Contemporary Film in the United States
Contemporary Film in the United States
African-American film from the mid-1980s must be seen in the context of blaxploitation film from the 1970s. Blaxploitation was perhaps one of the most famous—and infamous—African-American film movements of the twentieth century. Its narratives of black characters and street culture were tremendously successful with both black and white audiences, from the surprising early achievements of Melvin Van Peebles's Sweet Sweetback's Baadasssss Song (1971) to later additions such as Cleopatra Jones (directed by Jack Starrett, 1973) and Foxy Brown (directed by Jack Hill, 1974). From the very beginnings, however, blaxploitation came under political and industrial attack. For groups such as Jesse Jackson's Operation PUSH and the Coalition Against Blaxploitation (CAB), the genre merely continued Hollywood's long history of caricaturing and stereotyping people of African descent. For Hollywood producers, blaxploitation was an easily reproducible formula, and it wasn't long before what was originally an African-American cultural expression of resistance was appropriated by the industry, thus pushing to the margins the black personnel and stories that originally made the genre successful. By the mid-1970s the film industry, bowing to criticism and pursuing other film forms, ceased production of blaxploitation films.
Very little African-American film (made by black personnel, starring black characters, and featuring black subject matter) was produced in the wake of blaxploitation, and the exceptions occurred primarily in the independent sector; for example, the Los Angeles school of filmmakers produced a number of shorts and features from the mid-1970s to the mid-1980s. In New York William Greaves was producing nonfiction and fiction films such as Nationtime: Gary (1973), From These Roots (1974), and Symbiopsychotaxiplasm: Take One (1971). At the same time, Hollywood was experiencing a transition. Blaxploitation films aided in saving the industry from financial ruin, but by the mid-1970s, the industry had shifted into the production of big-budget blockbuster films. It was argued by industry insiders that films with black characters and stories could not provide significant returns on the large-scale outlay of funds needed to produce blockbusters. In effect, the industry argued that black film was a bad investment.
African-American feature filmmaking languished until the mid-1980s, when a number of young writerdirectors began making films that changed the direction of black film (and of Hollywood as a whole) by the end of the decade. Filmmakers such as Spike Lee, Warrington Hudlin, Reginald Hudlin, and Robert Townsend marked a break from previous filmmakers because they were college educated (many from film programs) and highly knowledgeable about both American and international film movements. In this way they were part of a larger phenomenon in American film that included such filmmakers as Martin Scorsese, Frances Ford Coppola, Brian De Palma, Charles Burnett, and Haile Gerima, all of whom were emerging from film school and self-consciously changing American film aesthetics. Filmmakers such as Lee, the Hudlins, and Townsend were also literate in African-American film history, film representation, and politics, and many of their early efforts interrogate and redefine black film representation by offering alternatives to Hollywood treatments of black subject matter. For example, Lee's debut, She's Gotta Have It (1986), a low-budget, independent feature, was a meditation on the experiences of an independent, articulate, middle-class black woman in Brooklyn. Warrington Hudlin began as a documentary filmmaker, making Black at Yale (1974) and Street Corner Stories (1977) before teaming with his brother Reginald to produce House Party (1990), a middle-class teen comedy featuring hip-hop stars Kid and Play. Robert Townsend's Hollywood Shuffle (1987) offered a satirical (and somewhat autobiographical) examination of Hollywood's demeaning casting practices in its story of a black actor's experiences trying to maintain his dignity while attempting to find acting work. Each filmmaker went on to influence black popular culture in a number of ways: Lee's expanding body of work as a director and producer has changed American and global film aesthetics, along with introducing a variety of African-American talent to Hollywood; Townsend has provided an alternative vision of the middle-class black family for thousands of television audiences; and Warrington Hudlin's work with the Black Filmmaker Foundation (which he established in 1978) helps support emerging filmmakers through the development and distribution of their work.
