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Monday, May 19, 2008

So What Else Is New?

Reader Janice posted a link in the comments to an article on a subject that many of us have lamented about repeatedly. It was written by Wesley Morris, a Black film critic at the Boston Globe. I have been Brother Morris' number one fan since his days at the San Francisco Chronicle, and a link to him has been on my blogroll since the first day I started my blog.

He is an insightful reviewer with excellent writing skills, and I always read and trust his film reviews before anyone else's; I rarely disagree with him. And I most certainly agree with him on this subject, without a doubt. Check it:

A few weeks ago I got to see Terrence Howard and Anika Noni Rose play Brick and Maggie "the Cat" in Debbie Allen's Broadway production of "Cat on a Hot Tin Roof." I went home depressed. Not because the show was bad, although, in its clanging way, it is. I was depressed because for all its shortcomings, the show was a big entertainment event that doesn't happen much in the movies: It had premium melodrama and black stars being starry. As a moviegoer, I hurt for that kind of glamour.

I felt the same hangover leaving an exhilarating concert by Erykah Badu and the Roots earlier this month, and watching both "The Wire," which just said goodbye to us and HBO, and the staggering acting in that production of "A Raisin in the Sun" ABC aired in February: Why isn't black life this interesting, vibrant, or complex at the movies? How is it that Terrence Howard can play a legendary character on the New York stage but is stuck as the sidekick who's jealous of Robert Downey Jr.'s hardware in "Iron Man"?

When it comes to black America, the movies are stagnating. Well, when it comes to any nonwhite male subject matter at the movies, the pickings are slim. But there's such a wealth of black stars, producers, and directors that the scarcity of movies - big-ticket or small, serious or light - focused on the lives of black people, is surreal. There's a gaping entertainment void. It's not just the lack of quantity. It's the lack of variety. Despite the usual death notices posted for hip-hop, black popular music is alive and well.

At the moment, black movies come in two flavors: uplift dramas and Tyler Perry. The first is represented by all those feel-good movies - "Akeelah and the Bee," "Stomp the Yard," "Pride," "The Great Debaters" - that, bless their hearts, wanted to empower us, but that nobody flocked to see. Message movies are a great notion but tricky as entertainment. The makers of these films have this noble but somewhat misguided idea that the average black moviegoer wants to feel like she's in school.

Perry's megaplex successes suggest that the average black moviegoer wants to feel like she's in church. His movies have sermons. His movies have soap opera. And, increasingly, his movies have stars. In the past, I've said only somewhat jestingly that a Tyler Perry movie is where black actors go to get back in touch with their roots. (The prim, post-Nipplegate Janet Jackson who showed up in "Why Did I Get Married?" wasn't just making a movie, she was asking for forgiveness.) But now a Tyler Perry movie is where a black actor goes to act. Angela Bassett is the star of "Meet the Browns." "Daddy's Little Girls" had Gabrielle Union and Idris Elba. And the movie that Perry, who essentially works without Hollywood's help, is currently filming has Alfre Woodard, Sanaa Lathan, and the loveable Taraji P. Henson, that pregnant, hook-belting hooker from "Hustle & Flow."

(to read the rest of the article, click HERE )


Sergio said...

Hey, I can't disagree with this guy at all. I've been saying and writing about the same thing myself (but not as well as he can). I mean what has happened to African-American filmmakers? I sincerely believe that one major problem is that they honestly believe that they're not as good as white filmmakers. As a result, they're just grateful for whatever they can get.

