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Black Cinema
by David Hudson

Continued from Part One.

Between the Indies and the Studios: 80s, 90s and Now

Why 1986? Because that was the year that saw the release of Robert Townsend's Hollywood Shuffle and Spike Lee's She's Gotta Have It. But before sounding the fanfare, one independent filmmaker who preceded them both demands at least a mention: Charles Burnett.

Throughout the 70s, Burnett was quietly struggling to get realistic portrayals of African-American lives on screen. It's hard to imagine a series of films more stylistically opposed to the greatest hits of blaxploitation than Killer of Sheep, made in 1973 but not released until 1977, its rep gradually growing throughout the 80s at various festivals, and then, My Brother's Wedding (1983) and To Sleep With Anger (1990). Clearly, the gaps between those films alone show the uphill battle Burnett has had to fight most of his career. Michael Tolkin has likened Burnett's style to Rossellini's neorealism - minus Rossellini's romanticism.

But: 1986, Townsend and Lee. It was still the beginning of an era in which it seemed there were just as many people maxing out credit cards to make a movie on the cheap as there were in the 90s starting up dotcoms. That was the route Townsend took to make Hollywood Shuffle, a loosely strung-together series of send-ups of everything that had frustrated him in his years as a struggling actor taking on minor roles. Roger Ebert, who is himself parodied in the film, took the jab in stride and gave it a qualified thumbs-up, crediting it for giving him some "good laughs" and wrapping up, "Under the circumstances, Hollywood Shuffle is an artistic compromise but a logistical triumph, announcing the arrival of a new talent whose next movie should really be something." In fact, the Eddie Murphy concert movie that followed, Raw, is quite a viewing experience, peppered as it is with Murphy's devoted tribute to Richard Pryor and gentle ribbing of Bill Cosby and his phenomenal range of characterizations - but of course, that's more attributable to Murphy than to Townsend. Unfortunately, the Townsend movie that would be "really something" never arrived.

The opposite would have to be said of Spike Lee. In Cinema of Outsiders, Emanuel Levy makes the case as well as anyone could:

Spike Lee assumes his position as dean of African American directors by virtue of his talent, productivity... and attitude - call it chutzpah.... Lee's showmanship is without peer in the indie world. A media celeb with a knack for controversy, he has increased the visibility not just of his but of all African American films. Moving back and forth between Hollywood and the indies, Lee continues to serve as a role model for a young generation of black filmmakers.

Chutzpah alone wouldn't hack it, of course, over a period of 17 years, 20 if you go back to Joe's Bed-Stuy Barbershop: We Cut Heads. That was when John Pierson first heard of Spike Lee and, a few years later, when he heard the title She's Gotta Have It, he laughed - and was intrigued. "I became the sixth and largest individual investor in She's Gotta Have It," he writes in Spike, Mike, Slackers & Dykes. "It was the best business decision I ever made in my life." The film ultimately ended up costing $6.8 million - and brought in $28 million.

Ever since that engaging comedy about Nora and her three competing boyfriends (and boy, is that one long overdue for release on DVD), Lee has retained his distinctive style - Pauline Kael once wrote that its freshness was both the subject of the movie and the joy of watching it - but he's never allowed himself to get caught in a rut. Many have compared him to Woody Allen, but while some of Allen's films tend to blend together in memory, there's no such problem with Lee's body of work.

School Daze (1987)

Even in some of the weaker films, there are moments of brilliance. He Got Game (1998) comes to mind. The narrative doesn't hold up dramatically, but the opening sequence, a series of breathtaking shots of urban basketball courts, most certainly does. In fact, and especially considering the post-9/11 short on the Yankees he made for the concert benefiting New York City firemen, one wishes it were financially feasible for Lee to experiment more with non-narrative films.