Perhaps enticed by the success of this first wave of young black filmmakers, and sparked by the critical climate engendered by Lee's Do the Right Thing (1989), a controversial film about one day on a block in Bed-Stuy, Brooklyn, Hollywood began to take notice of new black film. This interest was sparked further by the release of Matty Rich's Straight Out of Brooklyn (1991), a low-budget coming-of-age story set in the borough's Red Hook neighborhood. Like Sweetback twenty years earlier, Rich's film was made with a tiny budget and reaped tremendous returns. Soon, a number of films were released with common characteristics: They were made by mainly young African-American men and they focused on coming-of-age stories set in the inner-city communities of south-central Los Angeles, Brooklyn, and Harlem. Perhaps the best known films of what would eventually be referred to as the "'hood" film, the "gangsta" film, or "New Jack cinema" are John Singleton's Boyz N the Hood (1991), an examination of a young man's attempts to define himself and stay alive in an urban environment defined by poverty, criminality, governmental disinterest, and police abuse, and Mario Van Peebles's New Jack City (1991), a revisionist gangster film focusing on the rise and fall of a drug lord in Harlem. Singleton's and Van Peebles's films were followed by a number of others with similar stories, self-conscious aesthetics, and performers from rap and hip-hop: for example, Ernest Dickerson's Juice (1992), a story of four friends in Harlem; and Allen and Albert Hughes' Menace II Society (1993), a caustic and highly reflexive rejoinder to Single-ton's earlier film. There were also a few variants of the formula featuring female protagonists, most notably F. Gary Gray's Set It Off (1996) and Leslie Harris's Just Another Girl on the IRT (1991), a lesser-known independent film that is one of the rare feature-length examinations of the experiences of young women coming of age in urban areas.
The fact that 'hood films were attractive to Hollywood—because of their low budgets, their high returns (through film and video rentals and highly profitable soundtrack sales), and the appearance of diversity they provided an industry under attack by the NAACP—worried many scholars and critics who feared that 'hood films would be appropriated by the industry like blaxploitation films had been before them. Moreover, some argued that the films' explicit violence and depiction of criminalized men with nihilistic streaks and women whose
roles were limited to drug addicts and single mothers presented a one-dimensional depiction of the African-American community. Soon the genre began to be criticized in film as well, as in such satires as CB4 (Tamra Davis, 1993) and Don't Be a Menace to South Central While Drinking Your Juice in the Hood (Paris Barclay, 1996), and in Spike Lee's more explicit critiques of rap (particularly gangsta rap) culture in Clockers (1995) and Bamboozled (2000).
One of the important ways in which 'hood films differed from blaxploitation is that there existed a greater range of African-American filmmakers and films during the 1990s, and this diversity stretched across industrial context and genre. While most of the African-American films associated with this time were produced with Hollywood support, a number of lesser-known filmmakers successfully released films through alternative financing (and sometimes distribution) outlets. Some of the features were made by veteran filmmakers first associated with the Los Angeles school of filmmakers in the late-1960s and the 1970s: Charles Burnett's To Sleep With Anger (1991), Julie Dash's Daughters of the Dust (1991), Haile Gerima's Sankofa (1993), and Zeinabu irene Davis's Compensation (1999). Independent films were also released by a younger generation of filmmakers, including Wendell B. Harris and Cheryl Dunye, whose visions did not conform to Hollywood's preferred formula for African-American subject matter. Harris's Chameleon Street (1991) is based on the true-life experiences of Wendell Douglas Street, a man who impersonated a reporter, a lawyer, and a student in an attempt to find his own identity. The film's self-conscious aesthetics, drawing at once from experimental fiction and documentary realism, garnered critical praise and film-festival accolades upon release. Dunye's Watermelon Woman (1996) is likewise a self-conscious examination of gender, sexuality, and history; its mockumentary style notwithstanding, it offers a valuable history lesson about so-called race-film (films made for black audiences and shown in mostly segregated theaters) production companies during the early twentieth century.
The release of feature films by Leslie Harris, Julie Dash, Zeinabu irene Davis, and Cheryl Dunye suggest another characteristic of contemporary African-American film: the emergence of women directors as feature filmmakers. Many of the directors, including those listed above, along with Ayoka Chenzira (Alma's Rainbow, 1993), Cauleen Smith (Drylongso, 1998), and Bridgett M. Davis (Naked Acts, 1999), worked with varying stages of independence, often funding their films through private donations and public grant monies. Other directors chose relationships with Hollywood; for example, Darnell Martin (I Like It Like That, 1994), Gina Prince-Bythewood (Love and Basketball, 2000), and Kasi Lemmons (Eve's Bayou, 1997, and The Caveman's Valentine, 2001) made larger-scale films with more recognizable performers such as Omar Epps, Lynn Whitfield, and Samuel L. Jackson. The films may differ in budget and quality, yet they are connected by a concern with placing black female experiences of differing generations, geographies, and historical moments onscreen, thus filling a void in American cinema in existence since the late nineteenth century. The films examine women, history, the family, and issues of representation by almost exclusively focusing on black women, indicating a new direction for black feature filmmaking in a post-'hood film context. (Many of these same filmmakers, including Chenzira, Dash, Davis, Dunye, and Smith, had been exploring these issues in short films prior to the 1990s.)
