On the cusp of the 90s, Public Enemy sang “Burn Hollywood Burn,” an incendiary challenge to the first 100 years of African American images on film. Since then, the world of black cinema has seen over 2 decades of films by Spike Lee, the emergence of chitlin’ circuit theater into its own cinematic form, a number of black films that topped the box office, the artsy buppie romantic film, the raucous family movie, men in drag, women exhaling, Fridays and barbershops, drum lining, yard stomping, biopics, tortured souls, gospel movies, thug flicks, DVD premieres and 4 best Actor/Actress Oscar winners.
So where is black film today? It took me years to get it in my head that the boom of black Hollywood films in the 90s was just a trend. In 2011, here we are as black filmmakers, well past our shelf lives as the flavor-of-the-month at studio pitch sessions. While filmmakers in Lagos and Mumbai were taking up the mantle to forge new distribution channels, African American filmmakers were pounding the pavement in our own cities, distracted and discouraged by the promise of a studio green light, hoping for the chance to make our films through established pathways.
The realization that there’s little room for black films in the mainstream has been tough for those of us who’ve banked our dreams on this field. But from the ashes of development hell, a new day has emerged from for black film. Working independently and using alternate methods of distribution have shed their stigma, and black filmmakers are embracing new models of audience-building and distribution to share our work with the world. Minus the support of studios, African American filmmakers are fending for ourselves in the wide world of social media, digital projection, red box-dotted landscapes, and video on demand. There’s promise and possibility in well-received, micro-budget films like Night Catches Us, American Violet (white filmmaker, black cast), A Good Day to be Black and Sexy, and Medicine for Melancholy.
Independent films Gun Hill Road and Pariah, both hits at Sundance, have been recently acquired by distributors. Q Basir’s Mooz-lum and Ava DuVernay’s I Will Follow have gotten great buzz, building their audiences in a way that – fingers crossed – will challenge how films are launched and distributed. Very AFFRM-ing, for sure.
I hope that my work and that of my colleagues will break new ground creatively as well as economically. This is an exciting time to be a black filmmaker and I’m glad to be part of it.