Black filmmakers ‘find their edge’ in Japan


My alma mater, Long Island University in Brooklyn, is a couple of blocks from Spike Lee’s production company, 40 Acres and a Mule. He had a screening room at my school and, along with his staff, occasionally taught film production workshops back when I was there.

I joined those workshops, of course, and after graduation even worked on several independent films with friends. My aspiration is to get back into film again before my number’s called, either as a screenwriter or producer, so it is with a great deal of admiration and straight-up envy that I focus this month’s Black Eye on members of what I’ve deemed the Black Filmmakers Foundation, Tokyo Chapter (or BFF) — a group of brothers forging their dreams into reality, getting it done here in the Land of the Rising Sun!

I’ve had the pleasure of meeting these artists and viewing their cinematic visions, and each impressed me for a different reason. Their equipment, technical skills, education, background, styles and experience in the game vary. As does their level of accomplishment and notoriety. But what they all have in common is drive, enthusiasm and the wherewithal to see projects from conception to fruition. And, from my brief stint in the independent film-making industry — where virtually every aspect of every project is beset by setbacks and pitfalls, requiring the kind of resolve to stay the course that few people of any color or nationality possess — that’s saying a great deal.

Darryl Wharton-Rigby is a filmmaker from Baltimore, in Japan for the long haul and without a doubt the epitome of a results-oriented filmmaker. I learned this just spending time with the brother kicking it, and from a glance at his IMDb page. He’s been in the game, writing and directing professionally, since back in the days. He even spent 1996-98 writing alongside the great David Simon (of “The Wire” fame) on a renowned TV show called “Homicide: Life on the Street.”

His first feature film, “Detention,” was well received, screened internationally and landed him a distribution deal. Now he’s happily living here in Japan, raising a family and making his own films independently. His latest, “Stay,” is centered around a recovering drug addict — a Japanese junkie seeking a modicum of forgiveness and trying to clean up his act in an effort to re-enter a society determined to hold his past against him.

A Japanese guy? I was surprised to hear that. Japanese filmmakers certainly tell Japanese stories. And white film makers tell predominately white stories. But who’s telling black stories? I was raised to believe that if we don’t define ourselves we’ll be defined by others, and thus far, at least media-wise, it’s been primarily the white media responsible for the definition of blackness on film.

And Lord knows they’ve been doing a bang-up job, haven’t they? Pimps, whores, pushers, junkies, clowns, criminals, slaves, chauffeurs, maids, magical Negroes, Sidney Poitier and Samuel L. Jackson pretty much sums up a century of white Hollywood-manufactured black images, with relative few exceptions. And the Japanese media hasn’t hesitated to embrace, embellish and recycle these images.

I said as much to Wharton-Rigby.

“It was originally supposed to be set in the States with black actors,” he said. “I could have shot it in Baltimore or Los Angeles, but when I came to Tokyo I realized there are elements of that here. There are addicts and recovery groups here, too. But the culture here isn’t as forgiving as back in the U.S. and that was a more appealing story to me.

“I’m not not telling black stories, I’m just telling stories,” he added. “And some will be stories with black folks, some with Japanese and some even with white folks. I’m just trying to tell good stories. Cuz at the end of the day, I’m always gonna be black — but I’ve got three biracial children who are for the most part Japanese.”

Kendall M. Williams, a 28-year old director, writer and cinematographer from Chicago living in Tokyo, felt similarly, I suspect. The protagonist of his first film, “Jun and Me,” is a white guy.

He told me that the story of Jun is basically his own story, about a foreigner’s disenchantment with his life in Japan leading to depression and an inability to sleep. So he takes a drug that’s supposed to help and in perhaps a drug-induced slumber meets a girl that changes his life.

When I watched the film and saw that the main character of a story based on a black man’s life in Japan was white, I was a little put off. But I reckon some of what he shared with me during our conversation should have prepared me.

