The recent 100th anniversary of cinema encompasses a span of time that almost perfectly parallels the stretch of this century. From the beginning, film was yoked to racist imagery. In 1903, Edwin S. Porter, a white former mechanic, directed a 12-minute version of Uncle Tom's Cabin. Tom was played by an overweight white actor in blackface. By the time D.W. Griffith's racist The Birth of a Nation was released in 1915, black folks had had enough, and organized massive protests against a film that, even President Woodrow Wilson said, wrote the nation's history with lightning. Bolstering the protesters' cause was the fact that lynchings of black men increased dramatically in areas where the film played.
By the '30s, Hollywood had evolved a many-tiered system that juggled the issues of race. To borrow from film historian Donald Bogle, toms, coons, mulattoes, mammies and bucks were tempered into racial icons that white Hollywood could easily manipulate. Hollywood also produced “black” films: Cabin in the Sky, Pinky, Stormy Weather – works, ironically, where those same toms, mulattoes and mammies got some of their fiercest workouts. “Race” films by black talents such as novelist turned filmmaker Oscar Micheaux, actor-businessman Ralph Cooper and a host of unsung black independent filmmakers created an alternative universe for black audiences.
The main problem with race films was that, while a handful tried to illuminate “black life,” they rarely told stories most black folks could – or wanted to – relate to; they simply put black faces on “white” terrain. Worse, with low budgets and varying degrees of talent in front of and behind the camera, the fare churned out rarely rose above mediocre. As Thomas Cripps writes in his critical tome Slow Fade to Black, “Unfortunately black audiences failed to respond as black filmmakers hoped they would. The black middle class found [its] films to be ridiculous in their imitation of white norms of behavior, while many poorer blacks must have strained unsuccessfully for a glimpse of themselves . . . [B]lack audiences . . . preferred the slick Hollywood product to 'race' movies ineptly produced by blacks.”
Cripps' somewhat sweeping observation points up the ongoing dilemma of black filmmakers: how to juggle business and artistic concerns when race looms over all, especially since things haven't changed so much as they've blurred. The tom and mammy have been reborn in contemporary mainstream fare as Danny Glover and Whoopi Goldberg. The race film has been flipped inside-out and become, in contemporary parlance, the “nigga” film, something cynically aimed at the “poorer” (or, in contemporary parlance, “real”) black folks that Cripps wrote about, but that also hopes to snare young white audiences hungry for “authentic” black images. The multiplex staggers beneath the weight of bullshit like Ice Cube's The Player's Club, Master P's I Got the Hook-Up and countless other low-cost, high-return 'hood films. The “uplift the race” impetus behind much early black independent fare has been replaced by purely mercenary goals. Negroes, like massa, just wanna get paid. Art and knowledge of craft mean nothing in the face of jigaboos racing to amass ducats, power and hyphenate status: rapper-actor-director-producer-screenwriter-mogul.
Hope glimmers in those works that defy easy category slots, including rare financial successes like Kasi Lemmons' art-house hit Eve's Bayou and the more crowded field of envelope-pushing box-office flops like Joe Brewster's The Keeper, Julie Dash's Daughters of the Dust, Darnell Martin's I Like It Like That, Christopher Cherot's Hav Plenty, Wendell B. Harris Jr.'s Chameleon Street, Cheryl Dunye's The Watermelon Woman, Spike Lee's He Got Game and everything by the great Charles Burnett. What almost all these films have in common is not only poor marketing and/or distribution, but the fact that neither black nor white audiences know how to process nonstereotypical Negritude. If Paul Robeson were alive today, he'd slit his wrists.
One of the things that might stand between Robeson and the razor would be the work of director F. Gary Gray. From his first feature, 1995's Friday, to his latest, The Negotiator, Gray has layered his films with details of black life that have often baffled or simply gone unnoticed by mainstream white critics, and kept it “real” without dehumanizing black folks. In Friday, Gray – armed with a sharp ear for timing and rhythm – orchestrated the minor, building tensions that lay just below the surface of a good day in the 'hood. The director's next film, 1996's Set It Off, was a viscerally powerful sketch of desperation and sisterhood that refracted class, sexual and racial politics and identities – it had a complexity and nuance that even some of his fans missed.
The fact that Gray stresses entertainment over proselytizing means that he's received neither the overblown hype of the profoundly untalented Matty Rich (Straight Outta Brooklyn), nor been given the consideration and spokesman status granted Spike Lee and John Singleton. Tellingly, when he sat down to be interviewed by the Weekly recently, he was funny and friendly (while playing his political cards extremely close to his vest), but admitted that having graduated from the minors – New Line and its assembly line of 'hood flicks – to the majors (Warner Bros. is releasing the $50 million-budgeted The Negotiator), he's a little uncomfortable with the machinery of interviews and photos. It's new to him. Considering his amazing stats – Friday was shot in 20 days, cost $2 million and grossed almost $30 million; Set It Off, shot in 39 days, cost $9.5 million and grossed almost $36 million – he's gotten nowhere near his fair share of props. It's hard not to believe that if the 29-year-old director were white and had the same career trajectory, he'd have a much higher industry profile, be a media darling.
At least part of the oversight is Gray's own doing. Though his films read as stunning racial (and class and gender) texts, he downplays the sociopolitical aspects of his films: “I really don't want to focus on the race issue, because that would be the easy thing to do. Now, if there's anything you get from [the films] beyond entertainment, any sort of political thing, then, hey, I'm with it.” It's a savvy stance. For while it means that he's been denied the media play afforded to Lee and Singleton, he's also not been boxed in by the crushing expectations that greet their every work; he's not obligated to deliver explicitly political work or give a soundbite anytime the media needs a public Negro to explain black folks to white folks. And he's been allowed to hone his craft below the radar. Thanks to Sundance, young directors are expected to emerge fully formed with their first effort. Gray, having been bypassed for showier prospects, has escaped that ludicrous pressure.
He grew up in South-Central, studied film and television at L.A. City College before dropping out of school at age 20 to work as a cameraman for Fox television, CNN and E!, then quickly moved on to direct music videos for the likes of Ice Cube, TLC, Coolio and Whitney Houston. It's a rich irony, given his stint as an MTV auteur, that his film style eschews the fashionably bombastic, quick-edit approach in order to focus on stories and characters.
In The Negotiator, Samuel L. Jackson plays an ace cop wrongly accused of murder and embezzlement, who must then go up against the co-workers – a sea of white faces – who betray him. He's snared in a ring of police corruption and conspiracy that confirms a lot of black folks' fears about the powers that be. He's negotiating for justice, but, more importantly, he's wrestling with the perception his co-workers have of him, why they were so quick to believe him guilty, why no one would defend him. The part was originally cast with Sylvester Stallone, and as proof that casting is a film's destiny, The Negotiator would have been another generic Sly-versus-the-system flick if he'd kept the role. Jackson, with his unambiguously Negroid features and scary nigger unpredictability imbues The Negotiator with dense cultural weight; he turns the part into a very definite “black thang,” and that the film registers at all is because of it. “It's really coincidental that Sam is black,” says Gray with a smile. “My focus was really on getting the audience behind Danny Roman, Sam's character, having them root for him and take that journey with him. It was more that than any political-type thing.” And as he sits smiling, you wonder if even Gray really believes that.