Be Black And Buy

Film still for Be Black And Buy

Black independent cinema once stood in defiant opposition to a racially exclusive Hollywood, but in the 90s the spending power of the movie-loving African- American audience enabled a black mainstream cinema quickly to emerge. Now the black independents are becoming more inclusive, argues Ed Guerrero

Today the term black independent cinema is elusive and tricky, hard to invoke with the cultural force and ideological certainty that characterised the debates of the late 60s and 70s. Just as black people have grappled with the unfixed, socially contested nature of race and group identity - moving from 'Negroes' to 'blacks' and now 'African Americans' - so too the term black independent cinema has come to signal a complex and shifting phenomenon, an aggregate of overlapping practices that is pressing for redefinition. From commercial cinema's imperfect origins in the 1890s, the use of the term was driven by a historical irony. Since all aspects of black life in the US were socially and institutionally segregated, this guaranteed a stable market and a unified spectatorship to feed the aspirations of a black independent cinema no matter how undeveloped or raw its production standards.

Nowadays one sees at least a foot wedging open the door of the Hollywood system, evidenced by a number of rising black film-makers feeding the 'new black film wave' and a series of broadly popular box-office successes ranging from Do the Right Thing (Spike Lee, 1989), Boyz N the Hood (John Singleton, 1991) and Friday (Gary F. Gray, 1995) to Waiting to Exhale (Forest Whitaker, 1995), Eve's Bayou (Kasi Lemmons, 1997) and The Best Man (Malcolm D. Lee, 1999). This opening is backed up by a rising number of black actors and outright movie stars finding work in the industry, including the likes of Denzel Washington, Halle Berry, Wesley Snipes, Samuel L. Jackson and Angela Bassett. Given the enormous influence of black cultural expressions, styles and ideas on consumer culture, America today finds itself a much more multiculturally integrated place. But perhaps most significantly, the parameters of the black audience have mutated. That sense of a monolithic, separate black audience fuelled by a fixed identity under siege no longer applies in quite the same way. African Americans now recognise themselves, even if still as an oppressed group, as a much more complex, heterogeneous, new world social formation, more openly engaging with pressing issues of colour, caste, class, interracial romance and sexual orientation. And, for better or worse, the black audience, at least as consumers, is just as enlightened and - problematically - as colonised as the white. The last aspect of this broad paradigm shift is succinctly marked by the popular updating of an old black aphorism as a contemporary joke: that all one really had to do in America was 'be black and die' has now shifted to 'be black and buy'.

Yet if there has been one common aim among black film-makers expressed in a divergent trajectory of works - from William Foster's The Railroad Porter (1912) and the early rebuttals of The Birth of a Nation's white supremacy with such films as the loftily titled The Realization of a Negro's Ambition (1916) and The Birth of a Race (1918), through decades of race-building films such as Frank Peregini's The Scar of Shame (1926) and Spencer Williams' The Blood of Jesus (1941), to the 70s revolt of university-educated black film-makers against Hollywood, Melvin Van Peebles' and Gordon Parks' cagey infiltration of the system and the black film-makers of the present - it has been the wish to portray black humanity honestly in contrast with Hollywood's dehumanising stereotypes, box-office dictates and the sovereign optic of the industry-constructed white spectator/consumer. Regardless of their widely varying views on politics, aesthetics and culture - from outright imitation of dominant styles in the Ebony Film Corporation's A Black Sherlock Holmes (1918) or the raw, exploitative 'coon comedy' of Michael Martin's I Got the Hook-up (1998), to the sardonic revelation of passing and double consciousness in Chameleon Street (Wendell Harris, 1989) or the female bildungsroman of Alma's Rainbow (Ayoka Chenzira, 1993) - black film-makers have consistently struggled to reveal the black world, and the world at large, through the discerning lens of the complexly varied African-American experience.

