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Reality Check: Cooking Gourmet Dishes For A Fast Food Crowd (On The State Of Black Cinema Today)

Features
by R. NEYZAR
March 29, 2012 4:50 PM
11 Comments
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Poster: "The Realization of a Negro's Ambition" (1916)

Copious amounts of ink on paper, decades of verbal jousting, scuffles in the blogosphere, and wishful thinking regarding the rather pathetic state of Black American Cinema, has done little to move the compass in the right direction.

The dialogue takes on an especially shrill tone each year around awards season, with much lamentation about the lack of output deemed worthy for consideration.

The latest figures for 2011 indicate that there were 141 studio releases, and hundreds more that were indie productions, for sure. It’s safe to say that very few of the features that made it into the theaters or even video on-demand, boasted casts that were primarily Black, or had people of color at the helm.

Why the lack of significant progress?

There are more formally educated Black folks than ever. Easier access to the media and technology, and yet, this art form appears to be largely entrenched in limited vision coupled with on-going self-sabotage.

T’AINT MY FAULT

Many are quick to point the finger at the film industry, blaming Hollywood for not expanding its vision of minorities, their interests and capabilities. They chafe at the decades-long rush of images rooted in Aunt Jemima and Sambo, Sapphire and the Hefty Dumb Buck. So, let’s award the powers that be a portion of the blame.

But to be fair, keep in mind that they are in the business of selling what the market demands. And they’ve obviously read and heeded the writer H.L. Menken’s advice – nobody ever went broke underestimating the taste of the American people.

There are, however, artists out there – filmmakers and writers of color, enlightened beings who aspire to provide us with cinematic vision that lifts us above the cesspool of common, low brow, poorly-executed fare. But if they are honest, they will readily admit that it’s an uphill climb, with naysayers and dubious stares accompanying them at every step.

IS I BLACK ENOUGH FOR YOU?

Visual images in particular, carry a powerful impact, creating influence and a substantial, long-lasting impression in the human mind. The argument that it’s just entertainment, a flip excuse from those who do the most damage, is rooted in a level of ignorance with which it seems futile to argue.

Part of the justification for this constant exercise in “ghetto-rama” lies in the insistence that little else is authentic to the Black experience. Forays into middle class life seem to be viewed with suspicion, regarded as a type of slumming from which ambitious coloreds will soon be dismissed.

Real negros keep it real, by keeping it hard – so films focusing on images of nicely groomed, soft-spoken, articulate, non-welfare receiving human beings – according to some of these, er, hacks, is wack!

It’s a free country, I can do whatever the hell I want, is another lightweight mantle they dive under.

So, ah, our ancestors suffered beatings and lynchings for the right to make crappy films that do little more than undermine the community?

Really?

That wildly ambitious ilk seem solely influenced by the cinematic hyperbole of B-level features from the 80s and early 90s that showcased mounds of coke and the okie doke as a shortcut to success. Ripping off this formula, their narratives boast gats, keys (colloquial-speak for kilos) and sleaze on incoherent display, with the smug knowledge that there is in fact an eager audience for it.

Of little concern is the long-term effect of the fifteen-foot high retina burn on-screen. Here in the US, and around the globe (thanks to the internet), audiences are treated to a nightmare of do-rag wearing, gold-teeth snarling, sometimes under-aged assassins spouting dialogue so ill conceived that it requires captions. Those beauties interact with the industrial-sized mama, and (almost always) a Tyrone thrown in to perpetuate the cliché. Dem hustlas iz making they movie so they can gets paid (they hope!). BTFO all y’all sididdy peoples!

THE TROUBLED FEW

So, here we are, almost a full century since filmmaker Noble Johnson launched his two-reeler “The Realization of a Negro’s Ambition” in 1916, and Oscar Micheaux pioneered his do-it-all-yourself model, and we’re still trying to catch up. When bold souls speak up in exhortation, they are usually met with the same type of response W.E. B. DuBois encountered by floating the concept of an elite ten percent charged with doing the heavy lifting to help advance the race. A big, Black middle finger.

