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Pondering The Seemingly Dismal Outlook For Black Filmmakers Working Within The Hollywood Studio System

Photo of Tambay A. Obenson By Tambay A. Obenson | Shadow and Act March 16, 2012 at 12:13PM

Looking over the top 300 grossing films of 2011 released in the USA (via Box Office Mojo), just 6 of those 300 titles were directed by black directors – Madea’s Big Happy Family, Jumping The Broom, Laugh At My Pain, Shame, Pariah and Mooz-lum.
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Fuqua

Looking over the top 300 grossing films of 2011 released in the USA (via Box Office Mojo), just 6 of those 300 titles were directed by black directors – Madea’s Big Happy Family, Jumping The Broom, Laugh At My Pain, Shame, Pariah and Mooz-lum.

And of those 6 films, only 2 of them are what we'd call purely Hollywood studio-backed productions - Madea’s Big Happy Family (Tyler Perry's deal with Lionsgate) and Jumping The Broom (Sony/Tristar).

Box Office Mojo lists a total of 598 movies released in theaters in 2011; however, I don’t think I need to go through the entire list of films to make my point, which should be obvious.

In recent days, we’ve seen projects from the likes of Spike Lee (Da Brick) getting passed over by HBO, and F. Gary Gray replaced as helmer of The Last Days Of American Crime (a project he’d been attached to direct since it was first announced early last year).

Other veterans like Antoine Fuqua and John Singleton have been attached to, and then later unattached from various projects.

Of course I should note that there are reasons why none of these *attachments* was seen all the way through; reasons that aren't always necessarily made entirely public.

And these are just the men by the way; black women directors have fared even worse. They don’t even seem to get mentioned in "who-to-hire" conversations. When was the last time a black woman director’s name was on any short list for any studio-backed feature project?

I won’t bore you with info that you’ve likely already heard enough of – specifically, Hollywood’s so-called "diversity problem," a topic that’s been discussed and analyzed ad naseam. One would think that black directors wouldn’t face similar hurdles that black actors do, if only because they are behind the camera; I’m of course taking into consideration Hollywood’s perceived *aversion* to casting black actors in especially lead/prominent roles, because black faces supposedly don’t sell as well.

But what about black directors?

Every week (if not almost daily), I read reports on Deadline, Hollywood Reporter or Variety announcing some young, relatively unknown, almost always white filmmaker, with often just a single feature film on their resume, getting the opportunity to direct some hefty-budgeted, high-profile, star-driven film, as their second feature. These opportunities just don’t seem to be as available/afforded to non-white (specifically black filmmakers).

I pause and think of all the young black directors we’ve profiled here on S&A in recent years, and, to be frank, I wonder what will become of all of them, given how challenging the climate seems to be for all filmmakers, but seemingly more-so for filmmakers of color, and even more specifically, filmmakers of color making films about people of color.

I’m sure some of them (certainly not all) aspire to work within the studio system, or some studio/indie hybrid, making films primarily about characters that look like them; and if that’s your goal, how do you maintain your optimism?

How do you observe the inconsistent careers of some of our most notable black directors, as you make advances (no matter how small) in yours?

Take into consideration the names I mentioned above (and others); the last time Antoine Fuqua was behind the camera for a feature film project was in 2008 for Brooklyn’s Finest (eventually released in 2009) – almost 4 years ago; Spike Lee’s last big screen project was Miracle At St Anna, which was released in 2008, although, really, it was shot in 2007 – almost 5 years ago (I’m obviously not counting the docs; and yes, he’s got Red Hook Summer coming up, which he shot last year; but really, it’s a mighty mess of a project, and Spike reportedly financed it from his own bank account); F. Gary Gray’s was in 2009 with Law Abiding Citizen; John Singleton’s most recent was last year – Abduction (which was terrible, though not entirely his fault; the script is where it begins). But the period before that movie, really tells the tale; before Abduction, Singleton’s last effort behind the camera was Four Brothers, some 5 to 6 years prior.

You have to wonder what happens during these large chunks of time between projects; meanwhile, Tyler Perry cranks out 2 (or more) a year.

And there are others – Kasi Lemmons, the Hughes Brothers (who’ve also been attached to a handful of projects since From Hell in 2001, later seeing Denzel Washington in Book Of Eli all the way through; both of them are currently attached to separate projects; but only Allen’s seems as close to a sure-thing right now, since it’s in post-production).

After Precious, Lee Daniels piled up on a handful of projects, and didn’t eventually go into production on any of them until 2 years after that film was released.

Salim Akil didn’t waste much time before diving into his Sparkle remake, after Jumping The Broom last year; although I’d have loved an original project based on an original idea, instead of a retread.

Of course, there’s Steve McQueen who’s on to his next project, post-Shame – the slave narrative with Chiwetel Ejiofor, which will be McQueen’s first film with a black lead.

Who else? Malcolm Lee, Tim Story, Carl Franklin, Gina Prince-Bythewood, Angela Robinson, and Chris Rock, who has gotten into the directing game himself, though nothing in the works currently.

There are others, but I think you'll find similar stories of long periods of inactivity. 

And then there are talents like Seith Mann who’s been toiling away rather quietly in TV land, directing episodes of numerous television shows which certainly assists him in continuing to hone his skills, as well as put money in his bank account; however, Seith also has 2 feature film projects (1 he’s been trying to get financed and off the ground for a while now) that I’m sure he’d like to see realized sooner than later. And I have to wonder if he's ever even considered for some of these director-for-hire studio feature films.

