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Friday, April 1, 2011

Where Does Black Cinema Go after the 2011 Oscars?

A couple of months ago I blogged about why there were no Black nominees for the 2011 Oscars and how all the African-American films of 2010 were poor quality. With last year behind us, the question is: Where does Black Cinema go from here?

It’s clear Black Filmmakers, Black Directors, and Black actors have to step up their game. But where do they have to make adjustments?

I feel Black filmmakers have to focus strongly on two areas behind the camera if they wish to improve the quality of their films: Story and Cinematic Craft.

When it comes to screenwriting, quality has really declined in Black cinema. Filmmakers like Lee Daniels and Tyler Perry have abandoned storytelling in their scripts over the past decade. Films like Precious, Monster’s Ball, Why Did I get Married Too, and For Colored Girls often relied heavily on shock and gimmicks to manipulate the emotions of viewers. The Daniels/Perry story model often uses extremely graphic sex and brutal violence to distract viewers from seeing the numerous flaws in their films stories such as underdeveloped characters, missing story details, plotholes and an uneven or incomplete storyline. It’s only upon closer examination of these films during repeat viewings that it’s clear the writing lacks structure and form. Perry/Daniels model films often have stories with beginnings but no middles, or in most cases no end. This led to movies that were entertaining in spots, but not satisfying overall because there is no organic progression or conclusion to the story shown onscreen.

If Black cinema is to survive, Black Filmmakers must move past the Daniels/Perry style of shock storytelling  and return to the traditional model of comprehensive storytelling where plot and character development are the primary focus of a film. Black screenwriters must craft scripts featuring storytelling with a heavy focus on structure and form. With a solid structure to form a sequence showing the events transpiring, the viewer will be provided with an entertaining film that is satisfying and enjoyable from beginning to end.

Plot wise Black screenwriters are going to have to get out of the box and get creative. The days of Black films about the the Po’ miserable downtrodden Black woman are over. That story premise has run its course along with the comedy about the the cross-dressing black male and the ghetto comedy about the barbershop or the beauty salon. It’s all tired as is the story of the single, successful black woman who just can’t find a man. I feel it’s time to see some originality from black screenwriters, time for them delve deeper into the Black experience. More Black Screenwriters (the few of them out there) are going to have to write something truly unique like Drumline, ATL, or Pride to get apathetic audiences excited about going to see black movies again. Personally, after a decade of darkness in black cinema, I feel it’s time for a brighter black film, something a bit more positive and uplifting. Maybe someone could write that black romantic comedy, a human drama about black males in the inner-city, or that African-American fantasy film. Even that Black Superhero film.

Cinematic craft has fallen apart over the past decade in Black Cinema. When it comes to things like production values like set decoration, costumes, many black films are just a MESS. Cinematography on black films are often uninspired, with bland camera work that tell the most basic of stories in pictures. Combine this dull camera work and weak production values with sloppy writing and flat acting it leads to a finished film that is often hard to follow and harder to understand because none of the elements synergize to give the story a heart and soul all its own.

Production values on black film are often poor. Story often takes a back seat with production values in black films and that shouldn’t be. There’s often more a focus on putting actors in designer clothes and luxury cars than on set decoration, backgrounds, locations, or props that can enhance and enrich the story being filmed. These kinds of extravagant costumes and props distract the viewer from the main subject in the shot and take the viewer out of the story. When production values don’t come together the viewer no longer sees characters, but celebrities dressed up.

Cinematography and editing has been a bane to black film over the past decade. Many black films with fairly decent screenplays and acting are often ruined with terrible shots of the action transpiring onscreen. Oftentimes scenes aren’t framed properly and then these poorly shot scenes are edited together with sloppy transitions from one frame to the next. This kind of sloppy camera work and film editing detracts from a story and keeps a series of shots from coming together into a cohesive film.

On top of this poor camera work, the visuals of most Black films are just plain. Many black films feature basic camera shots, nothing creative. Over the past decade, no cinematographer for Black films has really emerged to create their own distinct visual style the way Ernest Dickerson or Doug McHenry did with Do The Right Thing, Malcolm X, New Jack City, or Jason’s Lyric. One look at those films and the viewer immediately knew who made them.

Due to this poor craft in Black films, it’s often hard to tell a $20 million dollar moderately budgeted Tyler Perry film from a $3 million dollar low-budget independent film. Worse, it’s often hard to tell a $50 million production like Oprah Winfrey’s Their Eyes Were Watching God from a $3 million dollar low-budget independent film. All of them often look the same regardless of the money spent. That shouldn’t be. A creative filmmaker should be able to make a unique film that stands out visually and has a distinct feel all its own from first shot to last.

Creatively, black filmmakers are going to have to get out of the box on craft. Developing a visual style isn’t about money. It’s about imagination. With $3 million dollars Filmmaker Scott Sanders along with Byron Minns and Michael Jai White made Black Dynamite which was visually distinct and had a style all its own. Spike Lee movies have a signature look and feel all their own from the first frame to the last. As do John Singelton films, Kasi Lemmons films Denzel Washington films, and Mario Van Peebles films.

Can Black Cinema bounce back from a disappointing 2010? I believe it can. I feel the lack of Award nominations for the 2011 Oscars for black films were a wake-up call for black filmmakers, black actors, and black directors who have become lazy and complacent. While Black actors, writers and directors enjoyed critical acclaim and awards for their individual work in Black films, the movies themselves weren’t solid overall. I’m hoping that this decade black filmmakers will focus more on improving quality of Black cinema with a renewed focus on story and craft. I know Black cinema can take itself to the next level this decade if Black filmmakers are willing to make an effort to get out of the box and start taking risks.


  1. Shawn, this is one of your most thoughtful and well crafted blogs. Unfortunately, it isn't only Daniels-Perry who have the flaws you delineated, but the movie world itself. It's too bad that right through here, we just don't seem to really value excellence anymore. It's shock and more shock and more dealing in sensation, largely devoid of feeling.

    I'd like your blog to be required reading for all film people, but we both know that isn't going to happen. The almighty dollar has spoken loud and clear. There are simply more people who want to be shocked and wrapped in sensation than there are of us who value and want excellence.

    The late R.V Cassill of the U. of Iowa writing group always said he felt if an author didn't make you feel better about being human, he or she had failed. Judged by that standard, there's a lot of failure going on out here.

    Fortunately times change and just perhaps we'll have new talent like yourself coming up who can make us all feel better about being human.

  2. I'd love to see some black filmmakers establish some standards for quality.
    I'm really tired of the sensationalism and shock instead of storytelling. Storytelling has an impact on the viewer and gives them something to think about, shock just goes away after the film ends. One is substance, the other is flash.

    There's a lot of promise on the indie circuit and these new filmmakers are getting noticed. Now if Black audiences would pay attention to them, we'd get a renaissance equal to the one of the late 80's early 1990's.