This ambition was vigorously taken up by the 70s university-based LA School of film-makers, who struggled to create counter-current challenges to Hollywood's Eurocentric, discriminatory regime. As the survivors of this loosely gathered movement still argue, one of their main goals was to open up alternatives and oppositions to the monopoly of the Hollywood system and its blaxploitation wave. This is ironic, because blaxploitation was initiated by Shaft (1971), directed by Gordon Parks, the first black to helm a feature film for a major studio (The Learning Tree, 1968) and, more directly, by 'independent' black film-maker Melvin Van Peebles with Sweet Sweetback's Baad Asssss Song (1971). The LA School's films absorbed many influences, from Italian neorealism, through 'third' and 'imperfect' cinema concepts and Brazil's cinema novo, to social-statement films guided by the insights of Marx and Fanon in such productions as Bush Mama (Hailé Gerima, 1975) or Bless Their Little Hearts (Billy Woodberry, 1983) emphasising black working-class struggles and a gritty poetic realism of the inner city. Rather than seeking financial and critical success within the framework and values of Hollywood, its mission was to initiate social change through black cultural production, to build an independent cinema and a 'conscious' black audience. The call for varying aspects of an "independent separate system of production, distribution, exhibition and consumption of black films" is what still distinguishes the best known of the LA School - Hailé Gerima, Julie Dash, Charles Burnett and Larry Clark - from the emergent young film-makers of the mid 80s and the ongoing 'new black film wave'.

As many black film critics and scholars have pointed out, while the LA School produced an impressive, revolutionary vision that transformed camerawork and narrative style and delivered new revelations of black people at the centre of their own lives and stories, the movement's impulse was in many ways self-limiting and mostly confined to its historical moment. Because of the material and ideological obstacles the LA School encountered, it produced very few feature-length productions, a few classic examples of which still circulate in university classrooms and film archives or pop up at odd hours on public television during Black History Month. When independent film-makers got beyond their first films, fund-raising strategies narrowed by circumstance and outlook meant they experienced paralysing lag times, in many cases amounting to gaps of six to eight years or more between productions.

Perhaps the LA School's most vexing problems were its contradictory relationship with the black popular audience and its ineffective conceptualisation of distribution and exhibition. In many instances ineptly made, didactic films were produced with the righteously proclaimed objective of "educating" or raising the consciousness of black spectators. But vision and politics which are deemed liberating and progressive do not necessarily result in films that are watchable or compelling, any more than Hollywood productions can be automatically considered visually slick, sell-out expressions of a false consciousness alluring to all. Even if it is consumer oriented, the black audience has to be at least as sophisticated as any in the nation, and it could be argued that it's more sophisticated simply because blacks greatly overconsume film and television in proportion to their numbers. While the LA School offered a prescient and potent antidote to Hollywood's toxic stereotypes and racism, it failed to conceptualise film-making as capital- and technology-intensive, collaborative and on some level obliged to connect with a broad popular audience. In short, the LA School was unable to come up with a successful business model relevant to the national context. Consequently its works and message never had popular impact or much circulation beyond the university and museum set or those of its stylistic insights Hollywood could openly steal for deployment in its own black-product line. Thus in the parallel universe of Hollywood's blaxploitation cycle there arose films with gritty urban environments, jazz-blues musical scores full of social meaning and some experimentation with the image and message, but most of all the realisation that there was a vast black audience thirsting to see themselves as fully-drawn human subjects winning the day on the big screen.

By the mid 80s the LA School had lost most of its momentum, and its film-makers' vision was distilled into three features that won some critical acclaim and arthouse circulation - To Sleep with Anger (Charles Burnett, 1990), Daughters of the Dust (Julie Dash, 1991) and Sankofa (Hailé Gerima, 1993). Nevertheless, black film-making continued to raise the issue of two loosely configured tendencies or camps grounded in cinema's commercial origins: those who wanted to mainstream their work and those who sought independence from the dominant system. The paradox of black cinema as articulated in the past had to do with the supposed corrupting effects of commercial success: how to maintain an uncompromised, justly honest vision of the black world's tales, predicaments and triumphs while simultaneously earning enough money at the box office to sustain one's vision over a long series of productions.