I’m obviously not including the names of those independent black filmmakers who’ve emerged in the last couple of years or so (we've written about, and continue to write about them all as they progress), working chiefly outside the studio system; despite any early successes, it's not entirely certain what their individual careers will look like in coming years. But this post isn’t necessarily about them.

I’m really just looking at, and trying to make sense of the plight of those, what I’d call, primarily veteran, *industry* black directors/filmmakers; what to make of it all – their seeming lack of productivity; the lack of opportunities available to them compared to their white contemporaries. Because other than Tyler Perry, I think you’ll have difficulty coming up with another black filmmaker whose output has been as consistent, or even coming close to being as consistent as Perry’s has been since he first burst onto the scene some 7 years ago.

Since his debut, Diary Of A Mad Black Woman in 2005, Perry has helmed 12 feature films, all released in theaters. That’s more than John Singleton has done his entire career since Boyz In The Hood over 20 years ago. Comparisons between Perry and other filmmakers I’ve mentioned here will look very similar; in some cases, the differences in output are much more pronounced.

So it baffles me when I read about new projects like the Will Smith/Denzel Washington remake of Uptown Saturday Night (what we could call, for a number of reasons, a quintessentially black film) being given to white writers to pen the scripts for, and white filmmakers to direct, when there are more than capable black writers and directors who could most certainly use the work, as well as the paychecks.

It’s even more of a head-scratcher when you take into consideration the fact that the men responsible for the project becoming a reality – Will Smith and Denzel Washington (although primarily Smith it appears) – are on that really short list of elite, powerful industry talents (who also happen to be black), who are probably in a position to ensure that those key positions go to writers/directors of their choosing; or at least have enough leverage to fight for the hiring of talents they prefer to work with; after all, it’s not like the writer and director who were indeed hired to work on the project are what you’d call *names;* this isn’t a movie that will be sold on the strength of the names of the talents behind the camera, so why not push for any of the directors I’ve mentioned in this post (or *gasp* give a young African American up-and-comer with proven talent an opportunity, just as we’ve seen, and continue to see upstart white filmmakers get these kinds of career breaks).

I certainly don’t pretend to have all the answers to this crisis – yes, I’m calling it a crisis, as extreme as the word might sound. The obvious solution is that these filmmakers (if they haven’t already) become more proactive in their efforts, as in looking outside the studio system for opportunities, or funding, for their own personal projects. But I understand that it's much easier said than done; financiers everywhere still have strict rules that determine what projects they invest their money in; although I’d say that the rigid numbers game that seems to govern studio financing/greenlighting may not be as defined outside of that system.

Of all the directors I’ve named here (and others unnamed who fit the criteria), very few have definite projects in development right now – films that have been greenlit, cast, and are scheduled to begin production within the next year or two. Some may find themselves without work even longer - maybe settling for the occasional TV gig, commercial work, music videos and the like. Nice to have the paycheck at least; but not really the kind of directing I'd guess most of them would prefer to do.

"We just want the same opportunities, and chances," as I've heard/read some black filmmakers say.

An interesting note is that, if you take a look at the top 10 grossing films so far this year, 2012, none of them was directed by what we’d call a *name* director; in fact, I’d say that most of you wouldn’t even recognize the names of many, if not all of these directors - Chris Renaud, Michael Sucsy, Daniel Espinosa, Brad Peyton, Baltasar Kormakur, Josh Trank, Mars Marlind, Mike McCoy, William Brent Bell, and James Watkins.

Any of them sound familiar? Maybe Espinosa, since he helmed Safe House with Denzel Washington; and I should note that Espinosa is one of those aforementioned young directors given a mega-million dollar star-driven project to direct primarily on the strength of his last feature film – the Swedish thriller Snabba Cash (Easy Money) which hasn’t even been released in the states yet (it’ll be in theaters stateside in July). For his Hollywood studio debut, the 34-year-old was given an $85 million budget, Denzel Washington and Ryan Reynolds in what, as I said in my review of the film, was really a lackluster effort. And I wouldn't be surprised if it's soon announced that the young director is attached to helm another similar high-profile project.

How many black filmmakers/directors can you name who have been given that kind of opportunity (budget and star power) to prove themselves so early in their careers?

Do studios see black filmmakers as black people first, and as filmmakers second? Meaning, are black filmmakers only viewed as being suitable to direct "black films?"

Although, as we've seen in the past (and as I noted earlier in this post), even "black films" don't always get the opportunity to be directed by black filmmakers. So what you'd think is sacred ground, where black filmmakers can at least guarantee that they'll be considered for directing work, isn't so sacred anymore, if it ever even previously was.

So as a black filmmaker, not only are you not on the short list of names to direct non-race-specific films, but you're also not necessarily always in consideration to direct race-specific (black) films. What's a black filmmaker working within the studio system to do?

I wish I had a direct line to some of these folks, so that I could just pick up the phone, call them and ask what each is up to currently, how they view the somewhat precarious industry situation they find themselves in, and how they plan to deal with it all; how does one eat and pay bills between projects when you're a Kasi Lemmons (for example), and the last film you directed was 6 years ago, and since then, your only credit (according to IMDB anyway) is an acting gig in Waste Deep playing (as the film's credits list her character as) "Angry Black Woman."

Alas I don’t have that kind of direct/immediate access to these folks to ask all these questions, so all I can do is speculate based on the evidence in front of me.

And as already noted, the outlook for the majority of them looks rather bleak from the outside.

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