The popularity of Get On Up on the heels of the awards sweep for12 Years a Slave and the number of recent films exploring the black experience might have us asking what accounts for the wave of "black films" since 2000? Whatever it is, the number per year has escalated, perhaps simply because the number of influential African-Americans in Hollywood has grown. According to the New York Film Academy, ten of the top 100 films in 2013 were black films compared with six in 2012 and four in 2011. At the same time, in the early 2000s, black actors played 15% of roles in film and TV, while today that number is 13%.
What is a black film? Does the plot need to say something about the black experience? Is it black because it focuses on a period of black history and its cast is of necessity predominately black? Is it a film with a black protagonist within a white cast, as some lists include? Is it a black film because the director is black, again as some lists include? Or like the Tyler Perry franchise, I think we'd agree, it's black because it's black.
It's a muddled category. For instance, Robert Zemeckis's 2012 Flight stars Denzel Washington (in a stunningly brilliant performance), and he storms his ex-wife's house so we have two more black family members, but the movie is about an alcoholic pilot, Whip Whitaker. The movie is in most all the lists, but the fact that Whitaker is black is irrelevant, and I certainly would not consider Flight a "black movie." If I were to curate it into a film series, I would select it for a series on addiction or denial or "plane movies."
There are several things going on beyond "black" in the current spate of "black" movies, or to put it another way, what we talk about when we talk about black film.
In 1915 George and Noble Johnson were the first black Americans to found a film studio, the Lincoln Motion Picture Company, in order to produce what they called "race films," by which they meant movies made with all-black casts for black audiences. Their films are notable for featuring true-to-life characters instead of stock caricatures. A handful of black-owned film companies followed, though they went bust with the economic collapse of the Great Depression.
Do we make an awkward nod to Al Jolson and the history of black-face, at least the 1927 Jazz Singer? Then from the step-and-fetch-it caricature to the Gone with the Wind mammy stereotype and Hattie McDaniel's 1939 Oscar for Best Supporting Actress – which, like the shower of Oscars bestowed on Steve McQueen's 12 Years a Slave – is an easy enough salve the old white male Academy can apply to assuage our collective guilt for almost four centuries of black oppression.
You can't talk about black films today without saying something about the inroads achieved by Paul Robeson for being the first African-American to star in a film, playing the titular role in Emperor Jones; Lena Horne as the first black performer signed to a long-term contract with a major Hollywood studio, MGM, and for her 1943 musical roles in Vincent Minnelli’s Cabin in the Sky and Andrew L. Stone’s Stormy Weather; Dorothy Dandridge for 1955 Best Actress nominee for Otto Preminger’s Carmen Jones, which also starred Harry Belafonte; and Sidney Poitier – just the biggies: The Defiant Ones (Stanley Kramer 1958); Porgy and Bess (Otto Preminger 1959); A Raisin in the Sun (Daniel Petrie 1961); Lilies of the Field (James Poe; Poitier’s 1964 Oscar win); To Sir, with Love (James Clavell 1967); Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner (Stanley Kramer 1967); In the Heat of the Night (Norman Jewison 1967).
Like the black musicals Cabin in the Sky and Stormy Weather, A Raisin in the Sun and Porgy and Bess feature all-black casts because they are specifically about black characters in black communities, whereas the principle balance of Poitier's films depicts a black man within a white environment – in a word, alien. (This alien-ness is most overtly explored in John Sayles's 1984 The Brother from Another Planet.)
Then, of course, there's the Blaxploitation genre introduced in 1971 with Melvin Van Peeples’s Sweet Sweetback's Baadass Song! and Gordon Parks’s Shaft and the following year Super Fly (one of the few soundtracks to out-gross its film), which, when they landed box office gold, made Hollywood perk up to the pocketbook potential of black audiences resulting in an increase in black characters throughout the ‘70s.
Spike Lee – major director, minor player – has been at it since 1983, but, considering the sheer volume of his output (usually one if not up to a whopping five films a year – google his filmography!), his films have been poorly distributed as far as I can tell and rarely done well at the box office. She’s Gotta Have It (1985), Do the Right Thing (1989 Best Picture nominee), Mo’ Better Blues (1990), the 1992 biopic Malcom X, He Got Game (1998), and Summer of Sam (1999) are the few titles that come to mind.
