Barbara McCullough, independent filmmaker
"Know how to do something different"

by Elizabeth Jackson

from Jump Cut, no. 36, May 1991, pp. 94-97
copyright Jump Cut: A Review of Contemporary Media, 1991, 2006

Barbara Mccullough's Filmography

Commercial Production:

  • Production manager, unit manager producing special visual effects with Cine Motion Pictures.
  • ZZ Top music video.
  • CAPTAIN POWER AND THE SOLDIERS OF THE FUTURE, an animated, live-action cartoon with computer-generated imagery and miniature photography. Worked as unit manager.
  • Production coordinator, special visual effects, Praxis.
  • MADE IN HEAVEN, an Alan Rudolph film.
  • 1988 on: Production Coordinator, National Productions for Public televisions KCET/channel 28 in Los Angeles.

Independent Production:

  • SHOPPING BAG SPIRITS AND FREEWAY FETISHES: REFLECTIONS ON RITUAL SPACE, one hour, subjective/ semi experimental documentary on why artists incorporate ritual in their art. Budget $2,500. Two years to complete. 1980. WATER RITUAL #1: AN URBAN RITE OF PURIFICATION, $700.1979. FRAGMENTS, compilation piece. 1980.

Elizabeth Jackson: How did you become interested in filmmaking?

Barbara McCullough: I became interested in filmmaking initially due to my love for photography. I wanted to be able to express myself creatively, but did not know how to do it. In the beginning I was drawn to dance. But I had to be realistic — I was already in college, with two children — I knew dancing would not be the real way I would be able to express myself.

I had an interest in history, in psychology, and in literature. I was fascinated with Zora Neale Hurston. I thought perhaps I would document history in the written forms, especially life in the south. Later I thought I would combine the written with photography. That led to an interest in taking video classes. I wanted to be the Hurston of video.

My colleagues who shared these classes were really visually creative, and it pushed me to see what I could do. It made me look at things more deeply and in a more emotional way. That emotional expression later helped me to develop ideas filmically.

Your films are quite stylistic, offbeat at times. Will the types of films you produce in the future vary much from your past work?

Stylistically, I have my own personal style. I like things that are offbeat, unusual. At the same time I like my films to reflect the diversity of my background as a Black person as well as the different influences that affect me. When I do something, I am trying to show the universality of the Black experience. So even though I am dealing with something very offbeat and different, there is still a certain line of universality that runs through my work.

How have audiences responded to your independent productions in the past?

Some of the work I have done has been experimental. I do not intend this to be stuff for a broad audience. My viewers have to have an affinity for offbeat, unusual images and characters. Mine are projects that have a different type of orientation, My work is shown basically through the art community, video exhibits, things that are confined to a museum or gallery setting, or an art theatre type of presentation, rather than to a broad-based community-exposure type situation.

One of my pieces [SHOPPING BAD SPIRITS] starts off with how white critics deal with Black artists — so I don't have any illusions about who does or does not like my work. I have tried to present my work to people at KCET [PBS in Los Angeles], but they weren't interested.

If I can get my work around to festivals, and invited to speak about my work around the country, then that's what I want to do. Word of mouth helps show my films a lot, which is why they play a great deal during Black history month. I know realistically that I won't make a lot of money out of my films, but each project I do provides me with an opportunity. The more people who know about what I have done, the better it is, because it provides more of an opportunity. All of the showings lend to your legitimacy for future funding rounds. The programmers many times are on the boards that distribute funding, so l like that.

You speak of funding rounds, which I assume means that you deal with the grant givers. What has been your experience with that process?

I am convinced that it is really a very political process. In terms of anything being accepted, it's about who you know and who knows you. Who's in a position to turn a favor for you? Who knows your work and is willing to say, "Hey, we need to support this project"? Maybe a certain amount of people get through that maze and get funding, but it's more a question of who knows about you as opposed to your just coming into a situation and someone seeing your work for the very first time and accepting it,

Do Black independents share common philosophical bond regarding creating shows about Blacks?

The people that I know, the independents doing low budget projects, are very conscious about giving a positive, realistic portrayal of Black people and in turn giving something to the community. Because these filmmakers work on low budgets, because they are the ones raising the money, they have the opportunity to say what is and what is not. Because I raise my own money for my own projects, what I am doing has never gotten down to a philosophical point of view. Most of us are conscious of the fact that we have an obligation to show truth — to show Black people as they are [emphasis McCullough's] as opposed to who somebody else thinks we are.

I will never forget Stan Lathan's project on the James Baldwin work. I saw it on PBS and it was most worthy, outstanding. I don't see how anybody could have watched that program and not appreciate the honesty in it. And yet the Black community doesn't always know that these people [Black independents] exist. They [independents] get their opportunity sometimes by white people who see and accept their work. But the legitimacy does not always come from our own community.

Charles Barnett's films, Billy Woodbury's films [Black independents] are outstanding projects with a lot of heart. Very well written, very well received, very real characters. They can get to the heart of the story and bring out those real wonderful human elements. Their work is painful, joyous, touching. Julie Dash, Carrot Parrot Blue — they really do wonderful works. And people are impressed because of the authenticity of their pieces.

