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?
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.