I had an experience a few months ago when I interviewed (reluctantly I might add) David Talbert the writer/director of First Sunday. Let's be honest here he was giving me a whole lot of b.s. during the interview, but then I asked him what I thought was an innocuous question about when did he think we would start seeing a greater diversity in subject matter in black films. WOW! You would have thought that I insulted him, his mother and his whole family. He got very upset and tore into me criticizing me for the question inferring that I putting him and his movie down. In what he was saying was: "Please don't say anything bad about these stupid black films we're making or else they'll stop giving his money to make them and we'll be finished because I can't too anything else. I'm too scared and those white boys have got me beat"

As we know Tyler Perry has cameo in the new Star Trek film coming out in May 2009. I have to wonder to myself when he was on the set of this big, huge, obviously very expensive $100 million plus project did he think to himself: "Hey, this is pretty cool. I need to start expanding my vision and do something else with my films" or did he say: "WOW! I'm so grateful that massa done put me in this old big expensive movie wif' all dese white people! I have truly ARRIVED!" Well we know what he thought since his upcoming movie is Medea Goes to Jail with Keshia Knight Pulliam playing a prostitute.

O.K. let's hear your comments...

clnmike said...

Cant argue with the assesment of black films today, they are paper thin and seem to come off an assembly line like most black art forms that turn a buck. Problem is that movies like Tyler Perry's are turning a buck and they are an alternative to the coon like movies we were getting before hand.

It's a shame that the most interesting movies starring blacks are directed by whites like American Gangster and Black Snake Moan. To me that is more telling of who is green lighting these movies and why. Some one has to cosign these projects, and that some one I guess is white.

The only thing I can think of is that black people have not gone far enough back of the camera.
As far back as owning a measurable amount of movie theaters or distribution companies.

That way there is no worry about paying the bills just making movies.

That might do the trick.

Janice said...

I’m less critical of Tyler Perry because he has filled a need. Yes his films are formulaic but they offer a fresh breathe from the buffoonery. Don’t get me wrong I’ve had to collect my eyes off the movie theater floor more than once watching his films. Once the eye rolling starts it hard to stop. But basically his films are modern day fairy tales, which black women haven’t had. If black women wanted operatic chick flicks we (not really me but you know what I mean) had to live viciously through Julia Roberts, Sandra bullock and etc. The one thing that I really like about Tyler Perry is he does progress (technique wise) He learns with every movie and does a little better each time. That is the important distinction and it’s what makes him one of the keys to the future of black created film production. He can become what Berry Gordy should have become. I bet now Perry has more money than the Weinstein’s had when they started Miramax. I haven’t seen First Dumbday I mean Sunday yet so I won’t disparage Talbert but his comments to Sergio high lights a problem trait some black artist have. The willingness to cast down black people in order to get ahead themselves. Don’t get me wrong I imagine compromise is the name of the game to get movies made but white directors do it without the terrible stereotypes. The story is parallel to rap music. It started out one thing someone made a ton on negative rap and the gates of hell were released. I think Black Above the title people need to learn the lesson of the 70’s. When Movie studios went near bankrupt they found they could make money with cheaply made exploitation movies. The theory is that once you ignore a population soo long that you can make tons of money throwing any images on the screen and they will eat it up. When fledgling tv stations fox, upm, wb and now cw started out they usually had a few black shows to bolster ratings then cast them off once they are established. Because black people didn’t elevate above the title it was easy to cast the movies off at the end of the 70’s. It took just one memo from the president of warner brothers to end production of films with black casts. Business before art. I think it would serve black directors to look at the first films of the great successful filmmakers and emulate. All the mini studios New Line, Miramax, Pixar emulate. You can give people what they want without mortally wounding people. I’m starting to ramble.
Clnmike didn’t John Singleton green light Black Snake Moan based on his work with Director Brewer of Hustle and Flow?

People of Interest behind the scenes:
Sanaa Hamri
Lee Daniels
Malcolm D. Lee
Carl Franklin and

Danielle said...

This article hits the nail right on the head on the state of Black Cinema. It's depressing as hell. When did we become so one note?

When did our sophistication, complexity, nuance and diversity of experience hit the skids? I am not a Tyler Perry fan. Period.

We can do better and it seems that we're so used to "nothing", that anything more has got to be an improvement.

That's a negative Ghost Rider. A big fat N-O.

Wonder Man said...

