Movie Cycles: African-American Cinema, After Singleton’s Boyz N the Hood

“One out of every 21 black American males will be murdered in their lifetime.”

Thus begins, with an on-screen statement, John Singleton’s candidly fine film, Boyz ‘N the Hood.

There are other, equally depressing, statements in the film, as when a teenager says in frustration, “Can’t we have one night where there ain’t no fight and nobody gets shot” It is not a joke, but the audience still laughs. This strange mixture of dark humor and bleak realism is an important characteristic of this as well as many other African-American movies currently on display. Though providing a gloomy look at the lives of black teenagers in South-Central Los Angeles, Boyz N the Hood ends on an upbeat note, with a different kind of a statement, “Increase the Peace,” and with the film’s protagonist going to college.

The good news this summer is that in its first three weeks in release, Boyz N the Hood has grossed more than $31 million and has held its turf at the box office, maintaining its audience share against such blockbusters as Arnold Schwarzenegger’s action film The Terminator 2. It’s also encouraging that Boyz has managed to weather the bad publicity from the violence that had marred its opening weekend. Take a good look: Shown on 917 screens across the nation, Boyz may become the most popular feature ever directed by a black filmmaker in American film history. Add to this success story the facts that Boyz marks the brilliant directorial debut of Singleton, a recent graduate of USC Film School, and that he is only 23 years old, and the news is not just good, it is delirious and exciting.

Though the year is not over yet, it seems that the single, most important, development in the film industry in l991 is the emergence of a new African-American cinema. By the end of the year, about 20 features directed by black filmmakers will be released in the United States. The sheer numbers are impressive: in one year, American moviegoers will be seeing more films by black directors than in the entire last decade! But it’s not just quantity that is striking. It’s also the quality and diversity of these movies. What we are witnessing now is an historical phenomenon, a collective film movement that may be as important as the birth of the French New Wave in the late l950s.

This year also marks the first time in half a century that a black actress has won the Oscar (Academy) Award. It’s hard to believe, but Whoopi Goldberg is the first black female to have won the Supporting Actress Oscar since Hattie McDaniel had won the award for playing mammy in Gone with the Wind, back in l939. No doubt, it would have been more gratifying if Goldberg won the Oscar for a better role in a better movie than Ghost, a slick fantasy-thriller in which she played an eccentric medium. But her win is an achievement to celebrate considering that, in the entire 63-year-history of the Oscar Award, only five black performers have garnered the coveted statuette (the other three are: Sidney Poitier, Louis Gossett Jr., and Denzel Washington).

It is fascinating to speculate about the context and driving force for the sudden appearance of the new African-American film movement. Except that it is neither sudden, nor did it occur overnight. There have been previous attempts to generate interest in a distinctly African-American cinema. What is new and heartening, however, is the magnitude of the movement, and the fresh point of view offered by the young black artists in their films.

The turning point in the history of the movement was Spike Lee’s first feature, She’s Gotta to Have It in l986. A small-budget independent film, made right after his graduation from the NYU Film School, it catapulted Lee to the forefront of directors. At the moment, Spike Lee is the dean of the young African-American directors. He assumes this position not necessarily by talent, as by productivity, seniority, and a certain attitude (call it chutzpa, if you wish). Lee’s knack for generating controversy over his films, here and abroad, has increased the visibility of all African-American movies. A media celebrity, Spike Lee has served as a positive role model for a group of talented filmmakers. Lee has made five films in five years! And with the exception of Mo’ Better Blues, all his other movies were very successful at the box-office. In fact, though less provocative than Do the Right Thing, Jungle Fever is Lee’s most commercial film to date, grossing over 30 million dollars and still running strong

What is different about the current African-American cinema is that it is headed by young filmmakers, many of them graduates of film schools. John Singleton is 23, and Matty Rich, the director of Straight Out of Brooklyn, is only l9. Nonetheless, many of the new works are confident first features, reflecting the work of truly gifted filmmakers whose careers should be followed most carefully.

These directors provide a unique perspective, an insider’s point of view to the African-American experience. They display vigorous story-telling techniques and a hip sense of humor. In the new films, there is an alluring mix of violence and thrills. Though socially-relevant, message movies, there is a certain cool about the new black features, which also have good music. More importantly, singly and collectively, they seem to be saying, no more movies with white perspective on distinctly black issues and characters.

Though a blockbuster, Steven Spielberg’s clean, glamorized version of Alice Walker’s novel, The Color Purple (l985), might have sent alarming signals to young black filmmakers about the fate of an original, uniquely black novel, when it is translated to the screen by a white filmmaker. Spielberg may flaunt his cinematic genius when directing other genres, but he displayed no particular sensitivity to the requirements of a material like The Color Purple. The movie’s artistic look, for instance, seemed if it were shot on the studio lot. Louis B. Mayer and Jack Warner would have been proud of his film.

