Over the last decade, we have seen two major political phenomena of imperialism take the oval office: Obama and Trump. Because of these ripples in the American pysche, many have chosen to abandon their historical memory in search of a new identity that they think will allow them to better fit in and continue to ease their minds that the 400-year trek out of slavery and the battle against white supremacy into true citizenship in this stolen land is over.
Finally, a filmmaker has come to the forefront to confront the identity question in the post-Obama Trump era. Filmmaker Mtume Gant beautifully asks pertinent questions about what it means to be Black in today’s times in his 20-minute short, an official SF Black Film Festival selection called “White Face.”
This political satire, an artsy, comedic drama, is a must see for all the politically minded readers out there. Check out the genius of filmmaker Mtume Gant in this exclusive Q&A.
M.O.I. JR: “White Face” is a very dramatic and cerebral short that looks at identity. Why did you start your film off with a quote from the legendary writer James Baldwin?
Mtume Gant: When I was working on the script for “White Face,” I was reading Baldwin’s book “The Devil Finds Work,” which that quote is from. I was interested in that text ‘cause it was Baldwin’s take on Hollywood imagery, how it affected him growing up and how Hollywood films were expressions of aspirations of whiteness in America.
I feel like “White Face” in many ways aims to be an expressionistic example of what these images have done to some of us, how we see identity and what exactly are the effects of whiteness on our society. And that if we don’t come to grips with what identity actually is, American will lose itself. And we see this now.
Baldwin understood this better than anyone frankly, so to invoke him at the start I believe was important. Just so no one gets it twisted what we are trying to do here with this film.
M.O.I. JR: How did you come up with the concept for “White Face”?
Mtume Gant: It was a combo of musing about the upcoming election – friends telling me that there was no way Trump would even get the Republican nomination, this very liberal attitude that America was somewhat getting beyond our racial and identity pathologies that are dodging us, people like Don Lemon, Stacey Dash or Rachel Dolezal in the media doing all they can to contort their identities to legitimatize their pathologies – frankly, I saw all this connected.
We had been living in denial about many things under Obama. So I kept seeing an image of a Black man in whiteface saying Trump speeches on a rooftop, rehearsing his “role” that he wants to play. I began putting it to paper; I kept looking towards self and asking where does my own life fit within this paradigm, and Charles, our protagonist, began to grow.
M.O.I. JR: How did you develop the main character’s personality? Is he a concoction of a number of different people’s traits?
Mtume Gant: Like I mentioned before, people like Don Lemon or Stacey Dash were some of the initial models; I even use some of Don Lemon’s actual words in the film. I started with them but then I took a huge tour through Black popular media.
Kanye West became another figure that I drew from, his relentless pursuit of capitalistic acceptance has always felt like tantrums that he can’t have the same capitalistic agency his rich white counterparts have. Kanye believes he has earned whiteness by success. I used some of Kanye’s actual words in there as well.
The irony is that I shot this film in June 2016 long before Kanye dyed his hair blond like the character in my film and met with Trump at his office building. I guess I could see all of this coming.
The whiteface makeup – I thought of skin bleaching. I spent some time in Jamaica some years back and saw it first hand and it still shakes my core to this day.
Some of the experiences of my own life I threw in there. The experiences with being an actor are very personal. I wouldn’t react like Charles would, at least not in that extreme, though I have compromised myself in the past, but I made it personal as any good piece of art should really be.
The confederate coat – not many people will catch this – is a comment on the Broadway show “Hamilton,” where actors of color are dressing up in the wears of America’s founding fathers and perform to a hip-hop influenced soundtrack. Needless to say further, I have reservations about this.
This kind of history-bending through an embrace of the American zeitgeist for popular acceptance is questionable at best and at the very least warrants some sort of discussion. I wish its connection were a bit more explicit, but that’s mostly because of the length of the film. I just didn’t have time to go into it further.
M.O.I. JR: What does “White Face” say about identity politics in a family?
Mtume Gant: Our viewpoint towards identity is very much shaped by our upbringing. Not so much that what our parents’ or guardians’ viewpoints become our own, but ultimately you make choices to embrace their views or reject them – and this moment often becomes the base point for your ideology.
Black life is steeped in how you identify your Blackness – statements like “I’m pro Black” all the way to “I don’t define my life by my race” are entrenched in ideology and one’s social aspirations.
In the film, Charles comes from a particular brand of Black ideology that I think is not talked about enough, an idea that Black self-awareness is one of obsessive self-critique but a critique not aiming towards growing maybe a revolutionary mind frame towards decolonization but one of blaming one’s own group for them not having been able to succeed under the horrific hands of whiteness and colonization.
That we are more at fault than the structures that have demeaned us and stripped away our autonomous possibilities as a people. And this is where “White Face” sits, very critical of the systems we embrace as Black Americans in shaping our identities and the spaces we engage in to create our lives. They do nothing but create pathologies.
M.O.I. JR: What do you want people to ultimately gain from “White Face”?
Mtume Gant: A curious gaze towards whiteness and what it actually is. To begin to question that it’s not so much white people that are the problem but the construct of whiteness that they have created as the real cancer in America.
