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In Defining 'Quality Black Cinema,' Whose Lens Are You Looking Through?

by Malcolm Woodard
August 17, 2012 5:25 PM
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First let me thank Tambay for giving me this platform to share my views, even if they may not be popular.

In thinking about how we judge black cinema today, I recall a quote by Frantz Fanon, the preeminent black psychoanalyst, activist, thinker and philosopher, who wrote Black Skin, White Masks and The Wretched of the Earth. In Black Skin, White Masks, Fanon states:

"There is a fact: White men consider themselves superior to black men. There is another fact: Black men want to prove to white men, at all costs, the richness of their thought, the equal value of their intellect… For the black man there is only one destiny... And it is white... The analysis I am undertaking is psychological… It is apparent to me that the effect disalienation of the black man entails an immediate recognition of social and economic realities. If there is an inferiority complex it is the outcome of a double process: Primarily, economic; subsequently, the internalization of this inferiority."

So, essentially, he’s attempting to deconstruct what appear to be innate feelings of dependency and inadequacy by Blacks in a world dominated by whites, and how black people have effectively lost their native cultural originalities and are essentially forced to embrace an Eurocentric culture that’s being imposed on them; and as a result, this inferiority complex, whether consciously or unconsciously, manifests itself in many ways, throughout our lives.

Thus, there’s a much larger issue at work here - one that maybe isn’t being directly dealt with. And that issue is multi-leveled – first, it’s whether we as black people are judging each other, or in this specific case, for the sake of this blog, whether we are judging our artistic expressions, specifically film, based on some Eurocentric model, as opposed to an Afrocentric model. And secondly, I'm led to wonder where European influence ends and blackness begins… or, are we forced to reconsider that age-old question, what is blackness? How can one define blackness? Can it be defined, or has black culture (or maybe more specifically African culture) been completely co-opted and essentially absorbed so much that it doesn’t even exist anymore, and that black culture is in essence American culture? How does one really begin to answer those questions? I don’t know.

We can spend hours wondering what Africa could have been like today if the Portuguese never landed on Africa’s western shores in the 15th century, beginning the exporting of slaves to Europe and America, through the 19th century. What would Africa be today? Where would black people be today? Our culture(s), arts, music, language, philosophies, attire, cuisine, and of course, in this specific case, cinema? Impossible to say I think, but certainly something to always keep in mind, especially as we consume cinema bred from a system that's been operated exclusively by white men and women who have no genuine interest in our evolution.

But maybe all of that is irrelevant, and we should simply accept the cards that we’ve been dealt in life, and try to make the most of what we do have… whatever those things are. But, yes, I wonder whether those of us who are dismissing films like those by Tyler Perry for example, should be doing so with a little more awareness of the various hierarchical currents prevalent in our societies; essentially, those of us who have been exposed to films made by the majority… those with the real power in this world… and those, as Frantz Fanon said, whom we are consciously or unconsciously trying to emulate. Here we are dismissing Tyler Perry’s films, for example, essentially comparing them to these white “masters,” or some specific Eurocentric style, or formula that we’ve been conditioned to accept, and not realizing the potential danger in doing that. Who’s to say that this model - this Eurocentric standard that we all seem to have anointed as THE model to emulate, is indeed THE preeminent standard that ALL films (all art) should be judged by.

Then again, what is this Eurocentric model? How does it differ from an Afrocentric standard? Are they the same thing, or are their individual elements interchangeable?

Again, I don’t know… I don’t have all the answers.

But the point of all this I suppose, is that this rabbit hole (this notion of black cinema in crisis today) goes a lot deeper than we may realize, and it’s a much more complex issue; not one that can be resolved with a singular statement, or act. There are several factors to consider here, some that I didn’t even get into; but there’s much more to this than we might be able to actually do anything about.

One thing I do know, is that we simply just can’t sit back on our hands and wait for the others to identify our problems, and resolve them… we have to be much more aggressive, assertive and proactive, as I’ve said many times before.

It is worth noting that, I learned that the word "Afrocentric" wasn't listed in some dictionaries until very recently, but "Eurocentric" always is. In my Oxford Dictionary, copyrighted 2006, Afrocentric isn't listed, but Eurocentric is. That actually says something, don't you think?

I know... Quality is quality and "Afrocentric" shouldn't equal average or sub-par. Of course not! What I question is who defines "quality?" Is it subjective? Is it something that we've been taught, whether directly or through years of socialization under the rule of “Eurocentricism” ("This" is quality and "That" is not).

In English classrooms, from junior high through college, I was taught the so-called "masters" of literature - Shakespeare, Dickens, Hemingway, and others like them - none that looked like me. Are these people "masters" because someone told us they are? I say yes. It's like seeing the black kid down the street with his pants down to his knees and passing judgment on him because he doesn't conform to some "standard" we expect him to - a standard that I believe wasn't set by people who look like us.

If we hadn't been taught what someone else considers "quality," what would be "quality" to *us*?

It's like when the Europeans invaded African countries in an effort to "tame those black savages" and show them how to live like "civilized" people... who was to say that Africans weren't already civilized? Who's definition of “civilized” are we to adhere to? Who's definition of "quality" are we currently holding as the standard?

Ok, I know I'm skipping about a bit and digging a little deeper than maybe is necessary, but it's connected. And I guess my point in all this is that maybe we shouldn't be so quick to dismiss or judge not only people like Tyler Perry, but also the people who love his work and others like him regardless of the medium in which they work. And when we are being critical (which is fine with me by the way), we should consider what exactly it is we're criticizing and why, and maybe that will help shape our various critiques.

I wasn't trying to turn this into a Tyler Perry defense (honestly, I'm not even a fan). But he's just the most prominent and easiest example for me to use. It could be any other film, or filmmaker.

The Frantz Fanon quote is really what inspired this.

More later.

Thank you for reading my small contribution to the ongoing conversation, and I look forward to your comments.

