The Article analysis – 350 words


The Article analysis of Black Film of the 1990s

Black Film in
,.he lIew Black “oy!le Boom
and Its Portents
The biting comment of a black Los Angeles gang member in the grimy mise-en-scene of Dennis Hopper’s cop-buddy, actionfantasy Colors (1988) perhaps best summarized the frustrating predicament facing blacks seeking entry to the Hollywood system at the
turn of the 1990s. Asked why he did not leave the gang life and try
something more productive, homeboy (Grand Bush) replies, “Yeah, I
could quit the gangs. . . . Maybe I’ll go to Hollywood and be Eddie
Murphy.” Then he poses a question that sardonically conveys the point
understood by all people of color: “You think America is ready to love
two niggers at the same time?” This bit of subversive dialogue recalls James Baldwin’s notion of the black actor’s “smuggled in reality”;
homeboy recognizes that dominant cinema cannot entirely hide the
fundamental sense of inequality and marginalization that is persistently all too real for African Americans. At the same time, however,
a countervailing sense of expectation grew in that cultural moment,
as Hollywood began to show signs of opening up to black creativity
and energy again. Gradually, all aspects of black filmmaking and filmic
representation began to gain momentum after almost fifteen years
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of stagnation and subordination that for the most part had confined
black cinematic talent and expression to a few major ·’stars.” These
were largely featured in one-dimensional roles or biracial “buddy” vehicles fashioned to accommodate the broadest crossover market (e.g.,
Clara’s Heart [1988], Driving Miss Daisy [1989], Lethal Weapon II
[1989]). Starting in the last years of the 1980s and swelling in the
1990s, the new black film wave was heralded by the release of over
seven black-directed features in 1990, including such pivotal productions as To Sleep with Anger by Charles Burnett, Spike Lee’s Mo’
Better Blues, and Daughters o/the Dust by Julie Dash.
In 1991, the black movie boom continued to expand with the release
of twelve films directed by African Americans, along with over twenty
other productions that starred or had significant roles for black actors.
In many ways, 1991 was a prolific turning-point year that brought to
the commercial screen a range of significant and diverse black feature
films, such as A Rage in Harlem, directed by Bill Duke, John Singleton’s hit Boyz N the Hood, The Five Heartbeats, directed by Robert
Townsend, and the rereleased Chameleon Street, directed by Wendell B. Harris. Also that same year, Whoopi Goldberg won an Oscar
for her “buddy” role as a spirit medium in the mainstream hit Ghost
(1990), making her only the second black woman ever so honored by
the Hollywood system. Serving as a contrasting index of the severity
of the drought between the two black movie booms, production in
1990 and 1991 alone easily surpassed the total production of all blackfocused films released since the retreat of the Blaxploitation wave in
the mid-1970s.
The boom of the 1990s has emerged out of conditions that are comparable to those that fostered the Blaxploitation period, but they also
stand in ironic counterpoint to them. The social contexts of the two
black film waves differ significantly, as one would expect, because of
the increasingly soured and polarized negotiation of black-white “race
relations” in the intervening years. We have noted that, along with
other empowering conditions, the Blaxploitation boom emerged from
a period of militant political activism fueled by the rising identity consciousness and social expectations of African Americans at the end
of the civil rights movement. These forces inspired black intellectuals, artists, writers, and politicians to demand an end to Hollywood’s
pervasive and fundamental subordination of blacks on the screen.
Hollywood’s strategic response to this combination of black social and
intellectual pressure was to produce a wave of cheaply made black
action-adventures set in the “ghetto” that were, with a few notable
exceptions, cranked out by white directors and garnered tremendous
profits for the mainstream commercial system but also subordinated
black talent and creativity to the needs of that system at all levels.
In contrast, the black movie boom of the 1990s has materialized out
of a climate of long-muted black frustration and anger over the worsening political and economic conditions that African Americans continue
to endure in the nation’s decaying urban centers. Ironically, the social
character of this anger is the dialectical opposite of the passion that
helped overdetermine the inception of the Blaxploitation boom at a
historical moment when hundreds of American cities burst into flames
as urban blacks , frustrated when “civil rights” gains did not translate into real economic progress for the majority of blacks trapped in
northern ghettos in the mid-1960s, and they increasingly took to the
streets in a series of urban rebellions. Conversely, from the mid-1980s
onward, we have witnessed the rise of an insidious, socially fragmenting violence driven by the availability of cheap guns and crack cocaine
in the nation’s partitioned inner cities. For the most part, black rage
has lost its political focus in this violent apartheid environment; it has
become an internalized form of self-destruction expressed as gang and
drug warfare. If such a situation can be said to have positive effects,
we can see this rage as an energizing element in much of the new black
cultural production, finding expression in a rearticulated criticism of
white racism and a resurgent interest in black nationalism among the
urban youth inspired by the rap lyrics of Public Enemy, N. W.A., Sister Souljah, and Ice-T, or resonant in the films of Bill Duke, Spike Lee,
Matty Rich, and John Singleton.
Black anger has not been confined to the urban poor. Black middleclass children who came of age in time to reap the benefits of the
civil rights movement are finding out that, like the dissatisfied, upwardly mobile “Buppies” that populate Jungle Fever (1991), Livin’
Large (1991) , and Strictly Business (1991), professional positions and
success have not delivered them from the insults and isolation of a
persistent and growing racism that poisons all societal transactions. l
Adding complexity to the social frame, the 1990s are also a moment of
expanding black heterogeneity and “difference,” with such emergent
groups within the community finding voice as gays and women, as
manifest in the work of Marlon Riggs and Isaac Julien, the continued
popularity of black women’s novels, and the increasing call for more
films by black women directors to translate these potent narratives.2
Yet the black community is not without its divisions and tensions, as
is evident in the increasing isolation and distance of the black middle
class from the problems of the black inner city.
Certainly these expansive, diversifying shifts in black social consciousness have resulted, in part, from the progressive efforts focused
on rasing the black standard of living and improving race relations unleashed at the end of the 1960s. And these shifts must be recognized
as evidence of the positive growth of the black social formation. But
distrust is also pervasive. A 1990 opinion poll of black New Yorkers
conducted by the New York Times/CBS found that 64 percent of black
respondents felt that drugs and urban violence were part of a white
conspiracy to eliminate blacks; in the same poll, 32 percent of those
queried suspected that AIDS was invented by scientists with the same
purposes in mind. These beliefs filter into cinema; the implicit premise of Bill Duke’s Deep Cover (1991) is that the slow destruction of
blacks is accomplished through the organized importation of cocaine.
Director John Singleton’S character Furious Styles (Larry Fishburne)
voices similar suspicions in Boyz N the Hood when he gives a streetcorner speech about how “they” funnel liquor, drugs, and guns into the
black community in hopes that “we will kill each other off.” Underscoring this position in real-time media, Singleton followed up on this train
of thought on a popular television talk show, reasserting that AIDS
was an invented disease and part of a genocidal plot against blacks. 3
For African Americans, then, the last decade of the century reveals
a renewed sense of racial oppression and foreclosure , pessimism, and
sinking social expectations. And when compared to the sense of social
unity and purpose forged out of the sharp struggles of the 1960s, African Americans are now going through an intense period of nihilism,
fragmentation, and self-doubt, as they wonder where the next wave of
collective struggle for social change will come from.4
No matter how bleak these perceptions may be , one cannot naively
Copyr~ed, fIYIateria~ LACK FILM IN THE 1990S
dismiss African American understandings of the times as collective
paranoia. Black public opinion and political consciousness have been
alarmed by a sharpening climate of deteriorating race relations , polarization, and outright racial conflict made depressingly tangible in a
steady stream of newscasts and nightmare media images over the turn
of the decade. The deaths of Michael Griffith and YusefHawkins at the
hands of racist lynch mobs in Howard Beach and Bensonhurst (New
York) and the barbaric spectacle, broadcast on global television, of
Rodney King being beaten by white police officers in Los Angeles have
left no doubt in the black social psyche that America is still a racist
society and that white America is persistently attempting to turn back
the clock on whatever racial progress was made during the programs
of “The Great Society” and the turbulent 1960s. Accordingly, Spike
Lee’s invocation in Do the Right Thing of the names of the martyred
Michael Stewart and Eleanor Bumpers as victims of police murder,
and his dedication of Jungle Fever (1991) to Yusef Hawkins , and his use
of the Rodney King tape in the opening of Malcolm X (1992)-all have
struck deep harmonic feelings across the entire range of the African
American community. Further compounding black feelings of alarm
and despair, such sensationalized media events as the Anita HillClarence Thomas Senate hearings, Magic Johnson’s retirement, the
Mike Tyson rape trial, and the social pathology of a white Boston “Yuppie” murdering his pregnant wife and blaming the crime on the mythical black scapegoat and thus provoking a reflex wave of police terror
in the black community only confirm African American feelings that
they have been made the major source of lurid spectacle for an imageinformation driven society unwilling to recognize their humanity.
