BFI Event: The Birth And Legacy Of Race Movies In The US

Art & Culture

Actor, director and producer Tim Reid got together with the British Film Institute in June to get young filmmakers to collaborate with Legacy Media Institute, an intensive two-week filmmaking workshop where participants work with top Hollywood and UK producers and provide a short film on the last day of the course which is then screened to the public. Reid flew from his hometown of Chesapeake, Virginia to the BFI Southbank to showcase what he and the group had created and talk about the history and birth of race movies alongside with black film historian Kunle Olulode and the BFI's Education Curator David Somerset.

Most readers may be familiar with Tim Reid for playing the funny, light-hearted, hard working father Ray Campbell in the nineties TV comedy hit Sister, Sister. Anyone who does a small amount of research on Reid will soon find out he was more than just a sitcom dad. For years now Reid has been putting on events to help young black filmmakers from all around the world interact with one another, to provide more diversity in the media and tell stories from different perspectives that audiences may not be familiar with due to lack of distribution or funds.

Tim Reid made it very clear why he created Legacy Media Institute and why he thinks it is important for people to support it and what it can do for cinema by creating a new age of film. He then proceeded to introduce members of the workshop who then explained how the workshop help them shape their goals around filmmaking. The short film, Choices, made by the workshop group was then screened and audience members had the opportunity to ask questions regarding the production and outcome. Choices focused on a young black couple coming to terms with an unplanned pregnancy and the sudden responsibilities they will have to take on. While the feedback was positive on the whole, several audience members responded negatively to the short film, stating that aesthetically it was solid but the storytelling, content and portrayal of the two main characters were stereotypical and not forward thinking. Reid confidently replied that he allowed the class to tell the stories that they cared about and thought were important. Although the story may be familiar, rarely has there been an opportunity for young filmmakers to show their point of view on screen. The audience has been conditioned to think that these types of stories are redundant but the only factor that is typical is the way these types of stories are being told due the filmmaker’s lack of authenticity. Not only was it evident that Mr. Reid was teaching his students how to achieve their own goals he was also teaching them how to protect their goals in a professional, informative and passionate manner.

History was an important part of the event. It was vital that the audience was familiar with the early films that were made and how they portrayed black people in Hollywood, usually as buffoons, slaves, villains and uneducated. Reid and other talkers made informative brilliant observations throughout about how much film and art in general helps to shape society whether it be for the good or bad depending on where the power is being held and why not much has changed today. At the beginning of the event most of the discussion among Reid and audience members focused on the American silent film The Birth of a Nation directed by D.W. Griffiths, a landmark in film history for it's innovative storytelling and camerawork. Many film critics credit it as ‘inventing film as we know it today’, the film is still very controversial due to its overtly racist content and the amount of damage it caused to black people including riots and lynchings. The film is based on the American Civil War and includes white actors in blackface portraying black men as unintelligent, animalistic and sexual predators towards white women who are rescued by the Ku Klux Klan, depicted as heroes and saviours of the South that would have otherwise been taking over by blacks, ultimately promoting white supremacy.

Reid rather strongly stated it to be what he personally believes to be ‘the most damage a propaganda film has ever caused against a race of people’, a statement that is very hard to disagree with. According to Reid a majority of The Birth of Nation was filmed near Charleston, the city where just three days before the BFI event, a gunman shot and killed nine people during Bible Study at the Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church, which also appears in a few scenes of the film according to Reid, in a racially motivated attack.

Reid would then go on to discuss why he thought it was important to know the history to any art form and how the media also play a huge part in corrupting our perceptions of cultures and the process is no different to what Griffiths did with his work. He then went on to explain that as a reaction to Birth of a Nation came Race  Movies in 1915, films made by black directors produced for black audiences featuring all black casts produced outside of mainstream Hollywood to provide more authentic images of black images. The pioneer of these films was Oscar Micheaux who was the first black filmmaker to build and own his on film studio, a groundbreaking achievement in the silent era of film. Although Micheaux made a great amount of films many have been lost over the years but Reid and his team of researchers have managed to regain and restore a few. One of Micheaux’s most critically-acclaimed projects Within Our Gates made in 1920 was then screened to the audience. It told the story of an educated black woman that decides to devote her life to helping a near bankrupt school for poverty-stricken young black children. It proved to be a flawed yet chilling and memorable tale.

After the event I managed to have a very brief chat with Tim Reid, and he was as interesting, funny and full of wisdom as one had hoped. I could see he was giving fans a dedicated amount of time to discuss whatever they wanted, so I decided to ask a few questions but it became clear that we could of spoken for hours. I asked him about his early career in TV, starring and writing a controversial episode of the eighties comedy series WKRP called A Family Affair. I also discussed his experience with comedy legends Robin Williams, Richard Pryor and Paul Mooney and why he thought it was important to have a Legacy Media Institute workshop in London. Reid was more than happy to talk about anything. He made it very clear that his original script for the WKRP episode was changed so that he and another character punch a bigot at the same time because they didn’t want a black male winning a fight fairly. He went on to talk about how amazing it was working with comedic legends and actually being in the presence of greatness. He loves London and the different ways filmmakers try to tackle social issues especially the way they were handled within TV drama series Top Boy and Attack the Block.  The whole event was an emotional, informative and a thought-provoking success. Reid proved that he is one of the most devoted living icons in film today; giving a voice to those that would usually go unheard.