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Is The Classification Of A Film As A “Black Film” Erroneous And Limiting?

Is The Classification Of A Film As A "Black Film" Erroneous And Limiting?

I’m sick today, with a bad cold, and it’ll likely be a *light* day here on S&A. So to keep you guys still engaged with the site, I thought I’d run a survey!

Following much of the conversation around Best Man Holiday, I’ve noticed (and understand) the effort to emphasize the universality of the film’s themes, in part as encouragement for non-black audiences to want to see it, eschewing what might be considered its reductive categorization as a “black film” by the mainstream press especially (or as USA Today put it, a “Race-Themed” film).

The discussions around the movie, inspired some thoughts in me…

In the 4 1/2 years that I’ve been writing for this blog, I’ve been introduced to black filmmakers who summarily reject the classification “Black Filmmaker,” seemingly reinforcing the importance of their creativity over their race or ethnicity. As some have and would say, “I’m a filmmaker who happens to be black instead of a black filmmaker;” or, “I make films that happen to have black people in them; not black films.”

Discussions about how we define terms like “black cinema” have been had aplenty here on S&A over the years. Just as we are a diverse and varied people, so are our definitions, which should be expected.

Some have questioned whether we should even use classifications like “black film” or “black filmmaker,” with suggestions that they are, in effect, limiting, and somehow antithetical to the advancement of the American post-racial dream MLK vocalized decades ago, and that suddenly seemed within reach (to some) with the election of Obama as president in 2008.

That black filmmakers (or filmmakers who happen to be black, whichever you prefer) have been, and really still are typically restricted in the kinds of films they are “allowed” to make – especially within the Hollywood studio system – has been well documented. And I fully understand the desire to want to be free of that kind of creative marginalization, especially when one’s white filmmaker contemporaries aren’t so shackled (pun intended), as even what once used to be somewhat sacred ground for the black filmmaker (i.e, black films, or films that tell stories about black people), isn’t quite so anymore.

My colleagues Andre Seewood and Tanya Steele have both addressed these matters in separate posts: see Andre’s Why White People Don’t Like Black Movies, and Race Traitors: White Filmmakers Who Make Black Films; and see Tanya’s Tarantino’s Candy (Slavery In The White Male Imagination), to start.

But here are my questions for your consideration: Are we allowing someone else’s myopic perceptions of us to influence how we navigate these categorizations? I think we all are aware of race as we know it being essentially a social construct, but, is it really possible to undo centuries-old *damage,* and is it even desirous at this point to reject the “black” that precedes nouns like “filmmaker,” and “film,” or are there advantages and even necessities to embrace instead?

And what does all that mean for a site like this that champions “black cinema,” or in the case of personal identity, you and I as “black” men and “black” women? Do you identify yourself as a black man/woman, or a man/woman who happens to be black, and what does the difference signify to you? Or do you reject the classification completely, because you believe, just like the term “black cinema” it’s limiting, and instead prefer to simply be referred to as a man or a woman, without the so-called *burden* as some would consider it?

If you’re a creative (filmmaker, writer, actor, producer, etc), do you loathe being labeled a “black” creative, and whether yes or no, why?

Yes, we are all human beings first and foremost; Underneath the coat (or armor, depending on your POV), there are universalities that all of mankind recognizes and appreciates. But is there indeed a definitive “black experience” that unifies us as a group, or, in terms of art (specifically cinema), a “black aesthetic” that is instantly and even innately recognizable by members of the group, that contrasts other experiences and aesthetics, and is there anything wrong in acknowledging that, regardless of what the implications in doing so are to others?

In essence, is “black” limiting, and if so, to whom and why? 

Think about it and dig in… 

Now excuse me while I go take some Nyquil to knock me out!

