A few weeks ago, my wife had commented that she found it amusing that a local channel, which specializes in both religious and elderly programming, was celebrating Black History month by showing the works of Tyler Perry. The idea of Perry being the face of Black History month on the channel seemed rather ridiculous to my wife. This was not because she dislikes Tyler Perry, in fact she is far more favourable to his films than I am, but it forced her question “isn’t there anyone else?” The weird thing is that it made perfect sense to me why the station would make Tyler Perry their poster child for black cinema.
Like it or not, Perry is an auteur whose unique voice has made him a commercial powerhouse at the box-office. Outside of Steven Soderbergh and Woody Allen, you would be hard press to find a director who has produced more content than Perry. Since 2006 he has released a staggering twelve films, which is close to two films a year. However, my wife’s question has bounced around my head like a cement brick of late. Who are the voices besides Perry that are currently offering examples of the black experience on film? Furthermore, what have I done to seek out those distinct voices?
As I looked back on the nineteen films I watched in February, I am ashamed to say that only four focused on the black experience. This was not a result of a lack of options mind you, in fact there were several events that I just was not able to take full advantage of due to prior commitments. For example, the TIFF Bell Lightbox ran a program highlighting the “L.A. Rebellion” movement which shined a light on directors like Julie Dash, Haile Gerima, Billy Woodberry, and Charles Burnet to name a few. Though I was able to make it to Burnett’s Killer of Sheep screening, the works of Dash Gerima, Woodberry eluded me again this year.
Aside from the Lightbox programming, there was also the inaugural launch of the Toronto Black Film Festival. While I was glad that I made the effort to see the festival’s opening night gala Nairobi Half Life, Kenya’s first ever Academy Award submission in the Best Foreign Film category, I could not help but feel like I should have made a bigger effort to see more films. Of course, there was a time when no effort was required in terms of seeking out films about black culture.
Growing up I was a bit spoiled when it came to black cinema. I initially fell in love with the world of cinema just as filmmakers such as Spike Lee, John Singleton, and the Hughes brothers were becoming household names with Do the Right Thing, Boyz N the Hood, and Menace II Society respectively. While they each offered unique perspectives of the social issues facing African-Americans, there were several other directors helping to shape the cinematic landscape. Films such as Leslie Harris’ Just Another Girl on the I.R.T and Kasi Lemmons’s Eve’s Bayou provided stories about African-American life from a distinctly female perspective.
Not all of them were serious films mind you. Comedies such as Reginald Hudlin’s House Party and F. Gary Gray’s Friday became unlikely hits. There were also films by African-American directors that did not focus on the African-American experience at all. For example, thrillers like Carl Frankin’s One False Move and, to a lesser extent, Bill Duke’s Deep Cover both left impressions on my young mind. Years later these cinematic voices are not as prominent as they use to be. While many are still working in the industry, they are opting to tell stories that have more universal appeal than strictly focusing on African-American culture.
The only down side to this is that the more mainstream films these directors make, the less it seems that the black experience is being displayed on screen. Sure you have directors like Tim Story who can jump from The Fantastic Four franchise to films like Think Like a Man. However, as enjoyable as it was, Think Like a Man will hardly be remembered as a culturally relevant film. So who is now carrying the torch for black cinema? That is a question without an easy answer. The African film scene has been flourishing for several years thanks to directors like Abderrahmane Sissako and Mahamat-Saleh Haroun, who made Bamako and A Screaming Man respectively. However, despite these directors leading the charge, African films have yet to crossover successfully into the North American market.
As a result my knee-jerk reaction would be to say Lee Daniels and Steven McQueen are the new shepherds of black cinema. Though Daniels’ Shadowboxer was meet with mix reviews, his Oscar nominated film Precious cemented him as a heavy hitter in the film industry. As for McQueen, while he may not be a household name like Daniels, he is one of the most exciting directors to watch right now. Granted McQueen’s first two films may not have dealt with the black experience, but his latest film, Twelve Years a Slave, should rectify that later this year.
While the likes of Daniels and McQueen are paving new ground, when you look closer it becomes apparent that female directors are actually the ones carrying the non-Perry torch for black cinema. For years female directors of colour have had the biggest hurdles to overcome. Despite making the sensational Eve’s Bayou, and the underrated films The Caveman’s Valentine and Talk to Me, Kasi Lemmons never received the praise or recognition she truly deserved. It has been tough for her to even get projects off the ground. So it is refreshing to see a director like Gina Prince-Bythewood, who has quietly made a name for herself with Love & Basketball and The Secret Life of Bees, find success in the industry. Another filmmaker of note is Ava DuVernay, whose film Middle of Nowhere has received praise across the board. It is only a matter of time before DuVernay becomes a household name.
Of course I also think Dee Rees deserves to be in the conversation as well. After recently watching Rees debut feature film Pariah, shamefully a film I should have seen much sooner, I am convinced Rees has what it takes to propel black cinema to a whole new level. Pariah knocked my socks off like no other African-American film had in sometime. There was something about the way Rees crafted her story, not to mention the performances and cinematography, that just left me stunned. Only time will tell if Rees can attract a mainstream following, but it is still encouraging to see female directors of colour receiving notice again.
It is also a stark reminder that I need to do more as a cinema lover to support directors who are trying to tell stories that reflect my experiences. Spike Lee has tried to carry the weight of black cinema on his back for far too long. While Tyler Perry is doing wonders for African-American female cinema, he still does not offer a world that I truly identify with. There are black directors out there who are currently doing great things in the world of cinema, I just need to be more diligent in seeking them out.