Even so, consider the range: School Daze (1987), a musical set at an all-black college that touches on themes most whites didn't even know were themes to be touched on; the prescient Do the Right Thing (1989), which all but seems to, well, if not fully explain, at least begin to explicate the LA riots years before they happened; Mo' Better Blues (1990), derided by many but nonetheless featuring another example of Lee giving Denzel Washington space to explore his range; the interracial drama Jungle Fever (1991), notable for being just as critical of black prejudices as white ones; the epic Malcolm X (1992) - seriously, could anyone else have done it?; and heaven knows, it needed to be done - and so on, through a doc (4 Little Girls, 1998), a road trip (Get on the Bus, 1996), a belated hood movie (Clockers, 1995), even a movie he's deemed fit for his own kids to see (Crooklyn, 1994), through many more to his latest, 25th Hour (2002), a somber meditation on guilt and responsibility set at a stately pace just right for its majestic compositions.

Throughout these years, filmmakers like John Singleton, Matty Rich, Charles Lane, Bill Duke, Carl Franklin, Allen and Albert Hughes and, bless her, Julie Dash (Charles Burnett has long argued black cinema needs more women directors and that if there were more, "you would get a different perspective," and fortunately, that's beginning to happen), have all walked through doors Spike Lee was a major force in getting open.

Black cinema has had its various phases, its wave of hood movies in the early 90s and its rapper vehicles, but also films directed by whites that come generically very close, such as Zebrahead (1992) and Fresh (1994). And, as with the rest of the indie world, African American independent cinema flirts constantly with the studios. Like Spike Lee, some black filmmakers approach studios when they need them (or succumb to studios' approaches, as the case may be) and then return to independence - or move freely between extremes in that unclassifiable realm known as Indiewood.

The career of F. Gary Gray pinpoints the main stations on the map nicely. He began with the raw independent comedy Friday (1995), went with New Line, definitely an Indiewood house, for Set It Off (1996) and then shot The Negotiator (1998) for Warner Bros. In some ways, Gray's The Italian Job (2003) is good news for black cinema in that it isn't black cinema at all. The remake of the British caper flick has all the hallmarks of mainstream Hollywood fare yet just happens to have been helmed by a black director.

Devil in a Blue Dress (1995)

Over time, major studios have finally become willing to hand big-budgeted projects to black directors and not confine them to a limited set of themes, characters or settings. John Singleton, for example, who made his mark with the powerful Boyz in the Hood (1991), most recently directed the sequel to a surprise blockbuster, 2 Fast 2 Furious. Carl Franklin aroused critical praise for his One False Move in 1992; his budget was a bit more generous for Devil in a Blue Dress (1995); and a few years later, in 1998, he directed a predominantly white cast in One True Thing. Antoine Fuqua scored nicely with Training Day (2001), made a Bruce Willis action flick, Tears of the Sun (2003), and has now wrapped King Arthur, a story set miles and centuries away from the contemporary Los Angeles of Training Day.

That's progress, yes, but we have to keep in mind that it's been slow in coming and that there's still a lot of ground to cover before we can declare the race barrier utterly done away with. In the early 90s, a mere two percent of directors in Hollywood were black; now, in 2004, that percentage is just barely four. Until that number is up to around 13, the actual percentage of the US population that's African American, according to the March 2002 census, young black filmmakers will go on simultaneously exploring the indie route to realizing their films and banging on the industry's front door.

GreenCine Recommends...

Beginnings

  • From the Origins of Film Collection, "African American Cinema" (1919 - 1926). Contains the only film directed by Oscar Micheaux available on DVD.

    Emperor Jones (1933)

  • Emperor Jones (1933). On Broadway, Paul Robeson had played the lead in Eugene O'Neill's play on which this film was based. Thanks to United Artists, it was the first widely distributed independent film with a predominantly African-American theme - and then, there was that theme: Brutus Jones escapes from a chain gang to take over an island where even the white traders end up lighting his cigarettes. It doesn't last, but blacks across the country nonetheless cheered the film and their new symbol of black power. This disc also happens to include the Academy Award-winning documentary Paul Robeson: Tribute to an Artist. A worthy supplement: Paul Robeson: Here I Stand (1999).

