[Blackstudies-l] 2016 Was the Year Black Cinema Pivoted

Maria Lima lima at geneseo.edu
Wed Dec 28 11:03:24 EST 2016

lisaparavisini posted: "  Black indie directors were tapped for studio
blockbusters, and some of the most interesting films about black characters
were made on the margins. A report by Brandon Harris for the New Republic.
What we talk about when we talk abou"
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<http://repeatingislands.com/author/lisaparavisini/> 2016 Was the Year
Black Cinema Pivoted
lisaparavisini <http://repeatingislands.com/author/lisaparavisini/>

[image: cxritnpukaeg87e-1]
Black indie directors were tapped for studio blockbusters, and some of the
most interesting films about black characters were made on the margins.
A report by Brandon Harris for the *New Republic*.

What we talk about when we talk about “Black American Cinema” remains an
obscure thing, even in the year of #oscarssowhite
and Barry Jenkins’s *Moonlight*
<https://newrepublic.com/article/137934/moonlight-path-not-taken>. It was a
triumphant and tragic twelve months, I suppose. Black directors, those who
had created their own opportunities when none were handed to them by
Hollywood, emerged at a clip not seen in a quarter century. In July 1991,
the* New York Times Magazine *ran a cover story with the title “They’ve
Gotta Have Us: Hollywood’s Black Directors,” in which several directors,
almost all of them male, were singled out: Spike Lee, Mario Van Peebles,
John Singleton, Matty Rich, Charles Lane, and The Brothers Hudlin of *House
Party* fame. The studios released more movies by black directors that year
than in the previous ten years combined, reaching audiences with work that
seemed unfathomable in the past.

It seemed, at first, that 2016 would have a similar narrative. An
all-too-rare historical film about genuine black American revolt, Nate
Parker’s *The Birth of a Nation*, took Sundance by storm in January,
selling for $17 million to Fox Searchlight and winning the grand jury prize
for U.S. Narratives. Members of the industry who gathered in the thin,
mountain air were largely willing to look past the film’s curiously
ahistorical and manipulative telling of Nat Turner’s slave
rebellion—instead they saw something that could be used to exploit hungry
black audiences and guilty white audiences alike. Black film circles
celebrated even before they had seen the film—this was surely what we had
all been waiting for—and the media swooned, trumpeting the film as a
sure-fire hit and essential conversation starter.

*The **Birth of a Nation* proved them right, but not for the reasons anyone
involved with the film had intended. Slated for wide release in October,
the buzz around the film began to shift over the summer with renewed
interest in Parker’s 2001 Penn State rape trial
where the director, then a Big Ten wrestler, and his college roommate (who
also co-wrote *The Birth of a Nation*), had been tried for raping an
unconscious woman, an acquaintance and previous sexual partner of Parker’s.
The news stymied the movie’s award season traction, and Parker, who had
only recently been embraced as the “Great Black Male Hope” by the industry
at large, suddenly became a pariah.

After an initial burst of energy, the careers of many of the directors in
the “Black New Wave” of the early 1990s didn’t last—especially for female
directors, none of whom were prominently featured in the *Times* magazine
article. Perhaps it’s a marker of progress that nowadays, instead of Julie
Dash’s disappearance after her remarkable 1991 film *Daughters of the Dust
first by an African American woman to get a theatrical release
stateside—Ava DuVernay followed the success of *Selma* with a spectacular
year in 2016, one which included an Oprah-approved television series
<http://www.queensugarown.tv/>, the announcement of a big-budget studio film
and a documentary of startling urgency. After complaints from some quarters
she was snubbed for an Oscar nomination for *Selma*, DuVernay became the
first black woman to open the New York Film Festival with *The 13th
<https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=V66F3WU2CKk>*, her blistering look at mass
incarceration which was immediately thrust into wide viewership via Netflix
and remains at the heart of the award season race for best documentary. So
does Haitian director Raoul Peck’s *I Am Not Your Negro
<https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=03en4usVQBk>*, another film festival
darling which presents a dazzling account of James Baldwin’s life and times
through the lens of his last, unfinished work and the relationships he held
with three of the most iconic martyrs to the Civil Rights cause: Medgar
Evers, Malcolm X, and Martin Luther King Jr.

Both of these directors show no signs of slowing down. Peck’s next film, a
European co-production about the burgeoning intellectual life of a young
Karl Marx, will premiere in Berlin in 2017, and DuVernay is currently at
work on her $100 million adaptation of *A Wrinkle in Time.* Are these works
of black cinema? Perhaps that’s a question for another day. What we do know
is that Peck, who runs the French national film school and was once culture
minister in Haiti, and DuVernay, the first black woman ever to direct a
film with a budget of that scale, are working in rarified territory that
has not previously been the purview of black directors. 29-year-old Ryan
Coogler, who’s marvelous *Creed* thrust him into the award season
conversation last year, is also on board for a big-budget Afrocentric comic
book adaptation of his own, Marvel’s *Black Panther.* Both Coogler and
DuVernay came up through the American indies but are now playing with house
money on a big scale, but without the protections afforded to a director
like Peck, who is working in the European system. One wonders if they’ll be
able to maintain the specificity and nuance that made their earlier work
sing while working for major studios that too often grind the personality,
and the politics, out of most directors.

