As part of our Black History Month programming, California Film Institute is spotlighting four local Black filmmakers we think our community should know about. We have invited these filmmakers to write an essay responding to our theme, “Celebrating Black creativity in cinema”, and reflecting on what inspires them to create. Throughout February, we will publish a weekly essay from this series.
Our final essayist is Benjamin Mulholland, an award-winning Oakland based writer and director, who
has been turning small budgets into engaging motion pictures; most notably, The Lake Merritt Monster
and the M.O.A.B series of shorts. His biting action-satire web series Pennies for the Juggernaut was
distributed online both domestically and internationally, garnering fans in Europe, South Korea, Japan
and Australia. Ben’s films seek to explore our collective secret mythologies, joys, politics and mysticisms.
Ever delving deeper and expounding on his love affair with Sci-Fi, Shamanism and Taoism, while
enjoying the fun and thrill that only movies can provide. He loves building worlds that transport the
viewer from the archetypal world that they know to a mystifying adventure that will engage the heart and
mind…because this is the journey he is on.
Ben’s projects have screened at Cinequest and the Oakland International Film Festival. He has been an
SFFILM resident, Berkeley Film Foundation grantee, Cine Qua Non Lab fellow, placed twice as a
Sundance 2nd round finalist in the development labs. Ben is currently working on developing the feature
version of The Lake Merritt Monster and writing two new films.
Benjamin Mulholland Reflects on Black Creativity in Cinema
I’ve always been fascinated by magic. Each time I finish a film, I’m a magician performing his last trick of the night. Each time, it has to be my biggest and boldest trick yet. If I don’t leave my audience feeling like, “How did he do that?”- “How did he make me feel that?”- “How did he come up with that story?”, I’m not happy with my work. From an early age, Science Fiction, Mythology and Adventure were what drove me- still do. The lives and circumstances that seem impossible are what makes me want to create. The term in the biz is the “Suspension of Disbelief” and this term has always stuck with me because it shows that our art requires participation by the audience. In street or stage magic most times you aren’t in on how the trick works. In films, you have to be willing give yourself over to the magic of story. There is buy in, and the excitement that I see in peoples’ eyes after they’ve watched a film like The Lake Merritt Monster is the juice for me. A monster movie in Oakland? I recently showed the film to a group of teenagers at Fremont High and I admit I was nervous. Teenagers can be ruthless. I couldn’t tell if they liked the film, much less if they were watching it, but as soon as the show was over the room erupted in joy for what they had just seen! They “suspended their disbelief” and for a second we got to partake in the magic.
The main thing that excites me about contemporary cinema is that for the first time, whatever you see in your mind can be translated to the screen. If you see your character riding pink dinosaurs on the diamond beaches of Neptune, it can be done and it’ll look real. That’s some serious magic! What’s even cooler, is that with time these tools are becoming more accessible to artists as technology improves. Throw in the recent advancements in machine learning and things get really crazy and possibly scary. The technical toolbox continues to expand and we have to take those tools and create new language and expression in film. Our imaginations are really the limit now.
In terms of “Contemporary Black Cinema”, the interesting thing to me is some of the old shackles are being shook off as pertains to what “Main Stream Black Cinema” can be. Many of us have had phenomenal ideas for black diasporic expression and been unable to execute them because traditional support structures didn’t deem those topics of importance. “Important work” became the enemy of self exploration. That is now being challenged and overcome.
For so long our journey in film was rooted in just being present in this visual medium, it’s time to reach beyond that and forge ahead. Creativity is an ocean of consciousness that we all have access to and the stream of perseverance is what Black People pull from when creating art in cinema. We create the counter culture that becomes THE culture. Black Creativity ranges so many nations, tribes and communities that its cultural depth is only bound by our imaginations. From teens in Nigeria making Sci-fi films on their phones, to me making monster movies in Oakland. We’re all reaching for that understanding and sharing of the human experience as we see it.
Similarly, The role of the black filmmaker is the same as any other filmmaker/artist in society. Create art in the way that we see the world. We’re under no obligation to tow the line any farther than we want because so much blood has been given to that already. Our responsibility is to take that blood and arrive! We must manifest a full actualization of our moving images. It is our loving contribution that matters, like the old carvings in trees across summer landscapes: “We were here and we filmed!”
5 films?! I’ll give you six:
• Do the Right Thing (I gain new insights with every viewing)
• Fresh (The greatest movie about being a Back boy in the inner city ever made)
• I Am Not Your Negro (James Baldwin, enough said)
• Ghost Dog: Way of the Samurai (Jim Jarmusch, Forest Whitaker and Wu-Tang!)
• Attack the Block (Ghetto kids fighting Alien gentrifiers)
• The Lake Merritt Monster (because I love my film. Heheheh!)
AVAILABLE TO WATCH:
– Benjamin Mulholland
February 27, 2023