“Making Black Cinema ‘Palatable’ Does Zero”: Skinner Myers on The Sleeping Negro
Filmmaker and CU Boulder Film Professor Skinner Myers is in the middle of writing the long proposal for his dissertation, which will offer “a way of fighting Hollywood from one’s own cultural perspective.” Breaking from First, Second, Third and Fourth cinemas (Hollywood, European Art House, Third World and Indigenous Cinemas, respectively), his “Antagonistic Cinema Theory” eschews a numbered designation. In his feature debut, The Sleeping Negro, which he wrote, directed, produced and starred in, Myers pays respect to the Third and Fourth Cinema filmmakers who laid a path for him to stride—his dissertation records his own footsteps along the way.
The film opens with a James Baldwin quote, “To be a Negro in this country and to be relatively conscious is to be in a state of rage almost all of the time.” Myers plays “Man,” a comfortable Angeleno with a white liberal fiance (Julie McNiven), a Republican, born-again old friend (Nican Robinson), and a powerful, white boss (David Fumero) who corners him into committing fraud. Stripped of agency, “Man” broods around his apartment, spewing macabre turns of phrase and fantasizing about suicide. His implosions manifest in the real world as a stalking doppelganger and, eventually, into serial confrontations. Myers talked with me about acquiring the resources to make the film, teaching, and his “Antagonistic Cinema Theory” and Third Cinema influences that form the backbone of all his work.
The Sleeping Negro is currently in theatrical distribution from ArtMattan Films.
Filmmaker: When we met you had just bookmarked Haile Gerima’s essay in “Questions of Third Cinema.”
Skinner Myers: On his triangular cinema theory, which I think is so important! He wrote that a year before Merawi [Gerima, his son] was born. He wrote that in ’86, two years, I think, into being a professor at Howard. It’s about reeducating the relationship between the filmmaker, the spectator, and the critic, the three working together to usher in a new way of making, consuming, and critiquing Black cinema. So I’m taking from that, Third Cinema, and also Fourth Cinema, which focuses on Indigenous cinema. My theory for my dissertation is called Antagonistic Cinema Theory. I’m focusing on Black Cinema, but ideally, anyone who is marginalized can look at this theory and adapt it to their struggle. Basically, it’s a way of fighting Hollywood from one’s own cultural perspective.
Filmmaker: How would you briefly describe this Antagonistic Cinema Theory?
Myers: Cinema that constantly fights against dominating theories of what cinema should be. For Blacks, it’s fighting against how we’ve been portrayed, controlling our own narrative, and borrowing from our African ancestor’s oral storytelling, avant-garde jazz, Black surrealism, and existentialism to create something new. Now, that process would be completely different for Native Americans, completely different for Third World peoples based on the global colonization of their respective entertainment systems by Hollywood. So I’m trying to develop a theory for any struggling culture that’s not Eurocentric.
Haile has such a unique perspective. I’m trying to pick up where he left off, because up until ’86, ’87, there was a push for a liberated Black cinema. Once Spike Lee became famous, everyone wanted to do what Spike was doing and cross over into whiteness, Hollywood, and commercial success. Myself, Merawi, Mtume [Gant] and Jonathan [Burnett], are trying to create a new Black wave cinema movement. If someone from Hollywood wants to give me money and then literally get out of my way and never say a word, I’ll take the money. But we know that never happens.
Filmmaker: As a film professor, how do you introduce those first-year students who arrive each year espousing Nolan or Marvel to something like Third Cinema?
Myers: When I was teaching at Loyola Marymount University, there wasn’t much room to deviate from the syllabus. I was teaching a lot of establishment classes. In my six years of teaching there as a full-time professor, I don’t think I showed a full feature in my class because everything was so structured and there were so many short film projects to make. It was very hard to introduce Third Cinema and the cinema of the LA Rebellion. I went to USC, and at the time I didn’t even know about the LA Rebellion, which feels embarrassing to say. My teachers were all white. We watched some really good films, but for the most part they were very Eurocentric. So I struggled at LMU as one of only two Black production professors.
When I got hired at CU Boulder, they hired me as a Black Cinema Practices Professor. The cool thing about CU Boulder, which I appreciate, is that it’s mainly a film studies program. I’m one of three production professors. They expect us to teach some theory and show students some features. So I worked in Third Cinema, LA Rebellion, films like Chameleon Street into the curriculum. I feel like I might be the first Black hire in the history of CU Boulder film school, so students were excited for me to be there. I was kind of given free rein. Now that we had success with The Sleeping Negro — won FIPRESCI, received distribution both domestically and internationally — the school’s quite happy. The students have been very receptive to the films. I have all white students, as you know.
