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Black Film Now

Why publish a black-film issue now? Because a movie directed by a black man, Keenen Ivory Wayans’ Scary Movie, is not only one of the highest-grossing films of the year, it is, more important, one of the most profitable. Because several months ago, a white journalist wrote in the Los Angeles Times Magazine that the black renaissance in Hollywood was over; two months later, writing in The New York Times, a black critic argued that the recent spate of black films, comedies in particular, was a sign of a new era. Because every time a slick magazine publishes a Hollywood issue, we’re greeted with a roster of the would-be celebrities currently being hustled by agents, managers and publicists as the next big thing, and the vast majority of these celebrity hopefuls, like the journalists who join in the hustle and the entertainment machinery that they all serve, are white. Because, bottom line, it’s time.

Eleven years ago, in the now-defunct Black Film Review, Tufts University professor Clyde Taylor wrote of the new black independent cinema: “I am heartened by the sense of community and fidelity to a sense of African-American destiny — including development, independence of mind and spirit, and the imperishable demand for justice — that I find in these films over all others produced in this country.” Taylor was engaged in an ongoing discussion about the “direction and cohesiveness” of contemporary black film, a discussion that embraced questions of ideology and art, identity politics and radical aesthetics. During the early 1990s, the explosion in black film would provide fertile ground for that continuing discussion. Films such as Charles Burnett’s To Sleep With Anger, Julie Dash’s Daughters of the Dust, Wendell B. Harris’ Chameleon Street, Carl Franklin’s One False Move and Allen and Albert Hughes’ Menace II Society erupted onto the scene, dazzling — and sometimes infuriating — critics and audiences with content as original as their form.

What happened next was confounding or not, depending on your vantage. While Dash has yet to direct another feature, Burnett has shot two features, including the Miramax-botched policier The Glass Shield. Harris disappeared, only to re-emerge — albeit as a supporting actor — in Steven Soderbergh’s Out of Sight. The Hughes brothers made the critically drubbed Dead Presidents. Franklin’s last feature was One True Thing, about a white family. Meanwhile, Spike Lee kept on going with soulful flops like Crooklyn, and commercial-minded misfires like Summer of Sam. F. Gary Gray lit up the screen in 1995 with a homespun comedy called Friday, launching Chris Tucker, the industry’s newest 20 Million Dollar Man. Two years later, Kasi Lemmons, who’d played Jodie Foster’s roommate in The Silence of the Lambs, wrote and directed the art-house sleeper Eve’s Bayou. The late ’90s also brought Theodore Witcher’s love jones, Chris Cherot’s Hav Plenty and Gina Prince-Bythewood’s Love & Basketball.

This was the good news.

The bad news was Woo. And Booty Call, and Trippin’, and Turn It Up, films with black casts that were sold to black audiences but raised the question “What’s black got to do with it?” Although the last decade has seen an outpouring of films about black life in America and more black-oriented films produced at studios than at any other time in history, and while that counts as progress, the fact remains that most black-targeted films will be seen, almost exclusively, by black audiences. Whites listen to hip-hop, but they still don’t groove to images of black life, unless those images come with a laugh track. It’s hard, therefore, not to think of these films as part of the new cultural separatism, in which white people adapt the signifiers of blackness while staying away from its depths, even as entire industries provide black consumers with content — from television programs to romance books — specifically targeted at them. While this may not matter much when it comes to Booty Call, it makes a world of difference when it comes to Love & Basketball, a movie that deserved as wide — and as white — an audience as it could get.

Why publish a black-film issue now? Keep reading.

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