Launched at New York University (NYU) in 1996, the Black Genius series was conceived by author Walter Mosley, Manthia Diawara (Director of the Institute of Afro-American Affairs at NYU) and writer, film scholar and emeritus NYU professor Clyde Taylor, as a community conference featuring the voices of “black intellectuals, artists, political activists, and economists” sponsored by NYU’s Africana studies department, with discussions ranging from black culture, economic and political power and more.
According to Mosley, the use of the word “Genius” here wasn’t necessarily the dictionary definition of the word, but instead referred to, as he described at the time, “that quality which capitalizes the hopes and talents and character of a people” and is “something we all share.”
From the Black Genius Project came a book of the same name, and a live Black Genius forum, featuring “visionaries with solutions” who shared their views on personal and communal trials and triumphs, with a look towards the future of the culture. The forum launched with Spike Lee as its first Black Genius soon after his “Get on the Bus” was released in USA theaters. The entire event (almost 2 hours long) was thankfully recorded and apparently it was also broadcast on C-Span.
It kicks off with intros from the 3 gentlemen scholars responsible for the Genius project – Diawara, Mosley and Taylor – each discussing the program’s genesis, its focus, and longer term goals, as well as the inaugural forum’s highlight, Mr. Spike Lee, who would eventually give an extended talk, sharing his personal filmmaking journey up until that year (including his struggles in getting films like “Get on the Bus” and “Malcolm X” financed), providing some behind-the-scenes stories about the making of some of his higher profile works, as well as his thoughts on African American spending versus ownership, self reliance, the business of filmmaking, his advise for younger filmmakers and more. He was then joined on stage by 5 “reverberators” as they were called (notable authors, scholars, filmmakers, community activists), whose job was to ask Spike questions on a variety of mostly film-related topics, from the financing and distribution of black films, and the building of a self-sustaining black film industry, as well as inquiries into film education, discrimination in the industry and other issues affecting black artists and audiences. And for the final 25 minutes, the attending audience got to ask their own questions of Spike Lee as well, who also reminded me of the fact that, that same year (1996), he sold a pilot to ABC – a comedy titled ”L.I.E.” (referring both to the Long Island Expressway and the word ”lie’). It was to revolve around two men, one black and one white, who drive back and forth to work together each day, and live in neighboring towns on Long Island, one totally black and one totally white, with one street dividing the two towns. ABC never picked up the pilot to series, needless to say. And it certainly wouldn’t be the last time Spike sold a pilot to a TV network only to see it not go to series.
The Black Genius forum is a lengthy video – an hour and 45 minutes; although it’s was likely a bit longer, because it ends abruptly. It’s still worth a watch or a listen. It’s the kind of thing that you can simply play, turn up the volume and listen as you take care of other matters.