A Survey Of Recent Films Directed By Black Women, Released By Hollywood Studios After ‘Belle’s’ Strong Opening

A Survey Of Recent Films Directed By Black Women, Released By Hollywood Studios After 'Belle's' Strong Opening

A packed theater of people watching and enjoying a film is
any filmmaker’s dream. Days before the official release of Amma Asante’s film Belle, I attended an advance screening
of the film in a packed theater with a mostly female, African American audience. They connected to the film in ways that confirmed it’s potential
theatrical success.

The film came out strong this past weekend, grossing over $104K
playing on only four screens in LA and New York City, for a per screen average
of $26,123. These are solid numbers considering it’s limited release by Fox
, and should bode well for its expansion into theaters across the
country in the coming weeks. A smart marketing campaign by the team behind 12 Years A Slave, widespread press
coverage devoted
to its rich source material
, and advance screenings targeting African
American audiences, can be attributed to the film’s successful opening. Following
the screening last Wednesday, Asante expressed that she wouldn’t sacrifice the
cultural nuances related to Belle’s race and gender at the request of
higher-ups; she “smuggled” them into the narrative at any cost.

In Belle, Asante
takes a familiar genre and infuses it with a distinct directorial perspective
that resonates not only with black women, but people raised on classical art
and literature who want to see it reinterpreted. It’s a fresh, contemporary script
that capitalizes on its interracial cast by evoking racial discord and romance
at every turn. At the pre-screening, the audience responded heavily to the
powerful performance by Gugu Mbatha-Raw who wields equal parts vulnerability,
class, and passion in the role based on the real-life Dido Elizabeth Belle, biracial daughter of Admiral Sir John Lindsay and an enslaved woman named Maria Belle. Belle was raised by her uncle William Murray, the 1st Earl of Mansfield,
who ruled on seminal cases involving the abolishment of slavery while raising
her. In the film, Belle unpacks her complicated racial identity during this
time, falling for a budding lawyer amidst scorn from the white aristocracy.

It is rare that feature films written and directed by black
women are received and distributed in this way. The last time we saw a film
directed by a black woman, and distributed by a major studio, was Kasi Lemmons’ 2013 film Black Nativity released by Fox Searchlight. Based on a Langston Hughes play, the film had trouble reaching an audience during its Thanksgiving opening weekend. Prior to that, Tina Gordon
Peeples was released by
Lionsgate to disappointing box office numbers and critical reception. A
confusing marketing campaign depicting enlarged photos of actor’s faces with
weird facial expressions contributed to this. (Sergio went into depth about
that campaign in a previous post
.) Further, many people didn’t know the
film was directed by a black woman, as critics continually referred to it as
Tyler Perry’s “biggest box office disappointment to date.” What a way to
encourage viewers. It is worth pondering- if people had known of Chism’s involvement in the film as writer/director, would they have seen it?

But before Peeples,
there was Dee Rees’ critically acclaimed 2011 film Pariah,
centering on the struggles of a black lesbian teenager played by Adepero Oduye. Released by Focus
to key theaters across the country, the film was met with glowing
reviews, and grossed $48,579 in its opening weekend before expanding.  While audience anticipation was high,
especially among black/LGBT viewers, the film didn’t open in many theaters where
these people could see it. 

Ava DuVernay’s 2012 film Middle
of Nowhere
which averaged $67,909 in its opening weekend, and was
distributed by Participant Media and DuVernay’s film distribution company AFFRM,
solved that problem by targeting
non-specialized theaters with large black audiences
. Without a mainstream
distributor, it utilized a strong social media presence in the months before
the film’s opening, coupled with AFFRM’s direct- action community building
tactics to attract viewers. Following the unconventional successes of Middle of Nowhere and I Will Follow, DuVernay is set to direct
Selma, the highly anticipated MLK
biopic starring David Oyelowo, produced by Brad Pitt’s Plan B team and
distributed by Paramount.

There doesn’t seem to be a formula or science to the
mainstream attractiveness of films made by black women, and there’s
surely no lack of deserving content by black women
and women in general. A
look at the last decade in black women’s contributions to cinema shows a
combination of strategies and models that have helped them navigate widespread,
systemic barriers to resources, opportunities, and funding, with Belle being the latest example.