“You gotta understand, you’re not getting into the film industry here,” he told me squarely. “This might be my first film but I can tell you quite a lot about the industry here. You’re not gonna just walk your ass into one of these film companies, unless you’re from Australia or Britain, white, with blond hair, look attractive and have a decent camera with you. Then they’ll take you on. But if you’re a brother holding a camera? They’ll look at you like, ‘Are you serious?’

“My mother and my brother said it best. They told me, ‘Kendall, if you seriously wanna get into the film industry, take yourself out of the equation. Start taking down all your pictures from the Net, everything, and let your work do the talking. Force the attention to come your way. Then once you’ve got their attention and the interviews come in, reveal who you are.

“We have to work twice as hard as everyone else, period, point blank!” he added. “My work can’t be good, it has to be great! I can’t half-know anything; I have to know what they know — and more!”

And, apparently, with his choice to remain racially incognito and go with a white lead in his film, he was on to something, because his film caught the attention of Twickenham Studio, a British production firm, and they got on board, paying for his film’s production and all of its festival fees. “Jun and Me” has already been entered in festivals in New York, Los Angeles, Sydney, Vancouver and San Francisco. And judging from the extended trailer I’ve seen, it’s very deserving.

Emmanuel Osei-Kuffour’s film “Born With It” is about a half-black, half-Japanese schoolboy’s identity crisis on the first day at a new school in the Japanese countryside. The boy is told by a bully that the reason his skin is dark is because he has a disease. So he goes on a mission to prove to not only his new friend but to himself that he’s OK to play with.

The film has been making the rounds to film festivals internationally, including the Toronto International Film Festival and the Tokyo Short Shorts festival. “Born With It” was his thesis for NYU Tisch School of the Arts in Singapore, where he studied film production, but it has so many professional touches, impressive composition and stunning visuals that it’s certainly destined for great things.

Here we have a film where the story takes place in Japan and deals with timely subject matter (particularly in light of the focus of my previous article, the crowning of Japan’s first biracial Miss Universe Japan), done entirely in Japanese. His film tackles issues pertinent not only to black people living here but to the parents of so-called hāfu (half) children. Only, due to his long-held obsession with and intensive study of Japanese films, this 28-year-old Houston native’s style is so reminiscent of Japanese-style filmmaking that it is often mistaken by viewers as having been shot by a local-born director.

“When they see my work, most people see it as very Asian or Japanese,” Osei-Kuffour told me, his inspirations being indie filmmakers such as Jun Ichikawa and Hirokazu Koreeda. “But the minute they know it’s me, they take a second look at it and think, ‘Really? He did that?’ I have reactions of disbelief from a lot of people.”

But unlike Williams, whose experience and the advice he received inclined him to bury his blackness, Osei-Kuffour has been advised to do just the opposite.

“I’ve been told to emphasize my profile when applying to festivals so that I stand out more,” he explained. “A black man making films in Japan. But I think everyone has to do that in entertainment in order to survive. You have to find your edge. I just hope that one day people recognize me for my storytelling and not just for being the black guy making films that feel super-Japanese.”

Jesse Freeman, a 30-year-old director and screenwriter, is also from Baltimore. His latest film, “Stuck,” is philosophical in nature, based on absurdist plays from 1950s France, and explores the misuse of language in film while challenging cinematic conventions. I sat mesmerized and perplexed at the imagery.

Jesse embraces race as an inescapable factor — but one best kept behind the scenes.

“It was very important to me that I did all-black films that weren’t preoccupied with race,” he told me, which makes perfect sense. “I kinda feel that in Hollywood, if you’re a black filmmaker, you have to do a biopic that deals with race, or a really shallow comedy.

“I’m jealous of non-black filmmakers that just make films,” he added. “I like to just have black people doing things you don’t see on TV — just a different look.”

Jesse himself has a different look than the other filmmakers in the BFF, it seems to me, for he is as focused on getting his films seen as he is getting them made. Based on the consistency of his work (this is his fifth film to date), he has built a significant fan base and has held a number of sold-out screenings in Tokyo, including a recent showing of “Stuck” to over 200 people in Nakameguro.