Equally important, one must note that the present atmosphere of
racial scapegoating and intolerance, as well as an overall acceptance
of the “new” racism, has not erupted out of the murky depths of the
most ignorant strata of the white social hierarchy. In great part, the
national mood has been engineered and encouraged by the intensifying
racist tone of mainstream political rhetoric and discourse rooted in the
backlash politics of the Reagan years. This most recent wave of “nativism” started with the evocation of Cadillac-driving, parasitic welfare
queens during Ronald Reagan’s 1980 bid for the presidency; continued
through the successful exploitation of white fear focused on two black
THE NEW BLACK MOVl rctJ”~htedI MciteritJf> I
men, Willie Horton and Jessie Jackson, during George Bush’s 1988
presidential campaign; and the 1990 Senate race of Jesse Helms, who
made a crude appeal for white votes to defeat his African American
opponent by blatantly advertising that “you needed that job, and you
were the best qualified, but it had to go to a minority because of a racial
quota.” In the same year, a former Klansman-Nazi, David Duke, called
himself a Republican and won 44 percent of the vote in his 1990 bid for
a Senate seat in Louisiana. On the national stage, Pat Buchanan picked
up Duke’s themes and code words, winning a substantial white “protest
vote” against George Bush in the early 1992 presidential primaries and
the applause of delegates at the Republican National Convention. 5
Given this kind of establishment legitimation of playing the “race
card,” one can hardly wonder that in Los Angeles the pent-up frustrations of disenfranchised people, sparked by a long series of brutalities and injustices culminating in the racist verdict in the Rodney
King police brutality trial, exploded in spring 1992 into the worst civil
rebellion the nation has experienced in this century. Very much in the
same way that the 1950s lynching of Emmett Till or the 1960s assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., marked defining moments in
African America’s ongoing struggle for racial justice, the stark videotape, the acquittal of the four white police officers, and the uprising
that followed it marked a consciousness-shaping moment for a whole
new generation of Americans. 6
Gauging the temperament of the market, creating trends, or staying in sync with the popular mood of its various audience segments
and fusing them into a dominant consumer consciousness is work that
occupies a large slice of the film industry’s business talent, research,
and capital. Hollywood traces an intricate path over the course of this
restless, racially tense cultural period. While the mainstream production system is willing to admit a few black directors and black-focused
films to its exclusive club for obvious reasons of profit, the industry
has also been quick to co-opt these new shifts in racial politics and
attitude among whites and African Americans. Following trends set
in the 1980s, the commercial cinema system has continued to stock its
productions with themes and formulas dealing with black issues and
characters that are reassuring to the sensibilities and expectations of
an uneasy white audience. These filmic images tend to mediate the
Copyri~eq lVI~t~riaB LAcK FILM IN THE 19905
dysfunctions and delusions of a socity unable to deal honestly with its
inequalities and racial conflicts, a society that operates in a profound
state of racial denial on a daily basis. Thus images are polarized into
celebrations of “Buppie” success and consumer-driven individualism
that are consonant with a sense of black political quietism , tokenism,
and accommodation, or condemnations of violent ghetto criminals,
gangsters, and drug lords. These figurations can hardly be perceived
as accidental at this cultural moment. Indeed, one of the most revealing and subtle instances symbolizing Hollywood’s sharpened, carefully
maintained racial hegemony occurs in the most profitable comedy ever
made, Home Alone (1990). In the film , an abandoned eight-year-old
(Macaulay Culkin) seeks to fool two burglars into thinking his house is
occupied by rigging a life-sized photo cutout of Michael Jordan to run
around on a toy train track. Given the film’s astounding commercial
success and broad audience influence, this scene is unsettling not only
because its reification of Jordan represents the extent of black participation in the movie , and by implication in the exclusive, upper-class,
suburban white domain of the narrative, but also because it implies
one of the primary ways African Americans are constructed in the
popular imagination: as one-dimensional, cardboard celebrity cutouts.
Moreover, the co-optation and exploitation of black images and culture pervades the media industry in general. This trend is especially
marked by the commercial success and consumption of urban rap and
hip-hop culture among a vast, crossover, white youth population that
has come to identify openly its milder suburban discontents with black
anger and rebellion. 7 But perhaps the revelation of the multivalent
complexity of black images and the media uses of these are best contrasted by the juxtaposition of the opulent, soothing image of a black
professional class rendered on “The Cosby Show” in contrast to the
stark, real-time , genocidal slaughter of urban blacks on the nightly
eleven o’clock news. It is little wonder that by the beginning of the
1990s, blacks felt that they existed in the dominant social imagination as media-constructed “stars” and fantasy figures or as criminals,
while according to almost every social-material index , the quality of
black life in this country steadily declined. 8 Or cinematically, as Spike
Lee insightfully transcodes these perceptions in a dialogue about race
between the bigoted Pino (John Turturro) and Mookie (Lee) of Do the
v 1~QA)’8j1#1tep f’II’P~eria/6 1
Right Thing, in Pino’s words, Prince, Magic Johnson, Eddie Murphy,
et al. are “different,” the media-worshipped exceptions, and the rest
are just “niggers.”9
Considering these vast political and social changes centered on race
relations in the past two decades, one irony is that the Blaxploitation
boom was a series of movies made for black audiences mostly by white
directors, while the 1990s wave has been made by black directors for
black audiences with the broader range of crossover consumption in
mind. The similarities between the facilitating economic backgrounds
of both movie booms demand discussion in response to a set of central
concerns or questions most often arising among the new black critics and directors: Is the new black movie boom a cyclic or periodic
phenomenon trapped within the context of Hollywood economics? And
will this new boom signal a real and permanent opening for blacks at
all levels in the industry?
Both black film waves arose during periods of economic crisis and
downturn in film industry earnings. In the present instance, Hollywood, after a peak box office year in 1989, followed by the second-best
summer ever in 1990, was encouraged to expand production, with the
result that six or seven major studios pumped out almost two hundred
films.lo But the turning point for studio profits started with the 1990
Christmas season and the chilling effects of the Persian Gulf War on
the entertainment business in general, when box office receipts started
to soften. In the opening months of 1991, Hollywood found itself overinvested in a series of lackluster, expensive blockbusters, which combined disastrously with a glut of films already chasing shrinking box
office profits. Once more, the commercial film industry was to find
itself on the downside ofthe profit curve and sliding into one of its periodic economic crises. In the words of Variety reporter A. D. Murphy,
the domestic box office “hit a speed bump” in April 1991, as profits continued to fall through May to a deflated box office intake of $82 million for the first week of June, compared to $111 million a year before,
a 26 percent drop in revenues.11 Added to the bite of a cruel spring
and further complicated by a deepening national recession, the summer of 1991, the period that accounts for 40 percent of studio earnings,
proved to be equally disappointing, with the box office down by 7 to 10
percent and industry profits in general estimated to be off by as much
Copy,;~/itteq ¥ CjlfEjWiarhACK FILM IN THE 19905
as 15 percent. As a further indication of the pervasive seriousness of
the situation, the slump at the box office and the anemic condition of
the film industry were paralleled by a crash in video rentals, which by
October 1991 had fallen off by 25 percent. Overall, the recessionary
slide continued with big independents going under, majors like MGM
foundering, and all studios backlogged with expensive flops and trying to cut expenses. By the start of the anxious 1992 summer season,
ticket sales were at a fifteen-year low. 12
Within this bleak economic context, Hollywood, and the media industry in general, once again turned its attention to the size and consumer power of the mythical, ever-shifting black movie audience, variously estimated at 25 to 30 percent (overrepresenting its 13 percent
portion of the population).13 The fact that Hollywood has known about
the disproportionately large black moviegoing audience since the early
1950s gives further credence to the argument that the movie industry
routinely ignores black filmic aspirations and marginalizes black box
office power until it can be called on, as a sort of reserve audience,
to make up sinking profit margins at any given moment of economic
crisis. Accordingly, then, two of these moments of crisis were the
studio profit slumps that coincided with the rise of black film production waves in the late 1960s to early 1970s and again in the late 1980s
into the 1990s.
This argument is further supported when we look back on the abrupt
manner in which Hollywood curtailed the earlier Blaxploitation wave,
despite the fact that black-focused and black-cast films continued to
make money as late as 1976, as evidenced by the hit directed by Michael
Schultz and starring Richard Pryor, Car Wash. At that moment, the
industry reasoned that blacks would attend crossover and blockbuster
movies with the formulaic ingredients of sex, violence, and action in
the same numbers as they would more black-focused films . Therefore,
once Hollywood found its way out of the economic doldrums and returned to making blockbusters, epitomized by the tremendously successful The Godfather (1972) and The Exorcist (1973), which drew 35
percent black audiences, the industry saw no need to continue a specifically black-focused product line. Moreover, for the past two decades
Hollywood has increasingly employed the short-term profit strategy
of making “small” films in short “cycles” organized around various
themes and genres aimed at specific audiences. 14 Thus much of the evidence tends to support the argument that expanded waves of black
movie production occur in short cycles (four years or so) in an inverse
relationship to the overall prosperity of the dominant film industry.
One cannot say whether or not this particular black movie boom of
the early 1990s will end as arbitrarily and suddenly as its predecessor,
but this wave’s expansion and survival beyond its short-term economic
utility to the commercial film industry will largely depend on how
quickly Hollywood realizes that the ongoing racial diversification of its
future audience is permanent and irreversible, arising out of the oftenstated fact that the sovereign collectivity of “whiteness” will be just
another large minority beyond the year 2000. Or, stressing the connection between shifting racial demographics and box office profits, as
marketeer Warrington Hudlin puts it: “If, within the next 30 years,
America is going to be predominantly a nation of people of color, then
white studio executives had better begin to understand who their consumer is going to be.” 15 Moreover, Hudlin has been quick to apply this
insight to his own film output with the success of the formula comedy
House Party (1990), which cost $2.5 million to make and earned more
than $25 million.
Besides the tendency of black films to come in “waves,” one must
consider the abiding film industry principle that, perhaps more than
any other, enforces the economic limits of black narrative features.
Studio executives figure that black-focused films are a lucrative venture as long as they are cheaply made. The current production cost for
bringing in a “small film” is anywhere from $1.5 to $10 million, and
the top end of this range is about a third of what the average commercial film costs. Thus Hollywood makes these modestly budgeted
black features with the expectation of recovering the capital invested
and turning a profit from the black audience alone. An added appeal
of such low-budget features is the industry gamble that it will occasionally hit the jackpot with a big success, as it did with New Jack
City (1991), which cost $8.5 million and earned over $47 million, or the
top-grossing black film Boyz N the Hood (1991), which was made for a
modest $6 million and , so far, has earned over $60 million. 16 Obviously
both films are exceptional , for they not only did well with black audiences, but they have successfully crossed over into broader consumer
fIIIiflf~riaB LACK FILM IN THE 1990S
markets. Among other things, because of its rap soundtrack and the
presence of Ice-T, New Jack City was not only a hit with its targeted
black youth population but attracted a large, young white audience.
And doing even better with Ice Cube, Boyz was a hit with the domestic
black and white audience and is garnering a huge business overseas.
Crossover power or, more properly, the lack of it, is exactly the
factor that marks out the budgetary limits of the black feature film.
For as these usually cheaply produced vehicles approach the studioimposed $30 million “glass ceiling” on production costs, these films
must rely on drawing the white or foreign audience, or both, to meet
the high profit ratios Hollywood demands of them. From the industry
perspective, when the production costs of a black film approach this
budgetary limit, one of two things must happen. Either the film does
not get financed (and therefore is not made) or during the long tangled
course of production its black point of view, politics, or narrative gets
co-opted or in some other way altered to accommodate broader (white)
audience sensibilities to guarantee the profit margins demanded by
studio executives. Certainly these are the kinds of concerns and pressures that dogged the production of Malcolm X , with Spike Lee’s protracted struggles with Warner Bros. and the Completion Bond Co.
over financing. In Boomerang we see these same pressures overdetermining yet another result. Here, even a benign black-cast, dominant
cinema romantic comedy with the star power of Eddie Murphy came
up a commercial flop because, among other things, it was not successful enough at crossing over to offset its $40 million-plus costs.
