Contemporary Black American Cinema

The last few years have offered a small diversity of films featuring African-Americans: Arbitrage, Armored, Beasts of the Southern Wild, The Call, Constellation, Dead Man Down, Django Unchained, Fighting, Flight, I Will Follow, Just Wright, Kings of the Evening, Lakeside Terrace, Luv, Middle of Nowhere, Night Catches Us, Olympus Has Fallen, An Oversimplification of Her Beauty, Precious, Red Hook Summer, Red Tails, and, among others, Think Like A Man and Won’t Back Down.  Some of the films have inspired enthusiasm and intelligent talk; some laughter; and some outrage—and some boredom.  Did Arbitrage exploit skepticism of black male character before submitting an image of redemption and worth?  Did Beasts exploit suppositions about southern black primitivism?  Did Red Tails put forth heroism without depth?  Most of the films have come and gone with little ripples in the larger conversations about cinema, the conversations that surround expensive or experimental or international film—or the history of film.  Do most African-Americans films exist for many people on the simple level of “like or don’t like” or “positive image or negative image”?  Is it possible for African-American films to balance pleasure and thought?  Do they touch on genuinely important realities? 

Years ago, the great cultural critic Pauline Kael discussed the value of cinematic trash—as a playground for pleasure and as the common ground out of which a genuine art could grow: “We generally become interested in movies because we enjoy them and what we enjoy them for has little to do with what we think of as art.  The movies we respond to, even in childhood, don’t have the same values as the official culture supported at school and in the middle class home.  At the movies, we get low life and high life, while David Susskind and the moralistic reviewers chastise us for not patronizing what they think we should, ‘realistic’ movies that would be good for us—like A Raisin in the Sun, where we could learn the lesson that a Negro family can be as dreary as a white family,” the witty Kael wrote in her legendary 1969 Harper’s article “Trash, Art, and the Movies” (reprinted in The Art of Movies by Library of America, 2011; page 213).  Pauline Kael went on to say that real movie art grows out of the excitement, gestures, style, and subversion we have begun to enjoy in trash—only those elements in trash have been deepened and extended in more serious work to become art.  Whatever one thinks about the merits of the film of Lorraine Hansberry’s play A Raisin in the Sun—certainly I have sympathy for the family’s circumstances and the particular plight of Walter, respect his sister’s ambition, and value his mother’s wisdom about how to judge a person; and I admire the actors in the roles—it is possible to recognize as well that the earnest, instructive quality of the film can be dull to someone who wants to see complexity, liberty, spontaneity.  Where is the freedom of personality?  Where is the fun?  However some people require more of film than mere entertainment: their minds and spirits, suffering discouragement and disparagement, require substance and a great deal of it—history, ideas, passion, reflection, and respect.

Of course, it was the beloved, distinguished and necessary actor Sidney Poitier who had starred as Walter in the Hansberry play—on Broadway, then in film.  Writing about that, James Baldwin, the eloquent and observant essayist and novelist, remarked, “I will always remember seeing Sidney in A Raisin in the Sun.  It says a great deal about Sidney, and it also says, negatively, a great deal about the regime under which American artists work, that that play world almost certainly never have been done if Sidney had not agreed to appear in it.  Sidney has a fantastic presence on the stage, a dangerous electricity that is rare indeed and lights up everything for miles around…For one thing, the reaction of that audience to Sidney and to that play says a great deal about the continuing and accumulating despair of the black people in this country, who find nowhere any faint reflection of the lives they actually lead” (from Baldwin’s essay on Poitier in the July1968 Look magazine, reprinted in The Cross of Redemption, Pantheon, 2010; page 182-183). 