With each box office success, we hope things change for the
better, but will they?

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@Liz Rocket and Truth P: You're wrong that there's no black identity in the U.S., but, more to your point is that there is a much broader class strata, which makes it difficult for us to be unified — particularly on things that might have national import. Issues of class and experience, within our race and culture, are far more varied than with most whites. So what we now have — especially since integration — are very deep, and wide, gaps of blacks who are poor, while others have ascended to middle class or even upper middle class status. And access to better education, wealth, and living conditions often results in a privileged few no longer seeing themselves (physically, culturally) in the faces, lives and experiences of a larger majority of those who are going without.

The biggest reason why blacks don't have what could be considered a strong, cultural, national identity is education. As an aggregate Jewish people make certain their progeny NEVER forget the holocaust and how it affected their people. They constantly teach, and preach, it in their homes, temples, and schools (public and private). But because of the pain of slavery, and later, civil rights, most blacks don't pass on the history to their children, don't hold their schools accountable to teach it accurately, and appropriately, and don't hold the media, and their elected officials to a higher standard of accountability on the subject matter either.

A perfect example of the lack of "identity" or cohesiveness, if you will, is the recent situation with the L.A. Clippers. Rather than acting like 5-year-olds and thinking they were doing something by turning their shirts inside out when they learned of the owner's remarks, REAL men would have walked out of the stadium that day and not played the game at all. … Unlike Cassius Clay, Tommy Smith and John Carlos, and Arthur Ashe — black athletes who were well educated (read: actually studied something with academic value while at university) — the majority of today's black athletes have ZERO knowledge of their history and what true racism is.

And yet, how many black Americans who don't benefit from the billion dollar NBA feigned faux outrage about some private comments made public, which have absolutely no effect on the quality of their daily lives?

If the majority of the NBA was made up of Jews and the same scenario occurred, I guarantee, there wouldn't have been a question. The players would have walked, and stayed off the court, until full resolution.


I am excited to see this movie. However, I have a question that I hope someone on this forum can answer. Why are African American actresses most often not cast in slave period roles? It appears that African, or Afro Europeans are preferred for these characters?


As a black woman and film student, there's a key issue as to why there is no actual formula for "mainstream success." To put it simply, there's no real black identity in America. There really isn't. Black Americans, like the descendants of slaves, were stripped of all ethnic identity which originated in Africa. In addition, many of them must be of mixed race to some degree. I've noticed a difference in physique & bone structure from current Africans. Now, there also Caribbean and South American (and Canadian too) black people. Specifically in the Caribbean and South America, black people have more of a national identity. I'm of Caribbean ancestry. That identity has helped cultures create viewpoints of their own. It's not the same with Americans. We must remember that not all black people are the same, just look at the different ethnic groups in Africa! It's problematic to try to have a systematic "black identity" in America because there's no real unity in a group that's made up of different people. If I can give you an example. Italians and Germans consider themselves to be very different from each other. They have vastly different cultures although they may be of a similar shade. Tyler Perry movies are garbage. Just horribly written, directed, and filmed. No merit whatsoever. I think he's the equivalent of Adam Sandler. Hollywood and the media talking heads who claim they speak for all black people need to realize that there is no singular black identity. Once we realize that, we can share our own voices.

Miles Maker

Dee Rees' PARIAH opened in NY/LA on 4 screens with a respectable $12k avg. and would have exceeded expectations (in my humble opinion) if Focus Features had been more bullish about its release–considering grassroots awareness, the Meryl Streep mention when she accepted her Golden Globe award and Kim Wayans' appearance on Jimmy Kimmel among other major media coverage.

A distributor's commitment to their theatrical spend is definitive in terms of markets, screens and P&A (prints and advertising) which is maximized with same day cable/satellite VOD for impulse viewers. This is why day-and-date releases are much more effective for independent films because access to as many consumers as possible during the peak conversation around a title is crucial to cashing in on fleeting attention currency. However BELLE is a FOX Searchlight release which will undoubtedly adhere to their business model in their Best interest, they are nonetheless among the better theatrical distributors of films produced by people of color.

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