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, Fred “Fab Five Freddy” Braithwaite, 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: Sean “Diddy” Combs, 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.