It's debatable whether this version of the paradox still applies. For one thing, the two polarities have always overlapped to some degree. Independents are always to some extent dependent in a collaborative business reliant on technology and capital. Conversely, because racism, sexism and homophobia at the institutional and business levels are such fundamental conditions of the nation, whatever one's difference, one must always swim in the mainstream with a sense of double consciousness and cynical optimism while remaining open to the independents in outlook, if not in strict practice.

But things did change in the mid-to-late-80s. The young film-makers of the emergent new black wave, with varying measures of individual success, started to work out their own solutions to the limitations and obstacles that had choked off past film movements. Responding to the conditions and opportunities of their time, these new film-makers began to alter the so-called paradox and the perception of two divergent approaches to black film-making. The new black wave differed in several respects from earlier movements, particularly in relation to goals and practice. While the LA School implicitly embraced varying degrees of 'by any means necessary' or 'guerrilla financing' to get their films made, for new black film-makers such as Spike Lee, Kasi Lemmons, Ice Cube, Darnell Martin, Rusty Cundieff, Robert Townsend, Hype Williams, the Hughes brothers, John Singleton and others, guerrilla financing to launch a first feature was only a beginning. Their goal has been to move quickly from feature to feature, increasing budgets, audiences, profits - in short, to make many movies, address popular audiences and "to get paid", as Spike Lee famously put it, "like the white boys do." This was their practical response to the scarcity of marketable, quality black feature films and the limited circulation that proscribed the past practitioners of independence.

A major factor in this paradigm shift has been the way black entertainment, celebrity and stardom have now expanded, with rising movie stars, singers, entertainers and rappers such as Taye Diggs, Cuba Gooding Jr, Nina Long, Quincy Jones, Queen Latifah, Ice Cube, Vanessa Williams, Ice-T and the late Tupac Shakur all involved in various capacities - writing, producing, directing, acting - to extend the concept of black cinema. So the new black film-makers' biggest contribution has been to shift the thinking of all persuasions of black film-making to seeing black cinema as a more comprehensive practice, with a heightened awareness of its business dimensions, that addresses the representational and psychic needs of a popular black audience and its broadly based crossover adherents. Given the enormous influence of rap, hip-hop, jazz and blues styles and metaphors on all aspects of urban youth culture, at some future point even the term crossover will become irrelevant to America's increasing heterogeneity.

This shift has been most clearly confirmed by the young blacks now coming out of film school, the majority of whom no longer see black independent cinema as a separate practice or an ideological end in itself. "Sundancing" is now in vogue. The graduating thesis film is no longer made only as a climactic philosophic, aesthetic and political statement but is regarded more as a calling card to be put into circulation at Sundance, Milan's Festival Cinema Africano or LA's Pan African Film & Art Festival to hook up that industry reshoot and/or three-pic deal with one of the emergent mini-studios hungry for "the new flavour". This now seems increasingly to be the route for all independent film-making, whatever its orientation - everything from El Mariachi (Robert Rodriguez, 1993), Drop Squad (Clark Johnson, 1994) and Smoke Signals (Chris Eyre, 1998) to The Blair Witch Project (Daniel Myrick and Eduardo Sanchez, 1999) and The Sixth Sense (M. Night Shyamalan, 1999).

However, this doesn't mean that the film-makers of the new black wave casually dismiss the call for the ongoing liberation of the black image or that they are merely looking for a grudging entree to what is still a rigorously discriminatory system. Nor is it a naive call for more of the profiteering middlemen (only now, with black skins) camped outside the doors of the studios' executive suites, who are already too numerous. Rather, the new black film-makers are subtly shifting the terrain of the contest for the popular representation of blackness by taking their depictions of black life to higher levels in terms of funding, production standards and perhaps most importantly the broad circulation of their films among popular audiences. As Spike Lee has proclaimed in a recent New York Times article, "There has never been a better time to be an African-American film-maker." While the Hollywood situation is far from ideal, most of the young film-makers realise that if deeper structural changes are to come, they will come through the swift and diligent practice of all aspects of their craft. In short, it's time to get down to business, produce, let the work speak for itself - and make real connections with a broad, popular audience.