But how do we begin to solve this nagging (for some) dilemma if it is not confronted fully and honestly?

The way it’s currently configured, the upstart plebes are running roughshod over the finely articulated entreaties of those who consider it their position to expound on the dearth of positive imagery on the screen. It seems their best intentions are fading to black.

YOU CAN’T FIGHT THE FACTS

The 2010 U.S. Census identifies 42 million people in this country as Black/African-American. 82% of those, 25 years and older have a high-school diploma, but only 18% of this same demographic hold a Bachelor’s degree.

And here’s the cruel kicker: the net worth of the average African American is twenty times less – 20 times less! – than those in the majority population.

What does all that have to do with anything, you might ask?

Well, if that’s your (potential) audience, then you’ve got your work cut out for you.

According to a 2009 report by the Motion Picture Association of America, African-Americans, pegged at 12 percent of the total population, accounted for just 11 percent of the movie-going audience. Add to that a much smaller amount of disposable income, and you can see where things are headed.

Now, ask yourself, what portion of that demographic would you consider to be open-minded, conscious, and accepting of new ideas and concepts? Because these are some of the questions you will be asked when trying to get the industry – and potential funders – to change their tune.

Hollywood has a trove of decades-deep facts and figures – research on subject matter, personal taste, movie-going habits, and Q scores (Google that!) – it’s all tabulated and available to execs at the click of a button. So, any what if’s and why don’t we try this, will be greeted by a stack of studies heavy enough to bury even the most well constructed arguments.

WE SHALL OVERCOME – WE HOPE

We want to believe in our ideal selves. That we’re a people capable of moving beyond the historical suffering, to embrace a more equitable era sparkling with opportunities – and a fresh mindset.

Some point to the small coterie of successful athletes and entertainers and the odd business exec, as proof that we are in fact making fine progress. Maybe so. The Black bourgeoisie is certainly more prominent than it’s ever been, snapping up multiple cars, homes and baby mamas, in their embrace of the American Dream.

Why can’t these fortunate few provide some funding for the betterment of the masses, some lament? Well, don’t get it twisted. The ability to run while carrying a ball, or put it through a hoop may denote great strength and hand eye coordination – but it should never be confused with major compassion or intelligence. The same applies to the purveyors of spectacular melismas and touching lyrical interpretation. They’ve got theirs. You, you’re lucky if they’ll give you an autograph!

In the “minority” entertainment world, the sad fact is, chitlin’, er, church plays still generate more money than most of the high-toned work with primarily Black casts presented on and Off-Broadway. While the small number of well-constructed films released each year, aimed at the same audience, slink in and out of cinemas with just a few recovering their ultra-low budgets – even when the critics and film festivals sing their praises.

Cause you, great talent that you are, may have slaved over a hot stove preparing a delicious sautéed pumpkin squash with saffron couscous (huh, what?), but your guests are sucking their lips and demanding deep-fried, batter laden, chemically bloated dead bird!

Judging by box-office receipts, what really gets the coveted audience of 12 to 24 year-olds pumped about texting their friends and laying down their ten bucks (sometimes twelve!), is a camera focused on ugly. They want to gaze at that festering sore on a beautiful face. Their young, developing minds tell them that the bang, bang and FU, bitch is cool. It provides temporary relief from the reality of their lives – which sometimes include bang bangs and years of FU, bitch!

Some of these exercises in godawful are created by folks with little direct connection the community – happy to perpetrate a cultural drive-by on their way to bigger budgeted projects. Directors and writers of color participating in this same type of betrayal usually have no such options.

For melanin-negative audiences, these types of movies are akin to a car crash you can’t stop gaping at – it’s a, “told ya that’s what they’re really like” moment they can take back to the safety of suburbia.

