Lowering the bar
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By: the Unknown Film Critic
In the beginning of this the Third Golden Age, Hollywood as it is prone to do followed the money. The latter two films created their own genre; the ‘hood’ film and the ‘stupid black comedy’ [generally slapstick humor with a hip hop sensibility or skewed to a young audience]. And for roughly 10 years we saw with a few notable exceptions mostly variations on House Party and Boyz. Then in 1997 we got the box office hit Soul Food which was a milestone for many reasons, and on many levels chief among them that it was a black Family drama, it was for adults, and more importantly a successful producer from outside of the film industry had financed the film; Kenneth 'Babyface' Edmonds1. His success was unfortunately short lived after the purchase less than a year later of a low budget independent film called Hav Plenty which only made $2.3 Million and producing another intelligent but little scene film called Light It Up which is probably only remembered now as Ushers first film. Though its writer-director was not black, an almost all black cast ‘black film’ is occasionally used as a vehicle for a white writer/filmmakers as a low budget way to start their directing careers [ala’ Fresh]. Witness Craig Brewer as the most recent example of that phenom [much more on him and his film later]. Light It Up was produced for a relatively low but not cheap $13,000,00 but it only made $5,871,603
at the box office. I will be mentioning numbers throughout this article because racism aside the movie business is just that a business, each investment must make a return. Each time a departure from the 3 or 4 categories in the ghetto of what black film is bombs, it affects the possibility of that ‘type’ of film being made again. I break down the three original categories as 1] the hood film 2] the stupid black comedy and 3] the long running ‘Hollywood Black film’ generally a medium to big budget affair based on a best selling novel or black historical figure [The Color Purple, Beloved, Amistad, Ali, Cry Freedom, Ray, What’s Love Got To Do With It, Sounder] by and large these films are screen written, produced and directed by whites chronicling the black experience in this country. Lots of fine black actors get work in these films and are often nominated and sometimes win awards for them. Proving over and over that white Hollywood knows best how to make a quality ‘black film’. The notable exceptions to these have been Spike Lee’s Malcolm X, Carl Franklins’ Devil In A Blue Dress, and Euzhan Palcys’ A Dry White Season all excellent films that failed to make even half the money currently being enjoyed by Medea's Family Reunion.
When Boyz And The Hood hit and then more ‘Hood’ films [Menace To Society, etc.] continued to make money along with the Friday’s, and How To Be A Player’s all of a sudden major studios were setting up deals with black filmmakers, each studio wanting to have its own in-house John Singleton. Music video directors like Hype Williams and F. Gary Gray were getting shots at directing ‘hood films’ [Belly, Set It Off] Former Spike DP Ernest Dickerson made his feature film debut with a ‘hood film’ [Juice]. Now understand me I am not hatin on ‘Hood films’. To me Hood films were just black gangster films, and gangster films have been a genre for many, many years.
So much was going on in the 90’s for black film and blacks in film, out of the blue Harry Belafonte had a deal at Newline, and Sidney was back making pictures. Former Car Wash acting alum Bill Duke got to remake a period black gangster film [two of them in fact!1]. Eddie Murphy had black directors direct 2 of his films [Robert Townsend for RAW (1987), Reginald Hudlin for Boomerang (1992)]. The godfather of the Second Golden Age Of Black Cinema’s son had made a great film [New Jack City] as well. We had black film festivals popping up all over the landscape, websites like blackfilm.com appearing providing up to the minute info on Black film and Blacks in film. It seemed times were changing. We had several high profile black film producers. BET was making made-for-television romance films, we even had Female black directors making independent films and getting Hollywood deals. Even though just a few years earlier even the existence of independent black films was alien to most black filmgoers. And more and more Black actors were crossing over. We now had Denzel and Wesley and Will and Martin and Whoopie and Halle all making and starring in white created, produced and directed mainstream films. Black producers, black development execs, black Hollywood royalty, By the end of the 90’s it seemed as if there really was Black Hollywood power base, finally. God be praised.
