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Saturday 6 June 2015

Dear White People - Give Us Your Ears; Guest Blog by Charmaine Simpson of The New Black Film Collective

Introduction by Zita Holbourne, Co-Chair of BARAC UK 

BARAC together with the New Black Film Collective (TNBFC) have launched a new petition, calling on the UK film industry to support the screening of 'Dear White People' when it goes on general release in July.

Whether you love or loathe the film , for us at BARAC UK we are participating in this campaign as a matter of principle. Why shouldn't a film that tackles race and racism, that is written and directed by a black man, be screened in UK cinemas? Why should we only get to see films  at our cinemas where black characters are ridiculed, beaten or are the first to die? Furthermore it's a film for diverse audiences and because it explores the issues of racism experienced by black people should not be pigeonholed as a 'black film'. The reaction to Dear White People by the BFI and cinema chains is indicative of the wider racism we encounter throughout the arts  and wider society and must be challenged.  If not us then who? If not now then when? 

‘Dear White People – Give Us Your Ears!’
Charmaine Simpson
The New Black Film Collective

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Dear White People is not just the title of the film I am desperately trying to distribute in this country but also a case of ‘life imitating art’ as a Black person who is beseeching you not to allow another injustice to prevail where we, as a race, have been once again treated like second-class citizens. Like a fairytale, I shall start from the beginning but it is a shame that unlike a nightmare, we can’t wake up at the end knowing that this is all a dream.

Dear White People is a ground-breaking, Sundance awarding-winning debut feature from Justin Simien that a hit in the US but for some curious reason, was not picked up for theatrical distribution in the UK. Now, even though this is the first of many crimes against art that has been thrown at this title, it was a golden opportunity for The New Black Film Collective – a network of film programmers, educators and exhibitors of Black representation on screen, to finally do what we say on our ‘tin’ and that is to be a champion of cinema from the African Diaspora. It is only by literally bringing these stories to the mainstream that the dominant culture learns not to be ‘afraid of the dark’. That white people can go against the conditioning by the elite that enforces the ‘system of disadvantage based on race’ as quoted in the film by the leading lady, Sam - and realise that Black people are human too with complex, fully rounded characters instead of wanting to shoot us unarmed because you are scared of what is ‘under the hood’.

The feature is a satire based on sweeping stereotypes that challenges racial discrimination and other areas of inequality where nobody is perfect, where the ‘dirty laundry’ of the Black community is also aired and realities of homophobia, class, mixed relationships and segregation are also a collective slap in our faces. Therefore, it is paramount that we all fight for this film to screened far and wide and say Dear BFI this is not right. Like the BBC and BAFTA, you are institutions that are supposed to serve all members of society and denying this film lottery funding for its release because you think there is not enough demand from audiences, or there is not the appetite from cinemas to take it, are ‘little white lies’ to stop people from being enlightened.

We refuse to become Oliver Twist begging ‘please sir can we have some more’ but rather emulate Lenny Henry and Greg Dyke in calling out the bastions of British culture for being ‘hideously white’.  We must not let them allow diversity to be a talking shop or a box to tick – instead put their lottery money where their mouth is instead of hiding behind fake excuses that are used to preserve the status quo. We may not win the appeal to overturn your decision but if making a compliant means that you think twice about rejecting the next Black distributor that knocks on your door then it is worth it. If it means having a separate diversity team monitor the application process objectively for Black applicants, then it is worth it. If it means that we have to dig into our own pockets to fund the release of this film ourselves so it is not ‘ghettoised’, then we are certainly worth it - because it will lead to our empowerment and independence to bring our films to market and build our cinematic ‘underground railroad’.

However, it is not fair that once again we have to work that much more harder, sacrifice that much more when the BFI are continually funding flops distributed by the same white, middle-class companies that don’t even need the money. BFI cites Nymphomaniac distributed by Curzon as a successful release that they have funded yet it has it own chain of cinemas and video on demand platform. All we asked was for £30k to match fund a total spend of £60K on print & advertising. Instead they said that because we have a shortened window between the release of the film on screen and then on DVD, it is a challenge too difficult to overcome when there is traditionally a 16 week gap and also feel that they are really underwriting our campaign.  Nonetheless, Nymphomaniac, a dressed up pornographic movie by Lars Von Trier, was released the same day in the cinema and online with an 18 certificate. The BFI gave the distributor £50k of its £200K budget, which is equivalent to David Cameron claiming benefits after losing his job as prime minster. (We are still dreaming, remember?)

There has to be a spotlight put on white privilege and black disadvantage – this sense of entitlement and old boys network must be brought crashing down. We live in a global village and we are stronger for respecting difference and embracing our commonality. The shining light in all this are the independent cinemas who have taken us on and are willing to take the risk because they love the film as a piece of art and a mark of activism. Prince Charles Cinema is giving us a fighting chance by hosting our premiere, and if it does well, they will screen it over the all-important opening weekend of July 10th. Then it is our turn to vote with our feet and make a difference by turning out in numbers and buying a ticket which will mean more cinemas will open their doors to us - then it stops being about the colour of our skin and starts being about the colour of our money.

Let’s Do the Right Thing with Dear White People because although we may not have the seats in parliament that we wanted in the past election, we can still take our seats in theatres and make our voices count! Let us not predict a riot this time but a revolution of ideas, reform and policy where fairness and good practice can be guaranteed under the watchful eye of a diversity watchdog which is key as we know we are probably only one of two Black distribution companies in this country and the first to be led by Black women. Dear White People is addressed to you – Britain, so let this be a love letter for change.


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