Barry Jenkins has long been regarded by the indie film cinerati—including
heavyweights such as Steven Soderbergh—as someone to watch after his 2008
micro-budget feature *Medicine for Melancholy.
<https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ID51kpZ9iK4>* Finally getting his
breakthrough eight years later with *Moonlight*, a Brad Pitt-financed
bildungsroman which tells a triptych of stories about a gay, muscle bound,
bandanna wearing ghetto drug pusher, Jenkins quickly seized the star that
seemed destined for Parker, providing the year’s most emotionally crushing
theatrical experience this side of *Manchester of the Sea*. The inner life
of a young man from the derelict tracts of Miami’s Liberty City, even told
with such aesthetic magnetism, is not normally the fodder of Oscar bait,
nor are explorations of the ways in which America manufactures damaged
black men. But the Cubs are not normally the World Series champions. And
Donald Trump is not normally the President-elect. We live in strange times.

While Denzel Washington’s adaptation of August Wilson’s *Fences* and the
Apollo-mission re-write *Hidden Figures
<https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=RK8xHq6dfAo>* will soak up the black
cinema conversation over the months of awards jockeying ahead, the fact is,
beyond *Moonlight*, the most interesting films about black characters were
being made out on the margins, by black and white filmmakers alike. Jake
Mahaffy’s *Free In Deed <http://www.freeindeedfilm.com/>*, about the death
of an autistic black child during a faith healing at a black pentecostal
church in a downtrodden stretch of Memphis, is one of the most remarkable
motion picture experiences of the year. The film, made with a mix of black
professionals and non-actors, and directed by Mahaffy, a Midwestern white
man who lives in New Zealand, was virtually ignored by the American
festival circuit after premiering last year in Venice, but scored four
nominations for the Independent Spirit Awards. Stella Meghie’s *Jean of the
Joneses <https://tvone.tv/show/jean-of-the-joneses/>*, a hit at the SXSW
and Toronto Film Festivals before finding its way to Oprah’s OWN Network,
was one of the year’s great unheralded gems. It tells the story of a family
of well-to-do West Indian women in a style that has more in common with
Noah Baumbach and Wes Anderson than Spike Lee. Meghie’s film centers on a
female author, a Zadie Smith-esque wunderkind, whose family is thrown into
turmoil when her grandfather returns to the family enclave only to drop
dead on the doorstep. Meghie has already shot her next picture and her
clever sensibility should allow her work to continue to find larger

With talented outsiders knocking at the door, the studio system would do
better to split up the money being spent on large-scale indulgences, even
directed by able hands like DuVernay and Coogler. Spreading the wealth
would mean that that films about the inner lives of recognizable people,
not just outsized heroes, could be made by directors like Stella Meghie,
Julie Dash, and Darnell Martin, whose 2009 film *Cadillac Records
<https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=1309MEQ4b30>* is the best narrative film
directed by a black American woman in this young millennium. The short-term
trends of the marketplace prohibit American film studios from being so
brave, but our perilous times require a mainstream American film culture
that pushes past the spectacle-driven infantilism that has been a hallmark
of Hollywood cinema since the dawn of Reagan and the end of “The New
Hollywood” of the 1970s, one that inhabits the lived experiences of
Americans from all walks of life.

We can surely build a richer black film culture if elder stateswomen such
as Dash, mid-career artists like Martin, and new voices like Meghie could
have careers that matched those of prolific black female literary figures
like Toni Morrison or Zadie Smith. (Smith’s new novel *Swing Time*, like
her other works, deserves these directorial talents.) These black female
voices—like those of Issa Rae, of *Insecure,* and Dee Rees of HBO’s *Bessie*
and the forthcoming *Mubbound*—should find feature financing once every
year or two instead of five or ten. It should be a source of national shame
that there isn’t a tax-payer supported apparatus to fill in the gap left by
a white-dominated private film finance infrastructure that is mostly
interested in telling stories that reflect the blinkered world views and
experiences of those on the inside.

But black people have to show up for these films too. *Moonlight *has
grossed around $10 million this year, proving to be a critical breakthrough
but only a small scale commercial hit. (*Dolemite*, Rudy Ray Moore’s
crudely made blaxploitation classic, made $12 million dollars in 1975 by
comparison.) *Brokeback Mountain*, Ang Lee’s watershed drama about the
forbidden love between white cowboys made $178 million dollars domestically
when it was released in 2005, and both Tyler Perry and Kevin Hart’s latest
efforts have still reached far more people who are black than *Moonlight*.
So the work of making meaningful “Black American Cinema,” whatever that may
mean, reach its intended audience, whoever they may be, remains a work in
*lisaparavisini <http://repeatingislands.com/author/lisaparavisini/>* |
December 27, 2016 at 11:59 pm | Categories: News
<http://repeatingislands.com/category/news/> | URL: http://wp.me/psnTa-sGn

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