A New Film Studio Made For Telling Our Stories
Words: Gabrielle Rucker
The people who brought you some of the most powerful movies in black cinema are teaming up to push the discussion of blackness further.
Elissa Blount-Moorhead has an impressive and ever-growing résumé. When she isn't tending to the demands of motherhood, the 45-year-old wife and mother of two, Mahsati “Sunny” (11) and Ziggy Sayeed (6), is a Brooklyn- (soon to be Baltimore-) based curator, lecturer and exhibition designer. Blount-Moorhead's experience and ideas on art, music, and the everchanging role of blackness have led her to explore race through a number of personal and professional curatorial projects. She just snagged a new position at the Contemporary Museum Baltimore’s curatorial advisory council; co-runs Tandem, an arts and social practice team, with Rylee Eterginoso; and entered a partnership with film studio TNEG.
Meeting in her spacious and well-lit brownstone apartment in Bed-Stuy, Brooklyn just a few weeks before her move to Baltimore, Blount-Moorhead and mater mea talk about her most recent projects and furthering black cinema in a “post-blackness” era.
What is TNEG, and how did it come about?
TNEG is a film studio formed by my two partners, Arthur Jafa [cinematographer of Daughters of the Dust and Crooklyn] and Malik Sayeed [cinematographer and director of photography of He Got Game and Belly respectively] that is designed to create black independent film. The goal is to push what we understand to be new black cinema and to create not just new narratives and but also new aesthetics and technical parameters within black cinema.
When did you first begin working with TNEG and how did you become involved?
Officially it has been almost a year now. AJ [Arthur Jafa] and I briefly connected almost a year ago in NY and then more concretely at his opening at the Institute of Contemporary Art in Philadelphia. Kara Walker curated an exceptional exhibition that included AJ and Khalil [Joseph]. I initially spoke with him about my documentary project and he started telling me more about his bigger ideas about a formidable black cinema. He and Malik have spent decades talking about what that would look/feel like, and the impact it would have on the film and the representations of the black image politically, aesthetically, technically. I was beyond intrigued. It was masterful.
[Eventually] the three of us were able to sit down together in L.A. and I felt like I had been reconnected to missing limbs. Intellectually and metaphysically, these are my brothers. I knew some of their work in film obviously, and AJ shared with me work I hadn't seen, like Deshotten [a short film created by AJ and Malik]. It blew me away. The audio was so present and haunting. It was like nothing I had experienced. I could see a deeper conceptual framework for TNEG as a film studio. I knew within hours of our discussion this team would create work, produce projects, and really support a radical cinema. They felt that my background in curation and institutional building was what they had been wanting/needing to get TNEG off the ground and concretize these ideas.
"The three of us were able to sit down together in L.A. and I felt like I had been reconnected to missing limbs."
What are some things TNEG has been working on?
The documentary that TNEG has put out, Dreams Are Colder Than Death, was recently at the L.A. Film Festival and is going to the NY Film Festival in 2014. We’ve been basking a little bit in the success of Dreams Are Colder Than Death. We are in the process of of negotiating a distribution deal for that now. My film—working title Children of the Revolution—is on the TNEG slate and in the midst of being put together. We have also been focusing on a couple of scripts that are being developed and written.
Why do you think avant-garde black cinema is still such a fringe genre?
I don’t know. Black people’s financial and executive role in image making and image representation is relatively new, so there’s not been as much work to understand or critique or compare. Also there’s just not been as many opportunities, [or] platforms really, so that’s a gap that TNEG is trying to close.
In critical mass I’m not sure that people understand black film as a black cinema—they understand one-off efforts, I think, but the larger context seems to be lost. In terms of it being on the fringe, I think all independent film is still on the fringe and that might have to deal with fiscal issues or distribution issues or a host of many other behind-the-scenes things.
I feel like independent film in general is becoming more well-regarded and more supported. If you just think back 20 years there was no IFC, or things like that. There are more alternative platforms now, like Netflix, that are now commissioning and financing work that will go directly through their channels—those are the ways you are able to provide an outlet for people and to hopefully allow filmmakers to create a voice that is not contingent on mainstream and Hollywood expectations.
Where do you see black cinema going or where do you hope to see it go?
I guess from a business standpoint ideally there would be more alternative revenue streams so that people are able to access tools and personnel, and resources to get work done in a faster way. [Hopefully], through places like TNEG, access to creative peers would also be available. From a creative standpoint, my dream is that it’s about MORE. A multiplicity of black aesthetic, of representation, of narrative that extends to rom-coms to horror. For me what’s most important is that it is not operating in the context of the white gaze. That it is something that is self-determined and is created in the context of everyday black normalcy.
"What’s most important is that [the black narrative] is not operating in the context of the white gaze."
Can you tell us more about your movie, Children of the Revolution?
