The bfm Film Festival opens this Friday (6 Nov – 10 Nov). And while all eyes are on Chris Rock’s Good Hair, there is another film that got the Editor of Catch a Vibe enthralled: A Good Day to be Black and Sexy. An independent black film for grown- ups, that picture black love in ways we’ve seldom seen. The movie is funny, smart and unashamedly sexy. We’re publishing here the uncensored version of the interview with filmmaker Dennis Dortch (also published in the bfm Film Festival brochure). Not for the under 16’s!
Alice Gbelia: Could you pitch your movie in a few lines?
Dennis Dortch: A between-the-sheets peak at Black Love and Sexuality. A mix tape on film dropping six gritty snapshots of urban pillow talk, spinning the sexual politics and intimacies between black men and women, played out on beds, couches, and in the back seats of cars.
A.G.: What gave you the idea for the movie? It’s not the most obvious choice for a first movie.
Dennis Dortch: Real life. This is simply an ode to the black people I know and black people as a whole. A love song. I updated the 60s quote “Black is Beautiful” to “Black & Sexy.” I just wanted to see multiple beautiful black people on the screen in their natural settings with their various skin tones and hair textures. And I wanted to make a movie about us, for us with soul. The title speaks to the people of the African Diaspora that are supposed to receive it. I also knew I could never just make a movie, because I get bored easily. I had to break convention and lay down my own distinct style and push the boundaries of black cinema. The individual stories came last.
A.G.: Did you ever worry that you would be able to sell your movie?
Dennis Dortch: No. It’s like worrying if your film is going to be good. Both are self-defeating goals. You have to trust the process and yourself. From there, if you find yourself getting excited about the stuff you’re writing, or the images you are creating, then there is a good chance that will transfer to other people and attract an audience. In the back of my mind from conception, I always felt that the film would be distributed. I didn’t have any data or concrete evidence to tell me why. If you’re a filmmaker, you just have to have that feeling or you might as well stop making it, because you are going to second guess yourself at every corner. To make a film is such a bold, pompous thing to do to begin with. To really think that someone actually wants to pay money and sit down to watch something that you thought up in your head, is a real arrogant thing. You gotta be somewhat of a real asshole for assuming that.
But as I was making the film, there were plenty of folks worried about if I was going to be able to sell the film because it didn’t look like anything else they were familiar with or they had seen sold before. So, yes, there were fear mongers trying to make me worry about selling the film. They didn’t mean any harm, they just had the fear of the unknown. My job was to not to listen to them. You can’t make a film by committee.
A.G.: I haven’t seen a black movie exploring sexuality like this in quite a long time. In fact the only one that comes close in my mind is Spike Lee’s She’s Gotta Have It; or Blaxploitation movies such as Foxy Brown. Did these movies inspire you?
Dennis Dortch: Fo’ sure. She’s Gotta Have It was the prototype for all films on black sexuality to follow. And I’m a big fan of Blaxploitation films. The sexually charged Sweetback is my favorite. That film spoke to me on so many levels when most people are scratching their heads at it. Both Spike’s and Melvin’s films, distinctly influenced and inspired me not just artistically, but politically and socially as a filmmaker. The boldness and striking images of black men and women doing what was usually reserved for white folks on the big screen blew my young mind when I saw them for the first time. And the texture of black love and intimacy mixed with social-political messages from their corresponding period in time, made me feel powerful as a part of the race of black people. Sometimes we forget or we are conditioned to not realize that we are the original indigenous people of the world, period. All other races were sprung from our loins. That means that the black man and woman created the first human kiss on Earth. We fell in love first. We made the first baby. We invented f**ing. Not them. We own that. It has too much rhythm and swagger involved to be anyone else.
A.G.: The actors in the movie have great chemistry, especially in Reciprocity. Can you tell us a bit about the casting? Did the nature of the script make the process easier/more difficult?
Dennis Dortch: In casting, the casting director, Adetoro Makinde, and I had one criteria, and that was “honesty.” I wanted performances that were realistic and subtle. To facilitate that, we asked for more improvisation than script reading in the auditions. And by design, when you put a bunch of people, male and female in one pot, the ones with chemistry always find each other. It’s an energy thing. You think it’s you doing it, but it’s not.
Once we started shooting over the period of year, things developed further. We shot each of the six vignettes every 2-3 months. It would give me time to forget the last shoot and start fresh with a new set of actors and story. In that process, as time went on, I grew bored of the script, and started taking more chances. In Tonite (Part 2), we half improvised and half stuck to the script. By the time we arrived to the last vignette we shot, Her Man, I completely threw out the script and we improvised the whole way through. Along with them hanging out together in their free time, this freed up the actors to completely succumb to that chemistry you felt on screen. Chemistry is an actor’s natural barometer. They tend to go in the direction of chemistry like an invisible force field, while many directors inadvertently stand in the way of it trying to force them into something that’s on the page or in their heads.
