'I’m going to find out how black filmmakers finally won themselves the space to speak with their own voice,' says docuseries creator Simon Frederick.

By Alamin Yohannes
January 28, 2020 at 01:00 PM EST
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“We are in the middle of a renaissance,” says David Oyelowo in the trailer for docuseries They’ve Gotta Have Us. A renaissance in black cinema.

Created by photographer and artist Simon Frederick, the three-part documentary series explores the history of Black cinema through in-depth interviews with black actors, directors, and creators across three generations.

One of those voices is icon Harry Belafonte, who, according to Frederick, broke down the racism he faced in a way that made the series more accessible while discussing the process of making his career as well as his films Island in the Sun and Carmen Jones. Joining Belafonte to discuss the difficulties, milestones, and success of black creatives in the film industry is Barry Jenkins, Nathalie Emmanuel, Debbie Allen, and many others.

Throughout the three episodes, which are being released by Ava DuVernay’s ARRAY Releasing, viewers hear these crucial voices discuss the community’s long history in film, from Sidney Poitier being a box office hit while there was still segregation in the U.S. to the rise of Blaxploitation films to how the hip-hop filled Spike Lee film Do The Right Thing inspired a whole generation of black filmmakers. They will explain the problems with thinking about “black film” as a genre, explore the complicated conversation surrounding black British creatives finding success in the U.S. and a myriad of other topics relevant to the history of film.

Credit: Simon Frederick (4)

Of all the interviews Frederick did, he singled out what the late Diahann Carroll shares about her relationship with Poitier. According to the filmmaker, the whole studio fell quiet as she discussed how she felt watching Poitier win his Oscar from home, not being by his side for that moment.

“She went right back to 1964 and all of the disappointment of their relationship,” he shares, “for me, that was that was the most emotionally charged and poignant story because we just weren’t expecting her to take us in that direction and share so much of her heart and her soul with us.”

The inclusion of Carroll and John Singleton, who have both died since being interviewed, added “another realm of importance.” In fact, Singleton saw the importance of They’ve Gotta Have Us and followed up with Frederick for updates about the docuseries’ progress.

Credit: Simon Frederick

While the conversations are meaningful and complex, They’ve Gotta Have Us is also full of amazing stories. Juice director Ernest R. Dickerson’s explanation of how Tupac Shakur captured the pain of lead Bishop to land the role. Debbie Allen’s 18-year journey to get Amistad made. Laurence Fishburne on finally getting the chance to be in a film as meaningful as Star Wars was to him by playing Morpheus. Oh, the stories.

Oyelowo, speaking of the current Renaissance, makes a poignant observation: “I still don’t see the mechanisms in place to foundationally sustain what will go beyond a renaissance and become the norm.” Frederick’s answer? To actually learn lessons from all the hard work that led to successes like Get Out, Moonlight, and Black Panther. To learn how “to come together, to work together, to help each other” as a community and realize creatives “don’t actually need permission from the so-called gatekeepers, who are usually white, to tell our own stories.”

Credit: Netflix

“That change has become a resolution not only for black filmmakers, but filmmakers of all colors and women and the LGBTQ community as well,” he adds.

They’ve Gotta Have Us provides that learning opportunity, which Allen states aptly in the trailer: “By understanding our past, we can better define our present and future.”

Watch the trailer above. They’ve Gotta Have Us premieres Feb. 5 on Netflix.

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