This Article is related to: Features and tagged


Solid E

Labels have been a part of American culture as far back as the 1600's. The labeling of all things black is no exception. The labeling of films whose theme and or production are that of black people can probably be attributed to a non-black entity however there are film organizations as well as film festivals that are created and administered by blacks that carry the label we speak of. I personally would like to see the label of "black" this or "black" that removed in filmmaking simply because this "technique" is not applied to "non-black" films. Labels such as foreign, documentary or short film I feel are apropos.


I do think the annotation 'Black film' is limiting.
Had 'The Color Purple' and 'Roots' been marketed as a 'Black film' and a 'Black series', then they probably would not have enjoyed such wide releases.
However, both stories originated in the hands of black writers, and both stories center around the lives of black folks. One could wonder if The Color Purple and Roots would have been labeled Black productions if they had had directors of color, say Spike Lee or Steve McQueen.
And how about Beloved? Same story.


"That black filmmakers (or filmmakers who happen to be black, whichever you prefer) have been, and really still are typically restricted in the kinds of films they are "allowed" to make – especially within the Hollywood studio system – has been well documented."

The reason why they have trouble in Hollywood is because they are foolish enough to keep fvcking with Hollywood. If people know that Hollywood won't give them permission, why even ask? I have no sympathies for anyone seeking reform or permission from a biased framework. Blacks need to create their own media for goodness sakes. I mean how many times are we going to ask to sit at a table with people that have made it very clear they don't want to sit with us? Black films are not erroneous, it the belief that White Hollywood CEO's will give up their total share of the power that is erroneous. They've had over 100 years to do so and still Blacks have nothing. What other proof do we need to create our own media?

And to answer your question, I have no problem being called a black web/software developer/designer. It's the racism, discrimination, and the misogynoir that comes with it I have a problem with.

Walter Harris Gavin

My take is when one says "black" in the context of film or any 'art form,' communication vehicle one is talking, lived experience, politics in the broadest terms and POV (point of view). I use music as an example. American Popular Music has it's roots in music created by black folks in America, Blues, Jazz, R&B. I think that one could have a "black" film that had nothing but "white" actors, but was created by a black writer/director that is a commentary on America writ large and "white" America in particular. The only limiting nature of "black" is in the context of the "marketers," not "the marketplace." Black art forms have always "crossover." I think it was Duke Ellington who said "… there are only two types of music…good and bad." You could say the same about film or any media form for that matter.


I have to call it what it is, POPPYCOCK swirling in a bag of BULLSH*T. Listen, as some would say on the issue of whether or not it's "black", it's a tough titty but we have to suck it.

I mean, come on, if you have to explain to someone the definition, or true meaning of "a black film" and what that implies, that person is either a white person or a black person who wishes they were white. And, for those who are not in the know, the powers that be will surely point out the particulars… before the film comes out or after the first week. They do it in subtle ways (they slip it by the unsuspecting) but it works if you're looking for it.

Take for instance the words of a white reviewer who said these word about The Best Man Holiday. In his review, he said "the film was seen/supported by a predominately African American female crowd.Come on now, you better believe he was in essence telling other white folks it's a BLACK film. So if you don't wanna be called a ni**er lover, don't pass go. I am serious, they do not mention the color of the audience (white) when Pooky and Ray Ray are not dominating the screen. Hell, we saw the same thing when The Butler dropped… "The church folks appear to be the biggest supporters of this film. They're coming in bus loads". Isn't THAT a semi-code word for BLACK folks? Listen, anyone who believes the notion that The Best Man Holiday is simply a movie (not a black movie) with black actors in roles that could have been filled with white actors, is fooling themselves. And, if I have to tell you why that is, as I said, you're either a white person, or a black person who is living "white" and thus has no idea of the special flavors and nuances of the black experience (and they don't wanna know… some of that blackness might splash on them, making them TOO black for white folk's taste).