Essentially, the film looks at—and I am one of them, so it is very, very specific and personal—where children who grew up in alternative environments in the '60s and ‘70s have ended up today. “Alternative environments” include activists, artists, [Black] Panther kids or, you know, commune kids and people like that.
Obviously, it is a cathartic piece that I was obsessed with because of my upbringing. But the real interest for me is looking at it terms of where we are as a society. We were raised by the baby-boomer generation, and they were pioneers is a lot of ways. A lot of what they were doing in terms of parenting was new. They were the first generation using African names or trying a new health food, creating co-ops [and] communes. I mean, all of these things are things that obviously happened at different points in history, but for the black community in the ‘60s and ‘70s, a lot of these things were really untested. I’m really interested in what that creates in a child raised within those scenarios [and] curious about the consistencies among those children. People assume that they must be feral or crazy because they had such a nontraditional upbringing, but that’s quite the opposite in my experience. .
This film is not about the parents; they already get a lot of light. Everyone knows who Amiri Baraka is, but who is Ras Baraka and what is he really about in connection to that movement? Because that movement doesn’t exist anymore, but that spirit is still there. A lot of them are pioneers and tastemakers; they’re interesting, fearless people and intellectuals. They have a lot of similar threads, but in a context that is wholly different than when there was a critical mass of people trying to do it together. Whether they are movement people now—and most aren’t—they all carry this very interesting thread in terms of self-determination and audacity, but also some of the same maladies: you know, maladjustment, misfit syndrome. There are all of these things that happen when you grow up in a place where you are not the mainstream.
As a “child of the revolution” yourself, how does that affect your parenting style?
(Laughs) I’m still trying to figure that out! It’s funny, I started to do the film a few years before I started having kids. A lot of my friends were starting families and I was becoming aware that, “Oh God, I am responsible for the next generation,” even before I was directly responsible.
Having kids has made me really focus on just appreciating the laissez-faire parenting of the last generation. I’m raising kids now in a “helicopter generation.” It is the direct antithesis of what our parents were doing. Even though they were purposeful and intentional, they were also trusting and gave us a lot of space—I think that sort of comes along with the fact that they were more or less going with the flow. I see a lot of parents nowadays that are really tied to what their kids are doing, what they will be, what they know and what they don’t. My kids go to the store on their own; I know parents who can’t even fathom that, but it’s something I used to do all of the time.
I am constantly thirsty for representation and it does not have to be beautiful.
I have a lot of conversations with other parents about letting our kids be contemporary. A lot of my friends who are sort of into controlling their kids experiences are giving them what we grew up with. I mean it’s good stuff—it’s Nina Simone, it’s Stevie Wonder—but at the same time are we extracting them from a contemporary experience? There was a point in my adolescence where I had to say to my dad, “OK, Sly [and the Family Stone] is your music, but I listen to hip-hop now.” I’m sure there were things I grew up with that could be considered as trivial or bubblegum but I was very possessive of them and my parents supported me. I try to let my kids live in their own space, within reason. I try to stay open, I try not to be critical, and I try not to be invested in the outcome. My kids are interesting people, but they are not me.
One of the things I think about most as a parent and even within my work, is the future of blackness. What is blackness nowadays? This “post-blackness” thing is not real for me. I think we are highly racialized right now. Post-Obama racism is intense, more intense than anything I have experience in my life. Growing up I was very much steeped in a global black community; I don’t know if that exists in the same way. I feel like I have to put my kids in blackness. Other than what happens in their house, I’m not sure there is still that critical mass that I felt growing up [for them].
How does your experience as a black woman and a mother inform your thoughts and experiences with cinema?
It’s funny, I actually took my kids to see Fruitvale [Station] and people were like, “Are you crazy?!” (Laughs) As a parent I am constantly thirsty for representation and it does not have to be beautiful. We don’t have to be coiffed and flawless. I’m really interested in those spaces that are less heralded, but more representative. I’m always concerned about polarization, because blackness is a myriad of experiences and beauty. I want my [kids] to have gobs and gobs of access to the multiplicity because then they can work it out. They’ll go through it and they’ll say, “Oh, this was a disturbing image,” or “Oh, this isn’t really representative of what I understand,” or “This really is [representative] of my experience,” and through their process of understanding, blackness becomes normal and ambitious.
There is a film, Mother of George, that represented what [Arthur Jafa] and I call this euphoric moment where you’re there and you see something that absolutely reflects a thought or an experience that you know to be real, that you know is inside of you and vibrating inside of your people. It is so seldom that that [feeling] happens to me and I think it should happen all the time. I think every day you should be able to have a euphoric cultural experience. That sort of stuff is what I think gives kids confidence and knowing and authority—it is a necessity. Blackness has a million stories and I want [my kids and I] to hear [and] see all of them.