What, if any, responsibility do you feel when producing films for or about minority audiences?

Again, I feel that in anything I do I have to tell the truth about it. I have no right to employ the stereotypes that the majority media has employed. My whole thing is to dispel stereotypes. Whatever I am in involved in, I have a duty to show the positive side so that I create a balanced picture of Black people.

For instance, if I show Voodoo in comparison to traditional religion, I have a responsibility to show a positive side of that [Voodoo] and not just deal with the negative. Every time you see something in the media — even though there is a lot of Voodoo practice that goes on in the world — it's such an injustice to show just the Black magic side [of the practice] as opposed to the white magic side. Yet anytime Voodoo or traditional religions are contrasted, it's always the hocus pocus negativity. So again, I must show a balanced view about whoever we are as a people.

I am thinking about [producing] an upcoming project on developmentally handicapped people, and I may even choose to give an imbalance on the positive side, because we all know about the negative side of that world. We all have our own prejudices that we have to overcome to watch a program on people with disabilities. So why not give an imbalance on the positive side when there has been so much negative shown?

In the most recent years of your career, you have worked with the new special effects technology. Do you see these new areas as affording Blacks an increased exposure to this field?

Not necessarily, I'm sure they could care less. I mean whites are still doing the hiring. They are only interested in the interplay between Blacks and technology if a Black person came to apply for the job and demonstrated an extraordinary skill with that technology. They will be interested only if that person is an asset to them. But in terms of the technology itself making opportunities greater, I can't say that it will. Of course I believe that if Black folks have access to something and they have the opportunity to do well, they will do well. But, no, the technology will not work to offer more opportunity, because it's going to be a struggle for any Black person to get access to that anyway. There will only be one or two Blacks out there doing anything like that.

For example, in what I do (working in special visual effects production), there are very few Black people out there. I have been the only one whom I have come across in a management position in this area. I have met one Black woman who works with computer-operated cameras, and she is the only one I know of. She says herself that she needs to become better, and becoming better will mean having more opportunities to practice her craft. There must be other people out there, but she is the only me I've run across — and I'm the only one she's run across. That's it.

Your films serve to examine who blacks are as a culture and they incorporate both ritual and drama. Do the films you produce make a difference or impact on mainstream media?

There is no highly charged dramatic show on TV dealing with Blacks. This is because one would have to get into the sociology of the Black community, and that's something white folks are neither interested in, understand, nor want to deal with on prime time TV. To deal with us dramatically means we have to get into the politics of unemployment, of crime, which is the cause of homelessness, of hunger, and of Black on Black crime.

The point I'm making is, I don't think anybody is interested in having a real impactful Black show. It would expose what the real United States is about, give people here something to think about, so it would be labeled a "protest" show. Anything that legitimately shows our anger or our frustration is considered a "protest" show. And even if white America were able to sit and take it, the sponsors of the show don't want to be associated with the truth in that way. Sponsors don't have enough guts at this point in time to put themselves into position of supporting something like that.

Yet outside the limited, sometimes experimental works by Black independents, mainstream television is all we have. Do we as a Black audience watch that out of desperation?

Oh, yes. I think that's why shit shows like GOOD TIMES could do so well. I would sit and watch the show with my son, and although I didn't care for this show at all, there was something about the characters that reminded me of people that I have met, overheard or have experienced. I watched, even though the storyline of the show may have been something I did not agree with, there is something about the characters that we can relate to.

So I can understand why Black people would watch a show that may not necessarily be the best show in the world in terms of the kinds of information it's giving out. We watch because them is a Black person on the screen, and we are hungry for images of ourselves. Most Black shows on television are successful because a lot of the people who watch TV are Black, and they will watch another Black person. And unless the show is just downright out and out poor, the show will be a success. And some of these programs are the worst. You get lulled into watching them because it becomes a habit. They become familiar, just like Muzak. But [viewing] just to see [emphasis McCullough's] another Black person is still something that audiences will do.

Should future programming for minority audiences be geared more towards information or entertainment?

People are net just going to sit around and watch something for its educational value. You can disseminate educational information in an entertaining way, and I think that's what it has to be from now on. It's going to be a mixture, and cannot survive without both elements.

In the old days of TV, people might have been able to sit and listen to talking heads, but those days arc over. This U.S. audience is very sophisticated, and they expect sophisticated techniques to get the story told. That, in a way, is unfortunate. Because a lot of times independent producers who have a very difficult time raising money for their projects find it hard to put all of those advanced components into their low budget projects. Yet I think there are ways to get around that if you are very careful about how you approach it [production] and think it out. So it is possible to come across with something economical yet technically tight by using the best of what you have.

What advice would you give aspiring filmmakers?

This is a hard issue to deal with, because a lot of this is really very discouraging. At times I have wondered whether I should be doing this or doing something totally different.

I guess my advice to aspiring producers would be to be versatile, know how to do different things. Know as much as you can technically. Put yourself in a position to work with people so you can understand the process. Place yourself in a situation so that you will have enough information to enable you to be resilient. Resilience is the key to surviving in the midst of all of this.