Michael and Christine Swanson are African-American filmmakers, Christians, and owners of Faith Filmworks, an independent motion picture production company which, according to their website, is "dedicated to making memorable and relevant stories with emotional and moral resonance." Their first major film, All About You, is a romantic comedy that won several awards at black film festivals. In recognition of Black History Month, we chatted with the Swansons about their work, about black movies—good and bad—and how those films fit into our culture, and about what they're working on next.
What did you think of the Oscar nominations? African-Americans received five of the 20 acting nominations, the most ever.
Michael: A lot of good nominations. I was really happy to see Don Cheadle nominated for his performance in Hotel Rwanda, one of my favorite movies from last year.
Christine: But sad to say, I don't think he's going to win because it's a popularity contest. That film is just too hard-hitting for a lot of people to go see in the masses.
They say Jamie Foxx is the favorite to win Best Actor. Do you think Cheadle's performance was better?
Michael: Better in a different way. I think he had to go deeper into the role. If I had to vote between the two, I would vote for Don Cheadle. Not to take anything away from Jamie's performance, because that was really topnotch too. He really got into the character and he took that role seriously. But there's just something about Don Cheadle's performance that really took his performance to another level.
Someone in the NAACP said of the five nominations, "It's a great day. We've come along way since Birth of a Nation." Why is getting those five nominations such a big deal?
Christine: You're dealing with an industry that has its own set of celebrities, like Brad Pitt, Leonardo DiCaprio, those kind of guys. A lot of parts are geared toward those kind of actors. So to get a great role for a black actor and then to be recognized at the top of their game, those opportunities are rare. And to have that many nominations in one year really is a testament, I believe, to the level of work that black actors are getting that they probably didn't get before. But we didn't throw a big party about it. I thought, Okay, that's nice, but there are more important issues than black actors getting Oscar nominations.
Tell me about Faith Filmworks. What are you trying to accomplish with your company?
Michael: We established this company because we felt there was a void that we wanted to fill—a lack of honest, entertaining, value-based films that explore the human condition from a black point of view. Christine and I go to the movies all the time, and we don't see enough movies with honest portrayals of African-American people that could tell a good story—without the violence or the negative stereotypes we see in some of the movies coming from the Hollywood system.
Christine: And philosophically, as Christians we're just tempered by what we believe. We have a certain sense of responsibility for our work that I don't know that other filmmakers feel or have. So with Faith Filmworks, there are certain films that we absolutely will not do. There's going to be language in our films, but not the kind of language you might see in other black movies—or white movies, for that matter. So for us it's just a matter of trying to make entertaining films, not necessarily Christian-themed, but entertaining in a way that we would not be embarrassed to show our pastor. That's always a good way for us to gauge whether or not we're headed in the right direction.
Speaking of language, one of the characters in All About You uses the S-word a few times and has sex out of wedlock. What's your thinking there?
Christine: We struggled with the S-word; we thought maybe in that situation, she could really say that. In hindsight, I would have taken that out, and my husband actually warned me about it.
So that's a regret you have now?
Christine: I think so. If she said "shoot" instead, would it change the essence of the moment at all? Not really. So in hindsight those are kind of the things that we're learning along the way. As for her sleeping with the guy, I really wanted to show situations that could occur in real life. But in the future, I'd like to stay away from that and focus on stories that wouldn't show people having relationships out of wedlock, because I worry about the message we're sending to younger kids. But that was our first film. And we learned a lot about what we would and wouldn't do in the future.
Would you call yourselves black filmmakers, or filmmakers who happen to be black?
Christine: I would say the latter, but I wouldn't be ashamed to identify myself as a black filmmaker because of the kind of stories that we like to tell stem from that point of view.
What's the definition of a "black movie"?
Michael: I think it's loosely defined, and Christine and I have gone back and forth with this. But I think the best definition of a black movie is a movie that has been directed or created by a black filmmaker.
Christine: Or a film that has been made by a black filmmaker, and that could be an all white movie. But if it's told from the perspective of the black director, it has a sensibility from that particular person. So even some films with all black people, I don't know that we would necessarily call that a black movie.
Movies like Soul Plane and White Chicks are so crass and full of racial stereotypes. Do those types of "black movies" embarrass you as black filmmakers?
Christine: I can't say that I'm any more embarrassed than, say, a white person would be by Dumb and Dumber. If you just think of it as entertainment, some people are entertained by White Chicks and Soul Plane. Some people are not. Some people are offended. I don't even comment on those films because those are studio productions that are made to make the most money. And as independent filmmakers, that's not our business motto. We don't make movies to make money. We look at it from an artistic perspective, and filmmaking, to me, is just an extension of our artistic desires.
