“The movies are like baseball. You know how baseball is like 20 years behind the rest of the country, in terms of dealing with the black athlete? The movie business is kind of like that with black people.”
-- Chris Rock to Elvis Mitchell, March 21st, 2007
I am told constantly that international audiences will not watch or buy black films, even though they have been historically passionate consumers of art forms derived from the black community: hip-hop and jazz; writers like Himes, Baldwin and Goines. The problem, really, is that America has somehow convinced the world that black culture is no more than a hybrid of rap, racism, drugs and basketball. Since this is what the international community has been told about Black Americans, by non-Black Americans, this is what they have come to expect.
When a black person who is not subject to these things arises and demands to be heard, he is ignored. Consequently, the official record books don't have any history that he existed. This plan has been so well-executed that even black people have fallen subject to it, hence the complaints that Barack Obama is not black enough. As though being black were as tangible as the color itself.
Into this context comes Patrick McGilligan’s recent, but long overdue biography of a man that I consider the first independent filmmaker, in Oscar Micheaux: The Great and Only -- The Life of America’s First Black Filmmaker (Harper, 416 pages). The differences between Micheaux and modern day black auteur Tyler Perry seem to be primarily a matter of Perry’s being born 85 years after Micheaux. (While Micheaux was always running from creditors and died broke, Perry is a multi-millionaire who recently opened a 60, 000-square foot studio in Atlanta.) The similarities between Micheaux and Perry, however, are startling:
1) both came from roughshod, Southern childhoods and used the success of an artistic endeavor (Michaeux: books, Perry: plays) to fund their movies
2) both operated completely outside the Hollywood studio system, out of necessity
3) both were largely ignored by mainstream media and criticized from certain segments of the black community for “airing our dirty laundry”
For those who’ve been under a rock, Tyler Perry in a paragraph: He began writing at 23 and moved to Atlanta. Once there, he worked two jobs to fund his own stage play, which went wood and left him homeless. Six years later, the play, I Know I’ve Been Changed, finally had a successful run. He wrote plays for black audiences over the next few years and -- between sold-out shows and guerilla DVD sales -- amassed a fortune. That money was used to fund his first feature film, Diary of a Mad Black Woman. It grossed ten times its budget. He has since produced, written, directed and acted in three more financially successful films and also created "House of Payne", currently airing on TBS. And yet he is still ignored by Hollywood.
His most recent film, Why Did I Get Married? -- in which Perry stars alongside Janet Jackson and a host of other talented, unheralded black actors -- dares to just be about relationship troubles. It’s not about the ’hood, or drug dealing, or how hard is to live in a racist world. It’s about people who discover the precariousness of their marriages during a weekend retreat. Perry’s characters are all successful, professional black people; the kind that the media tells us don’t exist. Never mind that I saw them all the time in Toledo, and that they are my neighbors in Inglewood.
And yet, Perry is not beyond reproach. Though I admire him, he has made me cringe more times than any other filmmaker I’ve seen in the 2000s. His plots are simple, some scenes go on too long or end abruptly, characters sometimes talk over each other like in Robert Altman’s ’70s films, his dialogue can be corny. And "House of Payne" has not made me laugh yet. You can honestly see why somebody’s assistant’s assistant wouldn’t give his scripts a good recommendation. But his growth from film to film has been exponential, and like Micheaux, precision is unlikely when you’re a one-man army. (Precision, by the way, gets you comments like, "We loved the script, but don't you think it'll be over black people's heads?" Precision is only useful when people genuinely want to give you a fair shake.) Perhaps more importantly, he has acknowledged the habitually overlooked.
He is different from every other known contemporary black filmmaker, not only in terms of how he raised his capital, but by the themes that resound in his work. Perry’s films are overtly Southern, overtly Christian, deal overtly with forgiveness and family. His most famous character, Madea, is a gun-totin,’ street-smart elderly black woman, twice as likely to threaten to shoot you as she is to say something wise and prescient. (Having said that, I don't know many black people who don't have a Madea somewhere in their family tree.) If portraying middle-class black life is as much a revolutionary act now as the group Public Enemy was in '88, Madea is Flavor Flav, the reason people who are threatened by this world can swallow the pill. Perry plays her with aplomb, in the tradition of Milton Berle and Flip Wilson -- as straight men who got laughs for playing fiery women in drag. To compare him to Spike Lee is like comparing Frank Capra to Stanley Kubrick.
