Disclaimer: I want to be sure folks understand that my overview of Black Film history is extremely brief here and I do not profess to be a film history guru. I will fully admit that many of the things stated here are generalized for the sake of brevity, and that an entire book could be written on this subject. I simply tackled it for the big picture affect. This idea was sparked from my last entry regarding my review of Red Tails, and the ensuing clamor I saw happening the weekend it premiered. Enjoy.
George Lucas appeared in various places to promote Red Tails, a film paying homage to the Tuskegee Airmen. In a viral explosion, Facebook, Twitter, blogs and various other media quoted Lucas on how he couldn’t get financial backing from major studios for Red Tails because of its all Black cast. In the minds of major film studio execs, an all Black cast for any story would not generate enough sales domestically or internationally. Lucas shared the logic of the execs with blunt terms, and said that he put $58 million of his own money to distribute the film. Lucas had confirmed the racism within the Hollywood system, and it became a rally cry to support Red Tails with its dollars to disprove “the suits”. Various other Black writers and bloggers were skeptical as to why they should see the film, even using Lucas’ interracial relationship as fodder for their criticism. Nevertheless, the primary voices seemed to shout, “We have to show Hollywood that Blacks have a voice! If we don’t support this with our money, we can say goodbye to high budgeted, good quality films!” It was a call to action to prove the power of the Black audience and their desire for positive portrayals, that all black casts were just as equal to the primarily all White films distributed, as well as pay homage to these Black war heroes. If people didn’t see the film, it would prove the studios right and we would pretty much say goodbye to all Black films. One must ask, is Black cinema truly in danger of extinction? Through a brief look at Black film history we see that if extinction were possible, it would be less about the restrictions from major studios and more about the Black community that has diversified in many directions.
Firstly, African Americans have had presence since the beginning of motion picture history. The first motion pictures were created around 1895. Hardly two decades later, William D. Foster became the first African American to own a film production company and created two film shorts with all Black casts in 1910 and 1912. William Foster and Oscar Micheaux were two of the most influential Black filmmakers of early history, with Micheaux making over 44 “race films”, a term for all Black films at the time. The 1915 film Birth of a Nation, considered one of the American classics, sparked outrage amongst the Black community, causing the NAACP to create its own rebuttal with a film called The Realization of a Negro’s Ambition. From the very beginning, Black filmmakers set to defy racial injustice as well as instill a sense of respect and dignity to the Black public image. Micheaux reigned as a prominent producer and director of all Black films well into the 1930s and 40s. This period would see the rise of Paul Robeson, considered one of the greatest Black thespians of stage and cinema. The end of “race films” came in the 1950s, as Blacks began to see (what they considered) more respectable images of African Americans in major films. Not surprisingly, this also coincided with the phasing out of Jim Crow segregation.
The 1960s and 1970s created an explosion in cinema. Blacks and Whites seemed to be partners now. We have the most famous Rat Pack with Frank Sinatra, Dean Martin, and Sammy Davis Jr. Bill Cosby next to a White counterpart in espionage and action in the television series I, Spy. Sidney Poitier blossomed at this time, and would collaborate with Cosby in some classic films in the 70s.
There were films with all Black casts, but the exploration across racial lines exploded in much the same way that the country erupted in change nationally. The 1970s gave rise to the “Blaxploitation” era, a term coined by Black journalists who felt these films were exploiting the Black image and glorifying pimps, prostitutes and gangsters. Others felt differently about the era, as it was the first culmination of Black action heroes and sex symbols. Melvin Van Peebles making his directorial debut, with one of his films funded by Cosby. The rise of Richard Roundtree, Jim Brown, Pam Grier, and countless others who became the first images to influence the budding Hip Hop culture. Films like The Spook Who Sat By The Door, Shaft, and fantasy films like The Wiz, even camp horror like Blacula. The Black Hollywood scene seemed to be self sustaining. But while it was separate, it still was not equal to the high budget quality of many mainstream Hollywood films.
