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Monday, July 13, 2009

A New Avenue For Black Cinema?

This is a cross-post of an article I did for our Black Cinema collective blog Shadow And Act; please join us over there for updates throughout the day, every day, on Black Cinema and it's offshoots...

Over the weekend, I watched two, shall we say, very frugal DVD productions; "Peaches" (thanks a lot Sergio) and "Applause For Miss E." Both are Black stage plays transferred to DVD.

I'd written about "Peaches" starring Wendy Raquel Robinson, a little earlier this year, after Sergio emailed me a trailer of it. It is the story of a Jezebel/femme fatale that drives men crazy and you readers gave it a hearty thumbs down, deservedly so...honestly it was akin to a middle school play--just atrocious.

But when I watched "Applause For Miss E" (to see the trailer click HERE), which is about a woman who missed her chances as a comedienne and in life, it made me much more reflective. You see, it had the same shoestring budget, and the same lightweight elementary school-type plot as "Peaches", but the huge difference was in the casting. It starred Vanessa Bell Calloway and mistress of a thousand hairstyles, Jazsmin Lewis, (no real surprises there) but it made my heart heavy to see the beautiful and talented Gina Torres involved with this. And as much as I talk sh*t about Roger Guenveur Smith, is was pretty disheartening to see him hamming it up and chewing up the scenery with the most mangled southern accent ever portrayed on stage here. He actually seemed drunk and high, and he probably was, to numb the reality of having to actually be associated with this project.

My first thought was, has it really come to this? Our A-list players being reduced to television (i.e. Laurence Fishburne and Angela Bassett), and our B string list going the so-called "chitlin' circuit" route?

But that is too obvious. Something deeper is brewing. Let me begin by saying that I have no problem with these plays being done; I have actually enjoyed a few. There is an audience out there that lives on them, so why should they be denied? Sergio and I were on Afronerd's podcast with David Talbert (who is the original Tyler Perry) and he relayed that he makes the same type of play, with the same themes, and the same morals over and over again because it was what people wanted, and it was the only thing he knew well, and he had absolutely no ambitions beyond that. I gave him a huge amount of respect for not pretending to be anything else.

That being said, maybe we should take a page from Talbert's and Tyler Perry's books. They have taken a mostly ignored medium and have taken ownership of it, with varying degrees of success. They know what the market is, and haven't waited on the YT studio system to give them comfort and aproval, and they have their visions played out to the masses on their own terms. Maybe we can explore the same route in getting our stories told that we desperately want to see...say Harriet Tubman's life story, or a realistic Black romance, via the stage to DVD route.

A while back I did a "7 Questions" with actor Carl Gilliard, and his advice to up and coming filmmakers was to keep costs down by filming a movie like a play. Few actors, just a couple of sets, and really concentrate on the script. We have complained many times about how quality Black films are either not getting greenlit, or are not distributed in a way to reach a general audience. Could this be a way to take matters into our own hands?

Think about it. In the 70's and 80's, stage plays were hugely popular and big events for Blacks--Colored Girls Who Have Considered, Your Arms Too Short To Box With God, Ma Rainey's Black Bottom, Dreamgirls...I could go on and on. Of course, these were more pricey productions than the current state of stage plays, but that is my point. Why not tweak the current formula and bring in Black Hollywood actors that are undervalued and underused in the YT system? (I don't know about you, but I am tired of seeing the same 5 Black actors in high profile movies). Build beautiful set designs, use amazing scripts, maybe some big name Black directors with stories we want to see? Plays written from bestselling Black books? The possibilities are endless. Then transfer these plays to DVDs. Black folks surely have always found a way to buy Tyler's Madea plays en force. This can be a very genuine and viable way for us to command our own ship, so to speak (with the real threat of piracy, haha).

I'm not saying that this is the end all, but it can be a real way to get out of the dreadful and sorry current state of Black Hollywood, because in my opinion, it certainly can't get any worse than it is right now. Ask Roger Guenveur Smith if you don't believe me.


SDG said...

Good stuff IW and an excellent suggestion. I wonder how we could jump start things.?

eeaster said...

You know, white folks got a chitlin' circuit too. It's called "summer stock" and "dinner theater." Betty White, Dick Van Dyke, all them people from MASH except Alan Alda - all doing "No No Nanette" in somebody's "Playhouse Theater" right after the appetizer somewhere.

msladydeborah said...


This is a great post on the subject of quality and content of live theatre productions.

I go see a few of the live theatre productions when they play in my hometown. But I am real selective about which ones get my hard earned money. I grew up in a family that spent a whole lot of time providing me with a cultural arts education. So I tend to like theatre that provides me with some food for thought. I find a lot of current Black productions have that familiar format. Which is what the masses seem to like. I saw all the major plays in the 70's and 80's because their content was so dynamic. Plus that, I had a family member in Ma Rainey-so we had to represent and show him some love.

It would be really nice to see some new theatre crop up. Some drama that causes the audience to do some serious thinking would be nice.

But, I also think that it would help if the mindset about theatre was altered on our end. It seems to me that there is not enough emphasis placed on educating people about the arts.

Anonymous said...

hi... just dropping by!

clnmike said...

Hey they got to eat, besides just because your in the minor leagues doesnt mean the quality of work has to be poor.

The Black Hair Care Blog said...


Vanessa Bell Calloway been reduced to thsi is...damn she was never A-list, but...DAMN!

Hey as much as I can't stand Tyler Perry's work if it wasn't for him black actors wouldn't be working.

I'm not sure this is an answer.

I think making well written low budget movies is the answer - a great independent piece can take you a long way and you have a better chance of getting the actors 'cause if it's written well enough you can get a Oscar nod or generate some real buzz.

I would like to see better plays on the chitlin' circuit however, but not as a way to bring black cinema back.

Anonymous said...

hi.. just dropping by here... have a nice day!

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Anonymous said...

I happened upon your blog looking for something else and I'm glad I stopped by. First, I'm a theater director. I find it kind of disconcerting that you suggest filmmakers "use" the old conventions of stage to generate quality film work. If you compare theater to film, most people would say that "theater is a dying art form." Most people don't see the value of what we do as artistic and viable. Tyler Perry, David Talbert and the rest of them are not the only answer to Black theater. It bothers me that people chalk up Tyler Perry's hustle by saying "at least he's giving black actors a place to work." Especially when his "hustle" generates perpetuating stereotypes that initially began the American theater (Minstrel shows). I have several filmmaker friends and they all admit that they never go and see plays. Asking a filmmaker to use the theater as a device to produce a film is, in my opinion, degrading to theater artist that actual use this medium to create art. I hear what you are saying about the benefits of focusing on the content, set design etc, but I don't want filmmakers thinking that staged productions are THAT easy to do. If you're in the theater, like I am, we want the same respect that film is given. I agree with msladydeborah when she says that we have to educate people on art in general. For Colored Girls, Any play by August Wilson and Your Arms are too Short to Box with God aren't the ONLY plays out there that represent a "higher" form of theater. I think it would be nice for filmmakers to acknowledge the work that stage directors do but do it with your medium. I have to agree and disagree with msladydeborah or anyone else reading this blog that doesn't go and see theater. If you picked up a paper in the last year, you would know that Lynn Nottage, a Black woman, won the Pulitzer Prize for her play "Ruined" that started in Chicago and has since moved to Broadway. There are new plays "cropping" up all over the country. It's funny, most theater artist go and see film, dance performances, art exhibits but I can't really say if filmmakers do the same thing. You're right, education is so important. said...

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Navas S.

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