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  • Cybornetics | September 4, 2012 1:41 PMReply

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  • Joseph G. | August 21, 2012 11:49 PMReply

    When you are creating web series film snobs love you
    When you are creating national TV shows film snobs hate you

    When you are creating straight to DVD indie films, film snobs love you
    When you are creating a motion picture playing on thousands of screens film snobs hate you

    When you are an actor who gets no leading roles, film snobs love you
    When you are an actor getting leading roles, film snobs hate you

    When you are successful in one area in entertainment, film snobs hate you
    When you are successful in many areas of entertainment, film snobs despise you.

    My point: Let's just call it as it is.

  • JTC | August 22, 2012 12:03 PM

    Is it just hate and snobbery that is going on here? Is it really snobbery to dislike a particular artist's work? I think that Black people have often been to quick to dismiss the internal critiques that we make about our own community. This fact has always bothered me. I love President Obama, but that doesn't mean that I have not been critical of some of his policies and strategies. To have the capacity to grow as both a people and as individuals, we need to be able to be critical without the critiques being dismissed as haterism or snobbery.

  • nina | August 21, 2012 12:24 PMReply

    really interesting article, dude. i struggle with your same questions all the time. in conversations with friends, i have a hard time getting them to see the point of these same questions. the comments section here is invigorating, frustrating, enlightening...all that it should be. i hope everyone here keeps taking these conversations off the board and back to their friends and peers. like others here, i have often wondered "which way the black film?" why hasn't film evolved and experienced the same explosion, critical re-awakening, vast dimensionality that other arts (like black music, dance, and other visual arts) have? black film is just about a hundred years old, too, for those of us who study this stuff, though sadly, the early stuff is no longer extant. so it's really not a question of how long we "been in da game," but rather, how we see the game. i keep coming back to whether there is just an inherent problem in the good old camera itself. (bear with me a moment.) the film camera (like the still camera) is designed to capture images a certain way, and we expect it to conform to the ideals of renaissance perspective, distance (vanishing points, yadda yadda), and "reality" if you will. does capturing images with cameras always already embed ways of seeing that may already be western, eurocentric, white, whatever word you want to use ?i know that all these ways of seeing through the camera can be subverted (heck, lenses, filters, rejecting perspective and space, etc), but can these ways of seeing ever really be defeated? now i hear you yelling: that would be like saying there can never be a "truly" black cinema because the dang camera itself is always already "racist" or something like that, and this is also equal to dismissing all the talented black (and asian, southeast asian, etc) artists who have created great films. but i truly wonder about the technological aspects of this debate, that don't seem to have as much bearing on questions of painting, dance, sculpture, etc. does this mean black folk should just throw up their hands and not create films? heavens know. but i do call into question our ideas about how to judge black film as art when we also need to interrogate not only the industry but also the apparatus itself.

  • Orville | August 20, 2012 9:16 PMReply

    I think Malcolm Woodard's essay is interesting because it is true in the global black community in the psyche I believe there is this attitude that in order to be successful we have to appeal to white people. The question is why? A lot of black people piss over Tyler Perry he isn't perfect but he is a gay black director that's doing his own thing and making money. Perry has consistent box office hits.

    But I think there is also isn't just one black community and not all of us blacks on this board are Americans. For instance, I'm a Canadian and I am black. There isn't just one "black cinema" nor is there just one specific kind of "Afrocentric model". I believe that there should a place where multiple forms of black cinema can have a place to thrive. Also, not all black cinema should or is about black heterosexuality either. There are black gays and lesbian films like Pariah that should get more of a platform in the black community but they still don't. Pariah is probably one of the best black films in the past two or three years but it didn't get much press in the black media because it deals with black lesbianism.

    I also think some black film critics and film snobs definitely have a Eurocentric outlook and perspective. For instance, there was a huge emphasis on Pariah last year whether or not it would get Oscar nominations. But why should it matter whether Pariah gets Oscar nominations or not. In the end Pariah didn't get Oscar nominations, but I think in the black community there is this belief that we still need white validation in order to be palatable. Earlier this year Viola Davis didn't win best actress for The Help and there was an outcry. But should anyone really be surprised?

  • LeonRaymond | August 20, 2012 8:47 PMReply

    I want to pose this question, when wanting Black Cinema to be of highest art form or so the same for Cinema of the diaspora, can we use Jazz Music's finest like Charlie Parker and Coltrane as the barometers for how superb Black Cinema should or must be, even sacrifice the pleasing of the crowd to create greatness is what they went after. Can we compare. I am asking a question I clearly don't have the answer to but would like to hear valid opinions

  • willie dynamite | August 20, 2012 7:53 PMReply

    I am late to this discussion but glad to see it happening. Malcolm is correct in our self perception of inferiority in most aspects but there is a standard that exists that trumps euro or afrocentric perspectives. In my humble opinion a film like Shawshank Redemption is a great piece of cinema, just like City of God. Two very different films but both are great. Universal themes, great performance, visual style, and top notch execution create the standard of excellence. However, every year there are films touted as oscar worthy that just don't make sense. Using Tyler Perry as an example probably wasn't the best choice because he is easy to rip apart due to a lack of quality. A degree of quality that he could have if he wanted to.

    Truth be told, filmmakers of color in America are relatively new to the game coming to a semblence of prominence 20 years ago. And our audience is still just happy to see ourselves on the screen.

    The audience. What speaks volumes is the success TP has obtained. We must look at his audience. Life is hard for the oppressed so when it comes time to watch a film they want to sit back, relax, laugh a little bit, care a little bit, and just be entertained. The suspension of disbelief is not as high because it does not have to be. We are just happy to be there and see ourselves on the screen.

    In this day and age we have all been exposed to a great film. Most people that watch films know a great film. They may not know how to explain what makes it great but they know its great. This is what creates the standard. There is a reason why Menace II Society is a classic and some other "hood" films are not.