Why Did I Get Married? thrilled a surprisingly diverse crowd the night it opened at a theater we went to just east of Beverly Hills. People are slowly coming into an understanding what they are being denied. For their own sake, I hope the gatekeepers wake up. Before we're all able to get it for ourselves.
Jason Gilmore is a film director, screenwriter, novelist and unrepentant Detroit Pistons fan. Track him down on Facebook.
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10.22.07 @ 3:56p
quoting: "Perry's characters are all successful, professional black people; the kind that the media tells us don’t exist."
What about the Cosby show? Or The Bernie Mac Show?
I'm not knocking you here, by the way. All I can say is, I'm no expert in the media's portrait of black americans, but in my opinion, the media tends to make us all look like asses.
10.24.07 @ 9:46a
There's an occasional movie centered around smart black professionals, but they're SO rare, it's ludicrous.
The excellent performance of Tyler Perry's latest (wasn't it #1 last week?) should definitely help open the door some... it may not be a brilliant movie, but there are plenty of non-brilliant movies starring white people that do quite well, so there's no reason there shouldn't be more of the same starring black people, or even, heaven forbid, BOTH.
It is truly baffling that Hollywood is one of the last holdouts against both gender and racial equality. How many famous black directors are there? Five? What about women? Three?
10.24.07 @ 7:48p
I was JUST thinking of this same thing the other day. I took a break from writing to have a fun-brain activity - casting my movie in my head. I know who I want to play who, but I was trying to exercise some flexibility - use actors who we haven't seen in a really big movie, but have lots of potential.
I remember thinking to myself - and marveling at exactly how awful this is: There are quite a few handsome black guys that would play the male lead extremely well, and Hollywood won't cast them.
If they do, it's in an all-black cast movie, like "Deliver Us from Eva" or whathaveyou. God knows you can't offer up a black male or female lead and have the other lead white - no, no, no. That just won't do.
And I think this kind of mentality severely limits the KIND of acting styles that can portray certain characters - and it limits the audience.
It really is baffling, and it's sad. People are so short-sighted and stupid sometimes.
11.17.07 @ 9:38a
"Eve's Bayou" is a suburb movie, filled with wonderful black actors and a refreshing, edgy view of a young black female writer and director. But it didn't get as much play as it should have. I loved "Soul Food" because it dealt with a universal family theme. "The Five Heartbeats" demonstrates how underrated Robert Townsend is. "Love Jones" is still one of the better modern black romantic comedies, and it has an awesome soundtrack.
But have I seen anything Martin Lawrence is in? No.
I personally think there are more black leading men than women. I, for one, will see just about any movie starring Alfre Woodard. I think she is an incredible actress, and prefer her approach to the megabuck half-baked recycled performances by women like Julia Roberts or Reese Witherspoon.
But for the current top black leading men - Morgan Freeman, Forrest Whitaker, (Did you see "Last King of Scotland"? I mean, really -see- that damn thing?) Will Smith, Denzel Washington, Samuel L. Jackson (still love him more for "Red Violin" than "Pulp Fiction, but he's cemented into the culture for PF), Don Cheadle, Jamie Fox, Eddie Murphy, Chris Rock....only a few of them, with all their leverage and power in Hollywood, have dared to step into independent film roles (Cheadle and Freeman are beyond measure for this) to balance their box-office appeal.
I say the responsibility falls on these creative leaders to champion black film into the mainstream. They need to push Van Peebles and Parks and other black film icons into the forefront of current culture and demonstrate there is more to the genre than blacksplotation 70s revivalist turns and rap star bios.
However, I will say that the success of bio pics like "Ray" and "Talk to Me" prove that a general audience still finds certain stories worth listening to.