In late 2019 early 2020, Brooklyn based filmmaker and author Justice A. Whitaker reached out to his friend and fellow filmmaker Togbe Gavua, based in Accra Ghana. The two creatives recorded two conversations that later led to the development of the Black Film Allegiance’s Diaspora Table Talk Series of which Whitaker was the showrunner and host. Justice, who studied filmmaking abroad in both Accra (Ghana) and Johannesburg (South Africa) during his time at NYU, was enlightened by his experience on the continent and has since focused his work on building cultural bridges that can span the gaps between Black artists in the Diaspora and Black creatives on the African continent. This first episode of the Table Talk series set the precedent for an extended dialogue with eight creatives of African descent over the next two months.
The intersection of African storytelling and cinema is one with a rich history that is mirrored by the individual movements towards counter-colonialism on the African continent in the 20th century. Now the youth, the future of the continent, have discovered power in the tools rooted in creative technology and have begun to leverage these tools to amplify their voices and experiences. To hear from an emerging talent like Gavua first hand is a privilege and one that is not always easily afforded as the barriers between cinematic communities around the globe have only recently begun to erode. The relationship between Justice and Togbe is representative of a growing sentiment between creators to develop more authentic relationships between Black artists and storytellers throughout the diaspora.
As corporate entities increase their interest in African stories, and the creatives who can bring them to life, there are questions floating around creative communities on the continent regarding whether or not distribution opportunities will truly represent a universal growth in the African film market. Or, much like the United States, will the glass ceiling remain impenetrably thick for a number of Black filmmakers? The Diaspora Table Talk Series, grew out of a mission to support Black filmmakers. Embodied by the Black Film Allegiance, it also represents the independent commitment of artists in the Diaspora to build meaningful connections despite their marginalization, corporate growth and influence in global Black cinema.
Here we are, live from Brooklyn: New York. With my man Togbe Gavua in Accra, Ghana. I’m brother Justice Whitaker, with the Black Film Allegiance, and welcome to the Diaspora Table Talk Series. We’re really glad to have you here Togbe. Thank you for giving us your time, a piece of your time.
Yeah, I’m glad to be here.
So you’re a filmmaker and you’re based in Ghana. Can you just give a brief rundown of how you came to filmmaking? What your experience is?
My filmmaking journey began in Canada. At Vancouver Film School.Prior to that, I was studying at the University of Ghana. My thesis was on the influence of Western media on the African image. When I was doing that thesis, I realized the power of imagery on the minds of African people. I read, and my research showed, U.S. foreign policy towards Africa is based on what Hollywood and CNN shows. What you see about Africa (mostly from Hollywood) is things like Hotel Rwanda (Terry George, 2004), Blood Diamond (Edward Zwick, 2006), Beasts of No Nation (Cary Joji Fukunaga, 2015). You know what I mean? Last King of Scotland (Kevin Macdonald, 2006).
It’s just war, suffering, you know what I mean?
I realized it’s not going to change, you know what I mean? Us Africans have to start telling our own stories… Ourselves. That’s when I decided to become a filmmaker. I went to Vancouver Film School, learned how to make films, and I’ve been making films ever since.
In 2016, I moved back to Ghana from Canada to work on a feature film. Initially, I had the script but we weren’t able to raise the money for that script. So, I came up with a simpler script which was Lucky (2018). Lucky follows the story of Lucky. Who’s like a Twitter …his whole sense of self is derived from Twitter. He’s always online, his whole personality is based on his Twitter. He lands a date with one of the most popular chicks on Twitter. But, unfortunately, in real life he doesn’t have money to take her out. The film follows him and his best friend Wadada trying to sell a laptop, so they can make money to take this girl out on a date.
Nice. Perfect. Classic.
We premiered it in 2018, it did really well. It got really good reviews. The only thing is unfortunately, we’re still yet to break even. So…
I love Lucky man. It’s a great film. Congratulations! You know, on even just getting your first feature done.
Thank you. Thank you.
What I love about Lucky is in the same way that you say, a lot of the cinema is just war and all of those negative portrayals of the African continent. I think a lot of times, Black filmmakers (in the United States) are looking for something that’s really spiritual or about slavery. About the return home. Oftentimes we’re in that mentality and what I love about Lucky is that it’s an everyday story. It’s universal. You can play it in Hong Kong, you can play it in Sweden and people are going to laugh at those jokes. It’s a classic story.
So, you brought it to the theaters. You didn’t break even. What is the main sort of distribution route? You know, before COVID-19 in the Ghanaian film scene. It’s mostly theatrical releases?
It’s mostly theatrical. Local films are in theaters for about two weeks and then that’s it.
So the game is: promote your own film, whatever marketing you can get on board. It runs in the theaters for two weeks and during that time you’re trying to recoup the entire budget of your film?
It’s crazy, yeah.
Now, how does that work with what was going on in Kumasi? You guys have your own version of Nollywood1 up there? Out there in Ghana or…
In Kumasi, the business model was to churn out as many films as possible.
