The Two Cinemas of Black America?

2 Dec

When thinking of the whole Spike Lee versus Tyler Perry debate and the question of which one is the quintessential black filmmaker of today, I’m forced to recall a PBS documentary called The Two Nations of Black America.

W.E.B. DuBois and Booker T. WashingtonHosted by Henry Louis Gates, it shows two great Black leaders at the turn of the 20th century: Booker T. Washington and W.E.B. DuBois. One wrote Up from Slavery and supported efforts for Blacks to make gains through education, agriculture, technical skills and currying favor with Whites. The other helped found the NAACP, and promoted integration, equal rights and scholarship. Looking back, you would have thought they’d be the best of friends, right? No, they were bitter rivals over the course the Black America should choose.

Dr. Martin Luther King and Malcolm XIn the sixties, we had Martin Luther King and Malcolm X, one who fought for civil rights through non violent protest and the other who advocated Black Power by any means necessary. Best of friends? Wrong again. But looking back, history has shown that, like Booker T. and DuBois, they were two sides of the same coin, each fighting for Black progress and vying to capture the imagination of the people they loved the most.

In today’s world – and in this little sphere we call filmmaking – Spike Lee and Tyler Perry are in the same battle. One is a cinematic provocateur, taking jabs at every aspect of the race machine and shining a light on colorism, sexual politics, gentrification and urban crime. The other deftly combines melodrama, comedy and romance to assert the power of Black love and the Black family. They represent two sides of the same coin, transforming the image of Blacks on screen. But like their predecessors, they are bitter rivals over which way this should best be done.Filmmakers Tyler Perry and Spike Lee

The moral of the story is two fold:  One, despite their conflicts, all of our great movers and shakers, on and off screen, want progress for Black people. The other – and this is the filmmaker in me talking – is that the protagonist/antagonist relationship in each pair was a product of their times, a wrestling of ideas that was taking place in the hearts and minds of each era. In the battle of heads and tails, it’s not about which side of the coin turns up. History has shown that when you bet on your vision and ideas, we all come out winners.



Spike Lee Blasts Tyler Perry

Tyler Perry Responds to Spike Lee


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