The thought of black cinema has come to mind recently for several reasons; I was at art gallery dedicated to Fela Kuti a little while ago that had a flyer for Haile Gerima’s latest film Teza (unfortunately the screening had long since passed, I recently saw A Good Day to be Black and Sexy, and recently watching to documentary Why We Laugh (which is a reflection on where black comedy came from and where it happens to be now).
When people generally talk about black cinema, they’re minds almost immediately come to three places; Tyler Perry, the hood movies that were popping up everywhere in the 90s, and blaxplotation of the 70s. I was originally hard pressed to consider the latter a representation of black cinema for the simple fact that the majority of them where actually written and directed by white males trying to capitalize off of a new market. But upon further reflection, it would be impossible to get a full picture of black culture without a white influence because for better and worse it has shaped both as a movement towards, away, overtly, and from behind the scenes.
Tyler Perry is usually mentioned because he is essentially the only black director making “black” (more on this bit of sarcasm later) movies consistently now. Hell, even the last major black movie, Precious, he was behind it producing the flick. Tyler Perry movies and plays are something I would also be hard pressed to call part of black culture. This has absolutely nothing to do with the actual quality of the work, even though they range from average to downright terrible, it has to do with the fact that they standard hollywood flair, but now with an all black cast.
The acclaim for Tyler Perry usually comes from a small, but devoted, fan following that has always given him major box office numbers in opening week then falling off completely the next. While I still belive there is nothing specifically “black” about Tyler Perry movies/plays, in the same way I wouldn’t think an all Irish cast/director is an Irish movie just because of the people involved, I would now classify it as part of black cinema because of the reaction it gets within the so-called black community. The lovers of it usually herald it because it features an all black class within the middle class. This is in strong contrast to the majority a black culture representation were we are portrayed and portray ourselves as almost unilaterally in poverty. However, even though Perry does frame “us” within a higher socio-economic class, he still writes his characters in the same way, if not shallower, as the “urban” films that he so wishes to be contrasted against. It is interesting within itself that the audience isn’t critical enough, or even aware it seems, to put these two together and the rise in economic standing itself makes the movie better, but that’s another conversation for another day.
To the third and final leg of what the general population usually thinks of when hearing the term black cinema, the 90s hood flicks. These, just like the 70s blaxplotation, feature many films written and directed by white males. However, the highest profile ones are almost always by black directors. It’s kind of sad, but there are so many levels of irony that come in comparison to this vs. the now popular Tyler Perry films. Considering the fact that they feature, at face value, almost the same exact characters are worse, the ones in Tyler Perry’s projects are usually valued higher because they’re not poor. Also ironic is the fact that in actually something like Boyz n da Hood actually tries to accurately reflect their characters lives and feelings while the proper films of Perry are far more content to just heep melodrama on top of melodrama instead of evaluating his characters as people. The final irony I would like to point it is despite the fact that hood dramas usually attempt to go into more depth about who these people are, the reaction now is still full of fear and anxiety based off of stereotypes even though the attempt to deconstruct and humanize the characters was successful or at least attempted.
To go back to the muses for this blog, Why We Laugh stands out most to me. The most poignant part was Chris Rock’s small section (he’s featured throughout but he does get focused on specifically at one point), was the fact that the majority of black comedians now have safe havens to perform exclusively to black audiences. This happens to be both a pleasing and a curse, because now they are able to have spots as comedians before becoming a big star (as most other non-black owned comedy clubs would only allow black comedians with a name already to get 4 min.), but also put themselves within a bubble because they don’t have to expand their comedy because they are only going to a specialized audiences. This being opposed to Chris Rock who gets everyone at his stand up specials.
Obviously this parallels heavily with the three aforementioned (as well as most black culture) most identifiable parts of black cinema. Specialized work that refuses to grow because they get enough money from just their fanbase.
Finally to talk about a specific movie, A Good Day to be Black and Sexy and how it relates to black cinema to me. This was an independent film shown across several circuits back in 2008, most notably Sundance. I’ll get into a review of the movie in another entry. What I found most interesting however, was the ability to be both identifiably black and sometimes universal at the same time. I was laughing more than what was probably intended because I know these people. This standing opposed to Tyler Perry films and 90s hood films (granted I know the latter too). Nice little vignettes into the exploration of black sexuality that while they didn’t harp on the fact that they were black or that this was an exclusive black experience, I certainly did know many people who what have, and probably did, act and react in the same type of way. As for being part of black cinema, this did strike as something positive to look forward to. A potential black director to make mainstream drama flicks with black people while being open to everyone.
Note-There are several black directors like Haile Gerima, Julia Dash, Charles Burnett, etc. that I didn’t get into because the nature of their films. I’ll probably write about them though. Forgot about Spike to be honest.