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Thursday, September 2, 2010

What's Going On With Black Cinema?

What’s going on with Black Cinema?

It’s a conundrum I’m trying to figure out. Why don’t brothers and sisters want to go out and see movies featuring people who look like them starring in lead roles? Is it because Black people don’t like themselves? Or is it because Black people don’t like the movies being offered?

I’m wondering what happened to turn African-Americans away from Black movies. From the late 1980’s to the early 2000s it was like a golden age for Black film. There was almost a new movie with a predominantly African-American cast playing every week. African-Americans then were eager to go to the movies to see future classics like Hollywood Shuffle, Do the Right Thing, House Party, Boomerang, Boyz N the Hood, What’s Love Got to Do with It?, Set It Off, Jason’s Lyric, Friday, Posse, and countless other films. Black films in this era were made with a higher level of quality than in the Blaxploitation period of the 1970’s. Filmmakers paid attention to their craft and critics noticed. Black stars were emerging left and right. Black performers were making inroads on Hollywood’s A-list. More and more Black performers and directors were getting nominated for Academy Awards and Black movies were making big money at the box-office.

Then Denzel Won an Oscar. And Halle won an Oscar. And all of a sudden after 2002 all the progress Black filmmakers were making in towards improving their craft just stopped. Now in 2010 as the institution of Black Cinema regresses to a state I haven’t seen since the 1970’s regarding quality I’m scratching my head wondering what happened to black cinema and what’s turning Black audiences away from it.

From what I’m hearing on the street and on the Message boards, blogs and other websites, most brothers and sisters feel that a “Black” movie now means a poor quality film not worth the price of admission. Many brothers and sisters say are tired of poorly written, poorly directed, poorly acted and poorly produced low-budget features full of stereotypes that take their dollars and don’t give them a quality entertainment experience in return. Moreover, many Black filmgoers say they’re frustrated about feeling obligated to support poorly made “black” films just because they’re made by African-American producers. African-American filmgoers feel like they’re being taken for granted by filmmakers who just want to make a fast buck off them and pay no attention to crafts such as screenwriting, acting, cinematography or editing in their projects.

In Hollywood, there’s also a negative perception regarding Black films; movies with two or more African-American performers in lead roles. Some A-list black male actors are so afraid of the “Black” label that they refuse to have an African-American female co-star, instead opting for Latina or Asian co-stars so their films won’t be seen as inferior quality and fail at the box-office. Others choose to star in mainstream films so they won’t be typecast as a “Black” performer.

Behind the camera there’s also anxiety about producing “Black” films. Studio executives are afraid of investing money in “Black” films because they do so poorly at the box office. Directors are afraid of a “Black” label on film because it can mean up to a 50% cut in their production budget compared to a white film. When completed “Black” films, receive limited theatrical distribution, release dates in cinematic slow periods such as August and February and a next to no studio support when it comes to promotion on TV and in print media. Due this vicious cycle, “Black” movies have been performing poorly at the box office in recent years. Worse, a negative stigma has been associated with Black films and films telling stories about the African-American experience.

The conundrum regarding the sad state of affairs in Black Cinema has become a chicken or the egg situation. Where does the problem start? The poor quality films or the lukewarm audience support?

Brothers and Sisters say they want better quality Black films. However, their actions at the box-office speak volumes about the current situation. When studios present acclaimed films featuring African-American actors in intelligent complex roles or well-developed storylines, these films are met with no support from African-American audiences at the box office. Meanwhile, a poorly made urban-themed film filled with exploitative racist stereotypes will open at $20 million. The way Brothers and Sisters spend their money at the movies is sending a direct message to studio executives. What’s that message? To produce more of the poor-quality films they complain about. Why? Movie studios like any good business only produce what makes money, and sadly what makes them money these days are those poorly made exploitative films so many African-Americans complain about.

For any filmmaker, screenwriter, or producer who wants to produce better quality African-American movies this conundrum makes their quest to produce a film an even more difficult struggle. It’s hard to get antsy studio executives eager to invest more money in better quality African-American movies like The Great Debaters, Akeelah and The Bee, or Black Dynamite when African-American audiences won’t get up off their butts and buy movie tickets for them. It becomes a challenge to get A-list black actors enthusiastic about starring in a project to target African-Americans when they fear the finished film will fail at the box-office and tarnish their reputations.

With the sad state of affairs regarding black films today I have to wonder: Do Black audiences find contemporary images of African-Americans onscreen appealing anymore? Is there a need for films that tell stories about the African American experience? Or is the concept of a “Black” film with a primarily African-American cast outdated? I mean seriously, what’s wrong with Black Cinema? Out of all the African-Americans in the entertainment industry, why can’t our talented brothers and sisters come together to produce an entertaining, well-made original contemporary film with a predominantly African-American cast these days? And why can’t these films find an audience at the box-office?

I know there has to be an answer to these questions. I know there has to break this vicious cycle. There has to be a way to get studios eager to make Black films again. There has to be a way to get African-American actors passionate about starring in African-American films again. There has to be a way to get African-American audiences excited about going to the movies again. It’s clear to me Black America loves Black Cinema, and African-American filmmakers have to find a way to make a better quality cinematic
product.

So I ask again: What’s going on with Black Cinema?

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