Black by Distribution: A Conversation with Martine Syms

Although she identifies as an artist and “conceptual entrepreneur,” Martine Syms is a seasoned essayist. Her combination of personal anecdotes, expository investigation, and academic analysis is enigmatic, drawing the reader into the purpose of her writing and the rich storytelling of her written voice. 

Born in Los Angeles and based in Chicago, Syms received an MFA in Film, Video, and New Media at the School of the Art Institute in 2007.  Syms is the founder and co-director of Golden Age, an artist-run project space, performance venue, and bookshop. Rather than merely sell zines, books, art, and other ephemera from visual artists and critics, Syms – along with her co-director Marco Kane Braunschweiler – uses the space to engage a diverse community of design and art fans and practitioners.

Focusing on race, context, and form in Black cinema, Implications and Distinctions: Format, Content and Context in Contemporary Race Film works in large part due to the simplicity of its words and the depth of its subject matter. Syms’ idea — that race film is both constantly evolving and utilizing methods of exposure implemented decades earlier — is complex, but the clarity in her thesis makes her work digestible.

"My family, my background ... it just parallels really nicely with a lot of social and cultural movements," Syms said during a recent interview. Her writing reflects this connection, using personal anecdotes to highlight the evolution of "race" film from its earliest producers to the more homegrown, independent, and online efforts of emerging filmmakers.

Implications and Distinctions is one of five recent releases from Future Plan and Program, artist Steffani Jemison’s new project incubated by Project Row Houses that publishes the literary works of emerging visual artists. The clean layout and production of the book only slightly masks its purpose to present one-of-a-kind ideas and experiments combining the written word and emerging artistic practices.

Recently, I met with Martine Syms to talk about some of the points she makes in the book.

How were you first contacted about this project?

When I was at SAIC, one of my thesis projects was an essay about race film in a class with Romi Crawford. I had written this essay examining early race film and Buppie film, which I felt there were more of.  I was really unhappy with that essay. It was too academic. That’s not really the way I write at all. It didn’t manage to communicate the ideas I wanted to write because it was written in this faux academia writing. I had told Steffani that I had written this essay about race film, and I would want to revisit it and rework it.

I was teaching in California that summer so I had the opportunity to talk about that book project. I actually had no copy of the original essay so I pretty much started from scratch. I had some of the research materials, the essays.

What sort of changes did you make in terms of the project from your first initial draft?

Originally my idea was that the film work becomes black by these distribution channels that it goes through. It may not be racialized to begin with but because of the way it is marketed, it changes. Through research and writing, I began thinking that it was much more nuanced than that. It was subtle, the way these distinctions get made. Not everything is just BET-Black. These subtleties that maybe only I or you recognize as being Black, but someone not raised culturally that way, might not pick up on it.

Can you expand on Black by distribution?

On Netflix, there’s a genre called “African American Dramas.” I don’t see it as that but when this movie gets put through those channels, it suddenly gets seen as an African American film. It’s things like that, those outlets. If it’s seen as a Black movie, it won’t get played at the AMC River East but someplace farther South.

And what are your personal opinions about those classifications?

As a practitioner, it can be extremely frustrating. It just seems like, whether you like it or not, you have to work within this cannon of Black work. You can resist it or work around it, but it still exists. That can be frustrating but also a positive or interesting thing.

What would you consider to be the Black American aesthetic?

The one thing I’ve noticed is the emphasis on language. You could call it literary, but I think it’s spoken. It’s an interest in spoken language: new words, a rhythmic language of the way things are said. I can’t think of any visual characteristic that I would consider Black. Most of these movies that are Black are not written or produced by Black people, not that they have to be. There’s this kind of creation of a slang word that sounds Black that I’m interested in. You see that sort of thing from older films as well as newer ones.

Why do you think the 90s is such a good time for that to happen and what’s happened now?

Cinema opened up to a wider audience. In the 90s, it became profitable. It was just incredibly profitable for a while, making these sort of films. It was a new and exciting glimpse of the ghetto, an updated version. There’s a type of work that focuses on the ghetto that has this voyeuristic quality. I don’t think you can ignore it on film, or television, or online. It’s part of the medium. It’s changed to be a multi-cultural cast. I think now, from 2000 to now, you start to see this tokenism to a cast in film.

Will Smith and Denzel almost transcend race. There was a chapter that I was writing that I took out. They led us to a multi-cultural cast. At some point, all Black movies became biopics. All the good, serious ones became biopics. Ray, Ali...those types of movies, those are the opportunities available for mostly men. Those are the opportunities for a Black actor to transcend "Black" movies. They have to play a Black icon. 

They're kind of Obama-esque. They're obviously Black. It's like a part of their persona. Whenever they're in films, they're not necessarily a part of a Black community. They themselves are Black enough, are Blackness enough. They're sort of more than Black. I think there's something interesting when someone can go beyond that. In the movie, there's nothing particularly Black about the character. I don't know what that relationship is.

How does the internet play into the classification of Black film?

It's weird how the internet changes everything. The kind of narrow casting ... instead of reaching for a broad audience, you are reaching for a more targeted audience. You're creating works for sort of niches of people. I think that'll be the way to go, in the future in terms of the market for different films. You can direct a show just to your audience. I don't really watch TV when it's first airing or go to the movies as much as I used to. 

They're going to have to contend with viewers seeking material on their own. Even though most people don't do that yet, they will once it becomes easier to do. Once it is, people will watch it. Just making it easier to do.