I liked the article. What was said is true. Although I'm happy for Perry, it's not who we are. There's more to explore about our people. Also I think filmmakers need to move to the TV world. We are hurting there more than ever. CW is producing 3 more white, rich, kids shows, making it clear that other types of kids are not interesting or worth thinking about. said...

Ha Ha Erbody musta been on the same page this day. LOL

The Obenson Report said...

Your title to this entry says it all... "So what else is new?"

As I've probably mentioned before, I'm simultaneously attracted to and repelled by articles like this. On one hand, when I read Wesley Morris's piece (and the myriad of others like it), I'm encouraged that there are some of us who do demand and expect better; but then I'm also turned off by what feels like a rather "deafitist" attitude that's unfortunately prevalent amongst us.

I've grown weary of talking about what's wrong with black cinema. I feel like we've already granted it much lip service and should be past that, enough to see a shift towards some real action! So, I'm much more interested in hearing plausible solutions.

Maybe we should borrow from Malcolm X, and adopt a "by any means necessary" kind of stance, and build from there.

I think we all should be challenging ourselves here (myself included, of course)! Do we REALLY want change, and if so, what are we doing individually to see the change that we want? Or rather, what are we WILLING to do? Are we being passive, waiting for someone else to lead? Or should we be unwaveringly aggressive, and start blazing new trails?

Tyler Perry doesn't really give a shit about what we think, and frankly, I'm tired of talking about the man! He is what he is, and will continue down whatever path he chooses, regardless of what any of us says or does! As someone said above, he fills a niche, and that's fine. Just because we aren't members of his niche audience doesn't automatically disqualify what he's been able to accomplish! He's in a comfortable position, and I don't see him doing anything to ruin his treasures! The same goes for the rest of the black Hollywood elite - Will Smith, Denzel, Oprah et al! They each have their own personal agendas - agendas that don't necessarily include the rest of us. So, is there really any point in concerning ourselves with what we think they should or shouldn't be doing, since we have absolutely zero control over the choices they each make, and doing so only leads to further frustration? I say no!

As radical as it might sound, maybe what we should be talking about here is some kind of revolution from the ground up. Instead of waiting for them to foster change, those of us who are aware and "mad as hell" should lead the way... and the rest just might actually follow!

I obviously don't have all the answers, and I don't expect any one person to generate the ultimate solution, but let's start hearing some real solutions to the problem, especially those that are within the power of the people, whether individually or collectively!

aulelia said...

**claps at everyones comments**

well, i am in strong agreement. sergio, that director of first sunday was obviously a troll.

aulelia said...

by the way, at the next black blog awards or whatever, IW, yours deserves to win best blog. i love it.

clnmike said...

"didn’t John Singleton green light Black Snake Moan based on his work with Director Brewer of Hustle and Flow?"

Yes he did, but but it was not his creation or his money going into the project.

Invisible Woman said...


I'll be posting them up this week...

@aulelia: thank you sis!

@clnmike: ya know, I can't even comment on what John Singleton is up to lately. I haven't figured it out yet :-(

Nic said...

The overall state of black cinema is sad, but who is really to blame?

I've often felt that when blacks are in decision making positions in Hollywood(green-lighting films)...we will never see a full-spectrum of black life on the screen.

But even when/if blacks are put in these types of positions, we need them to shun the status-quo.

We don't need another Bob Johnson/Tracy Edmonds Our Stories Studio which produces great thought-provoking hits like..."who's your caddy"? *heavy sarcasm*

p.s. I saw 'Cat on a Hot Tin Roof' in March. I too left disappointed b/c Debbie Allen & co. took a Pulitzer Prize winning play and turned it into Tyler Perry's Cat on a Hot Tin Roof.

I like Tyler Perry and admire his success, but Tennesse Williams he is not.

Invisible Woman said...

@nic: Wow...that's deep about Cat on A Hot Tin Roof...if it's still running, I was going to see it in July. But I really don't want to see an urban mess...