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They Shoot Black Movies… Don’t They? (The Realization Of A Hustlerz Ambition)

They Shoot Black Movies... Don't They? (The Realization Of A Hustlerz Ambition)

At the dawn of the Black Hollywood Renaissance of the ’90s, the sodality of filmmakers like Spike Lee, F. Gary Gray, The Hudlin Brothers, Bill Duke, Stan Lathan, John Singleton, The Hughes Brothers, George Jackson, Doug McHenry, Mario Van Peebles, Robert Townsend, Keenan Ivory Wayans, Kevin Hooks, FredFab Five FreddyBraithwaite, Charles Stone III, Nelson George and this writer, to name a few, felt like the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood.

We – like Rossetti, Millais, and Hunt at the height of their artistic revolt in the U.K. during the late 1800s – were cinematic reformers, rejecting the cartoonish mythos of African American life, as depicted in the Black Exploitation flicks of the 1970s.

In the 1990’s we were Dr. Martin Luther King, we were Malcolm X, we were Gordon Parks, we were Melvin Van Peebles. We were insatiable American Dreamers, like Oscar Micheaux; albeit with limos, first-class, transcontinental transport, five-star luxury hotels and cuisine, Armani-Brioni-Versace-Zegna-Valentino-Ferragamo gear, expanding bank accounts, and cell phones. We had Been To The Mountaintop and had G.P.S.’d that noble glide-path while tracking the Realization of a Negro’s Ambition, guided by the voice from an ancestral control tower which intoned, By Any Means Necessary.

We just knew The Dream would last forever.

Twenty years later Spike Lee – one of the most talented and prolific directors this country has produced in the 20th Century – can’t get a green light for the sequel to Inside Man, despite the fact that the original film grossed nearly $200 million worldwide.

Twenty years later, two supremely talented actresses – Viola Davis and Octavia Spencer – are given Oscar nods for their portrayals of wise but weathered Mississippi domestics in a highly praised film titled The Help.

Twenty years many black filmmakers (including myself) haven’t had a movie financed by a major studio in over twenty years.

Twenty years later and America has its first African American President of the United States, seeking re-election for a second term at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue.

Twenty years later, African American filmmakers navigate a course that is slightly sticky, smelly, and saggy, the aftermath of an exploding Dream deferred by Hollywood’s Grand Illusion of Inclusion.

Twenty years later, is this the way it’s supposed to be?

Twenty years ago, it was a heady time in Hollywood for a young black screenwriter like me. To be honest, it was unbelievable, and it’s almost like it never happened at all.

Sitting in meetings along with the late, great film producer George Jackson (and his partner Doug McHenry) at Warner Brothers in Burbank, California, was nothing short of surreal. Months earlier, George Jackson – who read my May 1986 Spin Magazine cover story on the Baltimore “Yo Boy” drug gang culture while changing planes in Denver – hired me away from the loading dock of the Hecht Company department store in Baltimore, to write the script of a movie that became the Rosetta Stone for modern urban culture; 1991’s New Jack City.

As the first black screenwriter in history to have two films – Sugar Hill and Above the Rim – released not only in the same year (1994), but 30 days apart from each other, I felt weightless in Hollywood’s zero-gravity of glitz, fraudulent gravitas, and artifice.

As Biz Markie once said (describing the ego-toxic euphoria dispensed by the laughing gas known as The Vapors), “Damn it feels good to have people up on it…

I wasn’t alone; Spike had Malcolm X, Jungle Fever, Mo Betta Blues. Singleton got an Oscar nod for Boyz n the Hood, and continued building his visual corpora with Poetic Justice, Higher Learning, Rosewood, Baby Boy and many other films. F. Gary Gray – one of the most originative and diversified American filmmakers of the last two decades – made indelible comedies that celebrated the ‘hood (Friday with Chris Tucker and Ice Cube), complex character studies that celebrated the strength of women (Set If Off with Queen Latifah, Jada Pinkett-Smith, and Vivica A. Fox), and masterful, mainstream Hollywood caper films (The Italian Job with Mark Walhberg, Mos Def, and Charlize Theron) that celebrated the box office.

The Hudlin Brothers created a franchise with House Party, and Reggie Hudlin directed one the best American romantic comedies in the last 30 years (and one of Eddie Murphy’s greatest performances) with Boomerang. The Hughes Brothers ignited their spectacular career with Menace II Society. Nelson George penned the wildly successful west-coast rap spoof CB4 (which featured two New Jack City stars, Chris Rock and Al Payne).