The dominant film industry’s de facto budget ceiling and its adoration for the much-publicized success of a few recent black films and
black directors notwithstanding, the scope and direction of the 1990s
black movie boom cannot entirely be reduced to the crass business of
merely turning a profit as its sole motivating force. In an often overlapping, complex manner, the diverse sources of inspiration , financial strategies, and production circumstances of the new black cinema
wave tend to bifurcate , with black films and filmmakers moving into
subtly different perspectives. We can distinguish these different outlooks, calling them black “independent” cinema and the “mainstream”
employment of black creativity in the dominant cinema system, but
these lables overstate the case somewhat. The line of feature films
THE NEW B LAC K M 0 V IICeJ!1lP~htad l MateriEl” 7
spanning the work of Micheaux in the 1930s; Van Peebles, Parks, and
Poitier in the 1970s; Woodberry and Burnett in the early ’80s; and Lee,
Singleton, Duke, Dash, and Paley, among many others, in the 1990s
is more tangled than such terms imply. And while these two outlooks
have always had their debates, the surge of new black feature films
coming into circulation combined with the ongoing demand for more
black-focused vehicles seems to have lessened some of the more pronounced distinctions between them.
Another reason for black filmmaking’s sense of overall cohesion derives from the fact that out of social and economic necessity, black independent and mainstream impulses are both forced to struggle with
a fundamental paradox, a corollary to Hollywood’s budget ceiling, that
subtly influences all black cinema production in this country. Whatever
its orientation, black cinematic expression, as much of black culture,
has nearly always been proscribed, marginalized, exploited, and often
ignored. Thus black filmmakers of both persuasions are constantly
called on to create out of an uncompromised, forthright perspective
that recovers the long-suppressed sensibilities, aspirations, and narratives of the black world and struggles to bring them to the cinema
screen. At the same time, because moviemaking is such a capitalintensive business and is so largely dependent on mass markets, consumer trends, and fashions, these same filmmakers must appeal to a
broad enough commercial audience to earn sufficient revenues at the
box office to ensure that their candid visions of the black world will
be successful. And, what is equally important, that their work will be
sustained in a succession of feature films . In other words, the black
filmmaker must struggle to depict the truth about black life in America
while being inextricably tied to the commercialized sensibilities of a
mass audience that is for the most part struggling to deny or avoid the
full meaning of that truth.
It is interesting, then , to look at the new wave of black films and
directors, noting that the “independent” directors are usually ahead
of, in search of, or aim at building a new audience for black cinema.
Or these directors aim at transforming social relations, reflecting a
particular set of problems or crises vexing the black collectivity, say,
like Charles Burnett’s To Sleep with Anger (1990), which in its intricate narrative seems to articulate all these issues. Or their films speak
CopyrtgNeq ll(la,fwialaLACK
for the consciousness of newly formed subjectivites, barely emergent
from the vast social continuity of blackness, say, for groups or subcultures like black women or gays, or for the unassimilated Third World
within the United States, or even for those politicized or intellectual
blacks who demand more narrative depth , character development, and
political clarity than is usually provided by formula entertainment and
mainstream commodities. Productions such as Daughters of the Dust
(1990), Lookingfor Langston (1989), Sidewalk Stories (1989), and Chameleon Street (1989) all exemplify films that struggle to render forthright, nuanced interpretations of black life against the co-opting, homogenizing pressures of the commercial cinema system.
Another important distinguishing facet of the independent impulse
has to do with the way these films articulate fresh cinematic styles
and visions. Such directors as Julie Dash, Wendell Harris, and Charles
Burnett are struggling, a la Antonioni, Bufluel, Godard, Altman,
or, more recently, Wayne Wang and Jim Jarmusch, to create insurgent, new cinematic languages, images, and narratives. These would
be capable of decentering or opposing the staid filmic conventions of
the sovereign Hollywood “norm” with its technological verisimilitude
of violence, glossy, color-saturated surfaces, continuity editing, “invisible style,” and avoidance of political or social engagement that
suggests the possibility of social change. Thus , through their experimental languages, black independent films often defy the standardization of the dominant cinema product, as well as the dulled expectations of its consumer audience, in order to tell the stories of emergent
sUbjectivities in radically new ways. Certainly the acidic, voice over
monologue of the masquerading protagonist in Chameleon Street, the
“magic real” manipulations of space-time in Daughters of the Dust,
and the black and white pantomimic construction of Sidewalk Stories
all aim not only at speaking in stylistically new ways but also through
new formulations of identity and subjecthood.
One director who has come to epitomize the black independent impulse and its aspirations is Charles Burnett, who was schooled at
UCLA and reared in the 1970s black film environment known as the
“L.A. rebellion,” which also produced Billy Woodberry, Julie Dash,
Haile Gerima, and Larry Clark. Always true to the sense of political and aesthetic autonomy bred of those insurgent times, Burnett has
teP lMateriiJi~ 9
persistently refined his vision over the past several years with such
films as his masterpiece feature Killer of Sheep (1977), as well as My
Brother’s Wedding (1984) and the screenplay for Billy Woodberry’s
Bless Their Little Hearts (1984). As part of the new wave, Burnett’s
feature To Sleep with Anger (1990) was greeted with buoyant, critical
expectations and the hope that this black movie boom would be more
broadly representative of black filmic styles, life, and culture than its
Blaxploitation predecessor. Yet, in many ways, To Sleep with Anger,
which was produced by popular black star Danny Glover for under $1.5
million, provided by S. V.C., a subsidiary of SONY, and distributed by
Samuel Goldwyn, has come to represent the frustrating intersection of
independent and mainstream issues debated among black filmmakers.
Added to this are the overdetermining, paradoxical problems of winning broad distribution and popular box office support for a film that
in its vision and style runs far beyond the colonized appetites of the
sex-violence-action trained consumer audience, be it black or white.17
To Sleep with Anger, which features Danny Glover as the interloping trickster, Harry, is an understated, enigmatic exploration of the
cracks and tensions of black family life in the middle-class environs of
contemporary Los Angeles. The film’s power and appeal reside in the
way the filmmaker turns his gaze inward on the stable black community, as microcosmically rendered in the intricate conflicts and tangles
of three generations of an extended black family. The arrival of the
superstitious throwback Harry, with his “down home” manners and
divisive machinations, stirs tensions between the latent values of the
rural South and those of contemporary black urban culture; between
the generation of the parents, Gideon (Paul Butler) and Suzie (Mary
Alice), and their two sons, Junior (Carl Lumbly) and the “Buppie”
Babe Brother (Richard Brooks), and their families.
Harry, the complexly drawn, simultaneously comic and devilish
trickster, comes to symbolize much that is wrong with this middleclass black community. Burnett drew his inspiration for the character
from stories his grandmother told him about life in rural Mississippi,
and he says of Harry, “He’s a character that comes to steal your soul,
and you have to out-trick him” 18 Exploiting the codes of southern hospitality and manners to set up operations in Gideon and Suzie’s household , Harry plays on weakness as he divides all against all. His charm
Copyriflhleq 1′(/cltEfria~nAcK
and trickery work a subtle, malignant spell that contributes to Gideon’s
having a stroke, exploits the sibling rivalry between the two sons,
causes Babe Bro and his wife to split up, subordinates the women of
the family to the backward patriarchy of the sharecropping South, and
finally establishes a junta of southern cronies in the house determined
to party away the family ‘s resources. To Sleep climaxes when, on a
full-moon Friday night, the two brothers almost kill each other and
are prevented from doing so only by the women of the family, led by
the mother, Suzie, who stops a potentially fatal knife thrust with her
hand. Later, at the emergency room, Burnett’s camera pulls back to
articulate the social dimension of the problem as the audience realizes
that this family is just one of a vast urban terrain of similarly troubled
families there to patch up their quarrels and physical wounds.
Order and hope are restored to the narrative when, in an act of
poetic justice, the oldest and youngest collide. Harry slips and falls on
marbles, spilled by Gideon’s grandson, and dies of a heart attack on the
kitchen floor, thus fulfilling the symbolic promise of a scene that opens
the film. For when Harry first arrives, the grandson touches his shoes
with a broom, which Harry reads, according to southern folklore, as
a magical threat and a foreshadowing. It is only fitting, then, that the
innocent actions of the young child should eliminate the calculated evil
and corruption of the devilish Harry. Burnett ends his film on a clever
dramatic irony that involves a form of symbolic pollution, when the
family cannot get the city to remove Harry’s corpse in a timely manner. Thus the irony of the overbearing house guest who overstays his
welcome is comically literalized when, even in death, Harry cannot be
gotten rid of. But Harry’s corpse also obstructs and pollutes the space
where the family meets, where its food is prepared and eaten.
Beyond the perfection of Burnett’s dense, mysterious, tragicomic
narrative, perhaps the subtle expression of style that most distinguishes To Sleep with Anger is the way that Burnett deploys his disciplined sense of cultural introspection throughout the film . Burnett has
turned his gaze away from the surrounding white world inward to construct a black subjectivity that replaces the flat stereotypical dominant
cinema with a sense of multidimensional, black typicality. As with all
of Burnett’s films, To Sleep draws its power from the shared sense of
values and cultural vision of the African American insider who creTHE NEW BLACK MOVI (;~~teld I MateriMII
ates his story world unselfconsciously, with few concessions to market
or crossover sensibilities. This ability to specify cultural vision is perhaps best demonstrated in the subtle way that black music, especially
the blues motif, weaves its way throughout the narrative. The film
opens with a stirring Gospel solo; at various moments, one can hear
the boy next door haltingly practicing the trumpet; Harry typifies the
nomadic blues lifestyle and survivalist rural culture as depicted when
bluesman Jimmy Witherspoon (playing himself) shows up to sing at a
party given in Harry’s honor. Moreover, the blues as an index of the
soul’s progress is brilliantly revealed in the scene when Suzie finally
asks Harry to leave. Harry accepts his fate without rancor or protest.