  • Olu | August 31, 2012 5:37 PM

    SPOT ON. i dont need to say anymore cos u put it perfectly. We know quality when we see it and doesnt always have to do with "white" standard or quality.

  • Charles Judson | August 22, 2012 9:55 PM

    Actually I think Willie is dead on. Here's more of the Suspension of Disbelief quote: "... It was agreed, that my endeavours should be directed to persons and characters supernatural, or at least romantic, yet so as to transfer from our inward nature a human interest and a semblance of truth sufficient to procure for these shadows of imagination that willing suspension of disbelief for the moment, which constitutes poetic faith. Mr. Wordsworth on the other hand was to propose to himself as his object, to give the charm of novelty to things of every day, and to excite a feeling analogous to the supernatural, by awakening the mind's attention from the lethargy of custom, and directing it to the loveliness and the wonders of the world before us ..." The burden in Suspension of Disbelief is not on the audience, but on the creator. Writers like Coleridge had run into the issue that there were audiences in the 19th century who were no longer were as interested in the fantastical and romantic. Coleridge realized it was up to him to invest in his writings the elements that would overcome his audience's growing reluctance so he could continue to write what interested him. Black audiences are very much like audiences from the 19th century. Like those audiences lots of us have moved on from films like the one's Perry are doing, expanded our interests to the point that Perry isn't someone we respond to as strongly as other filmmakers, or we simply at this point don't share his worldview. We've become more sophisticated in our thinking. I think this post right here demonstrates how the Easy Bake mentality of Folksy Wisdom can be contradictory, damaging and outright dangerous: There's a Remember When Mentality in Perry films that don't comport with reality. We are much more complex than a collection of Chicken Soup for the Soul observations. If you agree with Perry, so be it. But, when I see the damage abuse has on people, don't expect me to ignore that Madea's (playfully by some folk's standards) threatening to beat a runaway, who has clearly never been the member of a functional family--and we never get to know as her own person or character with a true arc--to discipline her in FAMILY REUNION, while selling the message that women should be respected, is not only troubling but deeply contradictory. His lack of awareness of that conflict only undermines him as a filmmaker and damns him as a voice of note. We can defend his work as entertaining, it doesn't address or erase the problematic characterizations or philosophies.

  • CareyCarey | August 22, 2012 2:38 PM

    Mr. Dynamite, again I have to say you don't know what you're talking about AND you're not digging deep enough. Ponder this... first, what proof do you have to say the fondation of TP's audience is the blue collar bible toting crowd? I'll tell you, NONE. You've bit the apple of divide and conquer. The non-bible toting crowd (Dem folks) on one side and atheist, good smart folks and the upward bound on the other. And then we're left with a form of "guilt" by association on one side and highly favored by "dissociation" on the other side. Second, going back to the title and theme of this post "whose eyes are you looking through", lets go at this from the viewpoint of literature/novels. I am sure you've heard the words "Great American Classics"? Now, throughout our school years everyone was required to read a few of those Great "American" Classics. Although there has been many great black writers, none of those books were written by black authors. So, the question is whose standard are we talking about? The same can be said for films and entertainment on a whole. Listen, here's the point, the white American -- as this post suggests -- has invaded our psyche. Take for instance the words "Chitlin circuit". Why was it called that? It was given that name because it was a black circuit with black entertainers, who entertained a predominantly black audience. It was NOT given that name because the entertainment was "inferior" (some whites would have you believe so). Oh no, although the word "chitlins" inplies an inferior product (the guts of a pig) and just as the word "black" is used as a sign of "wrong/bad" (i.e. black sheep, black eye, black mark on your resume, don't cross the path of a black cat, black death, etc,) when those same entertainers were "allowed" to perform in white joints/clubs, they magically were "accepted", they were all good and created new standards/classics/models of success. Get it? Now, reference "does not take much for that [Tyler's] loyal audeince to be entertained". Point blank, that's another foolish assertion which was obviously NOT born from deep thinking. Look, in regards to films, how does the NON-Tyler crowd spell entertained? I am suggesting that we all are entertained via our fives senses (sight, hearing, smell, taste,touch) they all serve to move us emotionally. More importantly, each of us are moved/affected differently by different stimuli. As this relates to film, some folks are moved to tears by the words of Shakespeare, yet, in other people they wouldn't even usher in a smile. Some people can be moved to tears by the humor of Bernie Mac and Kevin Hart, yet others believe they are disgusting. Many folks are moved/entertained by music, but again, one man's garbage is another man's treasure, which has nothing to do with their education nor their financial status. Some filmgoers adore long scenes with loads of dialog, while others would rather cut to the chase and find their entertainment pleasure in car crashes, graphic horror, T&A, CGI or a love scene "they" can relate to. GET IT? ENTERTAINMENT wears many hats. Each person, REGARDLESS of their financial status, education AND religious preference are affected/moved/entertained differently. But most importantly, the apple does not fall far from the tree and we all are products of our environment. GET IT? As those thoughts relate to this discussion, go back and read Frantz Fanon's quote.

  • willie dynamite | August 21, 2012 12:55 PM

    Yes TLAM did big numbers but that opens up another discussion because that film crossed over in to non black markets. That 91 million was not an entirely black audience

    and yes the foundation of TP's audience is the blue collar bible toting crowd. You missed my comment when I said "The suspension of disbelief is not that high" which means it does not take much for that loyal audience tobe entertained. And I will stand by the statement that in this day and age with access to so much content most film watchers have been exposed to a great film which creates a standard.

  • Orville | August 20, 2012 9:21 PM

    But there isn't just "one black community" Willie Dynamite, there are MULTIPLE black communities. I think that's the problem too much generalization is going on. Some black people like Tyler Perry and some don't. The black snobs who are resentful of Tyler Perry because he's the dominant black director at the box office. But it isn't Tyler to blame fort the masses flocking to his films.