The success story of African-Americans in Hollywood in the 1990s, was the result of a cultural harvest planted a century earlier, by Oscar Micheaux, the African American filmmaker who changed the game, at the beginning of the Twentieth Century. Born on 2 January 1884 in Murphysboro, Ill., Micheaux was the son of a former slave from Kentucky. Using funds he saved up from shining shoes in a white barber shop in Chicago, and work as a Pullman porter and a homesteader in the Southwest, Micheaux channeled his love for communication as a journalist (for the Chicago Defender), a novelist, and then a director. His first two films, The Homesteader (adapted from his novel, The Conquest) and Within Our Gates (which many observers at the time felt was Michaeux’s answer to D.W. Griffiths anathematical racist epic, Birth of a Nation), not only blew the explosive depiction of African-Americans as nannies, coons, and sambos to anthropological smithereens, it defined black folk as human beings who wanted to be accorded the same dignity and rights as their white counterparts.

Oscar Micheaux’s films were pointed at the dead center/critical mass of Jim Crow’s diseased heart of darkness, which made him more than just a courageous and acclaimed filmmaker, and his movies more than just entertainment. Micheaux’s work was also a political statement.

And maybe, the decade-long dearth of African American films in recent years, is Hollywood’s political statement to Black Americans. Maybe it’s Hollywood’s way of saying, “Listen, my niggas; you got a black President, stop yer yappin’!! You overcame! Do you know how many unreported suicides and heart attacks took place in the Deep South (and the Northwest, too) among the offspring of Klansman and racial hate mongers, the night of 4 November 2008? Do you know how many good ‘ol boys woke up, thinking they were having a nightmare about some darkie winning the White House…only to wake up and find out that a darkie was really gonna be in the White House?! Don’t you see how those white Congressmen and Senators look at Obama when he’s up on the podium giving the State of the Union Address to the entire world! The entire f—ing world! This is a guy who should be driving them to the airport, not sitting in the motherf—ing Oval Office! But he is, so please, cut us some slack. We’re not green-lighting anymore black films right now; and especially films directed, written by, or produced by Blacks. With your boy Obama as President, now we have a pass to go back to the past, back to this nation’s comfort zone, and you all can’t say a damn thing about it! You had a ten-year run! You had your day! Be happy!

I remember moderating a panel on Hip Hop at Howard University back in 2009, the day before President Obama’s Inauguration. It was part of an all day conference titled Refresh Everything, and it was sponsored by Spike Lee, Pepsi, and Howard University. I had an illustrious panel of guests: SeanDiddyCombs, Queen Latifah, Ludacris and his manager Chaka Zulu, noted lawyer and entertainment executive L. Londell McMillan, and MC Lyte. It was a spirited conversation, and my Hip Hop panel got a lot of attention; all 1508 seats in Howard’s beautiful Cramton Auditorium were filled, and people were standing in the aisles.

A few days later, I remember emailing my thanks to Spike – the both of us basking in the radiantly historic glow of a Black President of the United States of America – and me thinking that now… in 2009… with a President Barack Hussein Obama, that Hollywood was going to be wide open for us. Wide open!

What a difference three years can make.

Earlier this year, the critics at the Sundance Film Festival did their best to tweet and feather Spike Lee and his film Red Hook Summer (written by Lee’s talented collaborator James McBride, and financed by Lee himself). Red Hook Summer – a controversial coming-of-age story about a young black teen and his life-altering summer vacation in Brooklyn’s Red Hook projects – seemed to make critics uneasy. Many critics at the Sundance screening condemned Lee’s film outright, as opposed to taking the time to discuss with their readers, what elements of the film made them squirm. Which is what real critics are supposed to do. Which begs the question: had this been Gus Van Zandt or Quentin Tarantino with the exact same film, would there have been a different reaction?

This year, two of The Help’s stars – the gifted Viola Davis and Octavia Spencer – were given well-deserved Oscar nominations for playing maids during the heat of civil rights unrest. Hollywood insists on rewinding those anachronistic ghost clocks of Mississippi, as long as the timekeepers are sympathetic white characters who retrofit the story from their sanitized and patronizing, p.o.v.

Recently, I had an interesting conversation with a well-known and visionary television producer – who is also white – who told me in no uncertain terms, “Barry, I don’t have to tell you, the era of the ‘hood movie, is pretty much over. The executives at the studios won’t even take a meeting on that genre any more. Black films are having are hard time finding a home at the studios. If its not a big bucks sequel, or something that fits into their formula of huge box office, it’s not going to get a green light. Which also includes small and really good films by white directors, too. It’s a new day in Hollywood.