Lee’s 2013 remake of the Korean Park Chan-wook’s 2003 cult classic Oldboy, which bombed at the box office despite being pretty good for a remake, showed up in theaters last year but the black characters take second billing in brief turns by Lance Reddick and Samuel L. Jackson. (Whether 2013’s biopic of Mike Tyson or 2014’s Da Sweet Blood of Jesus are going to make it into the multiplex has yet to be seen.)
Then there are movies like Hotel Rwanda, which also shows up in all the lists but is not about the American black experience (except by extension) but the African experience and the world-wide dismissal of an entire continent. (There is a moment in Hotel Rwanda when Nick Nolte as Canadian Colonel Oliver, heading up the U.N. Peacekeeping forces, delivers some of the bluntest, truest words ever spoken onscreen or elsewhere. Hotelier Paul Rusesabagina (Don Cheadle) does not understand how the world can witness the slaughter and do nothing. "The West," says Oliver, "All the super powers. Everything you believe in, Paul. They think you're dirt. They think you're dumb. You're worthless. ... You could own this frigging hotel except for one thing. You're black. You're not even a nigger. You're an African.")
Mostly though, films with predominantly black casts are historical dramas and the casts are black because the historical characters were black, most notably in films about a) slavery, like Steven Speilberg's 1997 Amistad and the 1977 TV miniseries Roots; b) historical events in which blacks (or American Indians, or whatever minority) figure in thinly veiled flag draping patriotic sentimentality such as Edward Zwick's 1989 Glory about the 54th Massachusetts Infantry or Anthony Hemingway's 2012 criminally unwatchable Red Tails about the Tuskegee Airmen; c) historical individuals like Lee's aforementioned Malcolm X, Michael Mann's 2001 Ali, or the ever popular music personality biopics such as Clint Eastwood's 1988 Bird, Taylor Hackford's 2004 Ray, and Robert Townsend's 1991 The Five Heartbeats based on an amalgam of 1960s African-American R&B groups all of which paved the way for the critical acclaim that Tate Taylor's Get On Up is currently receiving.
We can walk away from the theater all holier than thou because we have "identified" with the black characters, and, at least while we were in the theater, felt our righteous indignation at their mistreatment. Of the recent spate, Ryan Coogler’s Fruitvale Station of last year, more than other films – perhaps because it focuses on recent memory – reminds us that issues surrounding race in the United States are still very much alive, and we should be ashamed until we address the contradictions between who we say we are as a people and the realities of our public and private conduct.
Legal scholar Michelle Alexander’s 2010 book The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness cogently argues that the mass incarceration we have justified through the so-called "war on drugs" has essentially eradicated any gains achieved by the Civil Rights Movement. Cocaine use among white-collar Americans is virtually ignored. As the advocacy organization The Sentencing Project reports, African-American drug offenders have a 20% greater chance of being sentenced to prison than white drug offenders. The disparities apply to violent crime as well. The United States is the only country in the world that incarcerates children. 15 to Life: Kenneth’s Story documents Kenneth Young who as a 14-year-old in 2000 was coaxed by a 24-year-old neighbor, a crack cocaine dealer who supplied Kenneth's mother, to act as a lookout for a month-long robbery spree. The older man carried a weapon; Kenneth did not. In one incident Kenneth talked the man out of raping a victim. Kenneth is serving consecutive life sentences, while the older man’s sentence is shockingly less. But I diverge…
As far as black American directors go, Lee Daniels is one of the more interesting. Before I go further, let me say that I really like Daniels's movies, and I respect him for tackling them. That said, Precious (2009) seemed designed to attract our prurient interests. I don't deny the powerfully raw performances, but I am with the camp that felt the film painted the black community with rather too broad a brush of abuse, and the uplifting ending jarred.
