In the wake of successful films about black views and ways of life such as Black Panther
and Girl’s Trip, it begs the question of why we don’t have as full a repertoire in the Hollywood scene. The struggle of black filmmakers date back to the revolutionary actions of Oscar Micheaux, who independently produced more than 40 films that discuss, reflect, and honor the lives of black people. The dichotomy of this landscape is ever challenged; many black filmmakers speak out against the lack of representation and diversity in Hollywood; the only eras where black films rose to prominence being at the end of the 80s through the 90s. As we observe a wave of black films regaining popularity we must discuss the reasons why they become so popular in the first place, as well as the implications of the more political and economic faces of Hollywood, and the affect that Hollywood has on the individual autonomy of the artist.
The 90s are littered with cultural classics that black men and women survive off of to this day. Movies such as Friday, Waiting to Exhale, Daughters of the Dust, Muhammed Ali and more help to cultivate a new arena for black actors and directors. Usually, there is a specific type and a specific cast, the goofy street nigga; who smokes weed all day and jokes around while he plays dice on the corner to facilitate a film down to its comedic final tableau, but the tables had turned. Now black actors could be superheroes, spies, or even upper middle class. They were allowed to
shed light on untold stories such as that of the gullah in Daughters of the Dust. The filmmakers’ treks to making those films was often fraught with difficulty; they scrounge up funding from wherever and whoever, and modify and cut at their scripts to fit into an affordable production schedule. Regardless, the return profit on those films were infinitely more than what they spent to make them, which is the goal in the speculative business of entertainment. However, those who pull great white strings in a great white-dominated industry only saw the profit of a film, not its soul or cultural impact. Oftentimes the directors that bring a film to the forefront of the culture are discarded and disregarded after; they can pitch hundreds of screenplays, thousands of ideas,
but Hollywood seeks to commodify and industrialize the art, taking big name faces from iconic movies and subjecting them to the same kind of cookie-cutter type casting black filmmakers try so hard to break away from. Nevertheless, the impact of such movies is invaluable, and can be seen in the current resurgence of black films in movies such as Moonlight, Fruitvale Station, Black Panther, and more.
What happens when the artists meets the industry? Do they combust with Basquian
grandeur or do they persevere and survive like Spike Lee? The business side of the film industry is often times the very thing that bars black films from seeing their due light. Even when the talent of a filmmaker is recognized, that doesn’t assure consistent work. Wendell Harris’s Sundance-winning Chameleon Street didn’t get to see theaters. Matty Rich made one more movie after Straight Outta Brooklyn, then went into video games. Even those who could find more work after their initial break find themselves in a bind. Charles Burnett, for example, followed up To Sleep With Anger with The Glass Shield, an intricate drama about a black cop in an institutionally racist LAPD. It was picked up by Harvey Weinstein’s indie-devouring Miramax, which forced Burnett to change the ending and then attempted to market it as another Boyz N the Hood, giving prominence to Ice Cube in the promotional materials even though he was a side character. Such a film, without the authenticity and connection of a true story to be told, couldn’t find an audience, and Burnett never worked with Hollywood again. The ability of the black filmmaker to create genuine, authentic stories was oftentimes compromised by the
industrial interests of those they needed to fund their films. The art could no longer solely exist as itself, for itself; it is now attached to the pockets of people who wouldn’t take one step into the hoods these stories explore.
So where does this leave the artist? The attitude towards black films is a roller-coaster or
a wave. At times, black movies are the pinnacle of entertainment, breaking box office records and providing consistent, overwhelming revenue. At other times, you won’t see a black face not connected to his white best friend, who’s the only main character deemed worthy of any complexities. During the low points of the black film wave, even if black faces held any prominence in movies, it was always reflective of archaic type casting like the good negro, or the mammy character in Tyler Perry’s Madea franchise. Even those who seek to explain stories, real stories that reflect lives they’ve seen, it’s difficult to escape the umbrella of ‘black-anything’. It cannot simply be a coming of age film, but a black coming of age film; not just a comedy, but a black comedy, not just an action movie, but a black action movie. It is next to impossible to divorce oneself from the construct of race and blackness, especially because that factor so greatly affects the ways are stories are shaped and told; however, to what extent must a black person be a
black person before they can simply be a person? Such questions are posed with endless irritation by black filmmakers and artists alike; ‘blackness’ is something we are all so attached to and aware of; we understand all the ways in which being black shapes view and delivery of that view, but the ones with the money do not, and oftentimes push for bastardized, caricatured versions of what black life looks like. Fortunately we’re entering an era where the voyeuristic eye can benefit. While black trauma porn still prevails today with acclaimed films such as Selma and 12 Years a Slave, we also enjoy stories that explore the common intricacies of everyday life and romance, such as Spike Lee’s Netflix rendition of She’s Gotta Have It, or we enjoy being represented in stories of greatness and grandeur, such as Ryan Coogler’s wildly successful Black
To what end does the artist stop and blackness begin? Does entering into the mainstream Hollywood landscape really signify a filmmaker has made it? Why is the culture and entertainment made by black people loved so much, but still we ourselves are barred from opportunity within the entertainment industry because we are black people? America’s bipolar split of understanding and appreciation is interesting to say the least- you can work hard and well for years and come out with idea after idea but once they have their tokens of success, (Ava DuVernay and Ryan Coogler) they see no need to go past their quota of inclusivity. In what ways can we simply reflect, honor, and immortalize the stories that share our culture and history while still being able to make enough of a living to have a roof over our heads the next day? Is it possible to ask the other to divorce their ideas of what a culture seems like to them so that they may actually see what the culture is? Such is the life of the artist, but especially so for the black ones.