A Rage in Harlem, Hoodlum
Or better still what was happening? By the time Denzel won his second Oscar for playing an evil, corrupt cop [his first was for playing a slave]. I was reminded, great as Training Day was and great as his performance was, of the recurring theme in many Hollywood films in regards to black men that deep down they’re all criminals. A few years earlier Lawrence Fishburne had done a film called Deep Cover with a similar hidden theme. Was Denzel’s Glory performance that much better than his portrayal of Steven Biko in Cry Freedom or the lawyer in Philadelphia? [or his performance in Malcolm X!] Or did they not want to reward the brother for playing a positive image of a black man! Funny as it was I was completely offended by Bringing Down The House the film was devoid of one positive black male character and the underlying message of white men can get any black woman they want and be as cool as any brother did not escapes my notice!!! Alright, Alright I thought, maybe I’m paranoid, maybe my judgment is impaired, and perhaps I’ve become jaded in some way.
Was Hollywood and specifically the Academy only rewarding us for playing debasing characters? Sure Morgan had gotten nominated for playing a pimp, and sure Lawrence got nominated for playing a real-life wife beating, cheating, fucked up black man. And yes Queen Latifah was nominated for playing a Madame and I wont talk about the role Halle won her Oscar for. With the possible exception of Training Day none of the films they won for or were nominated for [Denzel’s Nom for Malcolm X being the sole exception] were what I consider Black films. But maybe flawed characters are more of a challenge and are harder to play, maybe good guys can be boring, and one could argue that women often have won for roles that supports a sexist a view of them. Jane Fonda, Julia Roberts and Barbara Streisand have all won Academy awards for playing prostitutes [Actually Babs won a Golden globe for one prostitute role and was nominated for another]
At this point let me pose some questions and thoughts about where were are, where we have come from, and possibly where we are headed.
Black films have evolved, and the 3 main categories have expanded. So, while it’s true that if a certain ‘type’ of black film bombs Hollywood retracts, the converse is also true. If a film is successful Hollywood sits up and says ‘hey there is an audience for this’ During the TGAOBF Black romantic pics have been hit or miss whether they be comedies [from Strictly Business (1991) $7,683,267 (USA), romantic ‘Hood’ film blends like Jason's Lyric (1994) $20,851,521 or films which aspire to much more culturally like Love Jones (1997) $12,514,138]. Waiting to Exhale (1995) had hardly been a romance, but How Stella Got Her Groove Back (1998) was. Yet despite all its pedigree. Stella didn’t even double its production costs. Not quite a miss but not quite a hit. Fortunately all that changed with little film called the Best Man written and directed by Spike Lee’s cousin Malcolm Lee and once again single handedly created [for Hollywood] a new genre; the ‘young, intelligent, black romantic comedy’ even its ‘B story’ theme of long time friendships started a sub genre itself1.
1 Brothers, etc
As black filmgoers we have to vote [corny as that may sound] by what we pay to see, and as trivial as first weekend clubs may seem they do make a difference. I am not saying don’t support a brother like Tyler Perry who dresses up in a fat black woman costume and makes films that conclude with soliloquies delivered by Cicely Tyson and Maya Angelou shot on the site of an actual slave plantation he owns. But consider the powers that be in Hollywood [the academy et al] and what they are saying to us and what we are saying to them. The most successful black films of 2006 [both debuting at No. One at the box office] so far both feature black men dressed up as a fat, fast talking, black mammy. And the two other ‘Black films’ to come out in the last 4 months feature also feature overweight black women; LAST HOLIDAY Domestic Total: $38,399,961, Release Date: January 13, 2006, Production Budget: $45 million, Director: Wayne Wang, Starring: Queen Latifah, and PHAT GIRLZ, Domestic Total as of Apr. 30, 2006: $6,661,038.
