Scott Sanders, writer and director of the film Black Dynamite, came to Syracuse University on Tuesday to participate in a Conversation on Race and Entertainment Media with television, radio and film professor Richard Dubin. The free-flowing discussion, held in the Joyce Hergenhan Auditorium in Newhouse III, focused on the changes in the entertainment industry over the past two decades and on Sanders’s thoughts on opportunities for African-Americans in film.
Sanders, 41, began his career writing for television shows such as A Different World and Roc (where he met Dubin, who was also a television writer). He spoke nostalgically of that time, and the ease with which he was able to break into the industry.
“I just went to Hollywood, and 8 months later I was writing for a show,” Sanders said. “The television industry was doing so well then, it seemed like everyone was getting paid a ton of money.
"No offense,” Sanders said as he turned towards Dubin, “but we had a lot of really untalented people working on Roc, just coasting along, and they were making a lot of money.”
“Back then, all we had was television,” Sanders recalled. “No Internet or other competition. It really was a different world.”
He shook his head at his own pun.
But Sanders emphasized to the group — full of many aspiring film and television writers — that the current situation was not hopeless; it just required more creativity.
“Now the industry is open to more entrepreneurship, people going out and making things on their own," Sanders said. "If you have something funny that you can put together for not much money, there’s nothing stopping you from doing it.”
Sanders said that this, this open market could help more minorities get work behind the camera. He recalled how it was more difficult in the system of the 1990s for African-Americans to get certain jobs through the regular channels.
“You’d never see a black writer working on a white TV show,” he said.
But now, pointing to Tyler Perry as an example, Sanders believes if there’s a market for material, and if it can be made inexpensively, then anyone who’s driven — regardless of race — can become their own successful brand.
“It’s all about money," he said. "None of the networks care that Tyler Perry is black nearly as much as they care that he makes money. He used his own money and found an underrepresented and apparently very large audience."
As for the audience for Sanders’s film, Black Dynamite, which both parodies and pays tribute to the African-American action films of the 1970s such as Shaft and Foxy Brown, Sanders says he was surprised by the early results.
“When I made it, I thought the movie would be like Friday: mostly have a black audience with a few white people around the edges. But then, at the early screenings, it was all white people, and they were loving it! The whiter, the better! The movie was huge in Australia!”
As the film has gotten a wider release, however, Sanders says the racial balance of the crowds has tilted. It’s now roughly a 50-50 split.
When asked about his responsibility toward these crowds as an African-American filmmaker, Sanders emphasized that wasn’t where his priorities lie.
“My goal is to entertain myself," he said. "If I’m entertained, I assume other people are, too…I’ve heard people say that we need to be sure to send out a ‘positive image’ of black people, and I just don’t get that. I don’t understand the idea of trying to sell black people through art.”
“I mean, sure, of course I want black people to do well and all…whatever,” Sanders added. “But my interest is telling stories and making art. If all you’re trying to do is send a positive image, that’s not art — it’s propaganda.”