Then, in a moment of illumination, as if to explain himself, Harry
likens his soul to the crude, unfinished sound of the boy’s trumpet next
door, heard as a dim background refrain throughout the film. Harry
completes the analogy by saying that one must put up with the soul’s
practice and noise to appreciate how its music finally turns out. And
consistent with Burnett’s enigmatic but socially redemptive style, To
Sleep understands and symbolically forgives its trickster. For as the
end credits roll up, we hear the boy’s music improve.
Despite the film’s narrative depth and subtle dramatic force, as well
as some of the season’s most favorable reviews, it is disappointing but
somewhat predictable to note that To Sleep with Anger has fallen into
the trap of the paradox proscribing much of black film, the conflict between rendering an honest black perspective on the big screen while
being forced to measure a film’s survival and importance solely on its
profitability at the box office. In spite of the film’s recognition by black
community institutions as a significant work, with the Beverly Hills/
Hollywood branch of the NAACP going so far as to campaign to bring
out the black audience, To Sleep was largely perceived and handled by
its distributor, Samuel Goldwyn, as an “art house” vehicle. Moreover,
Burnett, among others, claims that scant attention was paid to how
the film was marketed in the black community. The film’s box-office
problems were further compounded by the persistent fact that much of
the black audience is a youth market and as such is action-adventure
oriented. Consequently, the film did poorly overall at the box office,
accumulating a meager $348,285 after its first five weeks of release. 19
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In an added irony that illustrates the film’s complex fusion of qualities
as both black film and art film , To Sleep performed five times as well
with white audiences as black, thus inspiring one critic to tag it “an allblack film (except for the audience) .” 20 But the last word on the black
filmmaker ‘s dilemma should go to Burnett himself, who perceptively
observed well before the film’s release that “the situation is such that
one is always asked to compromise one’s integrity, and if the socially
oriented film is finally made, its showing will generally be limited and
the very ones that it is made for and about will probably never see it. “21
This persistent problem of a black dramatic film rendered in experimental, non-Hollywood language coming into conflict with the demands of the commodity system has vexed the popular circulation of
at least two other important black independent features, Chameleon
Street (1989), and Daughters of the Dust (1990). In Wendell B. Harris’s Chameleon Street, which won the $5,000 Grand Jury Prize at the
Sundance United States Film Festival in 1990, we find another promising black feature that, because of its unique narrative and visual
construction, has found itself a poor fit in popular consumer markets
and relegated to the purgatory of the obscure art house, university,
and museum circuit. The epitome of black independent vision, Harris’s
film , which he wrote, directed, and stars in, was financed and made for
around $1 million, largely through his efforts at persuading friends,
professionals, and community members to invest in the project.
Beyond the determined ingenuity of the production’s “guerrilla financing,” Chameleon Street’s cinematic authority dwells in the unique ,
disturbing view that the film affords the spectator into an African
American psyche and that psyche’s calculated interactions with a surrounding, dominant white society. On its formal surface, Chameleon
Street tells the true story of William Douglas Street, a brilliant but
unstable Michigan black man who, through a series of impersonations,
successfully infiltrated the white professional world. Street as chameleon and con man moves from scam to scam, from becoming a physician with a Harvard degree who performs a series of deft hysterectomies to a Yale graduate student to a corporate lawyer and so on. At
each juncture, Street is found out, prosecuted , and occasionally imprisoned , only to move on by assuming another guise. Thus, part of
Copyrighted Material
the film’s unsettling effect comes from our realization of how thin and
transparent these much-admired professional castes are to an ambitious, cunning intelligence.
Yet, black or white, by mid-film the spectator’s discomfort grows
with the dawning realization that the protagonist of Chameleon Street’s
most frightening role is permanent and ubiquitous. For William Douglas Street, as revealed by the way the director Wendell Harris marks
the Street character with his own persona, is a black everyman sentenced to a life of dissembling in a society completely obsessed with
designations of “race” and maintaining racial hierarchies. Street’s fantasy life, as signaled by his attending a masquerade party as the Beast
from Jean Cocteau’s Beauty and the Beast (1946), his frustrated ambition and intelligence, his dissembling in the face of a white professional class so eager to disavow its reflex feelings of racial superiority that it uncritically accepts him, all culminate in a dialectically
shocking metaphor for the double consciousness, masked anger, and
constant pretending that all blacks, to some degree, must deploy to
live in a persistently racist society. And, of course, here resides the
dark, troubled core of the film. Embellished by Harris’s arty, avantgarde style and sardonic voiceover monologue, this is the unspoken
and unspeakable truth that will forever keep Chameleon Street out
of dominant cinema’s mass entertainment markets. As the critic Armond White has rightfully observed, the film’s social and aesthetic
declaration joins a continuum testimony voiced by African American
subterraneans so disturbingly inscribed in Ralph Ellison’s Invisible
Man, Richard Wright’s The Man Who Lived Underground, and Ishmael Reed’s Reckless Eyeballing, all characters who refuse to be domesticated to America’s racist agenda. 22
If the situation for black male independent filmmakers has proven
difficult, then it has been almost impossible for black women. Compared to black men, there are few black women filmmakers and, in
most cases, they must negotiate the “triple oppression” of their work
predicated on independent vision, race, and gender. This layering of
barriers is starkly borne out by the simplest industry statistics. At the
moment of this writing, the mainstream industry has produced and
distributed one film by a black woman director, A Dry White Season
(1989), by the foreign-born Euzhan Palcy. And demonstrating a strucCopyrigWeq JVICft~riaBL ACK
ture increasingly prohibitive with the imposition of each new category
of difference, of the more than 450 commercial films released in 1991 ,
white women directed 5 percent, or approximately 23 of them. Black
men produced more black films in 1991 than in the entire 1980s, while
black women produced no films whatsoever.23 Against these daunting
odds and obstacles, we must contextualize and critique the only African American women’s film to come even close to posing an alternative
to Hollywood’s near-absolute race and gender hegemony, Daughters
afthe Dust (1991), written, produced, and directed by Julie Dash.
This feature , centered on a black woman , is the result of a tenyear vision, produced for around $1 million, made up of $650,000 in
grant money from the public broadcast “American Playhouse” series,
$150,000 from the Corporation for Public Broadcasting, with the remaining capital coming from independent, “guerrilla” financing. Much
like the novels of black women that started to emerge in the 1970s,
Daughters of the Dust pointedly sets out to reconstruct, to recover a
sense of black women’s history, and to affirm their cultural and political space in the expanding arena of black cinema production. The narrative encompasses a long summer day in 1902, set at Ebo Landing
in the Sea Islands off the South Carolina coast, a relatively isolated
historical location that allowed the survival of African cultural beliefs
and practices that are so important to Dash’s text. Daughters depicts
a seashore picnic held by the extended Peazant family, which has convened, with a photographer, to bid farewell to the family’S ancestral
island home and confront the psychic stresses and religious and political debates centered on moving to the North toward jobs, assimilation,
and upward mobility into a nascent black middle class.
Uniquely, and against the grain of commercial cinema expectations,
black women, speaking in “Geechee” dialect and ornately costumed
in a variety of white tropical Victorian dresses, for one of the few
times in commercial cinema history occupy the visual, spiritual, and
moral center of the screen. The narrative, which is rendered in a
nonlinear style structured with dislocations in time and space, flashbacks, and forwards, depicts a complex ideological debate carried on
by three generations of the family ‘s women who are roughly split
among at least three interpretations of “progress”, that is, the move
North and all that it portends. The family matriarch, Grandma Nana
THE NEW BLACK MOVI €~f1Ite(J IMateri~l’ s
(Cora Lee Day), wants to ensure the survival of African mystical traditions , ancestor worship , ritual magic, and a deep generational sense of
extended-family unity that has enabled them to survive the long ordeal
of slavery. Opposed to Nana are her daughters and in-laws, represented by Viola (Cherly Lynn Bruce) and Haagar (Kaycee Moore),
who have no use for the past, who dismiss all African retention as
superstition or, as Haagar derisively puts it, as “hoodoo.” To varied degrees, the family embraces a black interpretation of Christianity and
the move North toward what they argue to be the social and material
advancement of a developing black middle class. Daughters’ mixture
and contestation of black world views is further complicated by the return from the North of the outcast prostitute daughter, Yellow Mary
(Barbara-O) , accompanied by her lesbian lover, both of whom symbolize an emergent independent womanhood not inhibited by penetrating
the male realm of “business” or advocating liberalized forms of sexual
choice and expression. But, as her name implies, Yellow Mary also articulates the family ‘s subtle sense of color consciousness.
As with much of the best of the independent impulse, Daughters
of the Dust represents an uncommon, one-of-a-kind challenge to the
cinematic containment of expressions of race and gender. The film
aspires to counter the erasure of black women and their stories, not
only because of the ambitious focus of its director but also through
the resourceful, avant-garde manner in which Daughters constructs
its story. As director Dash relates it: “The media have helped create
the whole aura of invisibility around black women film makers . .. .
In my film, I’m asking the audience to sit down for two hours and listen to what black women are talking about.” 24 What these women are
talking about, however, the continuation of the African past into the
syncretic African American present and future, is revealed through a
narrative structure that can, in a sense, be approximated by the Latin
American literary term “magic realism.” 25
By relying on a cultural heirloom, the African oral tradition shaded
with the narrative sensibilities of the griot, or storyteller, as Dash
says, she wants to disrupt the spectators’ blunted, consumer imaginations and plunge them into the “world of the new,” thus constructing
the tale in “the wayan old relative would retell it, not linear but always
coming back around.”26 Or as Nana so poetically explains her percepCopyrig, eft N1at(friaBLAcK
tion of continuity, “The womb and the tomb are the same place.” Moreover, this sense of “magic real” circularity, as well as the subversion
of dominant cinema’s regime of time and space, guides the slow revelation of the tale, as, for example, in the way it is told as a prenatal
flashback of N ana’s unborn granddaughter, who runs in accelerated
motion through various scenes and tableau, a returning ancestor yet
to arrive and eager to be reborn. We also catch fleeting gestures and
expressions of Islam, African animist magic, and Christianity, all of
which suggest the syncretic mix of rituals, ideas , beliefs that will become the African American future.