Are big black woman beautiful? Most definitely! Is there room for these types of films in the Black Diaspora of film? Certainly, but if this is primarily what is getting made, financed and released by major studios one has to pause to consider the images of black women it purports. And it is what we, as a black film going audience, support. Let’s consider the context of the current black film landscape. Another film in theatres the same time as Tyler Perry’s and Martin Lawrence’s [sequels to prior films they’d made featuring themselves in fat black woman suits] was the South African film TSOTSI [Release Date: February 24, 2006] based on the novel by acclaimed playwright Atol Fugard. It made roughly one 30th the Domestic Total [$2,286,496] as Medea’s Family Reunion. Why aren’t black audiences racing to see this film? When John Singleton’s highly overlooked mini epic Rosewood and Beloved came out the discussion’s I had with black folks as to why they didn’t support these films ranged from “I don’t want to see that shit, who wants to be reminded of the fact that we were once slaves”, to; “it’s to too depressing, I go to the movies to forget my problems and maybe laugh”. I myself cannot forget the overwhelming feeling of uncomfortableness sitting in the theater [with a mixed audience] during the screening I saw of Rosewood when the scenes of blacks killing racist whites were on screen. It was tangible. Someone said to me later “well all those endless films about the holocaust work because its history and its over there [Europe] films about racism and slavery remind you of what you have to deal with every day here in this country”
When Three 6 Mafia’s song won for best original song at these years’ Academy Awards many feelings welled up in me. Here once again was a WGMBF1 supposedly portraying an aspect the black experience in America. If you remember the spin on this film it was promoted as a ‘John Singleton produced film’, it was ‘legitimate’. Like if a black guy approves of a white guy saying ‘nigga’ its ok, he won’t get his ass kicked at the club school of thinking. Mind you I think Terrence Howard is a phenomenally talented actor who has been overlooked for quite sometime [who can forget how he stole every scene he had in The Best Man?] and Craig Brewer is clearly a talented director and knows how to tell a story. But come on! Do we really need another movie
1White Guy Makes Black Film
about a pimp and his Ho’s!? Suffice to say I had many issues with that movie. I will however save them for another article.
Do I think Disney songs should keep winning Oscars? No. Do I think Three 6 Mafia are talentless? No. But contextually lets look at the history of past wins and nom’s for best song. We have the incredibly talented Dianne Warren who has been nominated for Best Original Song six times1988, 97,98,99, 00, and 02 and never won! Duke Ellington who though he won a Grammy in 1959 for Best Soundtrack Album, Background Score he was never even nominated by the academy for his film work. The only African-American winners in the past are:
(1971) Best Music, Original Song For the song "Theme from Shaft". from Shaft--Music and Lyric by Isaac Hayes
(1984) Best Music, Original Song For the song "I Just Called to Say I Love You" from The Woman in Red -- Music and Lyric by Stevie Wonder
(1985) Best Music, Original Song For the song "Say You, Say Me" from White Nights -- Music and Lyric by Lionel Ritchie
Is ‘Its hard out here for a Pimp’ in the same category? Has the bar been raised or lowered? Who are we in the landscape of filmed media? How are we represented? Have things gotten better or worse? What kinds of images of Black men and women does Hollywood perpetuate about us? Why in 2006 is yet another film about and I quote “A drug kingpin struggles to leave the drug game behind” written by the late Tupac Shakur in pre production now? What is the state of Black film right now? Has the bar been raised or lowered?
Let me leave you with the example of "The Meteor Man" by Robert Townsend. Here we have a black hero in a movie written and directed by a black man and his hero can only fly about 6 feet above ground and can master information in a book for a maximum of 15 minutes. That is supposed to be funny? in a country where our children are still not expected to do as well as the dominant group and are barely considered human. So when we do as George Clinton advised, i.e., "Free your mind and your a_ _ will follow," the consciousness will rise and the movies will get better.
Academy notes of note:
In 1972 For the first time in Academy history, three of the Best Actor and Best Actress nominees were black performers - Paul Winfield and Cicely Tyson in Sounder, and Diana Ross in Lady Sings the Blues. (However, none of the trio of black 'actors' won.)
Lonne Elder III was the first African American to be nominated for an Academy
"Streets of Philadelphia" from Philadelphia -- Music and Lyric by Bruce Springsteen
"Into the West" from The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King -- Music and Lyric by
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