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.