    Someone else is going to have to step up, and this year someone did Steve Harvey's movie TLAM had huge box office over $95 million. So I think other black directors and screenwriters got to be creative do their homework, target their audience, and work hard to make a box office hit.

    Tyler Perry worked his butt off for his success he shouldn't be condemned for being successful.
    Perry has a formula and it works. It is time for other black directors to do the same thing.

  • CareyCarey | August 20, 2012 8:27 PM

    "We must look at his [Tyler's] audience. Life is hard for the oppressed so when it comes time to watch a film they want to sit back, relax, laugh a little bit, care a little bit, and just be entertained" ~Willie. Mr. Dynamite, so Tyler Perry's audience are oppressed? My God, please check yourself. But wait Willie, you continued down a very presumptuos path ---> "Most people that watch films know a great film". Oh Really?! But Tyler's audience ( millions of them from every walk of life (i.e, lawyers, professsors, medical personal, school teachers, politicians, etc) cannot suspend belief... are oppressed and thus cannot discern a great film? WOW... and you didn't stop... "They may not know how to explain what makes it great but they know its great". REALLY? SERIOUSLY? C 'mon man! As Jimmie J.J. Walker would say... DY-NO-MITE!!!

  • ALM | August 20, 2012 2:53 PMReply

    Yes! This is the conversation that we need to be make the excellent point that from birth what is "right" and "quality" is fed to us. We never have the opportunity to freely establish our own views of what is "right" and "quality" separate from the mainstream. Your point about literature is so true. I never was exposed to African American authors until I went to summer camps for people of color. I have participated in honors English classes in both grade school and high school, and only one African or African American writer is mentioned, usually either Zora Neale Hurston or Toni Morrison. Personally, I view quality black cinema as something that is/seems genuine without being degrading. In quality black cinema the characters are well developed, and I learn something from the film.

  • JTC | August 20, 2012 2:24 AMReply

    Taking it to the Frantz Fanon level. Wow! He was one of our greatest thinker/philosophers without question. I must say that I think that when you look at the current GENERAL condition of the African American community (voter suppression, STDs, poverty, education, prison, street violence) it would seem hard to debate that a part of the reason why so many things seem to be deteriorating in our community is, at least in part, related to the fact that we have an inferiority complex. I think it is important to say, however, it gets a little scary when there is an implied idea that the critique of so many of our African American films is born out of applying a European/White American standard to our films. At some point in the early 90's, I remember Hip Hop going in the direction of gangster rap. I didn't have a problem with gangster rap because I wasn't gangster. In fact, the only problem I had was when the young kids in my neighborhood as well as my friend suddenly started to model themselves after gangsters whose stories were creatively stretched if not blatantly untrue. I take it back this far because this was, in my opinion, a tipping point for our culture. The gangster, and his friends, the hustler, the thug, the player, the baller, and the rest of the crew became so much more than just art. It became a method of self deception. Black men without power created a Matrix within the Matrix which would allow themselves to feel powerful without having to actually take the steps to truly attain it. And this Matrix slithered its way through our music, our novels, our poetry, our TV shows and even our films and finally deep into our consciousness. But I can't ultimately talk about Black films without considering Black Art. RANE spoke about the fact that John Coltrane (my favorite jazz musician) found a universe of creativity through a Belgian instrument. EXACTLY! Did you see boxing before Jack Johnson? What about basketball before we got a hold of it? Hip Hop took the tools at its disposal and created one of the world's most influential forces on youth culture. I strongly believe that Black People are, for a number of reasons, transformation engines. I see it everywhere, except in the vast majority of our Black films. As a self aware man, I cannot deny that I have been impacted by the cultural products of the dominant culture, however, external cultural influences aside, I know soul when I FEEL it. I know how Coltrane, Bob Marley, Barry Sanders, Muhammed Ali, Martin Luther King, Barrack Obama, Rakim, KRS-ONE, Michael Jackson, Phase 2, Jill Scott, Billie Holiday, and a seemingly endless trail of others hit me. Stopped me in my tracks. Captivated me. I know the passion that permeated from their efforts. Does that really mean that I am on some think I'm all that shit? No. I truly believe that when Black films find the brothers and sisters who bring it to the level of these giants, then there will be little that can be done to stop Black film because it will be in such high demand. Does my peculiar American heritage impact my worldview? Of course, it does. How much does that matter? I think that we must not make the mistake of giving White/European culture the false status of purity. They have been as fiercely impacted by their collision with African American culture, rock, blues, jazz, clothes, slang, food, among many other things. And not just our culture but the cultures of all the people they colonized. I am reminded of argument a friend and I had with a Five Percenter in NY. He told us that there was no doubt that pig was 1/2 cat, 1/2 rat, and 1/2 dog. My friend who studied actually studied genetics said that would be impossible. To which the brother responded, "that's cause you been reading that white man's science." Is there a white man's science? And to film, is there an excellence in film which exists which is deeper than the culture which gives rise to it? I think that transformative art from anytime and anyplace resonates with a spirit deeper than any particular culture, even as much as I am in love with my own culture. We can make ourselves some transformative art, but I don't know if that is from our culture as much as it is due to the shit that we have gone through in America, hundreds of years of being broken down and crushed until the soul was what the only thing that remained. I'm just saying... Steps down from the soapbox.

  • artbizzy | September 1, 2012 7:40 PM

    This is the truth ruth right here. Thank you JTC - "And to film, is there an excellence in film which exists which is deeper than the culture which gives rise to it? I think that transformative art from anytime and anyplace resonates with a spirit deeper than any particular culture, even as much as I am in love with my own culture. We can make ourselves some transformative art, but I don't know if that is from our culture as much as it is due to the shit that we have gone through in America, hundreds of years of being broken down and crushed until the soul was what the only thing that remained. I'm just saying... Steps down from the soapbox." Oh please get back up on that soapbox!

  • CT | August 19, 2012 11:09 AMReply

    Interesting, but where does Nollywood (i.e. commercial English language Nigerian cinema) fall into this discussion. Is that cinema 'Afrocentric' in the way that most understand?

