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Black Films Matter – How African American Cinema Fought Back Against Hollywood

In the summer of 1991, The New York Times magazine observed that "Black film qualities may be It was to the 1990s what the mobile phone was to the 1980s; every studio executive needed one. It's a remark that conveys a lot about a cultural moment and its fleeting nature. They've Gotta Have Us is a reference to Spike Lee's seminal film She's Gotta Have It from 1986. The remarkable group of young, black

filmmakers featured in the group portrait on the front has been dubbed "the class of 91." Lee was, of course, the top boy. At that point, he was already well into a creative burst that would produce almost a feature every year: Malcolm X (1992), Jungle Fever (1991), Mo' Better Blues (1990), Crooklyn (1994), and Clockers are a few examples (1995).

There is no doubt that the 1990s were a brilliant era in retrospect. It's incredible how much black cinema was gaining popularity at the time. Hip-hop contributed to the movement, as did white audiences' interest in it. Rappers and musicians like Ice Cube, Ice-T, Tupac Shakur, and Queen Latifah went into movies without a hitch. But it wasn't only young people acting out "hood dramas"; there was excellent work in all genres. Alongside arthouse-friendly fare from the "LA Rebellion" group, serious thrillers like Devil in a Blue Dress and Deep Cover were presented. Malcolm X (1992), Jungle Fever (1991), Mo' Better Blues (1990), Crooklyn (1994), and Clockers are a few examples (1995).
There is no doubt that the 1990s were a brilliant era in retrospect. It's incredible how much black cinema was gaining popularity at the time. Hip-hop contributed to the movement, as did white audiences' interest in it. Rappers and musicians like Ice Cube, Ice-T, Tupac Shakur, and Queen Latifah went into movies without a hitch. But it wasn't only young people acting out "hood dramas"; there was excellent work in all genres. Alongside arthouse-friendly fare from the "LA Rebellion" group, serious thrillers like Devil in a Blue Dress and Deep Cover were presented.

Influential works produced by this approach in the film industry include Julie Dash's Daughters of the Dust and To Sleep With Anger by Charles Burnett.

For the first time, mainstream audiences in film and television were exposed to accurate, insightful depictions of both contemporary African-American life and US history from a black perspective—the kinds of tales that could only be produced by black filmmakers. The revolution was being dramatized, publicised, and lauded on television. It is important to keep in mind that Robert Townsend's cult satire Hollywood Shuffle, which depicted the fruitless pursuit of a black actor's dream and seemed to come from another time period, was just released three years prior, in 1987. One of the other actors at the audition informs Townsend's character, "The only role they're going to let us perform is a slave, a butler, or some street hood." The white producers tell him to "be more black" and say they're seeking for a "Eddie Murphy type."In his daydreams, Townsend imagines himself as a superhero, a Shakespearean king, a film noir detective, or even a black Rambo. He ends up playing the archetypal, jive-talking street criminal, which only makes one think of demonstrators picketing his house and accusing him of betraying his principles. They won't play the Rambos until they stop playing the Sambos, in the words of an NAACP spokeswoman. But by the mid-1990s, Townsend's most fantastical fantasies had come true. You could now play a black Shakespearean character like Denzel Washington in Much Ado About Nothing, a black superhero like Wesley Snipes in Blade, or at the very least an action hero like Rambo (Will Smith in Bad Boys).

A generation of African-American artists who achieved true Hollywood power—the power to assume main roles, win Oscars, and finally get films greenlit—was the result of that creative flowering of the 1990s. The fact that the majority of them were men and still exercise that influence today—Washington, Smith, Foxx, and Samuel L. Jackson—tells its own tale.However, it was also the time period in which Angela Bassett received the first Oscar nomination for best actress for a black woman in more than a decade (for the Tina Turner biopic, What's Love Got to Do With It). & Whitney Houston contributed to such successes as The Bodyguard and Waiting to Exhale (with Bassett).But was there a price for such success? Even while the performers were landing the parts, their films didn't always feature "black" stories. The majority of the time, they were reduced to supporting roles as token black actors in otherwise standard Hollywood productions. Will Smith might, for instance, be Muhammad Ali one second and "magical negro" golf caddy Bagger Vance the next.

The filmmakers who had contributed to their placement there, however, appeared to be forgotten. It's simple to overlook how difficult their situation had been. To put Hollywood Shuffle together, Townsend had to use all of his credit cards as well as salvaged film stock. Lee needed four years to raise $175,000 for She's Gotta Have It, which she did in a snappy 12 days. Even more, Lee urged his team to keep their beverage cans so he could sell them for recycling. One benefit of these low budgets was that when these movies succeeded, they were extremely profitable. Hollywood's interest may have been piqued by that profitability rather than any cultural goal.

According to Julie Dash, a significant factor in the issue was that black cinema's rise came at the same time that Hollywood began to dominate independent film in general. It developed into a commodity that the bigger industry might appropriate. After we made a breakthrough and the cultural curators realised we were actively making films in our own style, everything just abruptly came to a standstill. Funding dried up for almost everyone.

One of the underrated gems of this time period was Dash's Daughters of the Dust. It addresses Dash's own Gullah community, which is descended from slaves who lived on North Carolina's coast, but does so with a special sensibility by fusing together three generations of female characters through music, dance, folk narrative, and lyrical imagery.

It is "history reframed, recreated, and redefined," as she puts it.
After that first upsurge, many more black filmmakers lost their path. The Oscar-winning Chameleon Street by Wendell Harris wasn't given a theatrical distribution. After Straight Outta Brooklyn, Matty Rich produced one more film before turning to video games. Even those who did succeed in entering the mainstream encountered problems with their work. To Sleep With Anger was followed by The Glass Shield, a complicated drama about a black cop in the institutionally racist LAPD, written by Charles Burnett. It was acquired by Harvey Weinstein's indie-devouring Miramax, who pressured Burnett to alter the conclusion and then tried to promote it as a follow-up to Boyz N the Hood by emphasising Ice Cube, despite the fact that he only had a minor role, in the promotional materials. Burnett didn't work with Hollywood again when it failed to attract a large audience.


By-
Sriparna Mukherjee
Student
Amity University Kolkata


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