A.G: I particularly like how you portray women in the movie. They are not victims and you also seem to be able to put yourself in their shoes. How come you are so attuned to women’s emotions? Did you have consultant on set?
Dennis Dortch: Ha. No, no consultant on set. It all comes from personal observation and real life relationships. You can’t be a (indie) writer/director with something to say or express without real life experiences to pull from.
My goal was instead of a film taking you away from real life, I wanted to bring real life to the film. It’s not simply about positive and negative characters; it’s about the approach to the character with flaws. Do they sound like someone you know in your life? If the answer is yes, then I knew I was on to something.
When making films, I’m just trying to get at the humanity of a character without passing judgment. Humanity = getting to the naked truth. I’ve always been more fascinated in female characters than male. The medium of film gives me a chance to communicate with a woman through that character. When I’m writing the script, I’m talking to you. When I’m casting, I’m talking to you again. When I’m directing on the set, I’m still talking to you. This film in particular was just an extravagant way to talk to the women in my past, along with the future ones.
A.G.: The movie has overall a very positive message. You stayed away from sensitive issues such as the use of condoms and AIDS. Was that a conscious decision?
Dennis Dortch: Well, I’m not really a topic-oriented type filmmaker. I think heavy topics and issues like AIDS and racism, etc, entrap a lot of black films into something stiff and predictable. It often comes off heavy handed and unnatural when inserted into a film. I tend to prefer everyday nuances that relate to everyone as human beings over issues. However, there are subtle ways of hitting these issues in an indirect way. I believe I did touch upon the use of condoms by not showing anyone using them. I know this is true, because the absence of them popped up in your head. Believe me, the subject did come up during the making of the film. And I consciously decided against showing them except for one brief moment in American Boyfriend, which was more for a social joke than preaching safe sex. I decided against it because in each situation, I didn’t see these characters who were engaging in intercourse, using them in real life. If this is seen as irresponsible, perfect, cause in real life people are generally irresponsible.
A.G.: Who are the filmmakers who have inspired / inspire you?
Dennis Dortch: Melvin Van Peeples and Federico Fellini. Melvin for his trailblazing romps in filmmaking as a black man in the 60s and 70s, with his bold social-political statements on race and sexuality. He was one of the first American indie filmmakers, black or white. Hustling up his first film, Story of a Three Day Pass on French government money to creating the first box office smash black film Sweetback’s Baadassss Song outside the studio system. That man was bad. Making the films he wanted to make the way he wanted to make them.
Federico Fellini. An inventive and imaginative filmmaker. His surrealism and unshackled filmmaking and stories had a way of seeping into your brain as more than just a movie, but a work of art. La dolce vita, La strada, and 8 1/2 stuck stuck with me long after I saw them. He pulled moments and characters from his childhood to adulthood and reinvented them with a sense of wonderment in each take.
Both filmmakers razzled and dazzled me in the theater and gave me permission to break convention and put my own-self and thoughts into my films.
A.G: We’ve seen a few left-field black films in the past couple of years, such as Medicine for Melancholy or Black Dynamite. Do you think there is a black independent scene?
Dennis Dortch: Ohhhh yeah. And let me tell you, I just saw Black Dynamite, and I was dying laughing. Yes, there is a developing black independent film scene. It is born out of necessity, just like the black indie music scene. Black studio films have become so homogenized that the natural progression of things led to a re-emergence of what we can call a new black renaissance in negro cinema experience.
A.G.: Do you know any black British movie?
Dennis Dortch: I know of Dead Meat as a recent entry that played the festival circuit in the States. Always interesting to see the black experience from the perspective of black brothers and sistas overseas.
A.G.: What are your next projects?
Dennis Dortch: The sequel project, A Good Day to be Black & Sexy: NYC, and some other brand new features that I am keeping under wraps until they are ready to be revealed. And one of them is the movie I believe I was born to make.
I mean I could list the feature films on the plate and their synopsis, but really… I am a Gemini, and doing one thing bores me. There are some other ventures in different mediums, that I am real excited about. The biggest one right now continuing the Black & Sexy brand is my online web channel BlackandSexy.tv. It will be launching soon and will feature the spinoff web series from the movie called “Black&Sexy B-Sides. “B-Sides” was born as a way to help promote the awareness of my film and to breathe more life into it. To show that this there was more to come from the Black & Sexy brand. And “B-Sides” is the bridge to new stories and characters in the Black & Sexy world. Since we shot the first episode as an experiment, it has blossomed into a much bigger vision, featuring all new shows and concepts from the Black & Sexy team.
More about the bfm Film Festival