Have you ever seen Laurence Fisburne deal with masculinity and religion while going undercover in Deep Cover? Wesley Snipes as a blood thirsty drug lord in New Jack City? Angela Bassett’s electrifying performance as Tina Turner in What’s Love Got to Do with It? Or how about Will Smith as boxing legend Muhammad Ali. Better yet did you ever see any of these films at your local cinema as opposed to waiting for their DVD releases? And if so why? These are the sorts of questions film programmer Ashley Clark and the BFI want to raise and discuss during their amazing Black Star Season which is on now all the way until December. Screening films which date back from 1913 all the way to recent releases, the season promises to shed light on black stars in film and TV, an aspect of cinema which is unfairly overlooked and not mentioned enough when discussing stardom and screen presence. The programme was meticulously chosen by Clark and the BFI programming team, who have gone to great lengths to show important films that, are rarely seen on the big screen. Along with the screenings, on stage interviews and events take place during the season including Q&A’s with filmmakers and celebrating TV shows that paved the way for black actors. I had the pleasure of sitting down with Clark and asking him about why the BFI Black Star season is so important and what impact he wants it to have on people among many other things.
When did you first come up with the idea for the BFI Black Star Season?
So in 2015 the BFI officially hired me to come on board and programme the Black Star season and I decided that I wanted to create a very specific programme around the theme of stardom, especially black stardom. What I didn’t want to do was a one size fits all black cinema programme. I wanted to explore themes of authorship through acting, I wanted to ask who have our black screen icons been and under what conditions, whether it be socially, politically, historically, have they flourished. The first film in the programme dates back to 1913 two years before DW Griffith’s The Birth of a Nation. It’s called Lime Kiln Field Day and stars Bert Williams, a vaudeville theatrical performer from the Caribbean; he was a black actor that wore blackface. He ended up with a company making a film in Harlem. It was thought lost until found again by MoMA in 2014.
So we start the story right there just before The Birth of a Nation set the tone for how black representation would be in American film which is racist stereotypes, black people as savages and buffoons. So the whole programme really comes out of wanting to look at black performers historically in the US and other parts of the world, the obstacles they faced and how their representation, iconography and opportunities have arose from that start.
How did you define what a black star is?
The programme is divided into many different sub-sections because there simply isn’t one type of black star so at every step we thought we would contextualise the programme into different contexts. So there are the stars we can universally acknowledge as stars such as Will Smith, Jamie Foxx, Denzel Washington, Diana Ross, Angela Bassett. There’s one strand of the programme where we thought how can we define their stardom? Well why not look at the times when they played stars and argue that those are their transformative moments. For example Will Smith as Muhammad Ali, Jamie Foxx as Ray Charles, Angela Bassett as Tina Turner, Prince playing himself in Purple Rain etc. We also looked at the birth of Hip-Hop stardom in the early nineties. Today nobody blinks when they see the likes of Ice T on their TV screens, that’s commonplace now, but we wanted to look at the moment when Hip-Hop stars (Ice Cube, Tupac and Queen Latifah) crossed over into acting and how that became a cultural movement. Then we’ve looked at specific actors that have embodied certain stories. Paul Robeson, Eartha Kitt, Chiwetel Ejiofor, David Oyelowo etc. all performers that have made that transition across the Atlantic in both ways at different times for different reasons. So we looked at what films they were doing in the UK VS what they were doing in the states. In terms of the British story we really focused on early trailblazers. People like Earl Cameron, who is ninety years old now and will be joining us for an interview, born in Bermuda came to England in 1939. By 1951 he was starring in his first film. These were British films by liberal filmmakers dealing with race as a social problem and in a way black performers in the fifties and sixties in England did great work, but were circumscribed by the fact that any film with a black person in it was going to be about race and racism no matter how good the filmmakers intentions were. There is also a lot of depth to the programme, we’re also looking at black stars in neo-noir films, and how issues of blackness subvert the genre in Europe. For example Alex Descas in Claire Denis films. We’re also doing a beyond Nollywood strand too. The season goes on for 10 weeks, and we’re really proud of the programme and how it’s come together, as well as the Southbank programme we are empowering and encouraging other cinemas around the country to programme their own ideas about stars. We want this to be a conversation starter, to get people to explore the links between Tyler Perry today and Oscar Micheaux back in the 1810s and 20s. We’re not being overly prescriptive or pedagogical; we just want people to learn and find new things and enjoy films they never had the chance to see on the big screen. People talk about about In the Heat of the Night a lot but is it shown on the big screen that often?
There is a TV aspect to the programme too. Can you talk us through that?
In terms of TV we are focusing on British stories, I grew up with black stars in Britain on television so I initially thought of Norman Beaton and Carmen Munroe when thinking of my favourite black stars. I grew up in Streatham and I’m sitting there watching Desmond’s for five years which is based in Peckham. So I’m we are focusing on Beaton and Munroe. We are also looking at a guy called Lloyd Record, a very underrated influential black actor turned director. Also we have kept the TV side of things pretty historical and also celebrating actors like Sophie Okonedo, John Boyega, Chiwetel Ejiofor, David Oyelowo who have made a leap to Hollywood as well. Obviously there’s limits to what we can include in the programme, what I was keen to do was highlight as many big leading performances as possible, that’s one thing that runs throughout it. I know many tropes exist such as the black side kick for example and I acknowledge that but I wanted to focus on leading parts for this programme. Actually we have a book coming out called the Black Star - a BFI Compendium which details a lot of the areas we weren’t able to fit into the programme. It’s a totally different issue securing rights for US television. I want to give a shout-out to the BFI’s programming unit who were fantastic. I am very very very happy with the programme that we have.
What is your favourite black star performance?
Denzel Washington in Malcolm X goes beyond acting for me. I don’t think I’ve seen anything else like it. That performance elevates the art-form to a new level and brings so much complexity to an important, often misrepresented and misunderstood figure in not just black and American culture but culture full stop.
When the next Black Star season takes place, which recent films and TV shows do you see being part of the programme?
If I did black star again in 10 years I would keep a good eye on television. Something like Donald Glover’s Atlanta which I love shows you can’t ignore the role of TV at the moment and how it was the ground for people like Will Smith to become superstars. I would like to think that we can look back on the three young actors who do such amazing work in Moonlight and say this one film kicked off three megastar careers. I just hope we see more black women stars, getting amazing roles too. You can’t divorce this story of acting from authorship, and the more spread of voices there are telling stories. So the more Ava DeVernay there are, the more you’ll see much stronger roles for women as well. Someone like Teyonah Paris a fantastic actress, I want to see someone like her get amazing complex three dimensional characters.
The Black Star - a BFI Compendium is now available to buy here
You can book Black Star Season tickets here
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