Michael: But we do make movies with a niche audience in mind. And if we can reach our niche audience, I believe the movie will make money. I don't want to give the impression that we just make movies for a hobby. This is a business too.
When whites make movies, I don't know that they're thinking, Hey, I want to make a movie that only appeals to whites. When you make a movie, do you want it to only appeal to blacks, or across ethnic divides?
Christine: You always hope to have that crossover appeal because, just like with music, crossover is where the money is. But for us, if we can get our niche audience first and foremost, we're okay. And if we have an additional audience on top of that, that's just gravy.
Michael: And like good music, I think good storytelling will find a wider audience despite making it for a specific audience. I think people like to see good movies regardless of what type of cast you have.
Christine: When I go to the theater, I don't think, I'm going to a white movie. I'm just going to a movie. I don't make that distinction. But I don't think the reverse is true. I don't think many white people go to movies that are primarily black cast. They think of it as a "black movie" as opposed to just a movie, unless you have your big, mega major stars in it …
Like Ray? A lot of white people have seen that.
Christine: That movie was not made for a black audience. That was made for the mass audience. You can tell by where it's marketed. When you see billboards for Ray in Beverly Hills, that's the audience that they made it for. You don't see billboards for Barbershop in Beverly Hills. That's how you can gauge what the audience for that film is. I guess the assumption is you would naturally get the black audience as well because this is a black content movie.
White kids buy a lot of hip-hop music, including the raunchy stuff that's so demeaning to women—the pimpin' and the bling-bling image. It also seems like white kids go to black movies that are full of violence, street life, gangs. What's up with that? A fascination with the culture?
Christine: The fact that they're drawn to the most debasing element of black culture, to me speaks volumes about their own values or lake thereof. But I think they look at it purely from an entertainment perspective.
Almost a voyeuristic thing?
Christine: Absolutely. It really concerns me that people are driven toward only the stereotypical elements of black cultures. And a lot of black people have been guilty of exploiting that as well. But from a Christian perspective, that's very disconcerting.
Michael: I think white suburban kids embrace rap and hip-hop, so now you find a lot of rap artists being placed in Hollywood movies, because the studio execs know that they can attract a white audience. Barbershop is a great example. So a lot of great actors who have been trained and have gone to Julliard are not getting the parts, and this is kind of frustrating I think for these trained actors.
You mean like an Ice Cube getting a leading role, like in Are We There Yet?
Christine: We think Ice Cube has officially been castrated by doing Are We There Yet? He's gone from being straight out of Compton to Are We There Yet? So it's really a question of just capitalizing on his popularity.
Michael: Same thing with Queen Latifah, making a lot of these buffoonery movies, like Taxi and The Cookout. And she's producing these types of movies. So a lot of our actors are also putting their thumbprint on these films, so we can't always blame the studio system.
Have black movies through the years been good to the gospel message? Can you think of a movie that got it right?
Christine:Woman Thou Art Loosed is a good example, and I can speak about it because I was involved in writing the script. But I think the field is wide open for poignant, substantive movies that deal with the message of the gospel. I don't know if I've been called to do that; sometimes I grapple with that. I'm like, Lord, please don't make me make those kind of movies that I cringe in the theaters to see. You know, those films that are an embarrassment to the cross. But at the same time, the more experience I get as a filmmaker, the more comfortable I am at tackling that kind of issue in an intelligent way that will legitimize the craft of filmmaking.
So, what's next for you two?
Michael: Two projects on the horizon. One is a film about two filmmakers who travel south in search of the actor Morgan Freeman and come to discover much more about themselves and their past. Another is a film called Preacher Man, about a televangelist from the south who wagers everything to go primetime. We really examined the whole subculture of televangelism.
Christine: Remember when I said I'm kind of reluctant about doing Christian-based films? But Preacher Man will be my most distinct Christian film. So it will really be interesting to see how it turns out.
Is the preacher man a good guy? When people hear the word "televangelist," you think of scandal.
Michael: Right. Or they laugh.
Christine: But this character is very human and three-dimensional. I think his motives are good. I think along the way he's challenged by the pressures of leading a ministry and growing a ministry, and sometimes he may get caught up and change along the way. But it's really a testament or a story about God's grace of restoring us to that place of peace that we tend to stray from when we stray away from him.
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