The diversity of late-twentieth-century African-American film extends from behind the camera to the
types of films being made. Curtailing the fear that 'hood films would become the next blaxploitation, many directors first associated with the 'hood released a variety of works in other genres: For example, Matty Rich made a period piece (The Inkwell, 1994); John Singleton made a period piece (Rosewood, 1997), a college film (Higher Learning, 1995), action films (Shaft, 2000, and 2 Fast 2 Furious, 2003), and a late return to the 'hood film (Baby Boy, 2001); Mario Peebles made a western (Posse, 1993) and an action film (Panther, 1995, among others; and the Hughes brothers have ventured into action films (Dead Presidents, 1995) and the horror genre (From Hell, 2001). Meanwhile, other young directors defined themselves with films in a variety of genres, such as the film noir (Carl Franklin's One False Move, 1992, and Devil in a Blue Dress, 1995), the romance (Theodore Witcher's love jones, 1997), the romantic comedy (Reginald Hudlin's Boomerang, 1992; Rick Famuyiwa's The Wood, 1999, and Brown Sugar, 2002; and Malcolm D. Lee's The Best Man, 2001), the comedy (F. Gary Gray's Friday, 1995; Tim Story's Barbershop, 2002; and Malcolm D. Lee's Undercover Brother, 2002), and the drama (Denzel Washington's Antwone Fisher, 2002).
At the end of the twentieth century, and sparked by the success of such filmmakers as the Hudlins, Lee, Townsend, Dash, and Singleton, African-American film extended to a broad range of subjects, with many filmmakers directing films with mixed casts for crossover audiences, thus complicating the already contested borders of black film. Many times, but not always, these so-called crossover films feature African-American performers as leads or as seminal parts of teams; examples include Singleton's Shaft and 2 Fast 2 Furious, Anton Fuqua's Training Day (2002), F. Gary Gray's The Italian Job (2003), and Cheryl Dunye's My Baby's Daddy (2004). Some veteran directors, such as Bill Duke (The Cemetery Club, 1992), Lee (Summer of Sam, 1999, 25th Hour, 2002), and the Hugheses (From Hell ) made films featuring white actors as leads, suggesting the incremental acceptance of black directors within Holly-wood's ranks. The rise in the number of African-American directors making films for television networks such as BET, HBO, Showtime, and USA further complicates twenty-first-century definitions of black film. While part of a more general trend in network broadcasting, made-for-TV films offer an impressive array of black talent, including Julie Dash (Funny Valentines, 1999, Love Story, 2000, The Rosa Parks Story, 2002), Charles Burnett (Nightjohn, 1996, The Wedding, 1998, Finding Buck McHenry, 2000), Cheryl Dunye (Stranger Inside, 2001), Maya Angelou (Down in the Delta, 1998), and Forrest Whitaker (Strapped, 1993, Black Jaq, 1998). The networks have provided black directors, particularly African-American women, with the chance to continue making films, an opportunity that remains rare in Hollywood where funding for a second film is often impossible to secure.
By the end of the 1990s, contemporary African-American film had moved beyond the boundaries of the 'hood films that were so popular at the beginning of the decade, and even further beyond blaxploitation films from the 1970s. Black film in the twenty-first century is varied, stretching across genre, budget, and format (shorts and features). African-American filmmakers work in Hollywood and in the independent sector, a thriving area, particularly since more affordable formats, such as video and digital video, have enabled many more visual artists to explore the once cost-prohibitive area of filmmaking. What remains to come, however, is the release of a big-budget Hollywood blockbuster featuring African-American characters, stories, and technical personnel; for example, Lee struggled to make Malcolm X (1992) on a $20 million budget, while Singleton made 2 Fast 2 Furious, an action film with crossover appeal, for $76 million. In this continuing reluctance to invest in African-American film, Hollywood remains politically and ideologically entrenched in the 1970s.
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paula j. massood (2005)