At the dawn of the Black Hollywood Renaissance of the '90s, the sodality of filmmakers like Spike Lee, The Hudlin Brothers, Bill Duke, Stan Lathan, John Singleton, The Hughes Brothers, George Jackson, Doug McHenry, Mario Van Peebles, Robert Townsend, and this writer, to name a few, felt like the pre-Raphaelite brotherhood. We were cinematic reformers, rejecting the cartoonish mythos of African-American life, as depicted in the black exploitation flicks of the 1970s. In the 1990s, we were Dr. Martin Luther King, we were Malcolm X, we were Parks and Van Peebles. We were insatiable "American dreamers," like Oscar Michaeux; albeit with limos, first-class flights, five-star luxury hotels, Armani gear, big bank accounts, and cell phones. We had "been to the mountaintop" and had G.P.S.'d that noble glide-path while tracking the realization of a Negro's ambition, guided by the voice from an ancestral control tower which intoned, by any means necessary.
We just knew "The Dream" would last forever.
Twenty years later, Spike Lee -- one of the most talented and prolific directors this country has produced in the 20th century -- can't get a green light for the sequel to Inside Man, despite the fact that the original film grossed nearly $200 million dollars worldwide. Twenty years later, two supremely talented actresses -- Viola Davis and Octavia Spencer -- are given Oscar nods for their portrayals of wise but weathered Mississippi domestics in a highly praised film titled The Help.
Twenty years later, many black filmmakers (including myself) haven't had a movie financed by a major studio in over twenty years.
Twenty years later, America has its first African-American President of the United States, seeking re-election for a second term at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue.
Twenty years later, African-American filmmakers navigate a course that is slightly sticky, smelly, and saggy, the aftermath of an exploding "dream" deferred by Hollywood's grand illusion of inclusion.
Twenty years later, is this the way it's supposed to be?
Twenty years ago, it was a heady time in Hollywood for a young black screenwriter like me. As the first black screenwriter in history to have two films --Sugar Hill and Above the Rim -- released not only in the same year (1994), but 30 days apart from each other, I felt weightless in Hollywood's zero-gravity of glitz, fraudulent gravitas, and artifice.
As Biz Markie once said (describing the ego-toxic euphoria dispensed by the laughing gas known as the "Vapors"), "Damn it feels good to have people up on it..."
I wasn't alone; Spike had Malcolm X, Jungle Fever, Mo Betta Blues. Singleton got an Oscar nod for Boyz n the Hood, and continued building his visual corpora with Poetic Justice, Higher Learning, Rosewood, Baby Boy and many other films.
The success story of African Americans in Hollywood in the 1990s, was the result of a cultural harvest planted a century earlier, by Oscar Michaeux, the African-American filmmaker who changed the game, at the beginning of the 20th Century. Oscar Micheaux was born on January 2, 1884 in Murphysboro, Ill. The son of a former slave from Kentucky, Michaeux went from shoe shine boy in a white Chicago barber shop, to creating prodigious films like Within Our Gates (which many observers at the time felt was Michaeux's answer to D.W. Griffiths anathematical racist epic, Birth of a Nation). Micheaux defied the stereotypical depictions of African Americans as nannies and sambos, and redefined them as dignified American citizens. Oscar Michaeux's cinema was aimed at the critical mass of Jim Crow's diseased heart of darkness, which made him more than just a courageous filmmaker, and his movies more than just entertainment. Micheaux's work was also a political statement.
And maybe, the decade-long dearth of African American films in recent years, is Hollywood's political statement to Black Americans: "Listen, my niggas; you got a black President, stop yer yappin'!! You overcame! Do you know how many good 'ol boys woke up on November 5, 2008, thinking they were having a nightmare about some darkie winning the White House... only to wake up and find out that a darkie was really gonna be in the White House?! This is a guy who should be driving the white congressmen and senators to the airport, not sitting in the motherf--ing Oval Office! But he is and we're not green-lighting anymore films directed, written by, or produced by Blacks. With your boy Obama as President, now we have a pass to go back to the past, back to this nation's comfort zone! You had a ten-year run! Be happy!"
I remember emailing Spike Lee the day after 2009 Inauguration -- the both of us basking in the radiantly historic glow of a Black President of the United States of America -- and me thinking that now...in 2009...with a President Barack Hussein Obama, that Hollywood was going to be wide open for us. Wide open!
What a difference three years can make.
Last week, the critics at the Sundance Film Festival did their best to tweet and feather Spike Lee and his film Red Hook (Lee's controversial coming-of-age story about a young black teen and his life-altering summer vacation in Brooklyn's Red Hook projects, written by Lee's talented collaborator James McBride, and financed by Lee himself), instead of taking the time to dissect what elements of this provative film made them uneasy. Which begs the question: had this been Gus Van Zandt or Quentin Tarantino with the exact same film, would there have been a different reaction?
Last week, two of The Help's stars -- the gifted Viola Davis and Octavia Spencer -- were given well-deserved Oscar nominations for playing maids. Hollywood insists on rewinding those anachronistic ghost clocks of Mississippi, as long as the timekeepers are sympathetic white characters who retrofit the story from their sanitized and patronizing, p.o.v.
So are African-American filmmakers still writing and shooting great Black films? Of course: Spike Lee just did it with Red Hook, Dee Rees did it with Pariah, and Ava DuVernay just made history winning the Best Director prize at the 2012 Sundance Film Festival. However, if it means that other African-American filmmakers have to go back to the grind of digging into their own wallets -- She's Gotta Have It and Hollywood Shuffle-style -- and making it happen with a Canon 5D camera with a bare bones crew, then so be it. There is a global audience in the millions (and potentially the billions) who want view their work on streaming video services like Netflix, Hulu, Amazon Prime Videos, which in a few years -- God willing -- may make cable television obsolete.
And imagine those same Hollywood suits -- who publicly claim they are true blue Democrats -- but surreptitiously vote crimson red G.O.P. -- orchestrating attack ads portraying President Obama as a Harvard-educated "Nino Obama" who pushes their great country into the New Jack crack house of oblivion?. Hyperbole? Perhaps. But don't forget that Newt "The Notorious N.E.W.T." Gingrich recently labeled (or is it libeled?) President Obama as the "Food Stamp President."
Those of us -- no matter what race, social stratum, religion, or whoever we are -- who want four more seasons of "That Virtuous Brother Doing His Thing in the West Wing (And Trying To Make It Work For Everyone)", need to show up at polls in droves (just like last time, with lines around the block), just to make sure that the G.O.P.'s post-mod minstrel show they are putting into production at this very moment, doesn't get that green light.
(source: Hooked On The American Dream)
Follow Barry Michael Cooper on Twitter: www.twitter.com/BarryMichaelC