Poitier and Cosby on the Big and Little Screen

  • It wasn't just that Sidney Poitier was practically the only black star in Hollywood's firmament in the late 50s and 60s; in retrospect, it almost looks as if Poitier mapped out the genres he would forge his way into in order to lay paths for others to follow. The Defiant Ones (1958) is a chase movie with overtly racial themes; Lilies of the Field won him an Oscar, the first for an African American; Guess Who's Coming to Dinner (1967) now seems tame, of course, but the impact of seeing Hollywood's premier couple, Katharine Hepburn and Spencer Tracy, eventually welcome a black man into their family in a major mainstream release shouldn't be underestimated; and as for In the Heat of the Night (1967), five words: "They call me Mister Tibbs!"

  • On television, Bill Cosby played a similar breakthrough role to Poiter's in film. Recent generations might cringe at the squeaky clean Huxtable family, but in the mid-60s, Cosby was among the first black comedians to appear on, say, The Tonight Show, and in I-Spy, he was the first black partner in a cop duo who wasn't just a sidekick. Little wonder that Poitier and Cosby would become fast friends and even make a handful of not-so-great movies together; but they would also be key financiers of projects black filmmakers were struggling to get off the ground.

Blaxploitation

  • Sweet Sweetback's Baadasssss Song (1971). In the film that revolutionized black cinema, Sweetback, played by director Melvin Van Peebles, agrees to accompany two white police officers on a routine patrol. But once they start beating a black man, Sweetback rescues him, kills the police, and the chase is on. Sweetback is protected by the "Brothers and Sisters who had enough of The Man" to whom the film is dedicated and the Hell's Angels on a ride through an underworld of garish color, frantic editing and ethnic funk. The anti-Poitier had arrived.

  • For most, Gordon Parks's Shaft (1971) is superior to his son's Superfly (1972), but the soundtracks to both, of course, are classics and the pair would make a helluva double feature.

The Indies

  • While we wait for the landmark She's Gotta Have It (1986) to appear on DVD, if you only see only three Spike Lee films, make them these: Do the Right Thing (1989), probably the quintessential Lee film, with its characters standing in for the various nodes in the complex network of racial relations in America, its volatile mix of humor and anger and its compressed temporal and spacial framework of a single hot day in a tight New York City neighborhood; Malcolm X (1992), a flipside to Right Thing with its epic stretch featuring one of Denzel Washington's greatest performances; and 25th Hour (2002), a mature reckoning with choices made in reckless youth and perhaps most notable in this context for focusing on its characters, primarily a trio of white friends, rather than its politics.

    Daughters of the Dust (1991)

  • Julie Dash is part of a group of filmmakers known as the "LA Rebellion" that came out of UCLA in the late 70s and early 80s, a group concerned with making realist films about black life in America. Charles Burnett is often associated with the informal group, but unfortunately, we're still waiting for the best of his films - Killer of Sheep (1977), for example - to make it to DVD. Dash's Daughters of the Dust (1991) is available, though, a beautiful period drama and a portrait of the little-known Gullah community, isolated for years on an island off the coast of South Carolina.

  • Boyz N the Hood (1991), John Singleton's debut feature made when he was just 23, not only launched a wave of ghetto dramas featuring at least one rap star in the cast, it remains one of the best of the bunch. And that bunch isn't entirely unproblematic, either. As many black leaders have asked of rap over the past few decades, to what extent have these films reinforced prejudice and stereotyping among whites and a sense of separatism among blacks? The wave has since subsided, but those questions will remain intriguing, even if only for future historians.

  • Reginald Hudlin's House Party (1990) made a splash at Sundance and served as a necessary reminder that there was more to independent black cinema than gritty urban drama. Other notable films set in the middle-class black milieu would include Forest Whitaker's Waiting to Exhale (1995), Theodor Witcher's love jones (1997) and George Tillman Jr.'s Soul Food (1997).

Thoughts? Comments? Suggestions? Discuss!

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