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REELING AND SPINNING: Just what is a “nigga-movie”?

REELING AND SPINNING: Just what is a "nigga-movie"?

By Craig D. Lindsey
Press Play Contributor

Not too long ago, I was going back and forth with a friend of mine on Twitter late one night, and he threw out a reference to the 2005 movie Hustle & Flow. I told him that I hadn’t seen the movie in years and I didn’t know exactly what he was referring to. When he explained the reference, he then basically said I should be more familiar with the movie – after all, it does star our people.

“It’s a nigga-movie,” he tweeted. “You have an obligation.”

Now, it should be noted that I am black and so is my friend, which is why the term “nigga-movie” was used so openly during our online conversation. (Also note the more familiar, chummier spelling of the slur, with the “a” at the end, instead of the original, more derogatory, more liable-to-get-your-ass-beat-down spelling, which ends with “er.”) However, when my friend referred to black movies as “nigga-movies,” that term seemed to carry an even more unsettling, negative connotation than the early 20th-century term “race movies” or the “blaxploitation” label of the ‘70s.

To me, “nigga-movies” sound like movies made for, by and about black people, movies that we know are bad and that don’t paint a rounded vision of the black community, but that we watch and worship anyway because, well, they’re all we have.

Yeah, excuse me for saying this, but that’s bullshit.

Starting even before that online convo, I’ve recently been thinking about how many movies starring a predominantly black cast, usually made (unlike Hustle and Flow) by a black filmmaker, have been released over the years but have not necessarily stuck in my consciousness the way they have for many of my brothas and sistas. I wouldn’t call such films “nigga-movies” per se, as my friend did. But black audiences have seen and embraced these films, quoting lines and recalling moments with each other like a secret language, and yet a large percentage of these beloved movies have slipped from my memory after I’ve seen them, just as Hustle did (I do recall finding the film quite ridiculous).

I’ve kind of felt this way about many black films this past decade. I usually come out of these movies wondering why more films that cater to African-American audiences can’t be, well, good. From what I’ve observed while watching movies with black audiences, whether or not the film’s good seems almost irrelevant. Most of these audiences seem to be in the same mindset they were throughout the last century: as long as black people are in it, we’re gonna love it!

I felt the same way when I was a kid, endlessly watching pro-black films on cable like House Party, New Jack City or anything starring Eddie Murphy. I actually enjoyed those movies, however flawed they might have been. Remember, this was during a time when films starring black casts were a rarity. Just the fact that they existed gave them a redeemable quality.

But ever since I’ve taken it upon myself to become a professional film critic, it’s been my job to watch movies that don’t often feature black casts and black themes. I’ve seen hundreds upon hundreds of films in the 15 years since I started as a critic and I’ve often found myself being disappointed by black-oriented films – even more so than by films starring white people.

Think about it: white people make white movies all the time. Some good, some bad. When black people come together for a black movie – examples of which are unfortunately few and far between – it’s usually a bad deal.

But when I first started in this game in ‘95, those films weren’t all bad. That year Dead Presidents and Friday were the memorable black films that black viewers, including myself, enjoyed. (Just like Hustle, I haven’t seen either of them in years. I know – bad black man.) But as I look back on the aughts, I remember a decade filled with films like Soul Plane, Biker Boyz, Baby Boy and a whole bunch of Big Momma’s House movies — films that black audiences seemed to accept regardless of their mediocrity. (The fact that they were usually played on BET ad nauseam didn’t help matters much.)

And of course, let’s not forget the entire oeuvre of that hard-working, kitchen-sink melodramatist Tyler Perry, who has cornered the market on making movies black women will flock to over and over again, no matter how condescending and manipulative the films are. Now, I must admit I’ve grown to respect Perry’s hustle. After all, the man has done the impossible: make successful black movies on his own, outside of the Hollywood studio system. But, damn, can’t the brotha make better movies? And while we’re on the subject, can someone explain to me how a guy like Perry can keep churning out movie after movie while great black filmmakers like Charles Stone III (director of the underrated films Paid in Full and Mr. 3000) and Scott Sanders (Black Dynamite) can barely find work?

I’m seen dozens of good films done by people from other races and ethnic origins, and I refuse to believe that we can’t do better than all those damn Madea movies. There are good black movies out there, and some of them are of recent vintage (see the under-appreciated gems below). I know more can be made.

What I’m saying is that I have a dream, people, a dream that black people will rise up, get together as a moviegoing community and demand that studios and filmmakers make more black movies that won’t be referred to as “nigga-movies” at three in the morning by a guy I know on Twitter.

Tell me, is that too much to ask?

Without further ado, here is my list of favorite recent films about black folks that are definitely not Nigga Movies.

Akeelah and the Bee (2006): Excuse me for getting my sap on by mentioning this well-done family film about a girl who gets her neighborhood behind her when she enters a spelling bee.

Black Dynamite (2009): If you haven’t seen this movie at least twice, then you’re missing out on the funniest-ass blaxploitation parody/salute ever made.

Dave Chappelle’s Block Party (2006): Before he went all batty, Dave Chappelle assembled some of his musical brethren for an awesome show, captured on film by Michel Gondry.

A Good Day to be Black & Sexy (2008): This erotic/neurotic collection of vignettes about black love & sexuality played at an L.A. theater for a week. Could someone please get a revival going?

Good Hair (2009): Only Chris Rock could have the balls to make a documentary about black-hair culture, which is really just him telling sistas to stop messing with their hair. Thank you, Chris.

Jump Tomorrow (2001): A way, way, way underrated rom-com, with TV on the Radio lead singer Tunde Adebimpe as a nerdy Nigerian dude who falls in love with a Latin beauty.

Mr. 3000 (2004): The late, great Bernie Mac shined in Charles Stone III’s modest sports comedy about an aging baseball great returning to the majors.

Paid in Full (2002): Charles Stone III’s look at the ‘80s Harlem drug trade (featuring Wood Harris and Mekhi Phifer) went in and out of theaters too quickly. It’s worth another look.

Standing in the Shadows of Motown (2002): A stone-cold must for anyone who has ever wanted to know more about the Funk Brothers. One of my favorite documentaries.

35 Shots of Rum (2009): French director Claire Denis crafts a quietly moving story about the relationship between a stoic black working dad and his ever-maturing young daughter.

Craig D. Lindsey used to be the film critic and pop-culture columnist for the Raleigh News & Observer. Now he’s back out there hustling, writing about whatever for Nashville Scene, the Greensboro News & Record, Philadelphia Weekly, The Independent Weekly and other publications. He has a Tumblr blog, and you can also hit him up on Twitter.

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