But I think that’s every film school, they’re Hollywood-focused and/or Eurocentric. A lot of Nolan, Spielberg, and Tarantino fans. I try to do my part as a professor and expand their experience with Sembène or Mambéty, but whether it sticks or not is not my concern. It’s more about exposing them to it. I have a lot of frat and sorority students who think cinema is about escapism. Hopefully, they come away from my class changed.
Filmmaker: You mentioned you didn’t discover some of these films by Black filmmakers until you were out of film school. When did you discover them and how did you first react to them?
Myers: I dropped out of film school after a year. One day I was with a buddy at LACMA in Los Angeles, and he said, “I want you to meet a friend of mine, Arthur Jafa.” Arthur gave a little talk about Daughters of the Dust. I’m 41 now, so I was probably 36 at the time, and the talk made me realize there was a lot that I was missing. Full disclosure, I was an actor for a long time. Like every young Black actor, my goal was to be the next Denzel Washington. I studied in NYC with Gene Frankel, who passed away shortly after I studied with him; Michael Howard who used to teach at Julliard when he had his own studio; and people like Cory Hardrict, who’s married to Tia Mowry. We all started in our 20s together. Arthur was also talking about Alien: how the Alien represented Black people in America. Whiteness needed Blackness to be parasitic to survive and thrive.
So I watched Daughters of the Dust and every LA Rebellion film I could find. Then I got into Oscar Micheaux and all these Black filmmakers who worked in the ’30s, ’40s, and ’60s. Finally, this is the Black cinematic tradition that is not talked about! I lived in that space for four or five years and came out hating Hollywood, wanting to make films like Charles Burnett, Haile Gerima, Shirikiana Aina, Billy Woodberry, and Julie Dash makes. For me it’s not making a “living” as a filmmaker, I love people and relationships, so I’ll never quit teaching as long as any institution has me. But I want to make rebellious cinema from an academic standpoint and a literal production standpoint. If I’m lucky, that’s what I’ll focus on for the rest of my life.
Filmmaker: When I first watched some Philippine cinema, I was embarrassed by sound and images I then perceived to be technically inept. It was only after unlearning the aesthetic standards I’d been conditioned to that I was able to see how technically refined they were and how they capitalized on their resources. Did you experience something like that?
Myers: When I first watched Bush Mama it was very cathartic. I thought the sound was off, and it kind of looked cheap; it took me until the third or fourth viewing to realize I had to unlearn what I thought cinema was. There’s a great line in Chameleon Street, when Wendell’s character is waiting in the van and his buddy in the passenger seat says, “Man, even my conditioning has been conditioned!” It’s true, I had this idea of what was and wasn’t cinema that’s embarrassing to look back on now. Haile made two features as a film student, you don’t see that anymore. He was way before his time. There’s a reason why his work is written about in academic publications. I just rewatched Sankofa, the 4K restoration, on Netflix. Watch that film and then watch 12 Years a Slave. The first time I saw the latter, I thought Steve McQueen was doing new things. Then I saw Sankofa and was like, wait a minute, this is royalty. 12 Years A Slave is very beautiful, but it’s Hollywood, white savior, Black trauma porn. With Sankofa, Gerima was able to tap into memory and trauma in a way that was very spiritual, three-dimensional, and esoteric. It’s not just a guy being burned alive and whipped at the same time like in The Underground Railroad, which I hated. Barry [Jenkins] beautified slavery in a way that was very disgusting to me. Either you’re going to free the people with liberated cinema, or you’re going to pacify them with escapism, and make white liberals feel good about the consumption of media, which is their version of politics. But we know that’s not what politics really means. So you further establish a status quo with a Black face…
This is no shade to Barry or anyone. I don’t know any of these people personally, so I’m not saying they’re bad people. But I am saying it’s very easy to receive a level of success and get trapped into the Hollywood system, the money, and the fame, and the same critics praising you and not really assessing who’s around you and how your work helps the struggle of Black people. If your work’s not liberating for the Black working class, what is it doing? We don’t need more rich Black people to be recognized, and obviously, voting doesn’t work. For six or seven decades voting hasn’t worked.
I have love for everyone, but people have lost the ability to critique art. If our Black community likes what we’re doing and gives us the green light, then we’re on the right path. It’s not about the elites or the upper-middle class.
Filmmaker: Can you talk about acquiring the resources to make The Sleeping Negro, and building an aesthetic from what was and was not within your power for your feature debut?
