African American History month is in full swing with events happening all over town. On Feb. 9, Macy’s and the American Black Film Festival (ABFF) took its part in celebrating by hosting “In Conversation,” a panel discussion honoring the 100th birthday of Gordon Parks.
Actor/director Eriq La Salle joined ABFF founder Jeff Friday, and writer/director Davine Baptiste for a spirited discussion on Parks’ influence on African American Film. The event was held inside the Museum of African American Art, a hidden gem located at Macy’s Baldwin Hills.
A pioneer in film, Parks became the first major African American director with the release of the film adaptation of his autobiographical novel, “The Learning Tree,” followed by the legendary staple in African American film “Shaft.”
The panelists began the discussion by saluting Parks for his influence on African American cinema, and expressing the impact his work had on their own careers. Baptiste noted how Parks was “the first for a lot of things,” which helped pave the way for his career.
“His mission was to portray people of color in a very accurate and a very honest way, and to help us understand each other through his art,” said Friday.
Parks’ photography was groundbreaking, earning him a position as the first African American photojournalist at Life Magazine in a time where African Americans were still struggling for civil rights.
“I think the power of images is incredible and I feel that as a whole, it’s our responsibility to use art to break down walls,” said La Salle, who recently released his first novel, “Laws of Depravity.” Parks used his talents to chronicle the African American story. “As far as photography, I think that we’re in a constant process of validating who we are,” La Salle said. “If you look at somebody like Gordon Parks, there weren’t very many people at the time who were doing what he was doing.”
The discussion led to African Americans’ current perception in film, which appears to be greatly influenced by numbers. “Hollywood today is about access to money,” Friday stated, “independent filmmakers and those who produce films without the permission of the Hollywood gatekeepers, they tend to do a better job at portraying us in broad, diverse ways and in accurate ways.”
Although many African Americans feel that our lack of representation in major films is a race issue, Baptiste assured the audience that “it isn’t a White or Black issue, it’s a green issue.” The panelists suggested that the community support African American films that we feel best represent who we are and our history.
When discussing the future of African American film, the panelists mentioned how technology has made changes where the film industry hasn’t. Friday called YouTube “the great equalizer,” commenting on how it has “completely leveled the playing field for distribution of content.” Now, instead of seeking funding from major studios, aspiring filmmakers can use the Internet to make their dreams into reality, which has had a profound impact on the way the African American story is being told.
The event provided exposure to the community by raising awareness. “There will be people today who are very informed about Gordon Parks and his achievements, there are also people who won’t be as informed, but they will become intrigued,” said La Salle.
The event concluded with audience Q and A, with many thought-provoking questions about how to move forward in cinema. According to Friday, we should follow the example set by Gordon Parks and go forth “without asking permission.”