So are African American filmmakers still writing and shooting great Black films? Of course: Spike Lee just did it with Red Hook Summer, Dee Rees did it with Pariah, and Ava DuVernay made history at the 2012 Sundance Film Festival, when she won the Best Director prize. It’s truly inspiring that Tyler Perry, the Hughes Brothers and John Singleton are creating incredible, viable, big budget studio films.

However, Black filmmakers need to cultivate even more diverse content. And if it means that other African-American filmmakers have to go back to the grind of digging into their own wallets – She’s Gotta Have It and Hollywood Shuffle-style – and making it happen with a Canon 5D camera and a bare bones crew, then so be it.

There is a gorgeous freedom of expression with that kind of cinema, and most assuredly, there is a growing audience in the millions (and a potential global audience in the hundreds of millions or even billions) who want view their work. And that growing audience is responsible for the emergence of streaming video services like Netflix, Hulu, Amazon Prime Videos, and Vudu, which in a few years – GOD Willing – may make cable television obsolete.

However, Hollywood is not completely out of the ‘hood film bidness. Imagine if you will, some of those same bright-eyed number and career crunching studio execs, who publicly claim they are true blue Democrats – but surreptitiously vote crimson red G.O.P. – orchestrating attack ads portraying President Obama as a Harvard-educated Nino Brown and the White House as his very own New Jack City? A menace to their polite society; a “Nino Obama” who pushes their great country into the crack house of oblivion.

Hyperbole, you say? Perhaps. But if I’m not mistaken, Newt The Notorious N.E.W.T.Gingrich recently labeled (or is it libeled?) President Obama as the “Food Stamp President.

Those of us – no matter what race, social stratum, religion, or whoever we are – who want four more seasons of That Virtuous Brother Doing His Thing in the West Wing (And Trying To Make It Work For Everyone), need to show up at polls in droves (just like last time, with lines around the block), just to make sure that the GOP’s post-mod minstrel show they are putting into production at this very moment, doesn’t get that green light.

Barry Michael Cooper’s debut anthology of street journalism from the 1980s (and more current essays), titled “Hooked On The American Dream-Vol.1: New Jack City Eats Its Young,” is now available on Kindle or Amazon. Don’t have a Kindle? No problem; Amazon has a free app available for download; to read Hooked On The American Dream-Vol.1: New Jack City Eats Its Young on your PC, Mac, iPad, iPhone, and Android devices. Click HERE to go to the Amazon site.

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Charles Micheaux

Spike Lee is a Pimp and needs to pull his head out of his behind.

Q's film is doing quite well around the world despite Spike's Bull Shift.