By whatever name, black independent cinema has never been a static affair but rather is an ongoing process determined by historical, political and economic forces and always subject to future reconfiguration. It is now shifting towards something more inclusive, perhaps more optimistic and ripe with possibility. While the two tendencies or camps will continue to exist in a dynamic tension, for the moment (and this might be a long oscillation) we may just be heading for a polycentric democracy of images on the screen that more accurately represents the rising multicultural demographics of the nation. Significantly, this would lead to the necessary inclusion of blacks and an array of difference(s) in what has always been a white male preserve: the executive, decision-making business of cinema. The paradigm shift is in process, as the term black independent cinema is subsumed in the larger expression the black film movement with - somewhere on the mid horizon - the black film industry looming as a possibility.

As long as it's black

Do the Right Thing (1989)

Having grabbed attention with his debut 'She's Gotta Have It' and then over-reached himself with 'School Daze', Spike Lee finally made the breakthrough into mainstream consciousness with this examination of simmering racial tensions during a long, hot summer in the Bed-Stuy district of Brooklyn, Lee's own local patch. Its adroit pitching of hip-hop anger against Italian- American family pride made it a suitably incendiary landmark in American film.

To Sleep with Anger (1990)

In terms of the ambition to reach a popular audience, Charles Burnett is in contrast to Lee. This tale about a retired paterfamilias whose LA home becomes riven by discord when a mischievous old friend from the South turns up is typically 'independent': on a small and intimate scale. But its subtle unpicking of the threads of the pre-civil-rights traditions of the South that remain central to black life makes it among the most intelligent of African-American films.

Boyz N the Hood (1991)

In the wake of 'Do the Right Thing' came the new wave of angry black cinema of which John Singleton's tale of senseless slaughter and black-on-black crime among the youth of LA's South Central district was the standout work. Creating a melodrama of high seriousness and concentrating on boys becoming men, Singleton tapped into the rich and underused seam of burgeoning black acting talent, such as Angela Bassett, Ice Cube and Cuba Gooding Jr.

Daughters of the Dust (1991)

Julie Dash's film is a multilayered meditation on the ways a heritage of slavery both scars and arms its survivors. As a 1902 African-American Gullah family from the islands of Georgia prepares to migrate north, a missionary cousin appears with dubious company. Customs and religions old and new vie for the moral high ground. Cinema's only equivalent so far to the powerful and luscious fiction of Toni Morrison and her contemporaries.

Friday (1995)

In which we return to South Central LA with Ice Cube and discover the out-and-out hip-hop movie, one confidently more concerned with self-respect and the maintenance of a cool image than with lamenting the urban tragedy of short-lived black youth. Scripted by rappers Cube and DJPooh and directed by Gary F. Gray, it's a cartoon collection of urban myths and stereotypes that prefigures the style of much recent black-centred cinema.

Waiting to Exhale (1995)

The film that proved the purchasing power of the black women's audience. Based on the novel by Terry McMillan, who co-scripted with Ron Bass, and directed by Forest Whitaker, this Whitney Houston vehicle follows the trials and tribulations of four well-intentioned women who frequent the same hair salon. Variously betrayed by men, they meet up at a birthday party and let rip at black male failings. A huge soft-focus single-gender hit.

Eve's Bayou (1997)

Written and directed by former actress Kasi Lemmons, this heady time-shifting brew of infidelity, voodoo, incest and murder mostly set in 60s Louisiana is a triumph of genre-bending that seems utterly new while at the same time successfully harking back to Hollywood women's pictures of the past. A young girl witnesses her father's infidelity and discovers she has clairvoyant powers. Lemmons uses these plot strands to delicately unweave a complex web of blame.

The Original Kings of Comedy( 2000)

Spike Lee's movie is a straightforward record of a concert given by black stand-ups Steve Harvey, D. L. Hughley, Cedric the Entertainer and Bernie Mac during their 'Kings of Comedy' tour, which kicked off in 1997. Shooting on digital video, Lee keeps it simple, preferring to let the inspired turns on stage do most of the work. Like the tour, this modest film was a huge box-office hit, testifying to the commercial clout of black audiences in the US.

Last Updated: 10 Feb 2012