The well-intentioned Mississippi Burning, directed by Alan Parker in l988, aroused controversy, because it recounted a l964 government investigation into the disappearance of three civil rights workers from a strictly white perspective, failing to acknowledge the role of blacks in this movement. The recent failure of The Long Walk Home may be attributed to its weakly conceived narrative, as yet another story about the political awakening of a white woman (Sissy Spacek), this time in Alabama of l954. As her maid, Whoopi Goldberg played such a pathetically passive role; it was almost embarrassing to watch.

Up to the l940s, Hollywood either ignored the black community, or pandered to its viewers by making all-black films (many musicals) for the black ghettos. In the South, exhibitors excluded blacks from their cinemas, or put them in segregated areas. Blind to regional markets and impervious to the feelings of blacks, the major studios failed to realize they could have helped to change racial attitudes in the country after WWII. The socially conscious films at Warner and Fox were built on liberal ethics, but they were meant for white audiences.

Film Cycles

There have been two film cycles about the black experience in the U.S.: the first in the late l940s, the second in the late l960s. However, both cycles were products of the minds and ideas of white filmmakers. The first crusading dramas appeared when Hollywood began to explore racial discrimination, first against Jews (Gentleman’s Agreement, Crossfire), then against African-Americans and Native-Americans. Stanley Kramer’s Home of the Brave (l949) started the first cycle, followed by two other films in the same year, Intruder in the Dust and Pinky. Elia Kazan’s Pinky, considered at the time “courageous,” was typical of these films in that a white actress, Jeanne Crain, was cast as a light-skinned woman trying to pass as white. In these films, black themes were filtered through the sensibilities of white filmmakers.

Sidney Poitier Effect

In l963, Sidney Poitier became the first black actor to win an Oscar for a leading role in the film Lilies of the Field. Poitier played an ex-G.I., a light-hearted handyman, helping nuns from behind the Iron Curtain to build a chapel in the Arizona desert. Films about racial prejudice left their most impressive mark in l967, with the release of three films, all starring Sidney Poitier: To Sir with Love, Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner and In the Heat of the Night. These films made Poitier a household name and the most popular star in the country for a few years.

All of a sudden, black was not only beautiful, but also good business at the box-office. It helped, of course, that both Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner and In the Heat of the Night were showered with multiple Academy nominations and awards. A flawed comedy, Guess tells the story of a liberal couple (Spencer Tracy and Katharine Hepburn), whose value system is challenged when their only daughter announces her intention to marry a famous black surgeon. It was easy to embrace the message of this film, because Poitier played a handsome, educated, internationally renowned surgeon. What mother, in her right mind, would object to such a marriage The contrast between this l967 screen romance and the interracial affair, and society’s volatile reaction to it, in Jungle Fever, a generation later, is literally like the difference between day and night.

In l967, with the ascent of Martin Luther King and the Civil Rights movement, the timing seemed “right” to honor a topical film. Norman Jewison’s In the Heat of the Night, a story of friendship between a bigoted white police chief (Rod Steiger) and a black homicide detective (Poitier), won the Best Picture Oscar. Periodically, there would be films about racial prejudice, like Martin Ritt’s Sounder in l972, or Norman Jewison’s A Soldier’s Story in l984, but they were all made by white filmmakers.

Blakploitation

In the early l970s, some films were targeted specifically at black audiences. The short cycle of “blaxploitation” films pandered to their viewers, providing innocuous entertainment and gratuitous violence. Shaft, a slick upbeat film about a black private eye that mixed heavy doses of sex and violence, was so popular that it was followed by two sequels and a TV series.

The new African-American films stand in sharp opposition to Shaft and other films of its kind. They may be slick in their visual style, but they are not emotionally vacuous/vapid. They are message films in the best sense of this genre. Boyz N the Hood has its share of sentimental and moralizing speeches about father-son relationship, but the immediacy and power of its message, the importance of a strong male authority for black teenagers growing in a violent-ridden community, is undeniable.

Made at a time when the country is torn by polarized race relations, the new films are strong and striking, enjoying enormous relevance and topicality. Critical, the new films are angry at the white society for neglecting and sapping the black communities and their residents. Boyz, and the other films, turns the cold statistics of homicide in the black community into an emotional probing of a lifestyle that is depicted with great sympathy but without self-pity.

In A Rage in Harlem, a comic thriller, Robin Givens is cast as a sexy hustler with a trunkful of gold, pursued by a naive Bible-thumper, his street-smart brother, and the outlaws she stole the trunk from. Director Bill Dukes shows great affection for Harlem’s street life with its hustlers and con artists. Straight Out of Brooklyn is set in Red Hook, the housing project where filmmaker Matty Rich had spent his childhood. The film’s single family is meant to conveys a ghetto society, in which frustrated black men take out their anger on their families. Like Boyz, it focuses on the efforts of one teenager, Dennis (Lawrence Gilliard Jr.) to find a way out of Red Hook. In Jungle Fever, explosive racism and drug abuse serve as the film’s subtexts, but they are just as important as the text itself, a tale of a doomed interracial liaison.