Myers: There’s a priest I’m friends with in Glendale who supported a few of my short films. He read the script and said, “I don’t have much money, but I’m gonna give you $2,000.” I decided to start shooting with that because I figured, worst-case scenario, I can shoot for a weekend, all MOS, and cut a teaser trailer with a pitch deck to raise more money. So we shot the floating scene and a couple of shots of me in the apartment. No sound person, we shot it like Tarkovsky and Bresson would because their film cameras were so loud they had to recreate sounds.
I put about $20,000 of my own money into this movie. I booked a Super Bowl commercial for Audi, which paid me $25,000. So all that money went into the movie, and four or five investor friends who put between two to ten grand each in. I piecemealed it together, so we shot eight days over three months, and each shooting day was between six to eight hours. I made sure to rehearse about three months with each actor because I could only afford to shoot with them for those six to eight hours. They were going way below their day rate for this movie, and my goal was to shoot them out in one day. Scheduling was like trying to find a needle in a haystack, I’d book one weekend and my actors couldn’t do it; I’d change dates and my crew couldn’t do it. We stole locations; some locations literally gave us 30 minutes. We shot in the diner where they shot Heat, in the Valley, from 2 am to 3 am, and in exchange we bought meals.
In those three months, I gained about 40 pounds. I wasn’t sure if the footage was going to make any sense. Between the scene where I shoot myself in the head and my fiance coming in was like a three-month gap. So we took copious continuity photos. In those three months, people’s faces gained and lost weight. It was crazy, man! I will say this about Nolan, I was inspired by how he shot Following on weekends for 18 months. So for every $5,000 I got, I’d book a couple of weekends to shoot. Things would go wrong, reshoots had to happen, and we were shooting on film.
Filmmaker: You edited the fight scene between the protagonist and his fiance in camera. Was that because of how little film you had?
Myers: I had Julie [McNiven] for seven hours. That was what our contract agreed upon. And I only had three rolls of 16mm. It was a 15-page scene, and I knew that if I were to shoot a master it would burn through most of my film stock. So I had to break it up. I had to pre-edit that scene. My original DP was in Arizona on a shoot, so the first AC, who owned the camera, became the DP for that day. The first action in the scene was one shot: Julie knocks on the door, I walk to the door, open it, she kisses me, I walk to the countertop, I walk to the couch, we both sit down, the camera tracks to a two-shot, I get up and we cut. We had to do six takes of that because the camera operator/DP/first AC was focusing and operating Steadicam at the same time and could not nail the focus. It was killing our film stock, but we got it on the sixth take. So we had five hours left and two rolls of film. I had to trim my shotlist, so basically what you see is everything we shot. We didn’t have options. [laughs] That was the best I could do at that moment to edit the scene together. Obviously, that’s not the best way to make a movie, because either it works or it doesn’t, but those were the choices I had to make, and that’s what’s in the movie. It was 15 pages that we shot in seven hours on three rolls of Super 16, which gives you about 30 minutes of shooting time.
Filmmaker: Why shoot Super 16?
Myers: Once I made Frank Embree, a short, on 35mm, I realized it was the way I liked to work. I had shot digital, shooting like 40 takes each, until then. It wasn’t working for me. Shooting on film made me be purposeful, make strong decisions, and rehearse a lot. So I swore never to make another project on anything other than film. But 35 was a little more expensive than I could afford. I knew a 400ft roll of 35mm would only give me five minutes of shooting time. A 400ft roll of Super 16 gave me 11 minutes. Also, 500T and 250D Super 16 look like 35mm did in the 70s. Current 35mm is so crisp and clean that it sometimes looks digital.
Filmmaker: What camera body and lenses?
Myers: We used the Aaton XTR, 3.5mm, 9mm, 12mm, and 16mm Zeiss Master Primes. Very wide-angle lenses—the idea was to get wider and wider as the movie went on. The 3.5mm lens was actually an off-brand lens. My goal was to distort people because of the content. As the protagonist becomes closer to discovering his own humanity, the world opens up more for him. Because I was treating this like a horror film, I wanted everything to be a little unsettling. I was lucky to work with Chivo [Emmanuel Lubezki] about four years ago on a very small non-film project. We talked for two hours about his process, and how he thought about his compositions. That inspired me to make a new visual language. I wanted to make it really ugly, really in your face.
Filmmaker: I’m curious about the character, whose name I’m forgetting—the fiance.