But check this, when is a "black flick" or when does a black flick get a pass, making it okay for some whites to see it? Well, first and foremost, when the white protagonists (could be one or a few) are dominating the predominantly black cast, or he/she is their savior, that's when a "black" film gets the MPAA ratings of DT and WS and SACA. That's right, (D)own (T)otten black man who might be saved by (W)hite (S)aviors and (S)chool (A)ge (C)hildren are (A)llowed if accompanied by well meaning person of any color.

Listen, if you don't believe me or think I'm just talking sh*t, and thus don't believe "black" matters, check out the bottom line (cash receipts)of movies in which Denzel played a black character in history, so there was no doubt the man he was playing was a BLACK MAN. If you look fair, you will find it there, those films fall at the bottom of his money tree. WHY? You know why – don't you? Dain't new math.

So look folks, twist it, slice it, spin it around, but everyone knows when a movie featuring black people in key roles – IS a black flick, except those who wish upon a star that one day they might just be the next white man's star…

Again, in short, tough titty is this film business, but if you wanna play with the big dogs (in their ballpark) you're gonna have to suck it. Or I pity the fool who believes white folks pay little attention to the color of the actors on the screen… and what each of them are doing to each other.


The word black is no different than the word nig.ger. We are all ignorant of the true world around us and everything is black. The only thing not black is something white and/or devoid of color.


"is it really possible to undo centuries-old *damage,*". I plan on trying to accomplish just that.

Anywho, as far as writing film, I like to consider "films starring Black People", and as far as who I am, I am a BLACK WOMAN, and I AM A WOMAN who happens to be Black. It makes no difference to me. Either way, I love being Black and I love being a Woman.


Categorizing a film as a black film is limiting because we have not had a chance to have a body of work that has a variety of films, so when you say black film, people think of sterotypes of what films black filmmakers should make because hollywood would have you believe the black audience is not complex enough to like different films. Black filmmakers should make the films they want to make and not run from who you are and not cater to somebody else racial hang ups.


Are we allowing someone else's myopic perceptions of us to influence how we navigate these categorizations?

Yes. If you view the term "Black" as limiting then you are embracing someone else's [white majority] perceptions to define the potentialities of black art and legitimization of the black experience. We can be as diverse and as homogenous as any other group – just depends on the subject.

For the record, I don't think MLK's dream had anything to do with discarding classifications. It was about eliminating negative connotations surrounding certain classifcations in order to fully appreciate the person. I am Black but being Black should not be viewed as a detriment. I am a woman but being a woman should not be viewed as a detriment. To ignore these aspects is to deny the complete essence of a person's existence.


It's obviously difficult to reject classification if you're black living in America. And, unfortunately, because of institutional racism, and the systems in place, few of us ever get to be seen as fully, individualized human beings without the spector of race shadowing our lives because it is always there and ever present, whether we're conscious of this fact or not. Whether we buy into the reality or not. WE cannot navigate through life without this recognition.

One individual, who immediately springs to mind, that doesn't seem bound by race, in his artistry, and who has enjoyed immense mainstream success is Malcolm Gladwell. He writes about very general, albeit unusual, subject matter that is accessible to all. Yet many of the subjects, or narratives, in his books are, primarily, connected to the lives of whites. And even though Mr. Gladwell has written on the subject of race, and has never sought to distance himself from his Jamaican heritage, I sometimes wonder how many white readers who are buying his best-selling books are actually aware that he's a Negro.

If blacks were allowed to have more agency, and input, in all areas of life (i.e. healthcare, education, defense, economics, etc.) then, perhaps, we could, gradually, have the opportunity
to climb out of the boxes that white society has, seemingly, forced us into. For example, throughout the month of August, as the nation commemorated the March on Washington, viewers couldn't on a talkshow or news program that didn't have John Lewis or Michael Eric Dyson, or other historians, pundits, law makers on talking about what the March meant then, and now, to our country.

