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.
We are continue our series with Xavier Rernard Cunningham, a Creative Producer and Art Curator operating at the intersection of TV, Film, and Theatre. His productions focus on the transformative powers of storytelling creating a throughline between artistic mediums. Bringing art to life that informs perspective and shifts how we see the world is a core element in his work. Xavier is a 2023 REACH resident at The John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts where he will be developing his critically acclaimed play, Hat Matter: Thoughts of a Black Mad Hatter.
Xavier Rernard Cunningham Reflects on Black Creativity in Cinema
As someone who considers themselves a conductor of community, I’m most inspired by the profound nature of the human experience. It’s whimsical, it’s fanciful, it’s mundane, it’s illogical, it’s painful, it’s exuberant, and a host of other adjectives that every scholar has sought to understand since the beginning of time. At our core, even those who most perceive themselves to be modest, contain a level of complexity that makes being human paradoxical by nature. My community deeply shapes the foundation and building blocks of my creative endeavors. Consequently, I feel most creative and fulfilled by amplifying the expressions and visions of those around me who might need inspiration or frameworks to get started.
One thing that excites me most about the current landscape of contemporary cinema is accessibility to creation. While vehicles to funding and distribution are still a hurdle for many creators, advancements in camera technology and editing software provide pathways to production for artists who would otherwise be priced out of bringing wonderful stories to life. The iPhone alone has opened the door for new expressions of storytelling in ways conventional methods have often blocked.
The canon of Black Cinema is in such a transformative space for many reasons. I think for the first time throughout the diaspora, Black creators feel the freedom and clemency to explore cinematic expression at its most imaginative ends. Whether it’s Jordan Peele’s genre shifting take on horror, Barry Jenkins’ award-winning peek into spectrums of love and perseverance or the culture defining direction Donald Glover brought to the small screen with “Atlanta”; Black creators are shattering the preconceived limits of what they are allowed to create. No matter where you look, Black creators are bringing stories to life that speak to any audience or demographic while honoring the nuances of Black culture in its many forms. Gone are the days where traditional tropes that pigeon-hole artists into work being labeled as, “Black films”; insinuating limits of the work’s possible reach. These are global films, created by Black artists, that highlight the richness of human experience and they are deservingly beloved by people from all walks of life.
Whenever asked about the role of Black artists play in their respective medium, I’m always hesitant to assign any condition to their output. I feel any artist that chooses to share their gifts with the world should be mindful of the ripple effects that art has the power to create– I don’t inherently feel it should be different for Black artists. At the risk of being cliche, I would only ask that Black artists: Speak authentically through every part of your being when you create. You are a people deeply rooted in exploration and imagination. Let that guide you every step of the way.
Making film recommendations is truly the hardest inquiry I get on any given week, especially related to the canon of Black culture. Yet, if I must provide a few, the following are equally great for the casual watcher or the enthusiast: starting with classic films, Denzel’s performance in Malcolm X (1992, dir. Spike Lee) truly set the bar for biographical depictions. This was brilliantly followed by Sophie Okonedo and Don Cheadle in Hotel Rwanda (2004, dir. Terry Geroge) and Jamie Foxx’s Oscar winning performance in Ray (2004, dir. Taylor Hackford). Some unforgettable hidden gems are City of God (2003, dir. Kátia Lund and Fernando Meirelles) and Mother of George (2013, dir. Andrew Dosunmu). Rounding out my list would be contemporary masterpieces, starting with, If Beale Street Could Talk (2018, dir. Barry Jenkins). I truly can’t say enough about this film. The score alone is worth the watch. Seeking a nuanced action film set in the Wild West, look no further than The Harder They Fall (2021, dir. The Bullitts). Cinematography was excellent, while the cast speaks for itself. Last but not least is possibly a hidden gem also, Swan Song (2021, dir. Benjamin Cleary). I believe Mahershala Ali delivers one of his most gripping performances yet and the inherent conflict of the film will have you questioning what morality truly is.
AVAILABLE TO WATCH:
– Xavier Rernard Cunningham
February 22, 2023
You can follow Xavier and his work on Instagram @Xavier.Rernard and Twitter @XavierRernard.