“Great pitch! But do the characters have to be black?”
For blacks in the film industry, the question from studios and producers isn’t new — even if it isn’t always uttered aloud. So my husband, writer Steven Barnes (The Outer Limits, The New Twilight Zone, Andromeda), and I have joined filmmakers who are taking advantage of leaps in High Definition (HD) video technology and social media that enable us to make our own films — and raise our own funds.
We have teamed with award-winning director Luchina Fisher (Death in the Family) to shoot raw footage for a short horror film called Danger Word,based on the multicultural Young Adult zombie novelDevil’s Wake (Atria Books) Steve and I published in 2012.
Using crowd funding to break from Hollywood
Wednesday, we launched a fundraising campaign with a film trailer on the crowd funding site on Indiegogo to raise the $12,500 we need to finish the film. We used our blog and social media, primarily Facebook, to raise $15,000 for the film’s Memorial Day weekend shoot in rural upstate New York.
Danger Word stars veteran actor Frankie Faison (The Wire, Banshee, The Silence of the Lambs) and 12-year-old Saoirse Scott (One Life to Live) as a grandfather and granddaughter who have survived the zombie plague in his wooded cabin — and how her birthday goes awry.
Brad Pitt’s zombie action movie World War Z, which opened Friday, purportedly cost $200 million. By contrast, our character-driven story of love and survival will cost only about $27,500 — which we are raising with the help of more than 200 fans, friends and strangers who have backed our film so far. Some gave one dollar — some gave $1,000.
Backers include groundbreaking writer/director Julie Dash (Daughters of the Dust), novelist Bernice L. McFadden, Oscar nominee Josh Olson (Best Adapted Screenplay, A History of Violence) and Tony nominee Stephanie D’Abruzzo (Avenue Q). The independent cinema blog Shadow and Act and The Huffington Post have written about Danger Word.
Danger World gains ground within grassroots movement
Tré McGriff, programming director of the Charlotte Black Film Festival, became an early backer and associate producer of Danger Word after hearing about it on Facebook.
“I’d never seen a zombie film done quite this way, where the heart of the story is the relationship [between] a little black girl and her grandfather,” McGriff says. “Independent film is very important because it allows new voices to be heard outside of the context of Hollywood fare.”
Recently, I appeared on MSNBC’s Melissa Harris-Perry for a panel on black film that included independent film pioneer Tim Reid and Sundance winner Ava DuVernay. Even with several black films slated for release this year (Fruitvale, The Butler, Baggage Claim), Reid and DuVernay encourage black artists to raise their own funds instead of pitching in Hollywood.
The need for more black sci-fi and horror
Science fiction and horror movies have been particularly problematic, with characters of color often sidelined to stereotypical roles: “The Sacrificial Negro” (a black character who sacrifices himself for the good of white characters) or “The Spiritual Guide” (a character who exists only to lead white characters to enlightenment). In many horror classics, the black character dies first.
Will Smith’s near-future film After Earth, starring his son Jaden Smith, is a notable exception to stereotypical roles. But as a disappointing box-office demonstrates, no one star or artist can carry that torch alone.
I was raised by civil rights activists. My mother, the late Patricia Stephens Due, spent 49 days in jail for sitting-in at a Woolworth lunch counter in Tallahassee, Florida, in 1960 — becoming a part of the nation’s first “Jail-In.” My father, John Due, is a civil rights attorney. My mother explained to me that in the 1960s, the NAACP considered the entertainment industry an integral part of the civil rights struggle.
Why does entertainment matter? Because visual life lessons matter.
Why films like Danger World matter now
On the surface, Danger Word is a short zombie film — but all of us involved in the project know that the image of a loving grandfather teaching his granddaughter survival skills in a world fraught with danger hits close to home.
The peril our children and grandchildren face isn’t really zombies, even if it sometimes feels that way. Instead, they often face poverty, fractured families, street violence, poor educational opportunities, mass incarceration and a society where a black teenager wearing a hoodie is assumed to be a threat.
That’s why entertainment matters. Fictitious characters in peril can teach us, and our children, to be strong when life’s real monsters come.