I commend the members of the Black Filmmakers Foundation, Tokyo Chapter. Against formidable obstacles, these artists have managed to stay on the path to success, and in the process are placing themselves in a position to recast the often shady image of black people in Japan in a more positive light, as well as laying the foundation for future filmmakers to build upon.

Check out their incredible work at the links below.

Darryl Wharton-Rigby’s film: “Detention”: www.vimeo.com/119201381. Kendall M. Williams’ trailer for “Jun and Me”: www.vimeo.com/atlasmonad. Emmanuel Osei-Kuffour’s trailer for “Born With It”: www.youtube.com/watch?v=iHjA9jOd7rs. Jesse Freeman’s film “Stuck”: www.vimeo.com/110469087. Black Eye appears in print on the third Monday of every month. Baye McNeil is the author of two books and writes the Loco in Yokohama blog. See www.bayemcneil.com. Your comments and ideas: community@japantimes.co.jp

  • Winter 冬

    Sorry if this comes across as really shallow but I had no idea about black film makers in Japan so reading this article gave me a great insight into what it’s like to be a black film maker, especially in a place such as Japan.

    Really great article, Loco! Keep them coming :)

  • Tatami53

    It is not fair for this writer to say “And white film makers tell predominately white stories” — based on what? I’m glad that there are black filmmakers in Japan. I’m glad there are any type of filmmakers anywhere. They may feel compelled to tell stories about their own race, but they may feel compelled to just tell good stories. I am white. My first film (award winning) was about a Japanese woman. My other films have all featured a Japanese actor or actress in a starring role. I am now working on a project featuring black and Japanese actors. So, I want to know where this writer thinks that “white film makers tell predominately white stories.” Really? Not in my case. I really resent when people break it down the race lines. We are first human beings and as such we should, if are present and conscious and aware, be in tune with our the suffering of our fellow human beings. Yes, as a “white person,” there are stories that happened in my “white life” that may not be the same as my “black life” or my “Japanese life.” But considering the strongest influences on my life are white, black and Japanese, I feel I can proudly tell stories from each of those “realms.” I think the writer of this article needs to rethink a few things, starting with his narrow perception of what writers write.

    • Takunori314

      I think the keyword you might have missed earlier is “predominately”.

  • Takunori314

    Nobody said anything about accepting anything as fact. It’s this person’s job to write stuff – why waste minutes of your life taking something so seriously if it won’t change anything? I hear what you’re saying though.

    Besides – pretty much all media should be taken with a grain of salt nowadays. 90% of it is opinion-based, unsupported content anyway, right?

    • Tatami53

      You are right; he did not present it as fact; and yet, the article is not presented as an “opinion piece.” My point is that he made the comment as if it WERE a fact. That’s what bothered me. And you are also right; nowadays, it seems everything is opinion-based and only a few, gifted journalists do their job correctly, i.e., present us with factual data so we can decide on our own if such stories deserve our attention. In this case, the story did not deserve my attention; instead, it required my input; I don’t like blanket statements, and that’s what this was.

  • grifster

    The idea is that the way that black people are portrayed in films by white filmmakers tend to be stereotypical and racist at worst, and two-dimensional and stilted at best. With such a dearth of portrayals that black folks can identify with, the onus falls on the black filmmaker to pick up the slack. Not that they should have to, but if they don’t who will? The deeper conversation here is how we as black people can take back ownership of our image.

    As for you personally, keep doing what you’re doing. No one is trying to disparage you or your work. But I still think we have a loooong way to go before this ceases to be an issue.

  • Paul Martin

    I am a writer, foreign correspondent and former top British radio DJ in the US during the British invasion. I have been in the media since the fifties and my dream is to make great stories into films. But having lived in LA since the 60’s on and off I am convinced that $$$ for film making is near impossible and all the creative talent on the `Planet is useless without the bucks to support ideas ! I have tried approaching Japanese entrepreneurs and learned years ago that if you are NOT Japanese and in the RIGHT circles they don’t even want to know you ! Same in Taiwan Ang Lee got his breaks in Hollywood ! I can write fantastic, original stories but have given up trying to raise the dough ! And I’m an optimist !