They invest a little bit of money to make as many films as possible, to make as much money as possible. Kumo, at its prime, was churning out like 50 films a week. But, unfortunately, the quality of the films suffer because of this. You know what I mean?
They’re not like… The best of films.
Right, and sometimes even good stories but still just bad films.
Quantity over quality, quality over quantity, that whole perspective is definitely the thing there. What do you think is the next pathway, how can we see Lucky? How can we get distribution? How can, ya’ll get your films out to the world? What do you think we need to do to really develop those kinds of pathways? Some things are changing with Netflix, do you know anyone that got a film sold on Netflix? Or has even had an opportunity?
Yeah, I know a couple of people who got their films on Netflix. Which is cool! I would like to get my film on Netflix. We’re working on it.
But, apart from Netflix, there’s not any local streaming service. There’s YouTube, you know what I mean? But not everyone wants to make a film and put it on YouTube.
Well how are people watching films in Ghana? Where are people mostly watching their content?
Right, so you need to get Lucky on a broadcast deal with Ghanaian national television or whatever?
Yeah man. The whole distribution game is a trip man. It’s a constant battle. Filmmakers in the States are feeling the same thing. Black filmmakers, artists of colour who feel like their voice is not being heard, it’s the same thing. Like, yo! We need to get more distribution. Even with all of the Black cinema that you guys are seeing out there and everything, the reality is for the artists on the ground, it still feels the same way. As I’m having these conversations with my brothers and sisters all around the world, who are part of the diaspora, Black folks who are creative and trying to tell these stories How do we get the distribution out there? And how do we get paid for our work? It’s definitely a reoccurring challenge. I feel if we can build together more, hopefully we can build something that’s self-supporting. What were we saying about the community out there? Do you feel it’s tight-knit, like everybody’s building together so we can all rise up? I’m sure you have your circle, but what is it like in terms of the overall landscape in the filmmaking community out there?
I feel like the community could get better. Like we all know each other, filmmakers know each other. We exchange notes here and there, but I feel like the community could be way better. Way stronger. You know what I mean? There’s a lot of cliques, many communities within communities.
Yeah. That’s one of the goals for sure, of us having this table talk. The idea of starting to create a space where audiences can open a dialogue and creatives can build together. I don’t think there’s really that much of that happening, not on a large scale, amongst independent creatives, like me and you.
Between Africa and the U.S, ya’ll are out there doing your thing. You’re making Lucky about a university student and there’s a lot of folks out here telling similar stories, trying to give their version of that. It’s like we’re all doing the same thing, but we’re not doing it together. Building these networks and these collaborations is going to be important. It’s also going to be hard.
Yeah, really important.
What do you think are some of the things that are dividing us, what’s your perception? You’ve been in Canada, Ghana, you’ve traveled amidst the world and within the diaspora. How connected are we, globally, as a Black people? What can we do to tighten that up?
In the African diaspora? We need to get to know each other better. Like, Africans, continental Africans, need to get to know African Americans better. African Americans need to get to know continental Africans better. Unfortunately, there’s a lot of miscommunication and misunderstanding between the two groups. You know what I mean? Like, the other day I was hearing this argument between an African American sister and an African brother. Where the African brother was trying to tell her she’s not African.
Stuff like that. I feel like our relationship needs to be better. I feel one way in which our relationship could be better is through cinema. If we’re seeing the cinema, we’re seeing more African films that are showing Africans as they are. It gives us an opportunity to understand the way Africans live, or the way Africans behave. You know what I mean? We don’t get that. The African films that we get are Coming 2 America (Craig Brewer, 2021).
-Laughs- You know what I mean?
That’s why we need Lucky.
That’s not a true reflection of how Africans are. The movies out here are hood movies, gangster movies, all African Americans are gangsters and hoodlums. That’s not a true representation of African Americans either.
I feel like the more stories that are being told through cinema, the bigger opportunity each group has to see.
That’s what I love about Lucky, it opens up a whole side that I think people aren’t even thinking about. It’s funny, when I was first in Ghana when I was in college. 2000? Early 2000’s? 2005. I was in this rap battle out there that the radio station hosted. I was saying it’s not really fair, I’m an American rapper. I’m not even trying and they said, “Nah, we want you! You’re bringing the hype, you’re bringing all the hype in!” I was out there just slayin’ fools left and right. But, a lot of these M.C.’s would come in like 50, you know this is ‘05, so they’d be lookin’ like 50 Cent with the flat brim Yankee caps and all this. I would be slayin’ them on the mic, talking about: “Yo, why are you dressed like you’re from New York? Why you got all that on, don’t you have any love for your own culture?” Really battling them deep into their hearts.
But folks who are not, like you said, looking past what the media is feeding us about each other. The media is feeding us all these different things about each other and they’re doing it through a funnel. Where it’s wide on our end, where we’re pushing all this American content out there. Then on the other end it’s like this little drip.