The New York Times’s A. O. Scott called Daniels's The Paperboy (2012) a "hot mess" – and what a hot mess it is. A Southern Gothic Bildungsroman set in and around a pre-air conditioned Florida Everglades, every frame drips with humidity, sweat, sex. David Oyelowo plays the only black character, a researcher working for a newspaper reporter (Matthew McConaughey), who affects a British accent the better to navigate the 1969 South.
The Butler was the first movie of 2013 to come out screaming, "I'm a contender." It may have been inspired by a true story, but it is not based on a true story. There was a person, Eugene Allen, who served presidents Truman to Reagan as a White House butler, but beyond that, pretty much everything about the character is pure fiction. Virtually nothing about the butler of the movie, Cecil Gaines, aligns with Allen's personal life.
I found The Butler pretentious, but I always defend Quentin Tarantino (whose 2009 Inglourious Basterds appears on just about every googleable list of black movies) and tell people who go to his movies and are offended by his excesses that they should realize by now that when one goes to a Quentin Tarantino movie, one is going to get a Quentin Tarantino movie – so stay home if you don't like it. Some Tarantino films are better than others, but all are over the top.
By now I should know that a Lee Daniels movie is going to be pretentious. And likewise some are better than others. The Butler falls in the weaker range, partly because it tries to cover so very much. As we march through the years and the decades, Daniels finally has to employ montage to squeeze in every historical benchmark. I tried to be generous and think, Well, maybe that's good for younger people who, unlike me, did not live through the times the narrative chronicles. That is to say, it works better as a history lesson than it does as a work of cinema.
By contrast, McQueen’s 12 Years a Slave is based on a real-life person and meticulously follows the historical record. Perhaps it took a Brit to fix an unblinking eye on the inexorable damnation to which our country condemned generation after generation of a guiltless people. We would be wrong, I believe, to view Solomon Northrup’s narrative as purely historical, as an anomaly of the past. Enslavement endures to this day in the gun-fueled violence of abandoned inner cities and in prisons across the land; human trafficking flourishes across the globe. But again, I stray…
Denzel Washington’s (Training Day) and Halle Berry’s (Monster’s Ball) 2002 Oscar wins notwithstanding, we still have a way to go before seeing African-American actors as actors rather than as black actors.
Colorblind casting has been practiced on the stage for some time, especially in Shakespearean plays, though it has met with its share of controversy, perhaps most famously in 1996 when two-time Pulitzer-winning playwright August Wilson assailed veteran drama critic Robert Brustein on the topic:
Colorblind casting is an aberrant idea that has never had any validity other than as a tool of Cultural Imperialists who view American culture, rooted in the icons of European culture, as beyond reproach in its perfection…. To mount an all-black production of a Death of a Salesman or any other play conceived for white actors as an investigation of the human condition through the specifics of white culture is to deny us our own humanity, our own history, and the need to make our own investigation from the cultural ground on which we stand as black Americans. It is an assault on our present, our difficult but honorable history in America; is an insult to our intelligence, our playwrights, and our many and varied contributions to the society and the world at large.
One can't help but sympathize with Wilson's argument that "We do not need colorblind casting; we need some theatres to develop our playwrights."
At the same time, as TV has demonstrated in comedies such as The Cosby Show and dramas such as Grey’s Anatomy, blacks inhabit all of the roles that whites inhabit – but in the movies the translation more often than not takes place among superheroes. In 1995 Tak Fujimoto brought Walter Mosley’s 1990 novel Devil in a Blue Dress to the screen, which plants a black character squarely in the private detective noir, but the narrative employs a plot device to do so. Easy Rawlins is hired to find a white woman because it is believed she is hiding within the black community.
Movies about the African-American experience are welcome, and seeing more of them getting made is an unequivocal good, but I long to see African-Americans dramatized in the many roles they inhabit today. Not that there aren't plenty of really bad movies to go around, but too many main-stream black films fit that bill, a trend to which Chris Rock, Tyler Perry, Will Smith, and, yes, even Spike Lee have contributed. Let's take a cue from Wilson's argument. We need producers to develop talented black filmmakers and provide challenging roles for our gifted black actors to inhabit, to investigate the human condition through the specifics of black history as well as through the cultural perspective of contemporary black America.