After chronicling the struggles of black independent filmmakers to get their movies made recently, in stories for Filmmaker Magazine and this blog, I was surprised to read New York Times reporter Michael Cieply’s overly upbeat take on what he calls a “substantial new wave” of African American themed films, which seems to me like an irresponsible and overly rosy characterization of the number of black films in the U.S. marketplace, particularly those of the sophisticated or dramatic variety.
Cieply’s story is pegged, in part, to Ryan Coogler’s Sundance winner “Fruitvale Station,” which certainly marks a veritable reason to celebrate for filmmakers of color. But, of course, the proof will be in the pudding when The Weinstein Co releases the film. It could be another “Beasts of the Southern Wild” or “Precious,” but one breakout a year does not constitute any significant new wave or uptick for these kinds of films about the African American experience.
Cieply notes that 10 new films will be released, but when those 10 include Tyler Perry’s annual Lionsgate release, Lee Daniels’s squeamish-looking “The Butler,” and black comedian Kevin Hart’s concert doc, can you really claim anything has shifted in the film industry? This is not to discount another doc about a black comedian or Tyler Perry’s output, but these are examples of the kinds of films that have already proven safe and unremarkable bets.
More interesting is the appearance later this year of Kasi Lemmons’s “Black Nativity” and Steve McQueen’s “Twelve Years a Slave,” which, if successful, could help pave the way for more black films that don’t conform to the usual stereotypical stories. But. as I’ve been told by several filmmakers of color working today, they are not received with open doors, particularly in the international marketplace, which remains a key facet of any film’s financing structure.