by Samuel James

Black and white movies

Back when there was such a thing as a video store, there was a Portland institution called Videoport. It was an independently owned, one-of-a-kind, we’ve-got-everything-and-a-little-bit-more type of video store. But it was also a social hub and community cornerstone with the friendliest and/or most knowledgeable staff you could imagine. You had to be a real movie nerd to work there, and I worked there for 12 years.

I continue to be a real movie nerd. I’ve always felt that the power of movies is truly amazing. They can give you a sense of the world that is incredibly beautiful. But they can also give you a sense of the world that is really fucking dumb. For example, I was 19 the first time I went to New York City. Almost everyone I knew in Maine at the time kept warning me to be careful. They thought I would get mugged, or murdered, or worse!

Of course, none of that happened. In fact, in the parts of NYC I visited, everyone looked just like me. It was the first time in my life that I had resembled the majority and, not coincidentally, it was the most relaxed I’d ever been. It turns out that not only were all the people warning me about the evil city white, but none of them had even set foot in New York. They had all gotten their fear from movies and TV.

That was the first time I remember noticing how subtly racism could work. Here were all these people I had known for years, who definitely weren’t in the Klan, but who were convinced that New York was filled with criminals and that those imaginary criminals looked like me.

That’s why representation in the entertainment media is so important. It seems like every day now there’s some ridiculous white person calling the police on black people for sitting in a café, or swimming in a pool, or playing with their own kids. One of the reasons those white people are so scared is that they only see black people in movies and on TV, where we’re typically portrayed as muggers, murderers, or worse. And even when we’re not portrayed that way, all too often the black character’s only purpose is to overcome a racist person or system. Don’t get me wrong: overcoming racism is part of our lives. It’s just not the whole of our lives.

So, as I was recently thinking about all this, I decided to make a short film. It needed to focus on blackness in some way, but not be about race. It needed to be a story about humanity. It needed to be fun but thought-provoking, and the best genre to do that is science fiction — a genre in which black people are always underrepresented. Luckily, Portland has an annual film festival called Damnationland that’s been known to feature some of the more shadowy types of science-fiction films. I applied and, with their blessing, got to work.

Over the past few weeks I completed a script, got a cast together, began to assemble the crew and started rehearsals. I was told that crowd-sourcing is the best way to fund the film, so I met up with the two lead actors for a light rehearsal and to film the promo for a GoFundMe campaign. We met in Portland on a Friday, a little after 9 p.m. It was a beautiful night with lots of people walking around and enjoying the warm weather. There was a movie playing in Congress Square Park.

After discussing the script over nachos and beers at the Downtown Lounge, the three of us went looking for a place to run lines and shoot the promo. We found the best light on the front steps of the Portland Museum of Art, which had been closed for about two hours by then. We ran lines for a few minutes and then filmed the promo.

It was a lot of fun. In fact, we had so much fun that after filming the promo we hung around in front of the museum just laughing and taking selfies. The three of us hadn’t worked together before, so I was really happy we could have fun while tackling a project with such serious intent. We had all but forgotten that the film was about racial representation when a white security guard approached us and asked if we worked at the museum. It was obvious that he knew we didn’t. We said no, he told us that loitering was not allowed, and then he walked away.

There weren’t any “no loitering” signs in the area and, in any case, we weren’t loitering. We remembered all the other times authorities had singled us out in groups or as individuals. We remembered how powerless we’ve felt in those situations and how fortunate we felt that they didn’t escalate. And that’s when we remembered why we’re making this movie.


Samuel James is an internationally renowned bluesman and storyteller, as well as a locally known filmmaker. He can be reached at racismsportland@gmail.com.