Yet, in spite of Daughters’ imaginative force, its resistant selfimaging, its insistence in speaking for, and to, new emergent constituencies , or simply because of these things, the film had trouble finding
a distributor. Even with an impressive premiere at the 1991 Sundance
Film Festival, Daughters languished for a year without a distribution
deal until Dash signed with Keno International. Exemplifying the way
that the film industry and its organs perceive projects, issues, or cultural perspectives that are not easily packaged, commodified, or subordinated to the demands of colonized, ready-made markets , Daughters
was dismissed in a Variety review as “an investigation into a very little
known African-American culture” that played “like a two-hour Laura
Ashley commercial.” 27 Conversely, Dash has not been naive about the
challenges of producing an antihegemonic text, for she voices the wry
counterpoint to her previous observation, saying that “most white men
don’t want to be a black woman for two hours ,” 28 though there is no
doubt that, ultimately, over time, her film will get the popular reception it demands. This will come about simply because Daughters afthe
Du st is engaged in the long, slow process of opening up new, liberated
zones in the social imagination. For as the film connects with, or builds,
the consciousness of its audience, its circulation and earning power will
grow. Also, Daughters’ public television showings and distribution in
secondary video markets will inevitably contribute to this process.
Among other black-oriented projects that achieve a subtle mix of independent and mainstream qualities, in that they were either independently or alternatively financed or offer fresh cinematic approaches to
the representation of black life and race r elations while gaining broad
popular distribution in both theater and videotape markets, are Matty
THE NEW BLACK MOVl rc~iPJhted I Mareri~F
Rich’s Straight Out of Brooklyn (1991), Joseph Vasquez’s Hanging with
the Homeboys (1991), and Mira Nair’s Mississippi Masala (1991). Perhaps most recently, no other director of the 1990s wave epitomizes the
values and determination of the independent stance more than Matty
Rich, from the Red Hook area of Brooklyn, who at age eighteen has
become the youngest person ever to make a film for U. S. commercial
release. Rich credits much of his drive to a mix of the anger he felt
about the subhuman conditions he experienced in the housing projects
of his childhood, and what he feels is the urgent necessity of depicting
that oppressed community’s daily reality through the medium of narrative cinema. Set in the grim apartheid of Red Hook’s public housing
environment, Straight Out of Brooklyn depicts an obvious, ingenuous,
but somewhat technically uneven tale of one family’s slow destruction
under the pressures of ghetto life. Perhaps the most telling moment
in the film occurs when, in a flash of insight, one of the young homeboys, Dennis (Lawrence Gilliard, Jr.), weighs the systematic institutional forces that keep him trapped, ghettoized, as he declares to his
girl friend that “there is no ‘right’ way to get out of Brooklyn!”
More successfully than any of his basically doomed characters, young
black filmmaker Matty Rich has been able to implement this advice
by plotting his own escape trajectory. Applying the classic guerrilla
financing strategy, mapped out by Van Peebles, Townsend, and Lee
before him, Rich drew $16,000 on his mother’s and sister’s credit cards,
which was enough to shoot an eight-minute fund-raiser. Rich then went
on Brooklyn’s black radio station, WLIB, and made a direct appeal
for community support of the project, from which he got $77,000,
invested by black folks ranging from garbage collectors to lawyers. To
this enterprising start was added supplementary funds from the PBS
“American Playhouse” series, as well as a timely boost of recognition
from a special jury prize at the 1991 Sundance Film Festival. Samuel
Goldwyn then picked up the film’s distribution, and Rich was on his
way to what, by Hollywood standards, was a sizable hit, grossing $2.7
million on an initial production cost of $300,000. 29 Besides its material
success, and in spite of its uneven, beginner’s quality, Straight Out of
Brooklyn’s socially urgent tone and uncompromising revelation of the
conditions of ghetto life mark the film as an eminent example of all that
the independent impulse aspires to accomplish.
Joseph Vasquez’s Hanging with the Homeboys, and Mira Nair’s Mississippi Masala , with their intimate looks at the workings of the nonwhite world, fit comfortably into the perimeters ofthe new black wave,
if for no other reason than the new and brilliant ways that both these
filmmakers of color explore intimate social relations between African
Americans and the nation’s other unassimilated Third World people.
As with much about race relations that cannot be instantly explained
or packaged, the filmic self-representation of America’s large nonwhite
population is a pressing social reality that Hollywood has basically
ignored, just as the media, serving its own ideological ends, usually
narrowly frames the nation’s complex racial situation as a black-white
confrontation solamente. So it comes as a distinct innovation when
Vasquez focuses his dramatic comedy, which was made by New Line
Cinema for a modest $2 million, on this cinematic void or repressed
zone. Much like Chameleon Street or John Sayles’s City of Hope (1991),
the powerful undercurrents of Vasquez’s film turn on the subtle conditioning and proscribing powers of race, as four homeboys , two black
and two Puerto Rican, go out on the town on a comic Manhattan adventure in what turns out to be their last time together at the end of
what has been, for all of them, a prolonged adolescence.
Exploring thematic concerns significantly absent from commercial
cinema, Mira Nair’s second feature film, Mississippi Masala (1991) ,
takes on the tangled issue of interracial romance between lovers who
meet in the terrain of social overlap between two nonwhite cultures.
Thus the film challenges the boundaries of the staid Hollywood convention that almost always renders miscegenation as undesirable and
depicts it from the hegemonic perspective of the white male coupled
with a nonwhite (usually Asian) female. 30 Nair’s film tells the story of a
masala (meaning a “spicy dish”) romance between an African American man (Denzel Washington) and an Indian woman (Sarita Choudhury). In the process, Mississippi Masala, produced for a mere $5
million, manages to explore the tangled “in house” issues of color difference and hierarchy, the problems of living in exile, the stereotypes
held among nonwhite groups, as well as the optimistic possibilities of
Asians and African Americans interacting romantically. Overall, the
subtle appeal of the film resides in the way it depicts interracialism
and social intimacy between nonwhite groups, while making the point
THE NEW BLACK MOVI ~~ir1htfkJ IMateri!Jf 9
that romantic mixing is the natural, if sometimes problematic, result
of cultures sharing the same social space.
In contrast to the way that dominant cinema, say, in Mississippi
Burning (1988), Dances with Wolves (1991), and City of Joy (1992),
manages to set its dramas in nonwhite locales or themes while steadfastly keeping whites at the center of the narrative, Nair succeeds in
maintaining the black independent focus on exploring nonwhite realities and worlds while moving the people who inhabit these worlds from
the margins to the center of the screen. For this reason, Nair says that
“whites are powerfully absent in the film.”3J As important, though,
Mississippi Masala provides popular black actor Denzel Washington
with a rare opportunity (as To Sleep with Anger did for Danny Glover)
to break out of the rigid commodifying mold of the studio system’s
one-dimensional “star” roles and formulas, most of which narrowly
confine black talent to the genres of comedy, the biracial buddy film,
or the male-oriented ghetto action-adventure. Mississippi Masala
subverts the white “norm” by constructing Washington as a sexually
attractive black male romantic lead , matched with Sarita Choudhury
as a nonwhite immigrant woman who is not stereo typically infatuated with the assimilationist fantasy of falling in love with the prototypical white American male. Moreover, by depicting an irrepressible
dynamic heterogeneity as an alternative to stale notions of a homogeneous separatism, Mississippi Masala plays an engaging counterpoint
to the proscriptive musings of Spike Lee’s Jungle Fever (1991). In fact,
with Mississippi Masala and Hanging with the Homeboys depicting
racial overlap and hybridism as normal social interactions, as well as
depicting nonwhites coping with similar environments and limitations,
both films play with a broadened definition of “blackness” concurrent
with that deployed in Britain. According to the British usage, the category “black” is much more expansive and political, encompassing all
nonwhite immigrants in the society facing similar discriminations and
oppressions. 32
If black independent filmmakers tend directly to resist or oppose
cultural and political domination through their avant-garde languages,
forms, socially urgent narratives, and insider depictions of the black
world, then those black directors who work within the “mainstream”
tend to be more concerned with learning and perfecting the convenCopyri~eQ
tions of dominant cinema language and addressing their projects to the
colonized desires of the vast consumer audience encompassing blacks,
other nonwhite minorities, and extended a la crossover marketing to
whites. Most ofthe black directors who have had commercial successes
argue that they work within the studio system in order to expand the
definitions and possibilities of being black and to subvert the dominant
norm by marketing a “black sensibility” to as broad an audience as
possible. Or, as director John Singleton personalizes it: “The more of a
hand I can deal in the media, the more power I have against a system
that’s trying to dehumanize my family.” 33 Notably, strategies for dealing with the cultural and economic domination confronting all black
filmmakers , independents and mainstreamers alike, tend to fall into
the spectrum of black culturally resistant practices conceptualized by
the writer and critic Houston Baker. Extrapolating Baker’s analysis
to film, then, independent black filmmakers tend to practice the “deformation of mastery” by which they deform the master’s formal conventions, language , conceptions of time and space, and so on, in order
to create oppositional or culturally resistant productions. At the other
end of this strategic continuum resides what Baker calls “the mastery
of form.” In this instance, black directors working within the studio
system strive to learn the master’s forms, dominant cinema’s language , formulas, images, and so on, in hopes of filling those forms with
a new, insurgent content. They want to change or subvert the dominant cultural norm from within the formal confines of the system.34
While appreciating the merits and arguments of both approaches,
it is important to think of black cinema as a continuum of connected
stratagems, practices, and perspectives. Over the course of their
careers, black filmmakers tend to employ a mixed bag of tricks. Many
of them follow a developmental trajectory from guerrilla financing
and bold independent visions to broad audiences and popular acclaim,
commercial hits, on to hassling with the miseries of domination and
co-optation, much like any director trapped within the demands of the
Hollywood system. Thus, at this developmental point in black cinema,
we have to be cautious as to which strategy or mix of options will
ultimately prevail and prove most useful to furthering the emancipatory aspirations of black people on the big screen. Obviously, though,
both approaches have limitations that lead us with persistent circuTHE NEW BLACK MOVl f;~~te,d l l’vfateriIlIJl
larity back to the original black cinema paradox. For narrative cinema
is a capital-intensive, mass-audience-driven social practice. Consequently, one can create the most liberating filmic vision ever articulated in the diaspora, but if it does not find an audience, it will have
little social impact. Yet we must also note that Hollywood also employs
a mixed bag of tricks and strategies to contain any challenge to its
cinematic regime, according to its needs at a given historical moment.
