Today, we’re excited to launch a new series on The Black List Blog in celebration of potentially overlooked films from directors of all stripes. Each month, we’ll choose a new theme, and this being the Black List, it’s only appropriate that we begin with black filmmakers during black history month.
Throughout the month, we’ll be shining a spotlight on some essential films about the black experience, with thoughts from some contemporary black filmmakers about why they love each film. To kick the series off, Shadow and Act’s Jai Tiggett has shared some thoughts about the realities of being a black filmmaker.
As great as it would be for everyone to take an active interest in black films, it just doesn’t happen all the time. It happens during Black History Month, and during Oscar season, and when folks get called out in the news for a lack of diversity. Suddenly we all rush to remember the important black films we’ve seen in the past year so that we can seem super informed when we post about them on social media, or when we try to stick it to some guy in the comments section of an article. It can be amusing, or petty, but it’s not always fruitful. So it’s great of The Black List to use this perfect storm of racial tension for something other than internet trolling – to draw attention to a group of movies that more people should see, what they’re calling essential black films.
Spike Lee, photo by cinearchive.org
Usually the term “black film” refers generally to movies with black main characters. But here we have the added distinction of films that were made by black directors, because these films are rarely recognized, and because agency and authenticity factor heavily into black storytelling.
Focusing on black filmmakers also gives an interesting picture of what has happened with filmmaking over time. If we consider only films that were actually made by black folks, we see a steep drop off before 1990 and another drop before the 1970s because of a lack of access. So movies that many consider “essential” – films that have significance within black culture and film history, like CARMEN JONES or IMITATION OF LIFE or BLACK ORPHEUS – won’t be discussed. We also won’t look fully at talent like Sidney Poitier and Lena Horne, who worked with a lot of white directors but who are essential to know. Most of what we’ll look at can be considered modern film, from a period when black filmmakers had increasing access to the means of production and distribution, and increasing involvement in the Hollywood system.
In the late 1970s and early 1980s, a fiercely independent group of black filmmakers emerged from UCLA’s film school called the LA Rebellion, which included Charles Burnett, Julie Dash, Haile Gerima, Alile Sharon Larkin, Jamaa Fanaka and others. On the east coast, a similar wave of forward-thinking, socially conscious art films emerged from filmmakers like Charles Lane, Kathleen Collins and Spike Lee. Their work was influential, but distribution was a challenge. A pioneering few black indies like Lee managed to get their work into theaters, but too few of these films are easily accessible today outside of special screenings and TV broadcasts.
Kasi Lemmons, photo by Filmmaker Magazine.
By the 1990s it seemed that Hollywood studios had embraced black films in some form. Urban dramas were now seen as capable of earning both money and critical acclaim. Mostly young, mostly male directors like John Singleton, Mario Van Peebles, F. Gary Gray and the Hughes Brothers joined Spike Lee in the limelight.
By the late 1990s to early 2000s we entered what seemed to be a “golden era” of black films, with a variety of titles available in different genres. Romance, thrillers and mainstream drama came from Theodore Witcher, Gina and Reggie Bythewood, Kasi Lemmons, Antoine Fuqua and more. Between 1990 and 2005, the top 20 film studios released over 240 black films.*
Then the economic recession happened. Then Tyler Perry happened. And the film industry changed for black movies again.
All of this is to say that the story of black film has always been one of resilience, of gains and losses, of ebbs and flows. Racial bias has always been a factor for black filmmakers at every stage of getting their movies made. But superior, dedicated filmmakers have always found a way to create and show amazing work. As director Haile Gerima put it bluntly in an interview, “This system knows how to cherry pick black people. It’s like affirmative action – once a year, one is recognized. But what has to occur is self-emergence so if they ignore you, you don’t have to disappear.”
jai tiggett is a screenwriter, producer, and the associate editor of Shadow & Act on Indiewire. Find her at jaitiggett.com.
*data sources: Shadow & Act, Box Office Mojo, The Numbers.
Celebrating diverse voices is a priority for The Black List, both because of the very real discrimination they face and because we believe increased diversity results in better content and better economics for the industry as a whole. With that in mind, we’d also like your input for this project. Here and on Twitter, we’d love for you to send us your thoughts on a film that illustrates a vital part of the black experience too by using #essentialblackfilms. We share many of these thoughts on the blog as well.
This just the beginning though. Keep an eye out for what’s coming in future months.