Many 30-plus folks seem to think twice about venturing into the fray to support new or non-stereotypical fare – even if they feel the film is worth it. They’d rather hit the couch and spend their time and money viewing video on-demand. That’s cool. But don’t forget – Big Brother knows exactly what you’re watching, and when. Yeah, they’ve got that tabulated, too.

To the enlightened directors, producers, and writers out there, remember – tenacity, not talent, is the key to success. Good timing and new technology is your ally in fulfilling your potential. So move past the mediocre and make it happen.

Fingers crossed. Or we’ll still be having this discussion, years from now.

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11 Comments

  • Mark and Darla | March 30, 2012 2:51 PMReply

    Sound like this author having had much success so he is angry at everything and everybody.

  • Masha Dowell | March 29, 2012 11:40 PMReply

    Thanks for this post. Our progress has been slow, and you are actually on to something when you pointed out the following:

    The 2010 U.S. Census identifies 42 million people in this country as Black/African-American. 82% of those, 25 years and older have a high-school diploma, but only 18% of this same demographic hold a Bachelor’s degree.

    And here’s the cruel kicker: the net worth of the average African American is twenty times less – 20 times less! – than those in the majority population.

    What does all that have to do with anything, you might ask?

    Well, if that’s your (potential) audience, then you’ve got your work cut out for you.

    Maybe this is why TP has done so well.

    Call me crazy but maybe the 'black Hollywood business model' should be... have the less intellectual projects be the seed money for our art house films. That would take a strategy of course, but it could work. Just a thought... I mean that seems like the method of the studios. They crank out silly stupid films that spit out huge sums for family's. That in turn goes back to the studio's to give deals to the small and more unique films with smaller audiences.

    I love this site/blog btw. So informative, and the comments are crazy -- but cool. As long as we are talking... and doing... I'm good :)

    - Masha
    @mashadowell

  • CareyCarey | March 29, 2012 11:32 PMReply

    Please Owelles & Carlos, you guys are either two thirds of the 3 Stoogies or you're proud to be as naive as Henny Penny, who thought the sky was falling down. Seriously, didn't you feel that article rub it's Johnson all up in your face? Besides, who said anything about denoucing coons? Carlos, my blind soldier, don't let your proud ignorance shine through. Read that article one mo' 'gin? Read it real slow.

  • Owelles | March 29, 2012 10:27 PMReply

    Of course Carey comes to rescue another fellow idiot! You are getting too easy to predict!!! lol!!! You gonna give him a massage too Carey? lol

  • CareyCarey | March 29, 2012 10:22 PMReply

    MARCO BOLO HAS BALLS OF STEAL and yeah---> "YOU CAN’T FIGHT THE FACTS! I am suggesting that Mr. Bolo told the truth when he said, [This author] would rather critique the level of taste of black people, then face the fact. That's right, this article appears to be a devious assault on the intelligence of every person of color. I mean, check out the opening "set-up" here---> "decades of verbal jousting... regarding the rather pathetic state of Black American Cinema, has done little to move the compass in the right direction". Okay, what's the RIGHT? direction and who's at fault? Well, according to this article, much of the blame falls at the feet of those who are NOT "open-minded, conscious, and accepting of new ideas and concepts". Huuuuuum! Who are they? Well, again, this article raises it's eyebrow at... well... read this--->"Black/African-American. 82% of those, 25 years and older have a high-school diploma, but only 18% of this same demographic hold a Bachelor’s degree". Now wait one freakin' minute. Where is my calculator? I know this article IS NOT going THERE?! --> **pushing calculator keys** .... OH BOY... kiss my ass, I've seen the light. The figures don't lie (sarcasm)... the alleged dismal state of Black Cinema is largely the fault of those poor, black and dumb THIRTY FOUR MILLION!... 34,000,000! UN-formally educated Black folks. Yes sir, those poverty stricken minions without their Bachelor’s degrees are the villians. Yeah, read it there and you'll find it fair... BS! Oh yeah, this article kept on laying pipe to... ahh... you know... the bachelor-LESS folks who, in the author's words-->"your guests who suck their lips and demanding deep-fried, batter laden, chemically bloated dead bird!". DAMNIT... pop goes the weasel, der it tis! Right in front of us. If it was a snake it would have bit us. It has absolutely nothing to do with "entertainment", nor what films lets an individual escape life for 90 minutes. Who would have believed that black cinema or any films were not about what pleases the individual viewer REGARDLESS of his education or income bracket. nobody with an education higher than a GED would ever laugh at Big Momma or enjoy Precious. It's all about---> "Now, ask yourself, what portion of that demographic would you consider to be open-minded, conscious, and accepting of new ideas and concepts?". Get it? Riiiiiiight. So let's see, according to this article, black folks have been yakin' and jackin' Black Cinema for decades, and the chittlin' eating negro done it. But wait... turn your head... don't pay any attention to that man behind that curtain... he is the GREAT OZ! He's reeeal smart and has degrees up the ying-yang and eats at the finest restaurant (a place where he & his can pull their money (and noses) out of their tight snobby asses)... AND they have a yellow brick road. HOwever, he & his can't stop smelling their own upper lips. Nor can they figure out how to make a film that touches everyone's soul and not JUST their suck-butt-cryin'-ass-buddies and yes men.