  • Micah | August 19, 2012 5:57 AMReply

    While I definitely appreciate what I think you are trying to say overall, I still feel the way you present your argument falls flat until you properly define Afrocentric. What films made today by African American filmmakers or any American filmmakers be considered afrocentric? This is an especially important question considering (1) how cutoff African Americans were from their roots, (2) how America has been developing it's on culture away from european influence and (3) how the medium of film was mostly developing in the west. If you were inspired by a film it's a good chance until more recently it was probably made in the west or directly influenced by the west. Also if you look at European films and American films you can see big differences aside from just the language. America has put it's on unique stamp on film, for better or worse. Regions in Asia have had time to put their stamp on filmmaking. Regions in Africa are only really getting going on putting their stamp on film now. In order to make a film Afrocentric in the way the story is told would it have to be directly inspired from the long tradition of African Storytelling? Would it have to deal with African topics? These are just more thoughts and questions to add to the discussion. Malcolm I hope you get a chance to post again and go deeper into your subjects. It always good to have deep searching post on subjects. Thanks.

  • CareyCarey | August 19, 2012 12:32 PM

    "Which way did he go, George? Which way did he go?" ~ Warner Bros Of Fox and Hound. Listen, getting stuck on the semantics of "Afrocentric" is shifting the focus away from what I believe to be Malcolm's central point. Malcolm will have to help me out but I believe he used "afrocentric" for lack of a better word to describe "black folks in America". You know, trying to be politically correct, he referred to white folks as "Eurocentric", the opposite of which is... Afrocentric. I've come to this conclusion based on the title of this post "In Defining "Quality Black Cinema," Whose Lens Are You Looking Through? ... And his reference to Tyler Perry. Case in point, it goes without question that this blog's base is black folks. Consequently, Malcolm was asking the black audience; movie enthusiasts and black film critics alike, "Whose lens are Y'ALL looking through? More importantly, his opening quotes by Frantz Fanon speaks to "White Men" and how we've may have been affected by their control and influence of our (black folks) minds. Hey, it's true, when a man controls your mind, he controls YOU. So when Malcolm posed the question "who defines "quality?" I can't help but believe he was suggesting that maybe, just maybe, sometimes, some of "us" look through the lens of the white man as our standard of "quality" and "good" and "relevant". As I pointed out in another comment, Malcolm admitted that he didn't have the answer and he shaped his quandary to fit this "movie" blog, but his central point (imo) is glarringly obvious. That is, this (malcolm's post) is not necessarily or solely focusing of films. It has a duel purpose. It's about a mindset. Okay, taken from the post --> "The analysis I am undertaking is psychological… It is apparent to me that the effect disalienation of the black man entails an immediate recognition of social and economic realities" ..."what appear to be innate feelings of dependency and inadequacy by Blacks in a world dominated by whites, whom we are consciously or unconsciously trying to emulate." Now come on folks, there it is. Why are we clouding the issue and moving the goal posts. Look, Malcolm used Tyler Perry as an example and I believe I know why. Although millions love his productions, there are those; black film critics, arm-chair psychoanalyst, black film snobs and garden variety cynics who profess that his work is not "quality" or it's not "good". So, as Malcolm asked "who defines quality" and "whose lens are you looking through". Surely those who despise Tyler works are not speaking for the overwhelming majority of black folks in the United States. That's right, there's no doubt that the population of Tyler's audience is in the majority of black movie goers. Ticket sales will attest to that. So, are we running from the issue that white folks controlled our minds and now residue remains?

  • Charles Judson | August 19, 2012 10:04 AM

    To back up Micah, film has been the most expensive and technologically demanding art form. The early days of Cinema required films to be shot out doors or in rooms with large windows because the films need lots of light. The changes in film stock over the years had the effect digital film had, it made shooting cheaper and more mobile. The early days of Chinese production is mostly Foreign owned prior to the 1930s because they could afford the costs. Once you get to the sound era and more films had to be shot on sound stages it became incredibly difficult for countries that didn't have the economics, or the infrastructure, or the access to equipment and film stock to turn out films consistently enough to have a robust film culture. Most filmmakers of color around the world would have been influenced by films from the West because those were more accessible and available. Many filmmakers coming in up in the 1950s, 1960s and 1970s have admitted they often went years as a kid having never seen a film from their home country. It shouldn't be a surprise that Global Cinema and film festivals really only start to emerge in the 10 to 20 years after WWII. Film is a young art form and it's high barriers to entry have had twin impacts on it. Film is not like painting, plays, stories, dance or sculpture, all of which are thousands of years old. And unlike those areas of art, film emerged the same time travel and information began moving much faster, so it's not like filmmakers had years to make and experiment with their own films without outside influence. It's probably one of the key reasons film language is more universal because it emerged in a environment in which filmmakers were sharing, stealing and bouncing ideas off of each other in a very short amount of time. This to me makes the question about who's question of quality are you using muddier. Although, nearly every film culture has pushed back against being overly influenced by the West. In countries like Japan you can find local censors and critics labeling, critiquing and blocking films for being too Western. Audiences in those countries also often followed suite. Non-western filmmakers that are now looked at as Global Masters in Cinema were often not beloved in their home countries and were even financially bad bets even though they had followings in the West. A recent example is CROUCHING TIGER, HIDDEN DRAGON. A film that was a hit worldwide but a flop in China, with critics ripping it to shreds. Strangely though, or may not when you think about it, there were copy cat films made.