Thus the studio system is quite adept at containing insurgent impulses
of difference, usually by excluding or ignoring them, but also in times
of economic insecurity or shifting cultural relations by the more pervasive strategy of co-opting resistant images and narratives into the
vast metamorphosing body of its cinematic hegemony. Thus a black
director may make the most popular film ever or successfully work a
very lucrative genre only to find that the studio system has co-opted
the form of blackness while emptying it of its emancipatory content
and cultural impact.
The pitfalls and manipulations confronting all black filmmakers notwithstanding, the industry category (besides comedy) that has come to
dominate the new wave of black studio productions and register some
of the biggest moneymaking hits is the male-focused, “ghettocentric,”
action-crime-adventure vehicle. In terms of black sensibility of message articulated through mastering “the master’s form,” this loosely
defined genre has produced a number of varied features, including
the neo-Blaxploitative crime adventure New Jack City (1991), the
tense urban drama Juice (1992), the formulaic Ricochet (1991), and the
powerful tale about coming of age in South Central Los Angeles, Boyz
N the Hood (1991), which is considered by many to be the commercial
feature that best represents the success and potential of the new black
movie boom. Because of its compelling, original script, social context,
and adept marketing strategies, as well as its timely arrival at a turning point in the nation’s volatile racial predicament, Boyz N the Hood
has proven to be an extraordinary African American vision, taking up
the racial discourse where Do the Right Thing left off.
As noted earlier, foremost and from the perspective of mainstream
commercial cinema, Singleton’s film has fulfilled Hollywood’s lowbudget, high-profit black production formula beyond the industry’s
wildest expectations, becoming the most commercially successful black
film ever. Yet, at Boyz’ premiere, anything but the movie’s impressive
commercial success was foreshadowed. Theater violence among the
genre’s predominantly youthful urban audiences had already appeared
with the preceding March release of New Jack City. Now, on a Friday night in July, at this premiere, violence spread across the nation’s
theaters in an explosion of gang-related fights and shootings that left
two people dead and more than thirty wounded. While Columbia supported Singleton’s film from its inception, even going as far as offering
to pay for security to those venues that requested it, more than a few
theaters pulled the print, and there was widespread talk among theater owners, reported in the media, in favor of withdrawing the film
from circulation. Some critics were quick to assert that Boyz raised
the expectation of violence among its volatile youth audience, pointing out that the advertising trailer managed to include every instance
of gunplay in the film, rather than emphasize its antiviolence message
or the father-son relationship at the film’s moral center.
Director John Singleton was quick to defend his vision and in a
series of press conferences and interviews put the controversy into
perspective. Responding in a Rolling Stone interview to criticism of
the film’s marketing, and especially the trailer, which he helped edit,
Singleton remarks on the double standard applied to his work, saying
of the trailer that “it got motherfuckers into the theater” and “that’s
the bottom line. If the trailer for Terminator 2 showed the part where
he agreed not to kill anyone, nobody would have gone to see it.” At
a swiftly arranged press conference, Singleton noted that he “didn’t
create the conditions under which people shoot each other.” And keeping Boyz’ theme in mind, Singleton further pointed out that this kind
of violence “happens because there’s a whole generation of people who
are disenfranchised” and that to suppress the film would be an act of
“artistic racism.” 35 In the light of the clear ways that the film argues
against gang violence, for instance opening with the grim statistic that
“one in every twenty-two black males will be murdered” and ending
with the inscription “Increase the Peace,” Singleton’s remarks underscore the fact that the violence surrounding the film is symptomatic of
the deep injustices and inequalities festering in the society. Singleton
thus finds himself in the proverbial trap of the messenger bearing the
had news of society’s oppressions. To suppress or proscribe Boyz beTHE NEW BLACK
Movl f;§t5Y’it,1htfJdIMareribfu
cause it deals forthrightly with the results of the economic and social
conditions inflicted on black people would, at minimum, come off as an
act of outright censorship and hypocrisy.
In terms of its narrative, stunted , wasted lives are what Boyz is
all about. 36 The film depicts three adolescents-Tre (Cuba Gooding),
Doughboy (Ice Cube), and Ricky (Morris Chestnut)-as they struggle
to survive to adulthood and escape the menace of the tight social
space to which they have been relegated. The feeling of confinement
and limitation of opportunity that shapes all black life in Los Angeles’
sprawling ghetto opens the film with a full-frame shot of a STOP sign
as a fleet, silver airliner flies overhead and beyond the ‘hood to distant
lands and vastly broader social horizons. Boyz’ opening image marks
the influence of contemporary black urban music on Singleton’s work
in that it pays homage to the rapper Too Short, who employed the same
metaphor in his potent music video “The Ghetto.” Moreover, the transcendent airplane flying high above the problems of the black world
is a thematic refrain in black cultural production. The metaphor goes
back to a revealing opening moment in Richard Wright’s classic novel
Native Son (1940), when Bigger Thomas looks up from the confines of
Chicago’s South Side ghetto at a sky-writing airplane overhead to the
bitter realization that anything to do with flight-mechanical, imaginative, or otherwise-is for “white boys” and far beyond his reach.
Improvising on the time-honored theme of the fatal juggernaut that
the political system and power structure has prepared for black adolescents like Wright’s Bigger Thomas, director Singleton explores at
least three ideological paths for young black men, as represented in
the dispositions and fates of his three principal Boyz . Doughboy opts
for a life of gang banging and dope dealing in rejection of the unattainable status and toys of the white middle-class world. His docile halfbrother Ricky chooses athletics as a route of escape, hoping to get a
football scholarship to the nearby University of Southern California.
In a strategy that embodies historical black notions of self-help and
the Du Boisian idea of the “talented tenth,” Tre and his girl friend,
Brandi (Nina Long), choose academic achievement, commitment to a
future marriage, and the possibility of going away to college together
as their path out of the ghetto.
Singleton’S tale makes it clear, however, that in occupied territory
JVICftlfria B LACK
all paths are closely intertwined, for black people are not seen for what
they aspire to; rather, what they are suspected of. And the odds against
any particular vision of survival or escape succeeding are daunting.
This abiding truth of ghetto life is made chillingly real in perhaps the
film’s most compelling scene when a rabid, self-hating black cop arbitrarily terrorizes the ‘hood’s best and brightest, Tre, by holding a gun
to his throat. Moreover, the film’s subtle weave of aspirations, frustrations, and violent outbursts adds complexity and occasional contradiction to the director’s antiviolence message, simply because Boyz
draws its dramatic visual force from the film’s insider depiction of gang
culture. This holds true right down to the details of Doughboy’s blue
color coding as a “Crip” or his subtle macho gestures with a handgun
when facing down a red-coded “Blood” on Crenshaw Boulevard. Consequently, Ice Cube’s performance occupies the visual, dramatic center of the film, defining the attitude and actions so essential to drawing commercial cinema’s targeted youth audience, in contrast to Cuba
Gooding, who dutifully shoulders the burden of Boyz’ moral message.
Yet, overall, the film’s diverse points of view as rendered by its characters, the social compression of so many different outlooks and aspirations under the stresses of ghetto life, move Boyz beyond the inept
essentializing of films exploiting the same locale and culture, for example, Dennis Hopper’s cop’s-eye view of the ‘hood, Colors.
For Singleton, all these young men’s futures turn on the absence
or presence of fathers . Beside the senseless communal violence that
eventually claims both Ricky and Doughboy and that, according to
Tre’s father, only facilitates dominant society’s laissez-faire genocide
of blacks, the guiding theme of Boyz has to do with black fathers taking
responsibility for raising their sons into politicized, enterprising black
men. Tre’s father, Furious Styles (Larry Fishburne), explicitly exemplifies the urgency of this corrective to the very real , overwhelming
problems facing black boys. Often didactic, Furious gives advice on
everything from the necessity of blacks controlling their capital and
real estate to how a sexually adventurous young man keeps his “dick
from falling off.” And while this latter bit offatherly wisdom is ingenuous when contrasted with the self-serving “dick thing” rationalizations
of Mo’ Better Blues (1990), Boyz tends to deliver its message in binary
terms by offsetting the image of the “good” single-parent father with
THE NEW BLACK Movl r;~tflteld I Materi~P S
a number of images of “bad” single-parent mothers. This, in part, has
led the critic Jacquie Jones to note that the women in Boyz occupy only
two flattened-out categories, “bitches and ho’s.” 37
Furthermore, in spite of its socially complex roles and its intimate
depiction of a world inhabited exclusively by blacks, or more because
of its position in mainstream cinema discourse, Boyz reveals more than
a trace of dominant narrative convention in its melodramatic devotion
to the cult of the enterprising individual (f:l la Horatio Alger), as homeboys are rewarded or punished by the end of the film for choices and
paths consonant with, or in conflict with, dominant values. For we are
informed in the epilogue, Doughboy is murdered while Tre and Brandi
move up and out of the ‘hood to attend Spelman and Morehouse Colleges respectively. Beyond the social urgency of Boyz’ insider cultural
verisimilitude, perhaps the closest thing to a high political moment
comes when Doughboy, after burying Ricky and taking vengeance on
his assassins, makes a final speech, recapping Furious’s street-corner
oration, on calculated white indifference to the plight of the ‘hood.
While Doughboy’s closing remarks are for the most part contained
by the dominant melodramatic form, thus becoming the raw material
of consumer voyeurism, Boyz N the Hood’s politics cannot be separated from its place in the volatile, ever-shifting historical moment.
For the stakes in the nation’s ongoing racial confrontation were raised
dramatically with the Los Angeles rebellion at the end of April 1992.
Responding to escalating tensions, California Governor Pete Wilson
came to appreciate the film’s social import and felt compelled to recommend that all citizens see Boyz N the Hood .
Another notable demonstration of box office drawing power arising
out of Hollywood’s eager embrace of the new black directors and the industry’s astute application of the ghettocentric, crime-action formula
appeared with the release of director Mario Van Peebles’s commercial
success New Jack City (1991). Made by Warner Bros. for a mere $8.7
million , New Jack City once again proved the efficacy of Hollywood’s
low-budget strategy for black films by returning five and a half times
its production costs, over $47 million in gross profits. Yet, other than
the theater violence that accompanied the film’s premiere, the use of a
rap artist in a starring role, and its “ghettocentricity,” New Jack City
differs from Boyz in many important respects. Whereas we can argue
Copyri5m/eq II(ICftffria~LACK
that to a large extent Boyz N the Hood resists or overrides industry
convention with its strong nationalistic message and streetwise verisimilitude, New Jack City comes off as pure dominant cinema, actionentertainment formula. Alongside Bill Dukes’s A Rage in Harlem
(1991), New Jack City has surfaced as one of the first black gangster
movies since the wane of Blaxploitation in the mid-1970s. Nevertheless, from its biracial buddy cops to its gratuitous spectacle of violence
to its alluring depiction of the luxurious lifestyles of ghetto drug lords,
New Jack City comes off as a crude assemblage of entertainment cliches engineered to attract the broadest spectrum of the youth market,
from the black inner city to the white suburbs.