Tambay didn't introduce Michael Cooper, he just let him have the floor. Now I'm thinking, who is this guy? Listen, I am reminded of something my pastor said. He said, in the event that he is absent; sick or out of town, it's still his responsibility to ensure the right messages flow from "his" pulpit. Consequently, he was very particular about who he let stand in his stead. Well, I believe I can safely assume Tambay shares those same sentiments. So I was off to see who was this man called Mr. Cooper. At first, my humorous side suggested that he's the guy from the 90's televison series Hanging With Mr. Cooper. But nawl, that's Mark Curry and everybody knows Tambay does not hang with comedians. Btw, where is Mark Curry? Anyway, I thought it best I continue my journey to find the real Mr. Cooper. So I did a google search. Ut oh, the real Mr. Barry Michael Cooper has paid his dues and is still doing his thang. In fact, this piece — "They Shoot Black Movies… Don't They" — was first published in The Huffington Post (Feb, 2012). So there I was, face to face with the real Barry Michael Cooper, an American writer, producer and director best known for his work on the films New Jack City, Above the Rim, and Sugar Hill. So it appears Tambay keeps good company. So being that I am a self proclaimed hack writer, I had to find the beginning of Barry's story. You know, I wanted to know how he got his feet wet? Come to find out, he started as a music critic. But wait, I have to go back to his article in the Huffington Post. It was interesting to read the comments. Well, as with the comments in this post, everyone read something different. That's the beauty and mystery of open discussion boards, isn't it. Everyone brings their own baggage, source of reference, agendas and whatnots, and then opinions fly fast and furious. However, unlike this posting, Mr Cooper addressed the comments in the Huffington post. Oh well, maybe he'll come back and throw us a bone? In the mean time, I better get to the end of my comment before Nadia and Blutopaz come by and spanks me for talking too much. Soooooo, I mentioned Barry's start as a music critic, well the following is an excerpt from a piece written by another critic, Michael A. Gonzales, which includes a few kind and funny words about Barry. Here it goes: "While I never shared the same enthusiasm for the writing style of the so-called "Dean of American Rock Critics" that editors/writers Joe Levy, Ann Powers, Eric Weisbard, RJ Smith, among others have for Christgau, I will always be thankful to the man for being unafraid to be, as Tate himself once described him, "a one-man affirmative action committee in the 1980s…all because he believed Afro-diasporic musics should on occasion be covered by people who weren't strangers to those communities."
In other words, it took more than a few youngbloods wielding fine-point pens, hostile attitudes and boogaloo styles to scare Bob. My homie Barry Michael Cooper, who would later become a great writer himself, told me how when he was a novice he called Christgau at home one night out the blue. In an interview we did for Stop Smiling magazine earlier this year, Cooper related this funny anecdote.
"I called him up at 12:00 midnight and said, 'May I speak to Robert Christgau please?' He said, "Who the •••• is this?" I said, "My name is Barry Cooper." And he said, "Who the •••• is Barry Cooper?" "Well, I'm a writer," I said. "I just wanna tell you I love the newspaper. I love the music criticism, but that piece on Bootsy's Rubber Band was bullshit. I used to get high to this in college and I can write about it." He said, "I'll tell you what, do you have anything?" I said, "Yeah, I wanna do something on Parliament- Funkadelic." At the time, they had an album called Glory A la Stupid. And he said, "Bring it to me. Let me take a look at it. If it's any good, I'll run it. If it's not, if you call me again I'll have you arrested for harassment."


Oscar Micheaux's work to counter vicious portrayals of Black men and women in early Hollywood is why I cast a side-eye to those who say with a snide tone, "It's only a movie." Movies have changed history, culture, public opinion, and public policy. Hitler used the power of film to initiate a world war. It's never "just a movie."

Kareem Charles

Why does our stories have to be timed? Why does our stories have to come, and go? One of the most celebrated TV shows of recent history is The Sopranos. Same ole' mobster story that was told a dozen times before right? That show made many people rich, and kept many people employed for years. The articles author references to a time when Black film was booming. When Black actors, directors, and screenwriters were in heavy demand. The new time is NO BLACK FILM at all! Don't yall get it? Can't you see the man's point??? We have a Black president, and now we are suffering behind his presidency. We all want work right? We all want to act, write, direct, and be artist right? You guys keep referencing to keeping up with the times. What times??? We have no shows on network television. Black film is struggling. Aside from think like a man all we've been fed in recent years us Medea. Can't ya'll see what this man is saying??? He is right! Alot of wickedness goes because there are those who do wickedness, but Alot of it goes on due to the adulterated, and gross ignorance.I wouldn't want to read or watch anything produced anyone disagreeing with the points made in this article because not only due you lack insight, and are blind to the systematic wickedness we live under. 'Ya just ignant! Follow me on twitter @ReemoCharles

James Evans from the Cabrini-Green

"So are African American filmmakers still writing and shooting great Black films? Of course: Spike Lee just did it with Red Hook Summer, Dee Rees did it with Pariah, and Ava DuVernay made history at the 2012 Sundance Film Festival, when she won the Best Director prize. It's truly inspiring that Tyler Perry, the Hughes Brothers and John Singleton are creating incredible, viable, big budget studio films."……..Barry MC, you are answering your own frustrations and you don't even know it. To call Red Hook Summer or DuVernay's movies "great", to call Tyler Perry "inspiring", is truly missing the target. Under no circumstances would the general markets (the market we all aspire to tap into for that worldwide popularity that push us into Spielbergian-100-million-dollar first weekend status) call any of those films "GREAT" or "INSPIRING". The true answer to address your serious inquiry: when ANY filmmaker grasps the dynamics of writing and storytelling, that filmmaker will resonate and transcend past the "urban genre" to literal success and longevity. For all yall blingin "hustlerz" who already believe they understand that hallowed ground of "story" but like the spotlight too much, for every one of you "Pre-Raphaelites" who still believe their project achieved cinematic greatness simply by virtue of the fact that it made 70 million at the box office, well, you'll never comprehend what I'm dropping, but my hat's off to you for making that money.


