Can There Really Be “Only One?”
“Aye, yo. You see that new movie?”
I’m sitting in a cubicle staring at a screen for a job I’m grateful to have but slightly depressed because of.
“It’s crazy! You gotta check out this trailer.”
My co-worker, an older black lady with a thick New York accent is really interested in a trailer she herself had just been told about. Honestly, by this time everybody in the office is abuzz about it. They’re abuzz because the internet is abuzz.
Everybody is talking about this film.
“It’s your type of thing.”
My type of thing. This movie on the horizon was the type of movie I told her I always wanted to make; the type of film I was currently writing. It’s a genre film, with social commentary, and features people of color. It’s exactly the type of movie I planned on making, only somebody else already is.
The movie in question is Get Out, the first feature from Jordan Peele. At this point Peele is primarily a comedic actor best known for being one half of the titular duo Key & Peele (as seen on Comedy Central).
This film, however, is no comedy. It is instead a psychological thriller/horror that puts a satirical lens on an interracial couple as the black boyfriend goes to meet his girlfriend’s white parents for the first time.
Exactly the movie I wanted to see more of. So why this feeling? This feeling where my anxiety’s get closer while my dreams feel further away like a Spike Lee dolly shot. Why is my heart sinking like Catherine Keener stirred her tea cup?
Could it really just be that this movie shares a similar DNA to a project I’ve been writing? But it’s the American film industry. Duplication isn’t just possible, it’s considered best practice here. Studios hunt to find movies that match other successful movies, sometimes even producing a near replica of a film being produced by another studio at practically the same time.
So what’s different?
Hi, my name is Profound Clarke and I’m a black aspiring filmmaker. Yeah, things are different.
When you’re a black artist with an interest in exploring “white” spaces (ie things that don’t lean heavily on previously accepted cultural stereotypes for whatever non-white group you fall into), there’s a Highlander “there can be only one” element to your aspirations. At least, I’ve found, that’s how my anxiety works. I’ve also found I’m not alone.
With the opportunities few and success stories fewer, when you have an idea that hasn’t been explored yet, you know the chances of it getting made are slim. Something like it being made twice? Nearly unheard of, not in any authentic way at least.
There’s only one Spike Lee. Only one Robert Townsend. Only one Keenan Ivory Wayans. Only one... um... who did the Color Purple? White guy? Who did People Under the Stairs? White guy too? Who did Redbelt? OK, I added Redbelt in there because I love it so much, but also a white guy did that, right?
My point is that the industry seems to find a black person to whom it gives trust. By find, I really mean notice after they clawed out an undeniable lane for themselves. Other creators in that lane then seem to fall into a blindspot.
Only Spike makes Spike movies. Keenan Wayans and Robert Townsend both made comedies but they lived in different spaces. All three got to take big chances with what they were doing, but the next Spike Lee, Townsend, and Wayans wouldn’t exist for decades. Not to discount the handful of directors, black directors, doing good work in areas that audiences expected black characters to live, but to venture beyond always meant to be part of a short list.
This brings me back to Get Out, which I love. Love isn’t the word. I however Kayne feels about Kanye this movie. Yes. That’s a perfect fit. I all the way Kanye on Kanye this movie. All the adulation. All the troubled feelings. All the hating the way I feel about it. All the “I’m going to tell the world how in love with it I am” to hide how uncomfortable with it I might be” shining through.
Jordan Peele, a fellow New York native with a similarly weird brain and love for genre films, wearing skin darkened by black parenthood lightened by non-black DNA (his case: white, my case: all-of-the-cases) has lead me lower than my lowered expectations. What’s the value of a painting portraying another angle of Mona Lisa?
That question should be rhetorical, but guess who wants to know?
Not long after delivering on the promise of his first film, Jordan Peele became a trusted voice in the industry, launching Monkeypaw Productions. One of the first things they said before they even had a functional website up? We want your scripts.
Jordan Peele, like most people of color, understands the journey my brain went on. He himself admits to not thinking his own film would ever be made. Now he’s creating opportunities for more films like his to be made. It was Monkeypaw that partnered with the aforementioned Spike Lee to make BlacKkKlansman at a time that Spike was self financing his films.
At the same time, a new group of bold filmmakers continued to claw their own way up into the industry spotlight. Filmmakers like Ava Duvernay, Ryan Coogler, and Barry Jenkins. They too are defying industry logic about what films featuring black characters are capable both on the page and at the box office.
What I’m getting at is that things are looking up for people of color like me with an interest in creating stories beyond what is expected of us. The most exciting part is that these great and ambitious filmmakers aren’t just cutting new paths, but supplying the tools for those of us who want to cut our own paths.
So no matter what happens with my project, the feeling like it won’t get a chance to coexist has settled a bit. Hopefully one day I too can join my favorite filmmakers in this tradition of calming the restless waters stirring inside a hopeful minority artist through my own success and the doors success opens. That’s a journey with much traveling left to do. For now I can worry about more conventional writing anxieties like finishing drafts, creating tension throughout the 2nd Act, and convincing my mother to listen to a 100 page read through for feedback.