What we’re getting back is a drip, you know? Oh, something African, here. Here’s a little something. Oh yeah, here’s a little bit of that, oh one thing. You know? With the exception of a few recent works on Netflix, Hollywood’s last African story was, like you said, Beasts of No Nation, after that it was Queen of Katwe (Mira Nair, 2016).
Since then… It’s been nothing. Why are we getting these drips? These little tiny, “Oh you want something that’s African, here’s this.” Meanwhile, there’s a lot more independent content and of course Atlantique (Atlantics, Mati Diop, 2019)and all these other films that Netflix is starting to mine. When I use that term, I use it intentionally. The history of mining Africa for resources is inherently exploitative. I’m hoping that, like you said, we can get our voices to be the commanding power. Not me and you, but folks like us that are on the ground trying to tell a much richer interpretation through cinema that can be shared on both sides. I agree with you, there’s a lot of learning. I know it, because I’ve done it. All the experiences that I’ve had are learning experiences. Once you get out on the continent and start spending time with brothers and sisters – just like how you and I connected. Somebody who knew somebody who said, “Oh you need to come over here and meet these folks.” Then we have a kinship, but that is definitely not happening. Then also, you got a lot of people going out and saying, “Oh, it’s the Year of Return2 so here we go to Ghana. We’re going to go to like six parties in December, the slave castles and the Kwame Nkrumah Memorial Park & Mausoleum. Then get on that plane and come back and be like, Ghana’s lit!” I’m thinking, yo! Have you even chilled with folks out there? Really? Or not? You know? That’s not an indictment of someone who’s going for the Year of Return, that’s important. Everybody needs to do that, but we can’t stop there. We can’t just have one super positive experience, we have to really start learning about each other. Like you said, get to know each other and build connections with everyday folks like you and our brother J.P. Folks like that, you know? Just become friends, bounce script ideas off each other. Have you watched this show? The same conversations that we’re having with our folks out here. There’s just not a lot of channels to have that kind of dialogue.
That’s why I’m happy about this, what we’re doing right now.
It’s important. I appreciate it bro. I appreciate you taking the time just to come on and have the dialogue in a public forum, because it’s not always …available.
I’m excited, because me and this sister were talking about this the other day. We need more Black filmmakers coming together to make films. Kind of how in the 70’s the white boys got together: Martin Scorsese, Francis Ford Coppola, Brian De Palma. They got together and created a film movement. Or like French New Wave, where Françoise Truffaut, Jean-Luc Godard… They all got together and did something different. I feel it’s about time that African filmmakers (when I say African, I mean Africans, on the continent and diaspora, right?) get together. Have an agenda in cinema. You know what I mean? You have an agenda. We should be able to carve our own…
We were talking about that the last time I was out there, Afro-Nouveau I think we were saying.
Yeah! African New Wave.
Yeah! The African New Wave man. It needs to be there. And it is! This is the thing. I think that is happening, in the sense that some of these big studios are giving us a little bit of face time and putting films like Atlantics and other African creators (Mo Abudu, in Nigeria)are getting deals with Netflix and stuff like that. But, that’s not a movement! That’s not the African New Wave. That’s some people that the industry says “We’re going to give you the voice…”
When you have that! The French New Wave, or like you’re talking about, a whole collective of artists who are working together and really pushing that agenda. Making noise, where you’re thinking when you look at me, you look at them. When you look at them, you look at me. Like Alfonso Cuarón and all those dudes in Mexico. They’re doing that right now. They’re just banging out hits they’re just like, Ah! Oscar, Ah! Oscar.3Then you look at what they’re doing down there and yeah, that’s a movement! It’s undeniable. They’re all friends, that’s why it works. They work together to produce high quality content.
So yeah man, we’re getting there one step at a time. One step at a time man. Well I want to thank you for spending time with me, with the Black Film Allegiance community. You know, let’s try and do this more in 2021.
We should man.
There will be more opportunities too. I think everybody is starting to pay attention to what we’re talking about. This is the beginning of building something much bigger. That’s at least what I’m hoping for.
Peace Togbe. I’ll talk to you soon brother.
Okay man. Take it easy.
Yeah man, talk soon.
- A term credited to Norimitsu Onishi in reference to the Nigerian film industry in “Step Aside, L.A. and Bombay, for Nollywood,” The New York Times, 16 September 2002. ↩
- 2019 was billed as the Year of Return, an initiative of the Ghanaian government and American Adinkra Group to encourage the African diaspora to return to Africa for travel, settlement and investment. 2019 commemorates 400 years since the first enslaved Africans reached Jamestown, Virginia in the United States. For more information, see the website: https://www.yearofreturn.com ↩
- From 2003 – 2019, five out of six Oscars for Best Director were awarded to Alfonso Cuarón, Guillermo del Toro and Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu. They’re often referred to as “the three amigos” of cinema. ↩