Three months later, in the midst of all the discussion about the ACA, which has tremendous implications that largely affects brown and black people, we hardly see any brown and black people asked to join the discussion. My point being, black people are, primarily, called on by white media to only discuss issues deemed "black" at specific periods of time, and then ignored for anything else that's of general importance to ALL people, regardless of race.

We experience this, every year, in this country when Black History Month roles around, and for 29 days all the "black" experts are pulled out, like holiday decorations, to discuss the state of black America, our history, etc., and then packed away, again, in March until the following year.

It seems to me the only way to get around these attitudes is, of course, to have more inclusion in every facet of American life so that it becomes normalized, not racialized.

If there were two or three black female and male actors cast, annually, in strong, well-written, interesting, TV shows every year, or in two or three well-written movies every year, then, perhaps, we — as a society — and really I mean, primarily, white folks — could begin to embrace black actors as just being good actors. But because really strong TV shows, or movies, that are non-stereotypical, or are serious cinematic masterpieces (i.e. 12 Years A Slave or Mandela, for example) are so few and far between we continue to have to endure a two steps forward, two steps back dance that makes our progress seem slow and sluggish.

Ideally, I believe it's not that black people wish to ignore or condemn our blackness, experience, or the black aesthetic, but for many of us there are additional facets to our lives outside of the scope of the so-called "black experience" or black aesthetic. And, perhaps, if we weren't — as a culture and community — always so burdened by society by issues of racism we could be afforded the freedom to breathe and explore, sometimes, non-racial stories, ideas, content, subject matter.

Henceforth, we, just like whites, would like to be viewed, judged, valued, rewarded, and acknowledged as individuals who have significant contributions to be made based on our individuality, not something that is based in a made up social construct that has no bearing on one's creative talent, skills, ability or intellect.

Unfortunately, for now, artists — and most black people, really — seem to be stuck in this weird, nebulous realm that rarely allows us to just be, without the need to place us in a categorical space based on racial identity.


Is this the same site that was BEGGING for Lorne Michaels to include a Black woman on the cast of SNL just a few weeks ago?

Miss me with this babble.


Which begs the question, couldn't they have come with a better title for "Black Nativity"???

Natalie F

I think there is an essential difference between black films and films with black people in them. I think "Black films" say something specifically about the black experience wherever they take place and provide a perspective that revolves around the racializing and subjection of Blacks (12 Years A Slave, Fruitvale Station). On the other hand, films like The Best Man Holiday are simply films with black people cast in them. The narrative has nothing to do with how their blackness affects their experiences and those roles could've easily been played by white people.

Travis L

Yes "Black" is limiting! I feel whites limit and Blacks limit themselves. Let me explain.
When the term "Black" is applied to a profession, a culture, or an aesthetic it assumes a certain expectation by the other. The term determines the parameters–in this case–a film. When the term "Black" is applied to film then it orchestrates what can and can not be done and what should and should not be done. Therefore there is a static expectation by the moviegoer; he or she knows what they will be viewing on screen. Fortunately, it is not the Black filmmakers whom set the limits of their art. Rather it is the white power structure whom limits. They define and control the parameters of Black film in terms of what they will embrace or reject. Those Black filmmakers who desire to operate their profession in the white cinematic world must limit their art. They must free it from "impossible" story lines, "unrecognizable" characters , and "unfamiliar" narratives and replace it with that which is comfortable and palatable in the white cinematic world. Blacks limit themselves in an effort to be part of this white cinematic world.

Let's remember, we are not living in a post racial world. Race is critical and is factored/considered in all aspects of our social lives. Things must be labeled so some folks know how to approach and engage it. Ok I'll stop here!

Also, I would have suggested taking Dayquil, but that Nyquil as you know has an awesome left hook!


Race is a fact of life. Embrace it or deny it. At your peril.

. Make a choice and live with it.


I am black and if I make a film that deals specifically with black issues or a film with universal appeal that features mainly black characters then I accept I've made a black film. What do you call a black person who makes films only about non-black subjects? A black filmmaker.

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