Buoyed by the success of “Hidden Figures,” and other Black films that have earned Oscar nods, a new Black arts collaborative in the District will tell stories for and about Blacks, drawing on a deep well of cultural inspiration.
From L to R: Clayton LeBouef, artistic director at The Zhanra Group, Vaunita Goodman, a film preservationist at The Zhanra Group, Sherelle Williams, founder of Koalaty Entertainment and Cheryl Hawkins, chief executive officer of Prosperity Media. (Photo by Lenore Adkins)
The collaboration is comprised of Prosperity Media, a nonprofit media arts organization, Koalaty Entertainment, a film and video production company and The Zhanra Group, a play development company.
Executives from the three groups announced their collaboration on Feb. 28, the final day of Black History Month. Stories will be told on stage and film.
“The depth of Black culture is no secret,” said Clayton LeBoeuf, artistic director of the Zhanra Group and the catalyst for the collaborative. “However, economics gets in the way because we have certain people who have millions of dollars who can take a Nina Simone story and make a film,” he said, alluding to Hollywood’s widely panned decision to cast the light-skinned Zoe Saldaña and darken her skin to play the iconic singer.
The collaborative has three projects in the works.
“The Eagle and the Lion,” is a play set in the 1930s and based on meetings between Ethiopian Emperor Haile Selassie and Hubert Julian, one of the first Black aviators. The play is slated for a 2017 release, and would hit 30 years after LeBouef played Haile Selassie with the Baltimore Arena Players. His other credits include “The Wire” and “Law & Order.”
The second project is a movie based on “Love, Peace, and Soul,” a book written by Ericka Blount Danois, that goes behind the scenes of “Soul Train.” Koalaty Entertainment recently secured an option agreement for the book’s film rights.
The third project, a feature film “Called to Teach: The Anna Julia Cooper Story,” focuses on the first Black woman to ever earn a Ph.D. Born into slavery, Cooper taught in the District at M Street High School and prepared the students for college. In doing so, she ignored her White supervisor’s orders to teach them trades, and faced the consequences.
The latter two projects are in development and slated for release in a couple of years.
The collective’s mission involves engaging and inspiring Black Americans — in D.C. and nationwide — by telling stories that promote cultural pride, stimulate a creative economy and offer a viable way for local talent to make money in jobs that go beyond acting. Other components include launching film screenings, conferences, workshops focusing on acting, production and introducing public school students to the craft.
Several statistics are driving this initiative, said Cheryl Hawkins, CEO of Prosperity Media.
While the arts industry is booming, 27.4 percent of Blacks in the U.S are living in poverty, according to The State of Working America. That figure climbs to 45.8 percent when singling out Black children.
“There is an imbalance in terms of the dollars the arts generate and people who are so creative and artistic not being able to participate … to have use of those dollars to stimulate their lives,” Hawkins said.
LeBouef, meanwhile, said she remains hopeful that major funding for the collaborative will come from plays it produces that are optioned for major motion pictures.
“You have stories like ‘Driving Miss Daisy.’ ‘Driving Miss Daisy’ was a play,” he said. “Most people don’t know ‘Ben-Hur’ was a play. This is how the film industry generates dollars through theater arts.”