In an ironic inversion of perspective, perhaps signaling entrepreneuriallessons grasped in the twenty-year interval between the two
black booms or waves, Mario Van Peebles, the son of the renowned
independent Melvin Van Peebles, has reversed his father’s stance on
guerrilla financing to work entirely within the conventions and expectations of the studio system. As well, the younger Van Peebles’s
New Jack ideological outlook on ghetto heroism and black community
politics has turned the dialectical corner on his father’s perspective.
Whereas the legendary Sweet Sweetback is a sexualized rebel and outlaw fighting the injustices of police occupation of the black community,
the biracial buddy cops (lce-T and Judd Nelson) of New Jack City are
depicted as the violent, institutionally sanctioned, extralegal solution
to the black community’s drug and crime ills.38 In a further ideological
convolution, the rapper Ice-T, cast as an undercover cop, plays entirely
against the grain of his “original gangsta” persona, especially when
we consider that all his output, including the controversial song “Cop
Killer,” pointedly articulates his disapproval of the oppressive role that
the police play in marginalized communities. 39 Aside from New Jack
City’s commercial success, perhaps the film’s most innovative contribution to the growing wave of black-cast and black-focused productions
has to do with the way the film effectively integrates rap music into
its mise-en-scene. In much the same manner that the socially focused
music of Ice-T adds political and cultural dimension to an otherwise
shallow, exploitative buddy-cop-gang flick such as Colors, an ongoing
rap mix provided by Ice-T and other artists inflects New Jack City
with a slightly dissident or subversive edge that works against the
THE NEW BLACK MOVI (;~~teld I Materi&P7
cop-buddy cliches of this neo-Blaxploitative production. Noting New
Jack’s many, sometimes obvious, allusions to the immigrant gangster
movie, the critic Jacquie Jones best sums up New Jack City by writing
that “ultimately, it looms as little more than a Blackface Scarface.” 40
In contrast, Earnest Dickerson’s Juice (1992) better negotiates the
tricky space of political and aesthetic challenges and compromises
situated between the ideologies of independent and mainstream production, between the possibilities of insurgent liberating vision and
generic moneymaking formula. Shot in shadow and darkness, alleys
and bleak inner-city settings, punctuated with contrasting lighting
and flashes of primal colors, and a deft hip-hop sound mix, in style and
values Juice alludes to the corrupt, violent world of the film noir of
the early 1950s. The narrative follows the slow destruction of four adolescent friends living under the honorific code of the streets and the
tyrannical rule of the gun while concurrently trapped by the stunted
options of ghetto life. After a robbery has gone bad and has turned to
murder, the most violent of the crew, Bishop (Tupac Shakur), degenerates into a paranoid psychotic who moves to eliminate his homeboys
one by one. In an escalating chase-and-struggle narrative that takes
the spectator on a violent sojourn through the hip-hop underground
and black urban youth culture, only the strongest ofthe boys, Q (Omar
Epps), survives unscathed.
Evincing Dickerson’s cinematic skills honed as director of photography on five of Spike Lee’s productions, Juice’s visual style and pacing sustain the film’s drama and render a compelling panorama of the
devastation wrought on black youth culture and aspirations by the malign neglect of almost a decade of Reaganomics. 41 And if the film’s lack
of “positive images,” as critiqued in the Amsterdam News, communicates an overall sense of foreclosure or doom, it must be argued that
the film’s politics are not to be found exclusively in anyone action or
“positive” statement. Instead they subtly imbue its overall mise-enscene, which carries Juice beyond the binary discourse of “negative”
versus “positive” messages or images or mere neo-Blaxploitation boxoffice formula. As painful as it might be to some, Juice’s overriding
insight does not concern redemption. Instead, like the best of Lee’s
work, with social diagnosis in this instance, the film confronts the
audience with the alarming situation facing a large segment of black
Copyr~edJl(la,twiaIaLACK FILM IN THE 19905
urban youth today. Yet, in some ways the film also makes concessions
to dominant narrative convention, particularly by attributing Bishop’s
violent rage to individual pathology, rather than connecting it to the
collective determinants of discrimination and social injustice inflicted
on an oppressed community. Underscoring Bishop’s mental instability,
director Dickerson makes a point of Bishop’s father’s mental problems and Bishop’s admiration for the psychotic criminal Cody Jarrett
(James Cagney) in the gangster classic White Heat (1949). Consonant
with Hollywood formula, then, Juice tends to reduce pressing collective issues to the drama of individual weaknesses and victimization.
Yet, all these black, ghetto-centered action flicks must necessarily
differ in subtle ways from the standard studio product. While they all
adhere to the images, editing, and sounds of action formula, they also
implicitly undermine Hollywood’s inherent tendency to repress or coopt resistant or oppositional social perspectives in its films. All three
ofthese features are inextricably caught up in the aspirations and communal problems of the social worlds they depict. In James Baldwin’s
words, they all unavoidably must bear the black artist’s “burden of representation,” the burden of always being viewed as, and reduced to, the
voice and sign of the black community resident in the popular imagination. Thus, even if the issues that broadly define blackness were to
be exclusively “positively” depicted in these films, most black-focused
narratives would articulate tensions and perspectives that cannot be
completely subsumed by the dominant ideology of “entertainment
only.” Whether neo-Blaxploitation action flick or ghettocentric gang
epic, in some manner these films must inevitably historicize the cultural, political, and economic issues of the resistant communities they
represent. Underscoring this linkage in the most blunt and depressing
manner, on their premiere nights, no matter what ideological attitude
these features took toward the politics of domination or independence,
New Jack City, Boyz N the Hood , and Juice were all greeted in theaters across the nation by gang confrontations, shootings, and random
violence. Thus the inadvertently intense social character of the blackfocused urban-action-adventure flick manifests itself by assembling
communal tensions and frustrations in its audience in the compressed
and volatile space of the movie theater, while depicting these same
tensions on the screen. Rather than think of these films as the cause
THE NEW BLACK MOVI {;~rfltel,d I Materi~f19
of theater violence, and more to the point, we should view them as
vehicles through which society’s racial contradictions, injustices, and
failed policies are mediated. They are the artist’s examination of, and
dire warnings about, a society in which African Americans are, in
terms of statistics, worse off today than before the civil rights movement. And though the news is bad, the blame resides with the social
order in its totality, not the cinematic vehicle that delivers the news.42
Not all mainstream black creative energy or studio attention, however, has gone into projects rendering tales of violence and adventure
in the ghetto, for the major part of black talent and white capital
has been invested in the production of low- to mid-budget black comedy features. Being the most prolific genre in terms of black themes,
casts, and images, and the only genre that has continuously engaged
black talent since the collapse of the initial Blaxploitation boom, blackfocused comedies as well as black-white buddy comedies have established themselves as Hollywood’s other lucrative, if not its most lucrative, black-centered enterprise. Moreover, the 1990s wave of black
comedies has tended to express a broad number of related traits or
thematic similarities, the most obvious of which has to do with the
multivalent ways that black comedy provides a deflected, mostly nonthreatening space within which America can tentatively engage its
ubiquitous race problem. From the perspective of middle-class whites,
black comedies allow for complex, pent-up racial fears and energies
to be transcoded into simplistic entertaining formulas and solutions
that often implicitly maintain white perceptions and expectations of
blacks, as well as the racial status quO. 43 The buddy vehicle White
Men Can’t Jump (1992), starring Wesley Snipes and Woodie Harrelson, which earned $70 million-plus; the black-focused Mo’ Money
(1992), starring Damon Wayans, which earned an impressive $17 million in its opening week; and the megahit (earning $100 million-plus)
Sister Act (1992), starring Whoopi Goldberg, all in their slightly different ways comfortably define black people within the norms and expectations of mainstream consumer entertainment. Conversely, from
the black side, at their best, many of these productions allow African Americans , through the subversion of parody and satire, to mask
and express insurgent social truths and discontents that, if depicted
otherwise, would make the suburban moviegoer uneasy. Even a beCOPYNgtJteq ¥~t~riaB LACK
nign teen-entertainment flick like House Party well expresses this
tendency. In its resolution, the metaphor for a superb party, “blow the
roof off the sucker,” becomes literal as the roof of the house falls out of
the sky on to two bumbling, authoritarian cops, thus comically sublimating the same rebellious impulse that caused Ice-T to be so vilified
in the national media for the release of his song “Cop Killer.”44
But perhaps one of the most troubling ironies of the new black comedies of the 1990s involves the sheer cinematic proliferation of African
American images of success and upwardly mobile characters engaged
in the range of American business enterprises, while in off-screen, statistical reality, the vast majority of black people are increasingly being
pushed to the margins of American society.45 In varying ways this
painful contradiction between image and reality implicitly resonates
in the humor of Livin’ Large! (1991), and the 1992 releases Strictly
Business, Mo’ Money, and Boomerang, all of which employ variations
of classic screwball or romantic comedy formulas. They depict an upwardly mobile or successful protagonist who either finds that he is dissatisfied with success or must renounce his cultural or class identity in
order to succeed.
Directed by veteran black filmmaker Michael Schultz, creator of
such black-cast hits as Cooley High (1975) , Car Wash (1976) , and The
Last Dragon (1985), Livin’ Large! explores the price and pain a striving black journalism student, Dexter Jackson (T. C. Carson), must
pay in order to succeed in the competitive, white-ruled world of television newscasting. In a scenario that cleverly alludes to Pygmalion,
Dr. Faustus, and The Portrait of Dorian Grey, Dexter gradually turns
on his cultural origins and community loyalties, as well as abandons his
hip-hop dialect, under the tutelage of an ambitious domineering white
woman news director (Blanche Baker). He then discovers that he has
trapped himself in a Faustian bargain that he finds increasingly suffocating. Symbolic of his barely repressed guilt and eroded identity, to
his escalating horror Dexter is trapped in a hallucinatory dialogue with
his deracinated whiteface alter image, who has the unnerving habit of
confronting him from random television screens. After doing a series
of “negative image” exposes of ghetto life and having an affair with
the station’s white coquette, Missy (Julia Campbell), which leads to a
career-advancing arranged wedding promoted by the station as “Gone
MOVI ~CiP:I(jW1tep Ma~erial9 l
with the Wind meets Superjly,” Dexter loses community, friends, and
his black fiancee (Lisa Arrindell). The situation blows up, a la screwball comedy, when Dexter’s conscience gets the better of him, and he
cannot go through with the loveless wedding ceremony.
