It has been pointed out by many, including recently the New York Times, that the Oscars are painfully short of black nominees, which reflected the fact that, aside from Tyler Perry movies, a couple of low budget comedies and the art film Night Catches Us, few African-American-themed features reached U.S. theaters in 2010. This absence is even more telling when you glance back at the administration of George Bush the First.
Twenty years ago was a banner year for blacks in American cinema. There were more films written, produced and directed by the decedents of African slaves that in any year before. The most celebrated of those films was Boyz n the Hood, which would make $55 million dollars and earn its young, USC-trained director John Singleton an Oscar nomination for best director. But it was far from the only important or interesting feature released that year. Among the films were New Jack City, which brought Harlem's uptown crack culture to the screen, had an amazing cast (Wesley Snipes, Ice T, Chris Rock, Allen Payne) put together by a black director (Mario Van Peebles), screenwriter (Barry Michael Cooper) and producers (George Jackson and Doug McHenry); The Five Heartbeats, directed by Robert Townsend, a nostalgic look back at an R&B vocal group that wasn't a hit back in '91, but remains a beloved film; Bill Duke's adaptation of expat noir novelist Chester Himes' A Rage in Harlem, which featured flamboyant performances from Forrest Whitaker and the post-Mike Tyson Robin Givens; Spike Lee's controversial interracial love story Jungle Fever, which confirmed Snipes as a major movie star; and Daughters of the Dust, Julie Dash's gorgeous, impressionistic look at a black community on a Southern coastal island that balances feminism and Afrocentricity.
I also should mention I was a part of this cinematic bounty, earning a co-writing credit on Strictly Business, a rom-com that gave the world its first lovely glimpse of Halle Berry as a leading lady.
A number of elements made that era possible. Spike Lee's breakthroughs with She's Gotta Have It in 1986 and the profound Do the Right Thing in 1989. Hip hop music guaranteed a hit sound track and generated stars like Ice Cube. Crack culture made the inner city a perfect setting for crime dramas, while there was a general acknowledgment that black yuppies (aka buppies) were a market worth tapping. Black stories generated black stars, many of whom are still part of the Hollywood firmament, such as Berry, Cube, Rock, Lawrence Fishburne, Samuel L. Jackson, Martin Lawrence, Angela Bassett and many others. In retrospect we can see that these films, in ways very similar to white indie films of the period, would serve as farm teams for bigger budget, more mainstream fare. Snipes, now sadly incarcerated for tax evasion, went from dramatic leading man to a hyperactive career action hero for much of the '90s.
To a degree, black films, which tended to be modestly budgeted (back in '91, $6 million was about the average cost of a black studio project), were a victim of returning relatively modest profits largely because they weren't welcomed in foreign markets. (A self-fulfilling prophecy since, in my experience, the racism of overseas buyers played a role in that truism. A topic for another blog.) But it could be argued that the black business community also dropped the ball. White-owned indie companies of the era like Miramax, Samuel Goldwyn, New Line, and Kino International released many of these films, while only one black distributor (African-American Images, who released Up Against the Wall) chased the historic opportunity to tap this emerging market.
So, in 2011, we have a number of bankable stars (Denzel Washington, Jamie Foxx, Morgan Freeman) and two empires, one run by the global brand known as Will Smith (and family) and Tyler Perry, who probably has employed more black actors in the last four years than all other American features combined. Okay, I exaggerate, but not by much.
As a director/writer who's been lucky enough to work a bit in the last few years (directed the HBO film Life Support in 2007, produced the documentary Good Hair with Chris Rock in '09), I am not optimistic that things will turn around soon, or maybe ever. The audience is out there. No doubt about that. I say that not simply because Perry makes money, but because the fact is that black culture is probably more mainstream than it has ever been. Yet the same challenges that face independent film face us as a film-making community. How do we reach our audience? Some medley of theatrical, VOD and online distribution seems to be the future, though I don't know the right mix and won't suggest I do.
In this current economic environment I don't see Universal, Warner Bros. or Columbia making any consistent commitment to black stories or black storytellers. Most of the black directors who work consistently today, folks like F. Gary Grant and George Tillman, tend to work doing action films that may or may not feature black talent. You want a sign of the times? Singleton, who made the signature film of '91, is in post-production on his new movie, Abduction, an action vehicle for Twilight star Taylor Lautner. That's a long way from South Central.