Myers: That’s her name in the film, white fiance. [laughs]
Filmmaker: She’s not the racist caricature that white audiences can easily separate themselves from.
Myers: Malcolm X says the white liberal is the most dangerous. Republicans point the gun in front of you, liberals hug you, drape you in a rainbow flag, and point a gun at your back the whole time. She’s rooted in a few people from my family, who believe that because they have liberal political points of view on abortion, gay and interracial marriage, that they’re free of racism. In truth, they’re just as tribal if not more than right-wing white people. When push comes to shove, they’re going to show who they stand in solidarity with. They’re down for changing the status quo as long as they can keep their houses, cars, and status. The moment that needs to be redistributed, they’re not down with it.
The fiance fetishizes my character — like having a dangerous thing you can tame for yourself but get excited about. Republicans and Democrats are two wings of the same party. Republicans can weaponize certain cultural topics for change on their end, and Democrats and liberals play respectability politics and play by the rules. In a lot of ways that’s worse when you’re opponent is playing dirty—nothing changes. To be Black in America, as Baldwin says, “is to be African with no memory, and to be American with no privilege.” It’s an impossible situation to exist in. But that’s where we are.
Filmmaker: Why do you stage their climactic argument in the bathroom, with your character on the toilet?
Myers: There are some critics who said that was a very amateur move. But it’s pulled from real life. When you’re taking a shit you’re in your most vulnerable position. [laughs] If someone breaks into your house with a gun and you’re taking a shit, it’s over! When he walks away, she knows he has to go take a shit. [laughs] This is not new for her. But for her to barge in and continue the argument when he’s so vulnerable is such a bold and supremacist thing to do. In an earlier cut, I had myself wiping and crying, but it was a little too much. He’s totally exposed. Some people hate it, some people love it. The worst response would be something in the middle.
Filmmaker: Why is the conversation with the friend the only scene shot in a long, single-take?
Myers: I felt like it should be when I wrote it. Their dialogue at first is very superficial. But it’s clear his friend is there for a reason. I wanted the audience to be focused on that conversation more than any other conversation in the film. I didn’t want to move the camera for it. Treating it as a play, I wanted to expose the range of thought in the Black community. That scene represents people in my family, how I used to think, how I think now… I didn’t want cuts to distract audiences.
Filmmaker: How do you respond to people who say the film is too angry?
Myers: After Slamdance, we were shortlisted for three of the top international film festivals but didn’t play any of them. I found out through the grapevine, through people in the programming committee and friends of friends, that the Directors’ Fortnight programmers thought my film was too angry. I’ve gotten that response from a lot of festivals. It’s like they’re saying, “If his critique of racism was a little more palatable, and didn’t make me so uncomfortable, we might accept it. My whole dissertation is on this [laughs]—making Black cinema “palatable,” becoming part of the white supremacist system, does zero to help the Black community. All you’re doing is getting yourself famous and making white liberals feel good about their racist political ideologies.
I knew I was going to be up against gatekeeping at every level. Maybe you get financing to make your film, then no festivals want to play it. You get into a big festival, maybe no one wants to buy it. Maybe your film gets bought, then theaters don’t want to play it because of the title. That’s what happened to us. Artmattan films bought it. We’re playing Cinema Village, Plaza Theater in Atlanta, Laemmle Glendale, but honestly most of Artmattan’s theater partners turned it down because of the title. They didn’t even watch the movie. At one point Artmattan asked me if I should change the title, but I’m not going to do that. Shame on BAM and the Film Forum if they can’t play my movie based on what they think my movie’s going to be about. That’s the system we live under…
So I’m grateful for those critics that get it, FIPRESCI, and the festivals that programmed us. These are now new members of my community. We’re seeing the commercialization of what used to be champions of indie cinema: Cannes, Locarno, Sundance, Venice, Toronto. They need to sell tickets and the pandemic has bastardized that. Now they’re all doing permanent hybrid models to recoup their investment.
I wanna kick off where the legacy of the L.A. Rebellion left off. Those guys are still doing Kickstarter campaigns in their 70s. They have to be professors and make a living. I’m prepared for that existence. Hollywood is not going to give you the tools of liberation. I made this movie for $45,000, my next film is budgeted at $200,000, and the next is budgeted a $2,000,000. For me, those are massive amounts to gain for an indie film, so we’ll see what happens.
[Hollywood’s] co-opted, wrapped up and sucked, like a succubus, every radical filmmaker who has turned for the money and career. At 41, I refuse to play that game. Yes, I have student loan debt, but I’m not going to do Creed 5, or whatever.