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A Survey Of Recent Films Directed By Black Women, Released By Hollywood Studios After 'Belle's' Strong Opening

Features
by Nijla Mumin
May 6, 2014 1:40 PM
12 Comments
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A packed theater of people watching and enjoying a film is any filmmaker’s dream. Days before the official release of Amma Asante’s film Belle, I attended an advance screening of the film in a packed theater with a mostly female, African American audience. They connected to the film in ways that confirmed it’s potential theatrical success.

The film came out strong this past weekend, grossing over $104K playing on only four screens in LA and New York City, for a per screen average of $26,123. These are solid numbers considering it’s limited release by Fox Searchlight, and should bode well for its expansion into theaters across the country in the coming weeks. A smart marketing campaign by the team behind 12 Years A Slave, widespread press coverage devoted to its rich source material, and advance screenings targeting African American audiences, can be attributed to the film’s successful opening. Following the screening last Wednesday, Asante expressed that she wouldn’t sacrifice the cultural nuances related to Belle’s race and gender at the request of higher-ups; she “smuggled” them into the narrative at any cost.

In Belle, Asante takes a familiar genre and infuses it with a distinct directorial perspective that resonates not only with black women, but people raised on classical art and literature who want to see it reinterpreted. It’s a fresh, contemporary script that capitalizes on its interracial cast by evoking racial discord and romance at every turn. At the pre-screening, the audience responded heavily to the powerful performance by Gugu Mbatha-Raw who wields equal parts vulnerability, class, and passion in the role based on the real-life Dido Elizabeth Belle, biracial daughter of Admiral Sir John Lindsay and an enslaved woman named Maria Belle. Belle was raised by her uncle William Murray, the 1st Earl of Mansfield, who ruled on seminal cases involving the abolishment of slavery while raising her. In the film, Belle unpacks her complicated racial identity during this time, falling for a budding lawyer amidst scorn from the white aristocracy.

It is rare that feature films written and directed by black women are received and distributed in this way. The last time we saw a film directed by a black woman, and distributed by a major studio, was Kasi Lemmons' 2013 film Black Nativity released by Fox Searchlight. Based on a Langston Hughes play, the film had trouble reaching an audience during its Thanksgiving opening weekend. Prior to that, Tina Gordon Chism’s Peeples was released by Lionsgate to disappointing box office numbers and critical reception. A confusing marketing campaign depicting enlarged photos of actor’s faces with weird facial expressions contributed to this. (Sergio went into depth about that campaign in a previous post.) Further, many people didn’t know the film was directed by a black woman, as critics continually referred to it as Tyler Perry’s “biggest box office disappointment to date.” What a way to encourage viewers. It is worth pondering- if people had known of Chism's involvement in the film as writer/director, would they have seen it?

But before Peeples, there was Dee Rees’ critically acclaimed 2011 film Pariah, centering on the struggles of a black lesbian teenager played by Adepero Oduye. Released by Focus Features to key theaters across the country, the film was met with glowing reviews, and grossed $48,579 in its opening weekend before expanding.  While audience anticipation was high, especially among black/LGBT viewers, the film didn’t open in many theaters where these people could see it. 

Ava DuVernay’s 2012 film Middle of Nowhere, which averaged $67,909 in its opening weekend, and was distributed by Participant Media and DuVernay’s film distribution company AFFRM, solved that problem by targeting non-specialized theaters with large black audiences. Without a mainstream distributor, it utilized a strong social media presence in the months before the film’s opening, coupled with AFFRM’s direct- action community building tactics to attract viewers. Following the unconventional successes of Middle of Nowhere and I Will Follow, DuVernay is set to direct Selma, the highly anticipated MLK biopic starring David Oyelowo, produced by Brad Pitt’s Plan B team and distributed by Paramount.

There doesn’t seem to be a formula or science to the mainstream attractiveness of films made by black women, and there’s surely no lack of deserving content by black women and women in general. A look at the last decade in black women’s contributions to cinema shows a combination of strategies and models that have helped them navigate widespread, systemic barriers to resources, opportunities, and funding, with Belle being the latest example.

