CHATHAM — It’s an interesting time to be a black filmmaker in America.
After decades of only a handful of African-American filmmakers making it through Hollywood’s narrow and mostly one-dimensional arena, black film narratives are experiencing a renaissance.
From last year’s “Dope,” “Creed” and "Selma” at the box office to this year’s "Queen Sugar” and “Atlanta” on cable, a whole range of black experiences are being showcased.
The films may represent a new perspective for a lot of movie fans, but they're the kind of diverse storytelling that Chatham-based filmmaker Floyd Webb, 63, has devoted his whole career to creating and promoting.
Now, he's launching a subscription-based online streaming service to better showcase the works of black artists. Black World Cinema TV gets off the ground Nov. 6.
“I've been doing film programming for over 30 years,” said Webb. “Black cinema deserves a respectful platform where it takes center stage unfiltered and judged on its own merit and not presented as a lesser cinema or as an afterthought.”
The movie channel will stream rarely seen black film classics from the silent era onward as well as new global cinema from around the world.
Webb, who established the internationally acclaimed film festival Blacklight in 1982, hopes to attract 50,000 subscribers by spring.
“This is for people looking for an unusual experience in cinema. It’s for people who like to have their imaginations stimulated," he said.
“We can stop complaining about 'Oscars So White.' We’re doing something that has not been done before,” Webb said about the streaming service. “We’re not trying to compete with Netflix; we’re doing globally independent film that’s highly curated.”
Examples include “Charleston Parade,” a '20s-era film about a black man who discovers a French woman dancing the Charleston in the ruins of Paris; a video of the notorious James Baldwin and William F. Buckley debate at Cambridge University; and “Top of The Heap,” a '70s afrofuturism movie that follows a black cop who's fed up with white people who won’t give him a break and equally fed up with black people who won’t give him a break, so he dreams he’s an astronaut and has a host of other surreal fantasies.
A scene from the 1927 film "Charleston Parade"
“Top of the Heap" won a German film award, "but it was suppressed in the U.S.,” Webb said. “That’s why this is so important, a lot of these films haven’t come back. They were shown at fests but didn’t get picked up and are never seen again.”
The site will be divided into channels that supply silent film, afrofuturism, classics, African film and music, martial arts and other topics.
The eclectic range of the channel selections reflect Webb’s multifaceted expertise. He started out as a projectionist for Chicago Filmmakers, apprenticed at the Community Film Workshop, and he hung out with directors Charles Burnett and Julie Dash at the UCLA film school.
“Filmmaking is about thinking. It’s about what’s on your bookshelf, and I was trying to absorb everything I could,” he explained of his learning process.
By the early '70s, he was working on independent film projects in Hollywood and then Europe, assisting luminaries like John Akomfrah.
Webb brought all of his experiences together at Blacklight.
“I started Blacklight because there was a lack of exposure for black film. There were only two black film fests at the time — one in Philly and one in New York,” he said.
Launching the Blacklight Festival of International Black Cinema in 1982 changed the game for black film locally and internationally.
Webb brought in cinema and filmmakers from all over the globe, providing a consistent resource for international black film that preceded Gene Siskel’s “Black Harvest” and Chicago International Film Festival’s “Black Perspectives” programs by decades.
It was during this time that Webb was recruited to serve as associate producer of Julie Dash’s seminal 1991 film “Daughters of The Dust" (which also featured notable Chicago actor Cheryl Lynn Bruce).
"I was one of the first people she sent the screenplay to, and I was determined to work on it after I read it,” he said. “When Julie decided to make it, she found people who had worked in black independent film. She was really dedicated to creating community.”
"Daughters of The Dust” was a highlight of the L.A. rebellion '90s movement of independent black filmmakers, and the film influenced scores of artists, including Beyonce, in her visual album, “Lemonade.” Dash sits on Black World Cinema’s board of directors and has given her short doc about the first wave of the Great Migration, “Standing at The Scratch Line” to be viewed on Black World Cinema TV.
In 1994, Webb shuttered Blacklight to focus on his young son and started working at a multimedia company in London. He continued to consult for film festivals, including London’s Raindance and the Zanzibar Film Festival, when Chatham’s ICE Theater owner Alisa Starks requested that he start Black World Cinema at the the theater in 2005.
The monthly film series showcases rarely seen classics and new films from around the world, followed by discussions moderated by Webb.
“Black World Cinema is like a continuation of Blacklight. In Chicago, we now how have one of the most sophisticated black film audiences in the country. We have Black Cinema House, Black Harvest, Black World Cinema, Englewood Film Fest — that’s a lot of variety,” he said. “With Black World Cinema TV, people can access these films whenever they want to.”
The channel’s soft launch (without promotion) already has netted $100,000 in subscriptions at $7.99 a month, or $65 a year.
Webb also started a nonprofit, Black World Cinema Inc. with film aficionado Caroll Bunton to supply cinema education, training and lectures as well as the BWC-Chicago mobile app, which connects the components of Black World Cinema and Black World Cinema TV with film schedules, video of filmmaker interviews and other special programming. There’s even a newsletter, Black World Cinema News Chicago, which serves up news about “global black and African filmmaking”.
“Black World Cinema is a movement to establish an alternative media platform for global diaspora cinema and all compelling, significant films that relate to the black experience. We’re trying to build something here,” he explained. “There’s no way we can compare or compete with Netflix or Hulu, but we’re always disgruntled with Hollywood. So what are we willing to contribute? I’m not about Hollywood, because Holly won’t and Holly can’t. They are not set up to promote our images.”
Lena Horne in the 1938 film "The Duke is Tops"
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