Four Takeaways from Nelson George at SXSW

The author, producer and filmmaker talks about his career and how starting out as a young entertainment writer led to much, much bigger things for him and why being open to change is what made it possible

Nelson George has gone from writing small pieces on what became huge cultural movements when he was a college student to one of the most respected writers in entertainment media and can tell the story of so many cultureal changes that have happened over the last 40 years — because he’s written about most of them. He stopped by the SXSW conference earlier this week to address an audience about what he’s learned. Here are four takeaways from his conversation. His full lecture is in the video above.

1. In its infancy Hip hop was both transitional and disruptive — and that’s a good thing.

George expounds on how, as a young writer for publications like Billboard and the New York Amsterdam News he saw the emergence of what came to be known as hip hop, a music, culture and art form made by and for those who were shunned by the disco community of the late 1970s. Because it was discounted by those who felt it was going nowhere, it grew into a phenomenon unchallenged and even feared by those who desired to live by the rules. “I had missed the Civil Rights Movement, Black Nationalism and the glories of early 70s Black music culture. But i was a witness to a new thing growing even as the staples of Black culture began to atrophy….I was young enough to see that hating a new movement without paying attention to why it was rising is the path to extinction for any creator.”

2.It is possible to transfer skill sets from one medium to another.

After writing a biography on Michael Jackson, George invested in Spike Lee’s cult classic “She’s Got to Have It,” which led to a book about the film that George participated in creating and he watched as Lee’s filmmaking brand expanded itself. Being a part of that led to his parttaking in film writing, first for “Strictly Business” starring Halle Berry, later to Chris Rock’s “CB4” as a writer and producer and to the comedian’s popular HBO show, and ultimately to directing a 2007 film starring Queen Latifah called “Life Support.” He is now working on a scripted Netflix series premeiring Aug. 20 called “The Get Down,” based on his experiences in the late 70s. “Learning to walk with new legs is damn scary, but you fall in order to learn getting up.” Luckily for me, the marriage of hip hop and cinema that the Mars Blackmon character in “She’s Got to Have It” foretold would carry me forward into the 90s.”

3. While we’re focused on #OscarsSoWhite, there’s something to be said for #TVSoBlack.

Sure, we keep getting shocked when Black directors and talent are scarcely recognized for their work and there is little to show for the many who toil in the film industry. But at the same time, African Americans are constantly finding opportunities in front of and behind the scenes on the small screen. George, while staying in Vancouver while making a TV show has found that Black directors and actors are continuing to find work in that medium. Also with the number of Black actors appearing on screen, diverse programming has taken hold in television ratings. Meanwhile, as Hollywood is making fewer films and is a shrinking industry. “I think we should be really focusing on TV. I think that’s where the opportunities are. I think that’s where the jobs are.”

4. Too few people in the middle are feeling their voices are going unheard — and that’s a bad thing.

On the left you have #BlackLivesMatter and on the right you have Donald Trump supporters and that signifies that a segment of people in between are not being serviced. That could even mean a breakdown of the contemporary two-party system. There are people on both side who, through their anger, are not hearing others. Through media like the Internet, people can “tunnel vision” the information they get and not have to hear anything else outside of the source they choose. Also, despite cricicism of mainstream media, much news and information goes through a few tiers of editing before it’s read as opposed to blogs and citizen media which is rarely vetted by anyone but its producer. “It’s dangerous, but you know what? The world is a dangerous place and I think we’ve lived in a very comfortable zone for a long time and now we’re dealing with some of the kind of anger that’s around the world.”

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