Sunday, January 17, 2010

Has the Black Film Died?

Hattie McDaniel, James Baskett and Sidney Poitier all broke the barriers of film to create a presence of the colored face on the silver screen. The images of blacks in film have changed dramatically in the years that followed and there aren't many more firsts to be witnessed with blacks and Hollywood. Morgan Freeman and Cicely Tyson paved way for Don Cheadle and Angela Bassett. Will Smith is one of the highest paid actors in the game and it is now common place for a person of color to be nominated during awards season, a feat that was once a rarity. But what happened to black film?

The 80s and 90s brought about a renaissance in black film. Directors like Spike Lee and John Singleton emerged, taking black film into their own hands and delivering stunning projects. Spike Lee's Do the Right Thing was iconic and was followed by a string of classics that were both provocative and entertaining. Lee was perhaps the biggest force in black film, often employing phenomenal all star casts of actors of color and launching many careers. Denzel Washington, Halle Berry, and Samuel L. Jackson all were early standouts in Lee films.

The 80s and 90s represented a period in which blacks had varying voices and different platforms. The career of Eddie Murphy shows it best. He had films classics such as Coming to America and Boomerang, released standup comedy films, and starred in box office franchises such as Beverly Hills Cop. Black films like Soul Food, Best Man, Jason's Lyric, and Boyz N the Hood showed blacks in everyday life. The now classic films showed real people who just happened to be black. They showed the inner workings of the African-American experience from the triumphs of family to the traps of inner city life. A slew of films like Juice and New Jack City showed the crime ridden side of black culture while Brown Sugar and Love Jones gave us a romantic side.

What happened? There is a large gap in film today that depicts the black experience. Either blacks flourish in award season fodder serious films that tend to be biopics (Ray, Precious, Dreamgirls) or the films are along the lines of slapstick comedy (Norbit, the Tyler Perry Madea franchise). Nothing against award season, but the films typically have non-blacks at the helm. Actors that frequented black films have now found fame in mainstream film. Terrence Howard, Jamie Foxx, Taraji P. Henson, and Mo'Nique have all broken out of black film to find award season glory. Tyler Perry virtually serves as the lone voice of the black film vehicle now. The most recent serious black film was Precious by black director Lee Daniels. However, the critically acclaimed film drew some criticism. Many blacks felt that the film was stereotypical and that it shed negative light on the black family. I happen to have the same feelings for Tyler Perry films. Not every family is like that of the character of Precious. But that doesn't mean that every family had a Madea. Mine didn't. Spike Lee has been a very vocal opponent of Tyler Perry's approach to film making. It seems that Perry may be eroding the work of Lee which aspired to bring a thoughtful tone to black film.

So what killed the black film? After the Love & Basketball era, there were a string of black films with virtually the same story and cast (Vivica Fox, Morris Chestnut...). As is the case with blacks in television, have we lost the need to show films that center around black friendships in favor of minstrelsy? To Perry's credit, he does also create films like Why Did I Get Married. Will we ever have another Waiting to Exhale? Or a Harlem Nights? Will there be more black films that are instantly quotable and lovable? Or has the black film industry been limited to chitlin' circuit comedies or outstanding black performances in films driven by white directors/producers? It's good thing that black actors have moved into the mainstream and received widespread recognition, but has it had a negative affect the way that R&B has been effected by black music artists moving to pop?

Those are loaded questions given the varying viewpoints in the African-American community as well as different definitions of what the "black experience" really is. I'm just waiting on another feel good black film that is void of minstrel show qualities. Bring back the romantic comedy and the hood classic.


vstar* said...

i love this post. i always said we lacked black films with substance... and now it seems there is a lack of black film overall. what gives!? i need to write a screenplay. check out this black film... i think you'd like it. it's called medicine for melancholy.

Anonymous said...

"hood classic" lol sorry but thats just too cute

Anonymous said...

great post. its seems though that once we (black folk) can get mainstream in whatever area of public life or existence the black community (and i use community broadly and loosely to cover many many things) suffers.