, 2015
Using Twitter to remove the velvet rope that separates professionals and amateurs and dispensing craft, financing and marketing advice to aspiring black artists is the kind of tactic DuVernay is becoming known for. Once, events offering this sort of insight used to be exclusive, expensive and held primarily in Los Angeles and New York, the hubs of most American cinema activity. It’s clear that DuVernay and AFFRM believe film education should be available to everyone who wants it. It’s the Rebel way.