  • CareyCarey | August 18, 2012 12:12 PMReply

    "So, essentially, he's attempting to deconstruct what appear to be innate feelings of dependency and inadequacy by Blacks in a world dominated by whites, and how black people have effectively lost their native cultural originalities and are essentially forced to embrace an Eurocentric culture that’s being imposed on them; and as a result, this inferiority complex, whether consciously or unconsciously, manifests itself in many ways, throughout our lives". I posted those words in defence of Mr. Malcolm Woodard because I believe that was the central issue of his post. However, when he tried to shape it to fit this blog (which he admittedly did--> "or in this specific case, for the sake of this blog") I knew a few of our resident wordsmiths would... well... drop in for a little fine dining of shish kebab Malcolm. Again, I believe Malcolm simply wanted to inspire conversation on desegregation and assimilation, and how each of them have affected our thinking patterns. Yet, he ran into deep doo-doo when he introduced "afrocentric" and Tyler into the discussion. I understood why he thought it was necessary to include them, nevertheless, it created huge holes in his piece. And I have to add what Dee said: "What is the point of initiating debate on a site that doesn"t offer basic formatting? Every opinion is turned into an unreadable paragraph". YEAH, for the life of me I can't understand why Indiewire does not have a format that embraces "discussion"?

  • Carey | August 18, 2012 12:17 PM

    I must have been typing while Malcolm was posting his last comment.

  • Malcolm Woodard | August 18, 2012 11:47 AMReply

    I now wish I hadn't mentioned Tyler Perry in the piece. But he was a popular filmmaker many of us don't like so he seemed good enough to use as an example. As I said, I don't have all the answers. These are thoughts to further ongoing conversations and just give readers something more to consider. And thanks for all your comments, which have given me more to think about. The more specific point to I was trying to get through was to get people thinking about what influences their choices on what is "good" or "bad" cinema, and to think about questioning those influences instead of just accepting them as the only way to view films. I think of Nollywood films in Nigeria for example. Those films aren't looked at favorably by people outside of Africa, but it's an industry that was born and sustained itself really without much *outside* influence. And the people love and appreciate the films. And not only those in Nigeria either but throughout the Diaspora. I think the same of Bollywood films, much the same like Tyler Perry films. It seems like the only time African films (and I'm including the Diaspora) get any kind of international recognition and acclaim, is when they mimic the styles and sensibilities of films made by Europeans or Americans (specifically white Europeans and Americans because, let's face it, they dominate cinema and control much of it, and have done so since the start over 100 years ago). And then people in the international community say things like the filmmakers in those countries need to "catch up," (or black cinema needs to catch up) whatever that means, which I think is condescending and insulting, instead of trying to understand what else might be at work. I feel like *black cinema* is still quite young and evolving, trying to find itself, and I think the fact that there seems to be this desire to follow or mimic an existing model/system/style that wasn't invented by *us* is only getting in the way of that evolution, of us finding our own voices. But I'm not naive. I know that what I'm suggesting will never happen. It's too late for that. But I still see value in challenging the status quo and encourage critical thinking beyond the surface. I'm also hoping to get to the notion of a "black aesthetic" in film (or art in general) and whether there's such a thing, and if there is, what that is. Some have said "struggle" is its identifier. I have to think about that. But I plan to contribute more pieces to S&A on this and other topics on my mind. Thanks for reading.

  • Joseph G. | August 21, 2012 11:28 PM

    Correction @SOULWIZE , you are given a gift to create what's from within you. Some people love them hooks. There are some Gospel songs that are just a hook, but it means something for someone. I think you missed what Malcolm was saying. There is no right artist/filmmakers. That film snob mentality wants to tell us their are, but we all know the film snob's theology comes from screaming insecurity.

  • SOULWIZE | August 21, 2012 7:48 AM


    You have very interesting perspectives and it's a good thing you're sharing them. I actually think what you're suggesting will eventually happen...when the right artists/filmmakers come along to take us there. Some already have come along, in albeit smaller ways and different mediums. Look at rap - there are some who say it's dead and some who say it's still evolving. It's global impact is undeniable, even as a lot of it still continues to personify singular greed and wealth and the celebration of a hood/ghetto mentality, this while its' highest paid "artists" travel the world and enjoy lifestyles that are far, far removed from the hood they pimp and get paid to exploit. I keep hearing the "at least he/she paid" - as the reason we should be okay with the "dumbing" down of our culture and why we should settle for garbage and other nonsense we see on screen/TV and hear on the radio. I get "mindless" entertainment. And yes, there's room for it -- but when I hear a rap song that is just a hook or see a film that is just a hook -- all I think of are 2 things: 1. They gave this person money to waste our time and 2. This person accepted money to waste our time. When you are given a gift, that gift does come with some responsibility. Some gift-takers understand this and some will never and then, there are some who will only see the pretty box with the bow on top and re-package that to the world and will never, ever open it...and look inside.

  • Nadine | August 18, 2012 1:06 PM

    As one of the commentators below, PLEASE KNOW, Malcolm, that I so very much APPRECIATE your post and your foundational point. Please do NOT be discouraged by anything, at least, I said. I understand that you are SO not naive. I absolutely get that and I believe your foundational point to be very valid, SO VALID AND IMPORTANT, in fact that I thought it important to point out some of the larger holes in your argument in an attempt to help fill in the gaps that will become difficult for some readers/your audience/and naysayers to overcome. I was sad because your post, in its essence, is a brilliant, but when you're dropping something as deep as your dropping, covering all your bases is essential because you are dropping a truth that a LOT of people WILL NOT want to hear. Thank you again for posting! I actually felt invigorated by your post and the PURITY of the message. This is one of those posts where I feel like S&A has GOT to get into the video game; get a small production together and with an audience, discuss these issues on camera with the author of the post and text of the original post above or beneath the video. NY, Chicago, LA... VERY SIMPLE, just once a month... advertising dollars for S&A... which I think would be helpful (I would advertise). Anyway Malcolm, please keep doing what you're doing. BTW - What I think we are all feeling is a dwindled African-American culture that now finds its affirmation almost EXCLUSIVELY through White American society and ideals. It seems like nothing we do is done without the approval, consideration and inclusion of the mainstream SANS a Tyler Perry who, at least, made his way and found his success through African-American markets, though many of us may disagree with his message. This is self-determination which we are lacking, one of many African priniciples we are missing as it seems we cannot do ANYTHING, as a community, without wondering what the mainstream markets will think (or support with their dollars). You argument could be applied to this problem of casting our icons with more suitable actors/actresses who are better embraced by the mainstream as opposed to those who embody the icon and their life experiences, or be applied to the fact that our fashion is now dictated by what some former waitress who married "well" in Beverly Hills might be wearing that has nothing to do with who you are intrinsically (no Africa medallions, no oversized Gap sweaters, no mudcloth pencil skirts, or print blouses, no acceptance of your hair growing out of your head the way G-d intended, a co-opted and manufactured style of "hip hop" dressing). All of your points, well-taken, Malcolm. I got you!

