By Lucy Webb
Turning on to California’s Pacific Coast Highway you can see the sparkling blue ocean inviting people to The Charthouse at the beach. Scores of cars pull into the Malibu restaurant parking lot, and women and men scurry to this beach watering hole to network with the Women In Film membership. It’s time for the annual Women In Film Black History Month Breakfast, chaired by producer, Candace Bowen of Early Bird Productions. This particular February marks the events’ remarkable 22nd year. And what a special event it is, being held at the beach. Today some of the illustrious speakers will share their history and others will be celebrated for making it.
After a light continental breakfast, the morning opens with a song. Attendees sing The African American Anthem, “Lift Every Voice and Sing,” by James Wheldon Johnson. And if you don’t know the words, don’t worry, WIF provides a paper with the lyrics printed on them so you can join in.
The first speaker is author and motivational speaker, Dr. Jewel Diamond Taylor. Dr. Taylor has penned several personal development books and has appeared at corporate conferences and training retreats in 40 of 50 states in the U.S. One of the first women of color to do corporate motivational speaking, she gets the morning off to a rousing, enthusiastic start with her address.
Next up is Mr. Tommy Hawkins. Towering at 6’5”, this pioneering Golden Mike and Emmy nominated radio and television broadcaster, has been well known to Los Angeles as a civic leader with his involvement on the Board of Directors of the Los Angeles Theater Group and Friends of Jazz at UCLA. But, there is more: Hawkins made basketball’s “All American” while playing at the University of Notre Dame in 1959. He tells the audience about his experience becoming the first African-American to play basketball at the University of Notre Dame. He went on to become part of the original Los Angeles Lakers in the NBA draft and played for ten years. To this day, Mr. Hawkins still holds an unbreakable record for Notre Dame basketball.
But the highlight of the breakfast for the filmophiles was Directors Julie Dash, Daughters of the Dust, and Ava DuVernay, I Will Follow and Middle of Nowhere, joining the Women In Film membership for a discussion moderated by Producer Kim Olgetree. DuVernay is best known as a filmmaker, screenwriter, and marketer. The founder of the African American Film Festival, (AFFRM) she is fresh off of the 2012 Sundance Film Festival where she became the first African American woman to win Best Director prize for her film Middle of Nowhere.
Julie Dash is a name that is synonymous with filmmaking. One cannot talk about African American filmmaking without including the name Julie Dash. Her film Daughters of the Dust remains one of the premiere films of the twentieth century. Dash directed, Daughters of the Dust which in 1991 became the first full-length film with a general theatrical release in the United States by an African American woman. The film has had the honor to be included in the National Film Registry, which is the United States National Film preservation board’s selection of films that will be preserved by the Library of Congress. Both directors will answer questions for the WIF membership, and share their experience and journey on filmmaking in today’s world.
It is a treat to hear DuVernay inform the audience that Julie Dash was a tremendous influence on her as an artist. Dash, an alumnus of AFI and UCLA Film School, tells stories that reflect African American life and DuVernay relates to the stories as well the visual beauty. Dash tells the audience she was influenced by many, but most particularly Octavia Butler, Oscar Micheaux, Toni Morrison, Alice Walker, and Andrei Tarkovsky.
Producer Kim Olgetree, of Karat Films is today’s moderator and has produced over 200 music videos. She has worked with Michael Jackson, Babyface, Stevie Wonder, Will Smith, LL Cool J, Whitney Houston, and countless other music stars. A graduate of prestigious Howard University, she has also worked for Viacom and the BET Network as both a supervising producer and producer. Currently, she and Dash are working on the director’s next project.
In 1926, Carter G. Woodhouse started Black History Month, (BHM). Woodhouse was known for writing about the contributions made by black Americans and was the first to throw their achievements into the national spotlight. He received a Ph.D. at Harvard University. BHM began as one week where black history was celebrated and reviewed. It became one week where an initiative was launched to bring national attention to the contributions of African Americans throughout American History. After time went by, many requested that it be extended to a month.
Now in 2012, a new generation that did not grow up with the racial prejudices that were present in the sixties has discussed the concept in the media that perhaps it is “time to do away with Black History Month” and that African American history should be incorporated into an American historical narrative and not delineated from the general dialogue. But this writer finds that notion rather myopic. Without question African American history is part of the collective history of America. Yet, just as the University student majoring in mathematics studies calculus, it is also essential that he/she must take the elevated studies to obtain ample knowledge and perspective on the subject, not to mention a degree. As these speakers prove today, there is still much to learn on the subject of African American history; and as any woman knows: Knowledge is Power.
While films like Kathryn Stockett’s The Help exploded onto the 2012 theatrical scene with astounding performances by females Viola Davis, Octavia Spencer, Emma Stone, and Jessica Chastain, smaller films about African American struggle hit the festival circuit. Skillful Director Sam Pollard’s new film Slavery By Another Name, investigates how American slavery continued long after abolition and reconstruction. A remarkable new documentary, the film shines new light on how mandatory servitude continued under the term “peonage”, which was forced labor to pay off a debt. There was activism that attacked peonage head-on, but as with any cause, it was met with struggle and political strife. You can hear filmmakers at today’s breakfast discuss the new remarkable work and how one must see it on their personal film docket as the morning continues.
Today at The Charthouse we learn why it is important to make time for a focused study of the past. And why history must always be investigated. These speakers highlight what they learn from their families and colleagues and how it has affected their approach to their work. The younger women can be heard chatting about today’s challenges, the older about the remarkable progress.
As the morning concludes the audience gives the invited speakers a standing ovation for their oratories. But of course! What else do you do when you are fortunate enough to be in a room with people making this kind of history? The first African-American to play basketball at prestigious Notre Dame? The first theatrical release for an African-American director? The first African-American woman to win Best Director? Films that belong in The National Registry? Library of Congress? Oh, this is a shining and stellar group of speakers indeed.
History teaches us what to look for in the future. It is essential for women and men to continue to study in order to educate. To pass our knowledge on to a new generation is essential for the growth of humanity. Congratulations and Bravo to Women In Film’s Black History Month. Knowledge is Power and this knowledge was well worth the Malibu drive.
Suzanne De Passe, Iris Grossman, Gayle Nachlis, Dolores Robinson, Lucy Webb