With each box office success, we hope things change for the better, but will they?

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12 Comments

  • Alias | May 8, 2014 1:45 AMReply

    @Liz Rocket and Truth P: You're wrong that there's no black identity in the U.S., but, more to your point is that there is a much broader class strata, which makes it difficult for us to be unified -- particularly on things that might have national import. Issues of class and experience, within our race and culture, are far more varied than with most whites. So what we now have -- especially since integration -- are very deep, and wide, gaps of blacks who are poor, while others have ascended to middle class or even upper middle class status. And access to better education, wealth, and living conditions often results in a privileged few no longer seeing themselves (physically, culturally) in the faces, lives and experiences of a larger majority of those who are going without.

    The biggest reason why blacks don't have what could be considered a strong, cultural, national identity is education. As an aggregate Jewish people make certain their progeny NEVER forget the holocaust and how it affected their people. They constantly teach, and preach, it in their homes, temples, and schools (public and private). But because of the pain of slavery, and later, civil rights, most blacks don't pass on the history to their children, don't hold their schools accountable to teach it accurately, and appropriately, and don't hold the media, and their elected officials to a higher standard of accountability on the subject matter either.

    A perfect example of the lack of "identity" or cohesiveness, if you will, is the recent situation with the L.A. Clippers. Rather than acting like 5-year-olds and thinking they were doing something by turning their shirts inside out when they learned of the owner's remarks, REAL men would have walked out of the stadium that day and not played the game at all. ... Unlike Cassius Clay, Tommy Smith and John Carlos, and Arthur Ashe -- black athletes who were well educated (read: actually studied something with academic value while at university) -- the majority of today's black athletes have ZERO knowledge of their history and what true racism is.

    And yet, how many black Americans who don't benefit from the billion dollar NBA feigned faux outrage about some private comments made public, which have absolutely no effect on the quality of their daily lives?

    If the majority of the NBA was made up of Jews and the same scenario occurred, I guarantee, there wouldn't have been a question. The players would have walked, and stayed off the court, until full resolution.

  • ahnnju | May 11, 2014 4:37 AM

    I obviously was a little confused with who wrote what and which comments came first. I don't usually participate outside of reading the comments. I agree with the alias and Liz. Both of you have great ideas and view points of the issues we face and the how we are perceived. The basis of my first comment was that we spend too much time disagreeing, arguing and being defensive. If anything is getting old, it is the constant negative behavior toward one another. Although Rocket comes off defensive and a little rude, he or she was right about being told to let go of our past. How can we, when part of our past is still our presence. We might be free but we are still slaves to many different things.

  • Rocket | May 8, 2014 2:04 PM

    Yes, Jews make sure no one forgets. But you fail to mention that whenever they bring up the Holocaust the general sentiment from mainstream America is that it is something we need to remember. But when African Americans bring up slavery, something that happened right here in this country, we are always told we are complaining and need to let go of the past. Comparing African Americans to Jews doesn't fit on any levels. Another reason Jews can keep their story coming out of Hollywood is because they ARE the power in Hollywood.

    And you can't compare to Clippers players to any of those other athletes you listed. Those are all individual athletes who competed in events that their management teams scheduled them for. Arthur Ashe hypothetically opting out of the U.S. Open is nothing like the entire Clippers team not taking the floor for a playoff game. John Carlos and Tommy Smith raised their fists AFTER they competed in the event. Those guys were all good men, but they weren't the gods you are making them out to be.

  • TJM | May 7, 2014 8:35 AMReply

    I am excited to see this movie. However, I have a question that I hope someone on this forum can answer. Why are African American actresses most often not cast in slave period roles? It appears that African, or Afro Europeans are preferred for these characters?

  • Ahnnju | May 11, 2014 4:17 AM

    To add to the previous comment you responded to, I believe in our culture there is a strong need to put up defense mechanisms whenever we discuss any subject, especially serious topics. We refuse to even stand unified in our ideas and perception of OUR history.