THANKS Mr. Cooper, I GOT IT! From your opening title to your headsup on Newt "The Notorious N.E.W.T." Gingrich, I got this mofo… yes I did. That's right… in a day in which Idris Elba's comment "The less I talk about being black, the better" and Michelle Rodriguez's recent interview, and the Scandal posts garnering the most comments (at this blog) I had to stop my world to stand and applaud your insightful piece. I didn't miss the undercurrent messages in your reference to Oscar Micheaux's films, which I agree, were pointed political statements. Yet, I believe, there are many among us (who do not sport white pigment) who didn't "love" Oscar Micheaux's films, and I know why. But I am not stopping there today. I wanted to take a little time to tell you that I caught the vibe in your reference of Spike Lee's film Red Hook Summer. Oh how I loved "the critics at the Sundance Film Festival did their best to tweet and feather Spike Lee". And those "critics" wore many faces and many colors. So I had to start my Saturday morning in praise of your many thought provoking comments, such as your words on the "Baker Boys". You know, those good ol' boys down in the basement brewing their new mojo. Heck, you said it –> "some of those same bright-eyed number and career crunching studio execs, who publicly claim they are true blue Democrats – but surreptitiously vote crimson red G.O.P. – orchestrating attack ads portraying President Obama as a Harvard-educated Nino Brown and the White House as his very own New Jack City?". Yep, I caught that, Berry. The same folks who had the audacity to offer that half-ass video of Shirley Sherrod are still out there, on the case, in their war rooms, plotting and strategizing. In fact, they have always been on the case, for their team! It's time for us to think, stay focused and understand what is going on and what the stakes are and always have been. That reminds me, I believe some people missed the gist of your article. Well, from the short list of comments, I know they did. I do not believe you were longing for a specific genre of days gone by. Oh no, that was far removed from your mind. Hell, you said it in your comment "Black filmmakers need to cultivate even more diverse content. And if it means that other African-American filmmakers have to go back to the grind of digging into their own wallets – She's Gotta Have It and Hollywood Shuffle-style – and making it happen with a Canon 5D camera and a bare bones crew, then so be it". Yes Berry, I hear what you're saying. You words did not fall on deft ears. And last, I have to tell you about another serendipitous reward I received from reading your article. Well, last Christmas my daughter gave me a Kindle. I've never used the thing, because I'm an old school book in hand kind of guy. I love to turn the pages, smell the pages and look at my books on my bookshelf. And my daughter just asked me the other day whether or not I used that kindle. What could I say? I mean, I hadn't, it's still peaking out of it's half opened box, so I sat there with a stupid look on my face. But I am going to call her today and tell her I've found the thrill. Yep… Barry Michael Cooper's debut anthology of street journalism from the 1980s (and more current essays), titled "Hooked On The American Dream-Vol.1: New Jack City Eats Its Young, ON KINDLE! So Barry, thanks again b/c you made my day. Btw, I almost forgot, I do not believe this article was an indictment of "Hollywood". Nope, it was much deeper than that… and I got that.


If we keep looking back, we won't move forward. I'm not sure what point this article was trying to make besides pushing the author's digital releases. Why is it a bad thing that 'hood' films are not the norm any longer for black filmmakers? Answer: it's not. We need to step up our game or continue to be on the sidelines. Are their barriers? Of course. But there were also barriers before and will continue to be so. I don't lament that we won't have another New Jack City – its time has come and gone. And yes films like The Help (not by black filmmakers) take us back decades. But this whining for the good ol days of the 90's is doing no one any good. (sidenote – way to ignore the female filmmakers of color from that era)


1) how's about we give a shout-out to those female filmmakers circa 90s/early 2000s also on their grind, hustle and flow to produce works from the ground up via their own pockets: www[dot]sistersincinema[dot]com/filmmakers/index[dot]html 2) "the era of the 'hood movie, is pretty much over"… GOOD! I mean, good, in the sense that movies based in urban areas are not typical of the gangster/violence/toils and triumphs that became the norm after the success of the first favored few. Set the film in the hood, but give it a different spin, a different twist, a different level of nuance and subject matter all around, I say. 3) Not only has this 'change' happened in 'our' cinema, but it's also happening (has happened) in 'our' (mainstream) music… Things that make you go hmmm…


It all comes down to education. If there are too many of us without knowledge how can we ever reach a critical mass and do for ourselves instead of being on the sidelines whinning when non black people are defining us on film in ways we constanly criticise

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