Last night, filmmaker Joel Potrykus had the NYC debut of his latest film “The Alchemist Cookbook” at the eight annual BAMcinemaFest. Starring Ty Hickson of “Gimme the Loot,” with Amari Cheatom of “Newlyweeds” fame in the only supporting role (outside of a cat and possum – you’ll understand when you see the film), the director remarked during the film’s Q&A that he wanted to depart from his track of micro-budget urban films starring white male protagonists and be a director intentionally directing a film with Black talent while also shooting in a natural setting.
BAMcinemafest describes “The Alchemist Cookbook” thusly: “Young outcast Sean has isolated himself in a trailer in the Michigan backwoods, setting out on alchemical pursuits with his cat Kaspar as his sole companion. Filled with disdain for authority, he’s escaped a society that has no place for him, but when he turns to black magic to crack nature’s secret, he rouses a malevolent force that threatens to dismantle both his otherworldly goals and his very being.”
As one can glean from the description, Potrykus’ fare is also very offbeat – often described as absurdist – so to say that a white director making a film of this moody and horror-tinged nature with a deliberate Black cast is also very offbeat. But here’s the real problem…why is it?
I am far from the first writer on Shadow and Act, and beyond, to present the ‘issue’ in film development regarding color-blind casting, or in this case, a director/writer who purposely steps out of their race-based – and for others within this argument gender-based – bubble to present (arguably) complex characters with agency and intentionality. And I am not even praising Potrykus for taking this stance that should be taken by people creating art. The question I am re-presenting is where are the varied voices in cinema willing to make this happen – especially with genre-bending fare?
With an even heavy for me film viewing week, John Singleton presented a similar argument at the New York City post-screening Q&A celebrating the 25th anniversary for his first feature film “Boyz n the Hood,” presented by the Academy of Motion Picture Arts & Sciences. There, the venerated director bemoaned the current state of film and ‘Black’ film, calling for stronger voices to step up like he, Spike Lee, and hosts of others did 20+ years ago. I’d argue that the overall film world is a very different space than it was then, with web-based series and content allowing for those same strong and varied voices that may not reach film-centric people like Singleton but are embraced by a younger generation. So while the Hollywood model is not the only film-viewing model to embrace, Singleton’s stance does hold some unfortunate weight.
And with talented actors like Hickson and Cheatom, work does not come often enough for them.
The charming Hickson remarked early during the same “Alchemist” Q&A that since “Gimme the Loot,” he’s been seeking good roles but none have come his way. I readily admit that seeing him and Cheatom, an extremely underrated actor whom most audience’s first saw in Tanya Hamilton’s “Night Catches Us,” as the film’s stars made me want to see “the Alchemist Cookbook.” And that’s the thing that screenplay writers and creators are missing out on when devising their stories: access to other audiences. While the film was stranger than stuff I readily watch, I am genuinely more interested in seeing Potrykus’ other films. And I’m confident I’m not the only Black member of that audience that feels the same way.
When it’s not used as a stunt – like many television shows that present a ‘diverse’ cast in the first season then winnow that down to one or two tokens (yes, I’m talking about you “Lost,” “Person of Interest,” and hosts of other shows) – media making like that of “The Alchemist Cookbook” works on multiple scales. And while I have some issues with the film, most notably its liberal use of ‘nigger’ uttered too often for my taste (though not to Tarantino degrees), I feel it’s a good study on how make a change with your film art without compromising your artistic viewpoint.
There’s so much more to say about this topic and film. Let us know what you think…
In addition to writing about film, television, and media, Curtis Caesar John is a film exhibitor and advocate, born and raised in Brooklyn, NYC. Follow him on Twitter @MediaManCurt