  • CareyCarey | March 30, 2012 12:28 AM

    Come on Carlos (below) do we have to sling mud? Seriously man... you're championing an article that used the most vicious and demeaning stereotypes to discribe people of color? Really? So you agree that only those without formal degrees eat chicken? Come on now, tell me you really believe an alarm goes off when a black person with a bachelor's degrees enters a movie/films which stars Eddie Murphy, Jamie Fox, Tyler Perry, Whoopie Goldberg, Idris, Halle, Martin Lawrence, Taraji Henson, Viola Davis, Thandie Newton, Kimberly Elise, Kerry Washington, Phylicia Rashad, Anika Noni Rose or Terrence Howard? And tell me... tell me you were just kidding when you missed how this article implied all individuals who make less than $40, 000 are NOT open-minded, conscious, and accepting of new ideas and concepts. And/or everyone with a degree is right as rain and a genious? Please Carlos, don't do this to yourself. Didn't you know that their are millions of black folks in the middle class who did not go to college. Besides, what does love got to do with it? I am suggesting a person's education and/or his degrees or lack there of, does not define the person. Nor does it speak to what they may or may not enjoy in their films. Who's the coon?

  • Carlos | March 29, 2012 10:37 PM

    @CareyCarey--->Of course YOU would be offended by a article that denounces coons! I'm sure YOU ARE insulted. Hit a nerve big mouth?

  • Marco Bolo | March 29, 2012 5:30 PMReply

    Your a hack with your bullshit Master's thesis outline that's way too smart for its own good! What did you seek to accomplish with this?! So basically your saying that black filmmakers should make white films?! Your a loser with no talent who would rather critique the level of taste of black people, then face the fact your shit is weak! What you idiot S&A writers and dick riders fail to understand is that fight is not against hollywood it's against the movie theatre's! The Alternative Cinema Society is poised to do just that, take on the theatre houses! There you have it Gza! So go slide your bullshit NYU school of cinema thesis outline under spikes door, sure he will read it while he is busy sitting court side @ the garden tweeting about Travon!

    Bolo out!

  • Jay | March 30, 2012 7:58 PM

    @MARCO BOLO

    Seriously, you're bagging on the writer for being "a loser with no talent who would rather critique the level of taste of black people," but you fail (truly, deeply) to even acknowledge any of the points or data presented in the article. Shallow thinking at it's best. Oh and by the way, what the hell is a "white film"?

  • Chrscoche | March 29, 2012 5:44 PM

    Marco: know the difference between "you're" and "your". Seems like you COULD use a little education, perhaps "your" who this article was addressing. You clearly can't hang with the real thinkers.

    grade school misspelling = instant invalidation

  • Owelles | March 29, 2012 5:37 PM

    And all that bullshit you just typed means nothing.

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