The high visibility of the new black films and the public’s curiosity about them are also due in part to demographics. The emergence of a new, quite large, black middle-class in the l980s has provided new characters and new issues for TV sit-coms (The Cosby Show). But it has also stressed the increasing inequality within the African-American community itself. Jungle Fever, like Do the Right Thing, shows a wide variety of black characters, often in the same family. Wesley Snipes plays a successful, middle class architect whose brother is a pitiable drug addict. In A Rage in Harlem, teenager Dennis has a complex relationship with his alcoholic and abusive father.

The new movies detail portraits of black lifestyles, either neglected or misrepresented by the media. Singleton has depicted South-Central Los Angeles, Spike Lee Harlem, and Matty Rich Brooklyn. Informative, these films offer open windows into another world. Most viewers will feel they’ve learned one or two things about these communities they didn’t know before. Enormously involving, their filmmakers don’t look away from their “negative” characters when they err, but they refuse to sentimentalize them either.

It is questionable whether Hollywood of the early l990s is much more conscious of the African-American problems than it was two decades ago. It’s also doubtful that the studio executives at present embody more liberal politics than their counterparts during the studio system. The reason why black filmmakers are encouraged to pursue their ambitions may have less to do with politics and more to do with the box office. Black films have not only recouped their modest budgets; they have made substantial profits at the box office. New Jack City has grossed over 47 million dollars, and A Rage in Harlem has made over 10 million dollars.

Not all black films have been, or will be, successful. Some have failed, despite high artistic quality and favorable reviews. Charles Burnett’s highly acclaimed comedy, To Sleep with Anger, which was on the Ten Best Films Lists of many critics last year, failed at the box office. Other films died commercially because of low quality and/or adverse critical reception. Robert Townsend’s second movie, The Five Heartbeats has prompted some nasty remarks (“five heartbeats and no pulse”), quickly disappearing from the screen.

The new African-American film movement faces some dangers. Support from the major studios (as distributors and producers) is likely to continue so long as the films’ budgets are relatively small and they generate money. The budget of most African-American films is, at the average, substantially smaller than that of mainstream American movies, ranging from 20 to 25 million dollars. With all his visibility and media hype, Spike Lee is reportedly having difficulties in raising money for his next film project, Malcolm X, even though it stars Denzel Washington, a bankable, Oscar-winning actor. The increasing budgets of Lee’s films may serve as an example of escalating costs and grander ambitions, from the modest 6.5 million of Do the Right Thing, to the 14 million of Jungle Fever to over 20 million of his next feature, Malcolm X.

Another potential problem is the sheer number of African-American films. They might saturate the American movie market with what is perceived as similar products. Indeed, Ira Deutchman, president of Fine Line Features, has decided to move the release of the interracial feature, Hangin’ With the Homeboys to a later date in the fall, allegedly because of the current competition. To broaden their appeal, black artist will have to go beyond violent urban, coming-of-age stories. Their challenge in the future is to work in different genres, tell different kinds of stories, experiment with different kinds of styles.

Marketing may be another critical problem. Some Hollywood executives still think of the black community as one undifferentiated film market. But the same sophisticated methods used for the positioning, marketing and advertising of films by mainstream white filmmakers should be applied to the new black films. Some films may be more appropriate to working-class teenagers, others to middle-class adults. Charles Burnett’s To Sleep with Anger might have been more successful, had it been targeted more specifically to middle-age and middle-class moviegoers. The challenge is to draw an interracial audience to these films, to transform what seems to be specifically-targeted features into popular films with crossover appeal.

Heightened visibility of the new films might lead to increased, unrealistic expectations of their commercial performance. First features, like first novels, tend to be ferociously personal, even autobiographical, in ways that later movies are not. Once opportunities are granted, the challenge, of course, is to make a second interesting feature. But this challenge is not peculiar to black filmmakers–it is shared by all filmmakers. Can Steven Soderberg follow his great first film, Sex Lies and Videotape with his second, the forthcoming Kafka John Singleton must be apprehensive after the immense success of his debut, Boyz N the Hood.

The increasing number of African-American films will encourage black artists in every capacity to pursue their careers in the film industry. The pool of acting talent, for example, in the black community is immense. But these wonderful performers, in every field of showbusiness (theater, TV, and film), have not received the recognition they deserve. With the exception of Eddie Murphy, and to a lesser extent Richard Pryor and Morgan Freeman, the rewards for their excellence don’t begin to approximate those of their white counterparts–be they measured by money, celebrity status, or power.

Timing is, of course, crucial. Distinguished cinematographer Ernest Dickerson, who collaborated with Spike Lee on all of his films, has had to wait for eight years to make his film debut, the forthcoming Juice. And he co-wrote the screenplay for this film while he was waiting for a career break as a cinematographer. Invigorated by a younger and talented generation of filmmakers, the new African-American film movement may change all that. Hopefully, it will now take a shorter period of time for other black artists to fulfill their cinematic dreams.