    Even if you disagree with this person, your entire response was spent criticizing her opinions. She didn't make the past athletes she mentioned out to be Gods. Your off-base comment, "they weren't the gods you are making them out to be," adds to your obvious defensiveness. If you blog, people will comment. She didn't tear apart your piece as you did her comment. She disagreed with ONE of your points and only expressed her views. I've read a great deal regarding the reaction to the Clipper's owner and its players. Most of the comments were feuding with one another. They weren't even discussing Donald Sterling's racist comments or racism at all for that matter which, was the basis of the news stories.

    Lastly, I loved your piece. Thank You for writing about this movie. We don't hear or see enough about African American's careers and influence outside of sports, music and acting.

  • Alias | May 8, 2014 1:23 AM

    That's only been a recent phenomenon. If you go back a few decades, you would know that Halle Berry, Jasmine Guy (in "Queen") have been cast in slave period work. And the majority of actresses, and actors, in "Roots" were also American.

  • Donella | May 7, 2014 12:12 PM

    The character in Belle is actually European. She is of Haitian/British descent. Gugu's casting seems appropriate in this case.

  • Liz | May 6, 2014 8:52 PMReply

    As a black woman and film student, there's a key issue as to why there is no actual formula for "mainstream success." To put it simply, there's no real black identity in America. There really isn't. Black Americans, like the descendants of slaves, were stripped of all ethnic identity which originated in Africa. In addition, many of them must be of mixed race to some degree. I've noticed a difference in physique & bone structure from current Africans. Now, there also Caribbean and South American (and Canadian too) black people. Specifically in the Caribbean and South America, black people have more of a national identity. I'm of Caribbean ancestry. That identity has helped cultures create viewpoints of their own. It's not the same with Americans. We must remember that not all black people are the same, just look at the different ethnic groups in Africa! It's problematic to try to have a systematic "black identity" in America because there's no real unity in a group that's made up of different people. If I can give you an example. Italians and Germans consider themselves to be very different from each other. They have vastly different cultures although they may be of a similar shade. Tyler Perry movies are garbage. Just horribly written, directed, and filmed. No merit whatsoever. I think he's the equivalent of Adam Sandler. Hollywood and the media talking heads who claim they speak for all black people need to realize that there is no singular black identity. Once we realize that, we can share our own voices.

  • Rocket | May 7, 2014 6:17 PM

    Liz,

    Can some of you guys get a new script to read from? The whole "were better than those ignorant black Americans" script is getting old. I'm sure you can come up with something since you have your own viewpoint and all.

  • Truth P | May 7, 2014 8:26 AM

    Liz how dare you claim African Americans don't have any identity i.e culture. "Black Americans, like the descendants of slaves, were stripped of all ethnic identity which originated in Africa" This is a bold face lie. You don't know what the hell you are talking about Liz. You don't know our way of life as black people who descended from people who were enslaved in America. We have an identity and a culture. We have food, music, dance,ways of praise and worship,religious beliefs,superstitions,medicine and medical practices etc. that our ancestors bought here with them that we still practice until this day. You need to read a book.

  • Miles Maker | May 6, 2014 4:15 PMReply

    Dee Rees' PARIAH opened in NY/LA on 4 screens with a respectable $12k avg. and would have exceeded expectations (in my humble opinion) if Focus Features had been more bullish about its release--considering grassroots awareness, the Meryl Streep mention when she accepted her Golden Globe award and Kim Wayans' appearance on Jimmy Kimmel among other major media coverage.

    A distributor's commitment to their theatrical spend is definitive in terms of markets, screens and P&A (prints and advertising) which is maximized with same day cable/satellite VOD for impulse viewers. This is why day-and-date releases are much more effective for independent films because access to as many consumers as possible during the peak conversation around a title is crucial to cashing in on fleeting attention currency. However BELLE is a FOX Searchlight release which will undoubtedly adhere to their business model in their Best interest, they are nonetheless among the better theatrical distributors of films produced by people of color.

  • Miles Maker | May 6, 2014 4:16 PM

    Correction: NY/LA and San Francisco for PARIAH's theatrical premiere on 4 screens.

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