Implicit in Livin’s farcical treatment of the television news business, the primary institution controlling the hegemonic representation
of political and social reality, is the African American argument that
the news media represent the black community as a series of neverending, intractable “problems,” that is, crime, drugs, welfare, absent
fathers, racial violence, and the rest. Thus the mainstream audience
is led to believe that the black community is totally dependent, degenerate, and in need of the paternal charity and discipline of the white
power structure. Equally important, Livin’ satirically plays with the
broadly held black contention that the only way to be accepted and
succeed in the white-dominated realm of corporate business is to ape
white upper-class culture and values. This theme recurs in a number
of black-cast comedies, including the diegesis of yet another satire of
African American success in the corporate world, Strictly Business
(1992). Starring Tommy Davidson and Joseph C. Phillips, Business
tells the story of a hyperconformist, deracinated “Buppie,” Daymon
Tinsdale III (Phillips) , who is forced to find his cultural expressivity
and roots when he falls for a beautiful black nightclub singer, played
by Halle Berry.
Both features articulate their comfortable position in the mainstream of commercial cinema discourse by resolving themselves on
notes of comedic high optimism, utopian compromise, and the subtle
reaffirmation of corporate values. In Livin’, Dexter’s revolt at his
forced, miscegenous wedding wins him back the respect of his community, friends , and fiancee. And Dexter’s commandeering the microphone to report the chaos of his wedding so impresses the senior, white
male management that he is offered the position of co-anchor on the
station’s evening news. The final scene of the film offers a syncretic,
biracial male-buddy resolution as it cuts to the “Channel 4 Evening
News” logo accompanied by the Herbie Hancock-composed funk-hiphop soundtrack. The now commercially hybrid Dexter, dressed in a
sport coat over an Afro vest made of kente cloth , and his white male
co-anchor, Clifford Worthy (Bernee McInerney) , exchange jesting hipCopyri{9/1teq ‘Y’qt~rial1LAcK
hop handshakes and greetings, with Worthy quipping, “We do be
down.” Then, in linguistic affirmation of his allegiance to the dominant
corporate culture, Dexter starts his reporting in perfectly articulated,
race-neutral news talk as the film ends and fades to credits. Strictly
Business also ends in an optimistic fantasy that celebrates the triumph
of capital, romance, and racial cooperation, as Daymon Tinsdale III is
able to negotiate his “double consciousness” deftly by maintaining his
newly found hipness while moving up in the corporate hierarchy. His
promised partnership in the firm is rescued with a $75 million investment by a group of Harlem fat cats, and Daymon negotiates the ownership of a nightclub to bond the affections of his new girl friend as well.
Though, as noted, in the new black-cast comedies, as in other black
mainstream features , the opinions and perspectives of “blackness”
are not entirely containable within Hollywood tropes and conventions;
thus these comedies inadvertently conjure up resistant expressions
and points of view of their own. For a prime example, most of the new
black comedies articulate a sustained, if at times subliminal, negative
critique of white corporate culture by pointedly fingering the agent
of malfeasance and evil in their narratives as an overambitious white
businessperson. In Livin’, the manipulative , careerist news director
Kate Penndragin personifies an aggressive, career-obsessed white
feminist as she manipulates Dexter to secure her own place in the corporate hierarchy. In Strictly Business, evil takes the form of a white
male junior executive willing to do anything, including sabotage Tinsdale, for a partnership in the firm. And positioned as Damon Wayans’s
corrupt nemesis in Mo’ Money, the white male director of security
(John Diehl) oversees a scheme to defraud the credit card company
that employs them out of millions of dollars. Clearly, the binary trope
of black goodness versus white wickedness emerged as a staple during
the Blaxploitation period, evolved in Richard Pryor’s biracial buddy
comedies of the 1970s, and followed through in the black comedies of
the 1980s, as evinced by two of Eddie Murphy’s features, The Golden
Child (1986), where the white villain is a synecdoche for Satan, and
Harlem Nights (1989), where the bad guys are white racist gangsters.
Significantly, in the majority of the 1990s black comedies, the inverse, Manichaean image of white corporate villainy is further reinforced with the corollary figure of the soulless, deracinated “Buppie.”
MOVI E:Cl!PV6f1/teplM,a(eriCR/H
If African American comedy views corporate culture as alienating
with many evil attributes, then the lost, decultured “Buppie,” in his
Brooks Bros. suit, speaking with perfect diction and listening to “classical” music, has come to represent the ultimate African American
cinematic nightmare of assimilation. In Livin’ Large!, Dexter climbs
the corporate ladder while the features of his ghostly, video double become progressively whiter as it offers Dexter career-advancing power
moves from the television monitor. When he rebels at his wedding, his
persona in the monitor is the first thing Dexter smashes. In Strictly
Business, Daymon Tinsdale III receives the revelation of hipness and
dumps his corporate girl friend, who is played as an arrogant, black
bourgeois snob (Anne-Marie Johnson). Mo’ Money relies on the same
scenario, when black con man Jonny Stewart (Damon Wayans) steals
Stacey Dash (Amber Evans) from an uptight, domineering black corporate boy friend so full of self-contempt that he tells antiblack jokes
and considers African Americans outside his job description as “street
Showing up in a number of films , this consistent ridicule of the hyperconformist “Buppie” relates, in a Freudian sense, to a more generalized black thematic concern with unstable, shifting identities, the
dissemblings and masks so essential to those on the run and trying to
survive in a racially unequal society. Certainly, the arts of dissembling
and unmasking make up the acid cores of both To Sleep with Anger
and Chameleon Street, as well as the cliched “mistaken identity” formula of the teen pic Class Act (1992). And this black sense of doubling
and masking is stretched to its complex dramatic limits in the brilliant
urban-crime drama directed by Bill Duke, Deep Cover (1992). In Deep
Cover’s shallow, comic counterpoint, comedian Lenny Henry changes
his race from black to white, going underground to expose the Mafia in
director Charles Lane’s True Identity (1991). And in the mainstream
comedy hit Sister Act (1992), Whoopi Goldberg stars as a second-rate
Vegas nightclub singer on the run, masquerading as a nun and hiding
in a convent. In her endless narrative role as the expression of “blackness” in a white milieu, Goldberg plays a missionary in reverse , bringing the gospel of black soul and spontaneity to the white natives of a
sterile, cloistered nunnery.
In terms of capital invested, however, star casting, and narrative
‘Y’CftffriabLACK FILM IN THE 19905
exploration of an elite black world, the 1992 black mainstream comedy that presses the limitations of Hollywood’s budget ceiling has got
to be Boomerang, directed by Reginald Hudlin and costing $42 million, with $12 million of that going for Eddie Murphy’s salary alone. 46
Set in the exclusive, high-fashion, upper echelons of a successful black
cosmetics firm, Boomerang tells the story of marketing executive,
Marcus Graham (Eddie Murphy), a notorious womanizer who gets his
sexploitative game turned on him when he falls for his new, careerdriven boss Jacqueline (Robin Givens). In a classic comedy of reversed
intentions and roles, Graham comes to realize the emptiness of hedonism and “success,” eventually winding up with a woman representing
the true romantic ideal, played by Halle Berry. To the film’s credit,
in much the same way that the black-cast major studio productions
Stormy Weather and Cabin in the Sky (both 1943) employed a considerable range of the black entertainers of their day, Boomerang utilizes
the talents of Eartha Kitt, Geoffrey Holder, Grace Jones, David Alan
Grier, Chris Rock, and Martin Lawrence. Moreover, Reginald Hudlin
artfully directs all these actors within the expectations and range of
their career personas, including Grace Jones as a supermodel, doing a
wicked parody of her media image.
Yet, in the ostentation of its high-rise, corporate mise-en-scene, its
panoramic celebration of positive images of “black success,” and its unquestioning acceptance ofthe reigning commercial paradigm, Boomerang raises some interesting questions about the intent and direction of
black cinema practice. Ultimately the film is a classic cinema romantic
comedy, with its only distinction being that it is cast entirely in black
terms. Perhaps Boomerang’s debt to genre and formula is nowhere
more clearly revealed than in the comment of director Hudlin when he
says of Eddie Murphy and his superstar persona in the film, “My goal
was to make him Cary Grant.”47 This comment subtly recalls the early,
imitative black cinema practice of conceptualizing the persona of the
black actor in terms of contemporaneous white stars, dating from the
early black auteurs who billed their actors with such titles as “the black
Valentino” or “the sepia Mae West” or the “the colored Cagney.”48 So
the set of critical questions that constantly vexes black cinema over
the course of its evolution must again challenge us at this juncture.
Is the fundamental purpose of the new wave of black cinema to regisTHE NEW BLACK Movl rcfJ”~htedI Materib?S
ter “success” primarily in terms of box office receipts? Are black filmmakers struggling merely to imitate white “classic cinema” forms and
formulas in order to take their assigned places in dominant commercial cinema’s symbolic order, without ever challenging the limitations
or expectations of Hollywood or the terms of its hegemony over black
By examining one scene that is perhaps Boomerang’s most selfconsciously political moment, it becomes apparent that the film’s answer to these questions, which are so fundamental to the development
of a viable, liberated black cinema, tends toward accommodation and
co-optation. Marcus Graham (Murphy), along with his buddies, played
by Martin Lawrence and David Alan Grier, go shopping at an exclusive men’s clothing boutique only to be met with the race-inspired
condescensions of one of the store’s salesmen. When the Martin Lawrence character ogles a sport coat costing $1 ,500 dollars, he is coldly
informed by the clerk that the store has no layaway plan. As the
three exit, in a perfect bit of insurgent Eddie Murphy humor, Marcus
Graham loudly comments on the nervous paranoia of such establishments when dealing with what they perceive to be the alarming critical
mass of three black men, as well as the clerk’s stereotypical inability to
imagine that black men could…
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