Sidney Poitier’s work was laudable: Blackboard Jungle, Edge of the City, The Defiant Ones, A Raisin in the Sun, Paris Blues, Lilies of the Field, In the Heat of the Night, For Love of Ivy, A Warm December, and A Piece of the Action.  The man is no longer the solitary star in the film firmament that he seemed once.  Poitier has been joined by Angela Bassett, Halle Berry, Diahann Carroll, Don Cheadle, Loretta Devine, Kimberly Elise, Laurence Fishburne, Gloria Foster, Jamie Foxx, Morgan Freeman, Whoopi Goldberg, Cuba Gooding Jr., Omari Hardwick, Whitney Houston, Terrence Howard, Samuel Jackson, Beyonce Knowles, Sanaa Lathan, Nia Long, Derek Luke, Anthony Mackie, Eddie Murphy, Nate Parker, Richard Pryor, Salli Richardson-Whitfield, Anika Noni Rose, Diana Ross, Zoe Saldana, Columbus Short, Cicely Tyson, Kerry Washington, and other talented performers, along with Will Smith, Forest Whitaker, and the unsurpassed Denzel Washington.

Films that, through craft, thought, and power, have risen above the rest over the years are Antwone Fisher, Boomerang, Chameleon Street, Daughters of the Dust, Devil in a Blue Dress, Eve’s Bayou, Ganja and Hess, Get on the Bus, The Great Debaters, Jumping the Broom, Losing Ground, Sankofa, and Sidewalk Stories.  They can sustain conversations about art, philosophy, and society, about the human personality and the purpose of human existence.  Is it possible to enlarge the depth of our conversations about other films?  Yes.  There are questions that might enrich our conversations about African-American film:  What is the philosophy of a film, in terms of a fundamental understanding of human existence?  What contribution does the film make to our knowledge of the world?  What is the meaning of the genre of the film; that is, what typically is allowed within that genre and how does the current film under review fulfill, frustrate, or exceed those definitions and expectations?  What is the quality of the film’s script, casting and acting, cinematography, editing, pacing, tone, and musical score?  What does the film suggest about how the world is organized in terms of purpose, power, structures of business and social organizations, schools, religion and religious groups, spiritual resources, the arts, family relationships, daily habits and rituals, and individual priorities?  Are the individuals presented in the film embodiments of intellect, passion, imagination, empathy, and civic participation?  Are both women and men shown as figures of strengths and vulnerabilities?  Is there an attempt to know or understand minority perspectives, whether of nation, region, ethnicity, religion, profession, age, physical health or impairment, sexual orientation, or personal idiosyncrasy?  Is there significant complexity—temperamental complexity, social complexity, political complexity—presented in the film?  What practical insight does the film offer for how to manage one’s movement through the world?  What is the likely impact or legacy of the film?

What have been the legacies of history and of art?  “There are wonderful examples throughout history of people who spoke up not only for the Black community—but for all.  They tried to make this country whole and right for everyone, like Frederick Douglass, who fought for the democratic Constitution of this country and everyone’s inalienable rights, who fought against the view that the ‘Negro has no rights that white men should respect.’  People have accomplished so much even under those conditions and we should not forget it,” asserted filmmaker Charles Burnett—the director of Killer of Sheep and To Sleep with Anger—in the Spring 1994 Callaloo  (one of many interviews gathered in Charles Burnett Interviews, University Press of Mississippi, 2011; page 93).  Yet, while some of us may want to focus on an admirable legacy of history and art, the old narratives of abjection, degradation, and submission return.  In Mississippi Burning, one telling of the civil rights movement, instead of black men and women, young and old, taking a stand against the opposition and oppression in their lives, government agents are made the heroes.  In The Help, the fact of domestic service of black women in white homes to earn money for their own families is not presented to show the dignity, perseverance, and self-sacrifice of black women but, rather, that fact of service, with its imposed silences, is used to dramatize the courage and energy of a young white woman.  “Ultimately the message the movie The Help conveys is not, as Kathryn Stockett declares in her own words that she hopes the novel will show, that there was ‘so much love between white families and black domestics.’  What is really shown is that there was so much hate during this time period, and in the end sisterhood did not change the nature of that hate,” declared Bell Hooks in her very recent Writing Beyond Race deconstruction of a film that set woman against woman, but sentimentalized the feeling of black women for white children, and used toilet humor for dramatic purposes—and to humiliate (the 2013 Hooks book, Writing Beyond Race, published by Routledge, became available in late 2012; page 65).  Yet, The Help received warmly approving reviews and significant awards.  It was found entertaining, moving.  Is that too strange?  Is it all a matter of perspective?  What has not been learned about life and art by many in the film audience?  A great deal.