  • CareyCarey | August 18, 2012 12:56 PM

    Have no regrets Mr. Woodard... I understood exactly why you mentioned Tyler Perry. But you have to understand that when you bring his name into the discussion, folks instantly proceed to their entrenched position (on him) and thus, they stop listening to all opinions other than their own. But again, I took your reference to him as a means to get others to question the deeper issues of what influences "might" shape their opinions of his Films. Some have argued that he shows "us" in a "bad light". Consequently, that speaks to the title of your post.. "Whose Lens Are You Looking Through?". I mean, do white folks have that same conversation when they critique productions by white filmmakers starring a prodominately white cast? So Malcolm, stand on your words because "I", a black man, knew and can relate to your central point. And btw, Nadine and Charles Judson are two of the most intense/passsionate about film/well spoken commenters who visit this site, so to a large degree, you have arrived. Welcome to S&A.

  • Nadine | August 18, 2012 10:41 AMReply

    Your post makes me sad... especially regarding Tyler Perry. You focus on the Eurocentric and Afrocentric, yet your take on each, based on your post, does not seem to fit into their sociological definitions. Ignore the dictionary. Also on Tyler Perry - I don't spend too much time on him, my own personal form of censorship, because shutting things that some might not find to be good for the society, often backfires; alternatives are the best way to steer society in the right direction, but Tyler Perry is an exercise in pathology/disease. There is nothing "afrocentric" about that. Afrocentricity is an ideology that is NOT significantly present in Tyler Perry movies (possibly in the character of Madea, though). UBUNTU, one of the classically African ideologies is just one example, "I am what I am because of who we all are." - there is humility, communalism (awareness of not only self, but the community), kindness, dignity, pride and so on. An all Black cast can STILL be very Eurocentric. Eurocentricity is very Machiavellian; very conquer or be conquered. You can have , "Why Did I Get Married" and, in your writing, have no sense of communalism/kindness/dignity/pride evident in others outside of anyone who does not reflect YOU the writer, and use your, often, maligned characters to advance your own personal agenda. When people had difficulty separating Hip Hop (which they INCORRECTLY call everything now) from Rap music, people took note of the messages found originally in Hip Hop, but had difficulty making clear delineations. Hip Hop, in its core, is African; Rap music is Machiavellian and the antithesis to any of the classically African ideologies. I just... Malcolm, it is not difficult to see the differences when you travel, gain exposure and free your mind of the refuse of this American society; Look into the Black histories of nations other than your own and see the similarities and spirituality that permeates these cultures and then see how those ideologies do not align with where African-American culture is TODAY as opposed to PRE-desegregation... there are a lot of answers to the questions/theories outside of what we are typically allowed to know, in this country.

  • Nadine | August 18, 2012 10:58 AM

    Actually, look at the histories of all people. Check out Hawaiian history, Aboriginal history, Phillipine history, etc...; look into the hostories of the different countries in Africa before Europeans and after. Caribbean and Central american history would be perfect for you (as well as a trip there for scholarship), South American (specifically Brazil, yipes)... It will be much easier for you to recognize differences yet similarities in cultures, while taking note of the effects of outsiders. That's when you should look into Japanese, Chinese and Korean histories BEFORE Europe (having kept their shores controlled much longer than some other nations). All important... and helpful in interpreta

  • GetReal | August 18, 2012 9:18 AMReply

    The only Black man trying to prove his intellect is as good as a white man is a black "psychoanalyst" him to assume that all other blacks are just like him is nothing but an "unconscious projection"

  • Charles Judson | August 18, 2012 7:58 AMReply

    What exactly is Afrocentric storytelling? Is it not 3 act structure? Is it like Japanese Jo-ha-kyū? Until you establish that, it's difficult to pose the questions. Even then, I find the use of the word Afrocentric at times much too reductionist as I'm sure the more local one gets, be it South Africa or Ghana, you'll find overlapping story traditions, but differences that pop up, or maybe not. I've never found anything that I thought accurately went into that. They reinforce a few of the assertions that we have an underlying need to impress White writers and thinkers because they spent more time knocking Aristotle or Joseph Campbell and precious little effort in telling me anything of note about story structure from other parts of the world. This was quite a few years ago (at least 15, so pre everything is on days), so that may have changed and maybe there are some strong books I'm missing out on. But, if you can't define it, I'm not sure how you can ask filmmakers, writers and content creators why they are and aren't choosing it. It should be more than slapping a metaphorical coat of red, black and green on a project.

  • Micah | August 19, 2012 5:59 AM

    Fine points Charles.

  • Charles Judson | August 18, 2012 8:44 AM

    Let me further clarify that Afrocentric should not by definition be anything not Eurocentric. Within Europe in terms of film, German Expressionism and Britain's Kitchen Sink dramas of the 1950s and 1960s are distinct cinema movements. Again, I find reducing this to a Eurocentric vs. Afrocentric debate almost meaningless. We should be treating what was going on in film and theater in LA in the 1960s and 1970s with the same reverence as what filmmakers were doing in their Angry Young Man films in the U.K. That we don't and continue to lump so much of our own work under blanket terms like Afrocentric, the cultural equal of geographically referring to Africa as one monolithic body, either reinforces that we indeed have an inferiority complex. Or, that we have the opportunity to change the conversation and talk about our work in more depth. It may not have much to it other than a superficial veneer, but even the rise of the Buppie film in 1990s is a distinct period in Black filmmaking that has as much to offer in exploring and revisiting it as the Harlem Renaissance does. I still find THE BEST MAN's ending and overall message tying Black relationships to upward mobility troublesome to this day. Yet interesting when you contrast it and other Buppie films with the same themes with a film like CLAUDINE. In which the real world barriers of the welfare system and marriage play a major part in the story.