And accept that when you adopt this gaze you may find things out about yourself that bother you and, frankly, you might not be as far from someone like Charles as you think. And I don’t think this just applies to Blackness or whiteness. We live in a world now where it’s increasingly easier to make yourself into “who you want to be.”
Capitalism now embraces these efforts through the culture industry, so we have to ask ourselves in our attempt towards forming what we believe to be the identity that most represents us, am I just feeding the machine? Is identity really even real? And is this identity you are aiming for coming from your own desires or is it something derived from the construct of our society or own unresolved pathologies?
M.O.I. JR: Why did you only develop a short?
Mtume Gant: Money. I didn’t have clout at the time to make a feature and I wanted to shoot a film in 2016. I knew making a feature of this film would take forever to develop financially and frankly because of its subject matter it would have maybe been impossible to fund.
Since it’s not a happy race comedy with a feel-good ending, getting feature film funding for this concept would have been a dogfight. I could get a short done. For shorts, people don’t ask for scripts and give you a bit more autonomy in making them.
M.O.I. JR: Where do you think identity politics and indie Black filmmaking are going in this Trump era in contrast to where they were in the Obama era?
Mtume Gant: Umpf. I think when it comes to identity politics, we are in a terrible state. The biggest issue with Trump coming from Obama was that Obama’s era ushered in the greatest acceptance of the Americanism in our history as Black people, because Obama was president we had to embrace the institution he represented to a certain degree or thus we weren’t supporting him. With that came an acceptance for American institutions as long as they included Black folk and/or “diverse” representation.
So Black capitalism has risen to never-seen-before levels, Black political leftism in terms of questioning if we should be a part of capitalism has seen an all-time decline and we as a people for the most part seem pretty content with the American culture as long as we get acknowledgment, our fair shot, don’t get shot by cops, have Black movies that do well at the box office and the latest Black pop star gets accepted into the cultural mainstream.
So now when we argue about Trump, it’s purely from an aspect of identity. He is racist, he is sexist, queer antagonistic, he is killing America’s march towards a diverse liberal culture and he is this last gasp of right wing fervor – which I believe to be an absurd notion.
But what we have lost from our memory is that the American structure is inherently racist, sexist, queer antagonistic etc. No matter how much diversity these archaic institutions acquire, they are built on exploitive models that bastardize all they touch.
So when it comes to Trump, it becomes “he is evil, he is the devil” rather than Americanism is an evil that breeds inhumane deviants like Trump and allows them to become president of the United States. I don’t see how anyone could believe in a system that allows this to be possible.
So when it comes to Black indie film, I believe we are still in this post-Obama trance-state. Black filmmakers now more than ever copy Hollywood models. We see diversity as evidence of Black progress, not development of our own aesthetics.
We are driving for Oscar acceptance rather than questioning if that kind of institution is even necessary. Our cinema and cinematic aspirations have become incredibly and willfully Americanized the last several years. I’ve seen a few reject this … but it’s very few. And these few have a very hard time getting their work out there. This is also partly why I made “White Face.”
M.O.I. JR: How does it feel to be selected to be in the 2017 SF Black Film Fest?
Mtume Gant: It’s a great pleasure. My first film, “SPIT,” screened here in 2015, and I was able to make the trip. The Bay Area is honestly one of the last bastions of really socially conscious Black folks and particularly Black folks who come from a leftist mind state.
So having my film in this fest that has such a great legacy also feels like it’s returning to a home base. It to me is one of the Black film festivals that still aim to be left and not allow itself to be commodified, so I can’t think of a place I’d rather screen.
M.O.I. JR: You have a very unique approach to filmmaking. What are some of the films that have influenced you?
Mtume Gant: I’m a global cinema kind of guy. I don’t like much American filmmaking these days. If it’s American films, I am heavy influenced by the ‘70s, films like “Dog Day Afternoon” or “Network” and the work of John Cassavetes – that in your face aesthetic. I probably see about two American feature films a year I think are really good.
I also see myself as an extension of Black radical filmmakers like Bill Gunn or Julie Dash. “Chameleon Street” is probably the film that has had the biggest influence on my life as a filmmaker. “Ashes and Embers” by Haile Gerima is an influence on my work in terms of a real Black aesthetic.
But I dip outside American cinema. I’m a huge fan of Andrei Tarkovsky, whose cinematic style of capturing performance in time and questioning purpose beyond the material reality are major influences. Krystof Kieslowski and Bela Tarr are also major cinematic influences in terms of approach.
I’m a huge lover of Third Cinema, Glauber Rocha and Djibril Diop Mambety. I align with them in terms of social viewpoints and how it effects how and what they filmed. Current filmmakers I like that influence me: Lucrecia Martel from Argentina, Lee Chang-Dong from Korea and Nuri Bilge-Ceylan from Turkey
M.O.I. JR: What else are you working on? How can people stay in touch with you?
Mtume Gant: Finishing a feature film script that I hope to go into pre-production with in the fall and shoot spring 2018. I also have a Black radical arts initiative; I hope to start in the coming months an attempt to cultivate and document new radical thinking in Black cinema. My website altereyecinema.com is a great way to keep up with me and my movements.