Urban Cinema describes a wave of city-based, feature-length films by African-American directors that began in the mid-1980s and that were dominated by action movies and youth dramas. In urban cinema, social and economic injustices, along with the conditions and relationships they produce, function as essential elements that directly motivate a film's characters, plot, dialogue, action, and aesthetics.
Many films within urban cinema have been influenced by hip-hop culture and reflect what S. Craig Watkins calls "the ghettocentric imagination" (1998). In addition to featuring rap-dominated sound tracks, urban cinema sometimes features rap stars in leading roles and often presents the points of view and experiences of young
African-American men in the direct, sincere, and fearless style popularized by hip-hop. Early urban films like Beat Street (1984) and Krush Groove (1985) placed hip-hop culture itself at the center of the drama.
Contemporary urban cinema is also inspired by 1970s "blaxploitation" films, which focused on urban landscapes and celebrated black action heroes and heroines. Much, though not all, contemporary urban cinema abandons the blaxploitation genre's focus on superhuman characters and instead applies the hip-hop ethic of "keeping it real" to film. The result is a cinema that claims to represent the lived experience of young, usually poor, city-dwelling African Americans and/or to expose African-American "gangsta culture." Many argue, however, that the "gangstas" in urban cinema are directly informed by Latino and Italian gangster characters in mainstream movies like Scarface (1983) and the Godfather films of the 1970s.
Most African-American urban films have been written and directed by African-American men. Urban cinema coincides historically with the growing numbers of African-American men who directed feature films after the success of Spike Lee's She's Gotta Have It (1986) and Do the Right Thing (1989). From 1990 to 1995 more than forty feature films by African-American directors were released nationally, more than ever before in film history. Through them, modern urban cinema was born.
In 1991 three films were released that established urban cinema's two main sub-genres of crime-driven action films and tragedytinged youth dramas. New Jack City, directed by Mario Van Peebles, son of legendary blaxploitation director Melvin Van Peebles, resurrected blaxploitation cinema's themes of action, crime, and violence. That same year, John Singleton's Boyz N the Hood, which was nominated for two Academy Awards, and nineteen-year-old Matty Rich's Straight Out of Brooklyn established somber, socially conscious youth dramas as a foundation of urban cinema.
These films were soon joined by Ernest Dickerson's Juice (1992); The Hughes Brothers's Menace II Society (1993); Leslie Harris's Just Another Girl on the IRT (1993) and Darnell Martin's I Like It Like That (1994), two of the only films in the genre directed by women and among the few, along with Singleton's Poetic Justice (1993), that feature female leads; and Spike Lee's masterful Clockers (1995). This period also saw successful urban comedies such as House Party (1990), Friday (1995), and the comedy-action hybrid Bad Boys (1995), all of which were followed by sequels. Not long after came the urban cinema spoof Don't Be a Menace to South Central While Drinking Your Juice in the Hood (1996) and the sexual satire Booty Call (1997). From 1996 to 2000, the number of feature films directed by African Americans dropped by almost half, and as a result, urban cinema also declined. Films that sustained the genre included Set It Off (1996), Gridlock'd (1997), Belly (1998), and a remake of Shaft (2000).
Since 2001 African-American directors have produced a handful of feature films each year but have never replicated their previous numbers. Urban cinema continued with films like Prison Song (2001), Baby Boy (2001), and Never Die Alone (2004). However, action-driven films like Bad Boys (1995), 2 Fast 2 Furious (2003), and Four Brothers (2005) have frequently attracted more attention than personal dramas. Antoine Fuqua's interracial crime thriller, Training Day (2001), brought Denzel Washington his first best-actor Oscar. 8 Mile (2002) successfully mimicked the formula of earlier youth dramas but replaced the unknown African-American leads that anchored those films with white rap star Eminem. In 2005, Hustle and Flow, produced by urban-cinema auteur John Singleton and featuring an acclaimed performance by Terrence Dashon Howard, attempted to renew urban cinema by moving it to the South and by merging contemporary hiphop themes with the classical blaxploitation plot of a pimp, in the spirit of Superfly (1972), who is desperate to escape the streets.
Debates within urban cinema echo debates about the hip-hop culture that has always influenced it. Advocates of urban cinema celebrate its focus on the marginalized lives of young African-American men and its role in the artistic achievements of African-American filmmakers and performers. Its critics claim that urban cinema glorifies violence, demeans women, and perpetuates negative stereo-types. Other critics challenge its emphasis on "authentic" representations of African Americans, arguing that urban films pretend to represent "gritty," "ghetto" realities when they are actually well-constructed cinema fantasies. However, the final judgment of urban cinema rests in the hands of its young African-American consumers whose profound longing to see any version of their lives reflected on screen has always served as the soul of the genre.
Boyd, Todd. Am I Black Enough for You?: Popular Culture from the 'Hood and Beyond. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1997.
Dent, Gina, ed. Black Popular Culture. New York: The New Press, 1998.
Dyson, Michael Eric. "Out of the Ghetto." Sight and Sound (1992) 2:6, 18–21.
Grant, William R. Post-Soul Black Cinema: Discontinuities, Innovations, and Breakpoints, 1970–1995. New York: Rout-ledge, 2004.
Jones, Jacquie. "The New Ghetto Aesthetic." In Mediated Messages and African American Culture: Contemporary Issues, edited by V. Berry and C. Manning-Miller. Thousand Oaks, Calif.: Sage Publications, 1996.
Reid, Mark A. Black Lenses, Black Voices: African American Film Now. Lanham, Md.: Rowman & Littlefield, 2005.
Watkins, S. Craig. Representing: Hip-hop Culture and the Production of Black Cinema. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1998.
dionne bennett (2005)