Interview by: Mut Asheru
Independent Director / Cinematographer GuGu E. Michaels has seen his share of success in both the film and music industry. Where there is no way, Michaels is sure to make a way in whatever he puts his mind to.
He has racked up over 5 awards combined from various film festivals and award organizations such as World Music and Independent Film festival where he took home Best Action film, Best Cinematography, and Best African film for his film DANGEROUS MEN. Meanwhile his epic picture UNGE’S WAR picked up 2 awards at NAFFCA The African Movie Awards for Best Traditional Picture, and Best Costume in a film.
He sat down with Knowshi to discuss his upcoming projects and the role that film plays in Black culture. His views are strong and he’s certain that Black filmmakers have an important voice that many aren’t using. An outsider on the inside, Nigerian born Michaels talks about the responsibility Black filmmakers have in telling stories that depict positive Black images and relationships.
He is not afraid to speak on the uncomfortable questions. His voice is strong and he doesn’t tip-toe around his opinions.
“I’m very political,” says Michaels. “People ask me, why are you so pro-black? Let’s take a look at history. Every race is political with their own race. Why are Blacks the most hated race on this planet? That’s a question almost nobody can answer. Why? Because of film. Because of images that Hollywood paints of Blacks whether they’re African or Black Americans.”
Can images displayed in motion pictures affect an entire race? According to Michaels, images do damage.
“80 years of going to see black people as drug dealers, murderers, don’t go to school, all they’re good for is sports and dancing all kinds of buffoonary,” offers Michaels. “You feed that to the world for 80 years. That’s 8 generations deep. So automatically the world will accept that as how Blacks and Africans are.
I don’t care where you go on this planet. Blacks are the most hated. You hate me and don’t even know me. That’s why its very important how we portray our image. Because in the same breath that I used to tell you that Black is the most hated race on this is planet is the same breath I will use to tell you that we are the most admired. The most copied. They hate us but they want to be us. They dance to our music. Copy our style of dress, our language, they way we talk to each other. If you go to China right now when you say hi; they’re not gonna say hello. They’re gonna say What’s up? Same thing in Germany. I don’t care where you go they love our culture, they love our women…they love our skin. Again that’s why I say it’s all imagery.”
Speaking on influential filmmakers like Tyler Perry and even Oprah Winfrey, Michaels feels that they are not doing enough to reverse the negative sterotypes.
“People always say I hate on Tyler Perry,” says Michaels. “I don’t hate on Tyler Perry. I just feel that he could portray us in a more positive light. Instead of all this buffoonary or those coon movies that he makes.”
Do Black filmmakers have a responsibility to depict positive images of Blacks across the diaspora? Especially once they cross over and have the backing from and attention of mainstream media?
“Of course they do,” responded Michaels. “I may have a problem with you in my own platform. But if I go to K-104 FM (urban radio station in Dallas,TX) which a white owned company and they ask me if I have beef with you, I’m going to deny it. Why? Because that’s a White platform. I choose the forum in which I want to communicate.”
He feels that all filmmakers have the same choice. But can they control who watch their films? And some feel that the work of Tyler Perry is like culture therapy, – a private conversation within the Black community.
How does Michaels feel about our inability to control who listens in?
“So if you wanna talk to us (Blacks). Talk to us in a way that doesn’t make us look stupid in the white media,” expressed Michaels. “You’ve crossed over. The plays worked because they made sense in the Black community. Now when you do your movies with Universal; White folks are watching you [us]. And they don’t understand the conversation that’s taking place. The cultural significance of our conversations are generally missed by White people. They love it when we’re shucking and jiving. I don’t care who you are or how much money you have. If you bring me a script and I don’t like how my actors are talking or how they’re portraying Blacks; I’m not interested. It’s not worth it.”
Very strong in his political views, he says it’s time for wealthy Black creatives to wake up and stop asking for acceptance from the film academy and the like. His message is to create your own.
“Can you tell me why, we don’t own our own movie theaters so that we can show more films that speak to who and what we are?” queried Michaels. “Where we can give our filmmakers an opportunity to produce works that we can see. Oprah wanted a TV Network? She’s still trying to eat at the White man’s table. And not just her. We have a lot of Black millionaires. Why haven’t they joined hands and built a network of Black owned theaters? Yes, it’s their money but they do have a responsibility.
We need to change these mental images that we have been fed and are still eating to this day. I want to portray positive images of Black families. We hold a lot of economic power. You can tell our stories the right way and be successful. We just demonstrated how strong our dollars are with the release of Black Panther. We will come out and see movies that speak positively to us.”
Is anyone doing it right?
“Of course,” he answered. “Ryan Coogler, Mario Van Peebles, John Singleton, even though he’s mostly mainstream now, almost every image they throw out there is ultimately positive. I just wish a lot more would step up. Hollywood doesn’t really support unless its about bullshit violence, sports or some other foolishness.”
KNOWSHI : Tell us about your most recent project. I understand its something we Americans have never really seen before.
Michaels: I just wrapped THE MARINE SPIRIT: A TALE of the MAMI WATA. The movie is about Mami Wata. In my culture we call it a spiritual wife. They have spiritual wives and spiritual husbands. This actually exists in my culture. The movie is about this couple that is being tormented by this spirit and how they dealt with it. Eventually I want to do my own merchandising behind it. Have my own Mami Wata dolls. I will use it to set up a franchise. That’s the goal. American’s you guys call it succubus and incubus.
Everybody is raving about Black Panther, which is a great film, but I’m gonna give you guys the real African reality. Something that actually exists. The next one will be about the spiritual husband.”
Michaels: Sorry, is that too much for your readers?
Knowshi: We’ll see.
By and large Blacks have been negatively portrayed in motion pictures since the beginning. So can films really affect how we feel about ourselves? What stories have not been told? Need to be told? These are questions for filmmakers and movie goers. What will you make? And will we watch?
Features Directed by GuGu E. Michaels:
Dangerous County (2002)
Urban Killaz (2004)
Best Served Cold (2008)
Pastor’s Wife (2008)
Dangerous Men (2009)
Unge’s War (2010)