Yet, we do not have to rebuild the wheel, of course: some of the people—artists, critics, intellectuals, scholars—who have commented radically, sensitively, and usefully on film through the years include James Baldwin (The Devil Finds Work), Donald Bogle (Toms, Coons, Mulattoes, Mammies and Bucks), Manthia Diawara (Black Cinema), Adam Goudsouzian (Sidney Poitier), Ed Guerrero (Framing Blackness), Bell Hooks (Reel to Real), Paula Massood (Black City Cinema), Mark Reid (Redefining Black Film), Clyde Taylor (The Mask of Art), Michele Wallace (Dark Designs and Visual Culture), and Armond White (The Resistance).  Let us celebrate and discuss those commentaries.  Other thinkers whose writings may be resources are Elizabeth Alexander, Dawoud Bey, Roger Ebert, David Ehrenstein, Darby English, Jane Gaines, Farah Jasmine Griffin, Stuart Hall, Esther Iverem, Arthur Jafa, Darius James, Pauline Kael, Tommy Lott, Kobena Mercer, Wesley Morris, Cedric Robinson, and James Snead.  In his 2008 book Film and Philosophy: Taking Movies Seriously from Wallflower Press, Daniel Shaw recommends the work of Robert Gooding-Williams and Dan Flory on film, philosophy, and race (page 84-85).  One recent book title that offers texts worthy of consideration is Contemporary Black American Cinema, the anthology edited by Mia Mask, published by Routledge in 2012.

Featuring essays on contemporary film and film history, on actors and roles, on film image and perception, on recurrent themes of agency, beauty, and virtue, and on ethnicity, gender, and sexuality, Contemporary Black American Cinema, the 2012 Routledge anthology, is the collected work of the scholars Charles Musser, Keith M. Harris, Michael B. Gillespie, Ian Gregory Strachan, Ed Guerrero, Terri Francis, Mia Mask, Sarita McCoy Gregory, Alessandra Raengo, Angelique Harris, and Paula Massood.  It is an anthology of significant research and thought, and a delight for serious students of film and devoted film lovers.  Some of the films discussed are Bamboozled, Big Momma’s House, Cleopatra Jones, Clockers, Coonskin, Diary of a Mad Black Woman, Friday Foster, Just Another Girl on the IRT, Norbit, A Piece of the Action, Precious, The Princess and the Frog, Pulp Fiction, Shadowboxing, Tales of Manhattan, and Traffic.  The essays on Paul Robeson and Sidney Poitier examine and affirm their value; and the articles on the use of the black male body and the presentation of racially grotesque image directly address prejudice, politics, and how cinema draws from and makes social meaning; while a piece on avant-garde films, as well as one on the work of Lee Daniels, allow rare speculation about the meeting of abstract thinking with daily reality; and Paula Massood demonstrates how young black women—and by extension other minorities—can be presented with honesty, intimacy, respect, and sympathy.  It is great to have more proof that it is possible to think deeply about films featuring African-Americans.

Daniel Garrett, a graduate of the New School for Social Research, and the principal organizer of the Cultural Politics Discussion Group at Poets House, is a writer of fiction, poetry, drama, journalism, and criticism.  Daniel Garrett’s work has appeared in The African, All About Jazz, American Book Review, Art & Antiques, The Audubon Activist, Black Film Review, Changing Men, Cinetext, Contact II, Film International, The Humanist, Hyphen, Illuminations, Muse Apprentice Guild, Option, Pop Matters, Quarterly Black Review of Books, Rain Taxi, Red River Review, Review of Contemporary Fiction, Wax Poetics, and World Literature Today.  Garrett admires classic and modern literature and philosophy, and likes painting and sculpture, French film, Afghan and Indian food, jazz, rock, and world music; and he has written about international film for Offscreen; and produced comprehensive commentary on music for The Compulsive Reader.  He originated internet logs: one focused on culture and politics, “City and Country, Boy and Man,” and one focused on books, “The Garrett Reader,” and one focused on art, “The Art Notes of a Solitary Walker.”  Garrett has written a novel, A Stranger on Earth.