  • OA | August 18, 2012 3:11 AMReply

    Well, heres a sort of challenge for you then: take a black cinema movie and cast it with white people. When the race of the characters becomes interchangeable you have something valid. You should be able to tell a story that can relate to anybody.

  • Joseph G. | August 21, 2012 11:38 PM

    I disagree @OA . Our stories are not all the same. Where come from is not the same. So, if you can just plant anyone of any background into any role, that says it's a generic story. Hey, but sometimes generic stories have a point too.

  • CareyCarey | August 18, 2012 12:21 AMReply

    My man Malcolm Woodard, I've been waiting for you. Your voice is that of a stranger in this here neck of the woods. Not the stranger one should fear but one that doesn't walk and talk as the other inhabitants. I mean, to suggest that we may have been brainwashed and white-washed and lost our native cultural originalities and are essentially forced to embrace an Eurocentric culture that's being imposed on us; and as a result, have been harboring an inferiority complex, whether consciously or unconsciously, are words seldom spoken in this house. Well, lets see, who at this site would admit that the following is true: "Black men want to prove to white men, at all costs, the richness of their thought, the equal value of their intellect… For the black man there is only one destiny... And it is white." Wow, asking if that satement is true -- in this house -- is like asking Republicans if any of them are racists. Of course they're going to say hell no, no way, but we all know that's a lie. Listen, whether we care to admit it or not, since our existence on this continent, the standard of "right", "success", "beauty", "proper" speech, etc, has been a white [Eurocentric] standard. How could it not have been? And unfortunately, as Frantz Fanon said, many of us are consciously or unconsciously trying to emulate them. Is that an inferiority complex? Huuummm. Is that why some blacks run from, or are ashamed of anything remotely connected to an "Afrocentric model"? Well... I have no problem saying that's absolutely true. Now, since you mentioned Tyler Perry because "he's the most prominent and easiest example to use" I'm going to go there with you as my closing thoughts. "Yeah, I think I like Tyler Perry's life narrative much more than I actually like him (his public persona) and his art (filmmaking at least, his plays I dig shamelessly). I also take the side of Laura on the notion of calling his work "coonery." Quite honestly, I've never understood how that term ever applies to describing black humor for a predominantly BLACK audience. I think this concept of shame and humor has quite the complicated history in black entertainment on both the production and reception side of the equation. Many are ASHAMED of what we as black folk find funny because its so 'VULGAR' and "LOW BROW." Eff that. I quite admire fanatical TP followers whose logic about why they like him steers far away from the intellectual pontification that "critical" black film watchers give to describe and defend their film choices (i.e. present a case that shows that their tastes are less shame-inducing than the taste of others). It's called taste for a reason--my flavor ain't always your flavor--and I'm not about to sit up here and defend why I like salty and not sweet, and I love everything about being black" ~T.R.

  • megstar | August 17, 2012 11:24 PMReply

    This was very deep and challenging because people don't even know that there is any other way to think/feel/view/live other than in a Eurocentric context.

  • VC | August 17, 2012 11:10 PMReply

    The black film problem is not a philosophical one, it's tactical. Loinsgate controls TP and can stop his 1000 theater distribution in a heartbeat. every artist has their own take on story and while they will be judged by others, they're not wrong. We must solve the problem, pr and advertising, distribution, a national black theater chain if necessary.


  • Miles Ellison | August 17, 2012 10:02 PMReply

    No context exists that would make Tyler Perry films any good.

  • JTC | August 22, 2012 11:25 AM

    But is a Tyler Perry film their favorite film? Will they want to show it to their grandchildren? Maybe...

  • Joseph G. | August 21, 2012 11:42 PM

    So, everyone who keeps going back to see his films don't feel his films are good?

  • Ledisi | August 18, 2012 1:29 PM

    Brilliant man you.

  • Double G | August 17, 2012 9:15 PMReply

    Thank you for your thought provoking article. I agree with your confusion as to who's cultural mindset is the one that determines "true" quality. I am not a fan of Mr. Perry's films, but I grew up on the movies of Spielberg and Lucas. Maybe I am judging his films through that lens. But how do you factor in the fact that I find the movies of Spike Lee, The Hughes Bros, and Ernest Dickerson to be vastly superior to Tyler Perry's work? I'm sure the directors mentioned above were influenced by a Eurocentric viewpoint at some time in their film education. Does that invalidate their work? While it is imperative that I am aware of my position in society as a black man, I take the influences I have with pride. Regardless of their origin. They are my foundation. The films I have watched throughout my life have contained believable characters going through a dilemma that I could emotionally identify with. Maybe that goes beyond a Euro or Afro- centric perspective. Maybe that's perspective that is in line with the overall human condition. I say as artists, lets stay aware of the images we perpetuate but most importantly lets use our influences to shoot for emotional honesty in our stories.

  • monkeysuit | August 17, 2012 6:18 PMReply

    Uh, what? If you want to know what Afrocentric storytelling entails, then go read some African stories. I bet you'll see that even under an Afrocentric model, Tyler Perry still sucks.

  • Adam Scott Thompson | August 17, 2012 7:05 PM


  • Dee | August 17, 2012 5:45 PMReply

    What is the point of initiating debate on a site that doesn't offer basic formatting? Every opinion is turned into an unreadable paragraph of mind-puke. Or are we to forgive accessibility as eurocentric programming?

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