By the 1980s and 1990s, Black Hollywood seemed to go into another integration mode like the 60s. The Black hero was not only for Black audiences, but for all audiences. Eddie Murphy catapulted to stardom in roles as a slick talking Detroit detective in Beverly Hills Cop, a panhandler turned stock broker in Trading Places, an African prince trying to find love in Coming to America, and a fast-talking gangster named Quick in Harlem Nights. Carl Weathers stood alongside Arnold Schwarzenegger and Sylvester
Stallone. Danny Glover alongside Mel Gibson in the Lethal Weapon series.The arrival of Hip Hop as a new culture in films like Beat Street, Breakin, and Krush Groove. Steven Spielberg, a working peer with George Lucas, directed an all Black cast in A Color Purple. Richard Pryor in a slew of comedic films. A budding Denzel Washington and Laurence Fishburne who would cross from the 80s into the 90s as dominant forces. Samuel L. Jackson would solidify his powerful voice in Pulp Fiction, and Will Smith would become a household name. Directors like Spike Lee crossing into the early 1990s alongside John Singleton and the Hughes Bros. There was a wide range of films such as House Party and Boomerang from the Hudlin Bros., Black college dynamics in School Daze, a biopic of Malcolm X, and tales of the streets in Menace II Society and Boyz in the Hood. Cuba Gooding Jr. moved like a whirlwind from a boy getting a haircut in Coming to America, to Tre Styles in Boyz, to an Academy Award as Rod “Show me the money!” Tidwell. Street thrillers like Juice would bring a whole new dynamic to Black films and give rise to new talent with Omar Epps and Tupac Shakur. There would be a budding trend of Black romance films with Poetic Justice, Jason’s Lyric, and Love Jones. There didn’t seem to be much talk on whether or not these films were successful at the box office. It seemed to be assumed that all of them were doing well, or at least well enough.
By the early 2000s, the all Black cast seemed to dissipate. For one, the laws of anti-discrimination applied to Black films also. Therefore, not only were people of various races being seen in more mainstream films, but it also signaled a decline of all Black films as they also had to diversify their casts under law. Ice Cube started his directorial and acting career in this period going from all Black casts such as Friday, to Barber Shop which had a White cast mate. The most prominent stories became love and romance films such as Love and Basketball, Brown Sugar, The Best Man, and just about anything that could have Taye Diggs and Morris Chestnut in the lead. Hip Hop stars became the new main attractions for “Urban” films. During this time Spike Lee and John Singleton seemed to slow their production, turning their skills toward more mainstream films with diverse cast members. Any other Black film that was being created were largely straight to DVD. The next wave was stand-up comedy films sparked by The Kings of Comedy. Overall, the days of the all Black film began to slow down. Many Black actors were trying to gain Denzel, Will Smith, Jaime Foxx, and Halle Berry stature. The Black image was for everyone. It had become part of the fabric of film. There were very few other “authentic” Black voices speaking, until Tyler Perry came along. The vagabond turned millionaire playwright was making his way across Black America with what many considered to be the last “down home” portrayal of a Black experience. Once his works hit the screen, many criticized his gun toting, weed smoking Madea character as a return to the mammy figure Black filmmakers tried to bury. But the following Tyler Perry gained through his plays were hardcore fans. Those fans would call their friends and relatives and command them, “Go see Tyler Perry’s movie. We have to support our own.” Perry fully admitted to finding his niche in the Christian Black female audience, which carried his success through over 10 films and 3 television shows in 7 years. Meanwhile, the remaining Black films of low budgets moved to late night BET and TVOne, Netflix, or still going straight to DVD. Surely the technology of digital cameras and YouTube will give rise to many new filmmakers as we have seen already with Issa Rae’s Mis-Adventures of Awkward Black Girl series.
Here we are in 2012, about 100 years since Blacks first made their way into cinema. While the primary dollars of production and distribution have been in the hands of White establishments, the artistic achievements have not waned from the Black community. There’s no denying that countless films have portrayed Blacks unjustly and in subtly racist portrayals. But even through all this, especially now, the image of Blackness has never seen so much possibility with the ease of access to cameras and Internet distribution. The question now is, what facet of the Black community will be highlighted? Films such as Pariah, the only film that I know of to detail the coming-out story of a Black lesbian teen, has created its own small waves. Precious was a film that struck deep into the hearts of America as it was financially backed by Tyler Perry and Oprah Winfrey. Can we really have beef with George Lucas who may have seen a great story and void to be filled, and accomplished it? Where are the other Spike Lees, John Singletons, Hudlin and Hughes Bros.? Many of these previously named directors and writers have now moved into high budget productions with action movies and network sitcoms. The new crop of actors seem to be coming from England, with Idris Elba, Chewitel Ejiofor, and David Oyelowo as the new Black leading men. In my view, the future of “Black” film will be completely parceled in niches. The exploration of various communities and stories across Black lives. Blacks who are Muslim, Blacks of the LGBTQ community, Blacks in Wall Street, Blacks who are “awkward”, and across the world. These films will not only show the diversity of Blackness, but the fundamentally human experiences. The Black perspective through the lens becomes a prism on the screen, showing a spectrum.