America’s black movie amnesia: Non-slavery films sell, too, guys

Guess what, Hollywood. Movies about black life and love actually can do well. And I don't just mean Tyler Perry

Topics: Tyler Perry, African Americans, Black women, Best Man Holiday, Hollywood, Racism, Editor's Picks, White people, Thor, 1990s, The Cosby Show, ,

America's black movie amnesia: Non-slavery films sell, too, guys"The Best Man Holiday"(Credit: Michael Gibson)

This weekend moviegoers filed in to see “The Best Man Holiday,” the highly anticipated sequel to the 1999 film “The Best Man,” to the tune of $30.1 million. For a film that cost only $17 million to make, this is a huge success.

Headline after headline marvels at the fact that the “Best Man” sequel nearly upset “Thor.” And if we calculate per screen averages, the movie did just that. But what is most shocking to me is this continued American amnesia about black movies.

Every 10 years or so, African-Americans are forced to prove that we actually like movies about black life and love, particularly ones that aren’t about slavery. Meanwhile, Hollywood executives consistently manage to forget this fact, and then refuse to produce good black movies, on the grounds that they won’t sell.

Then movie critics further ghettoize these films by referring to them as “race-themed” movies. This kind of inaccurate language screams “film for black people!” And such thinking discourages white audiences from supporting.

Black stories are not considered universal stories, you see. Black stories are for black people. White stories are for everybody. And that is what the vast majority of romantic comedies – and hell, most movies — are, right? White stories. They have all-white casts, maybe with a token Negro or two.

I was an 18-year-old college student when the first “Best Man” movie came out. I often find myself nostalgic for the cultural moment of the 1990s, precisely because good-quality black cultural products were not an anomaly. The 1990s was the decade of good black sitcoms –”The Cosby Show” phased out in 1992, but was replaced by “The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air,” “Family Matters,” “Sister, Sister,” “Living Single,” “Martin,” “Moesha” … I could go on. At the movies, I could see “Boyz N the Hood,” “Menace to Society,” “Jason’s Lyric,” “Waiting to Exhale,” “Set It Off,” “Love Jones” and, yes, “The Best Man.”

And I won’t even go into what it meant to be raised on hip-hop in the 1990s, to come of age during the era of Big and ‘Pac, to have my black girlhood narrated back to me through the mouths of fierce sistas on the mic in the decade of the female emcee where it was regular to hear Da Brat, Lyte, Latifah, Lauryn (as part of the ‘Fugees), Lady of Rage, Yo Yo … I could go on.



When “The Best Man” came out, followed swiftly by “Love and Basketball,” “The Wood” and “Brown Sugar,” no one could have believed that the next decade would be characterized by the shamtastic, simplistic work of Tyler Perry. Folks frequently applaud Perry’s business model and claim that it is he who kept black actors working in a period when they could not get jobs.

Such thinking fails, though, to ask why black folks fell out of fashion when our star continued to rise.  How did Tyler Perry come to be Black Jesus? And why did we come to believe black film and television was in need of a savior?

I mean why, exactly, is the saturation point for black films so low in Hollywood?

If I can put it bluntly, we live in a world that is largely uninterested in talking about black life and black people. After nearly a decade of successful black television and movies, white studio executives got lazy and convinced themselves that Hollywood had achieved King’s dream, that black projects didn’t need robust funding or support.

Instead, white studio execs could go back to talking about what they liked most: white people. The same thing happened in television. Black sitcoms were outsourced to fledgling cable networks like the WB, UPN and the CW. When shows like “The Game” and “Girlfriends” and “Half and Half” helped the CW to gain sound economic footing, then such “urban” programming got the proverbial hatchet, as these networks tried to transition to more “mainstream” (read: white) programming.

In this regard they followed the script of the Fox Network, which cut its teeth on the bread and butter of urban programming in the 1990s. (“Martin,” “Living Single,” “In Living Color,” anyone?)

This is the logic of post-racial thinking in practice. By this logic, the highly visible presence of a few black cultural products (or a black president) is taken as a surrogate for the actual achievement of black cultural (or political) equality. The success of these projects is met then, not with more vigilance, but rather with a kind of benign neglect (at best) or a vicious foreclosing of good black cultural production (at worst).

So here we are again. Having been starved of good, complicated and humane representations of black life on the big and small screens for the better part of a decade, black folks deeply craved the return of “The Best Man.”

As I sat in the theater, laughing, crying and reminiscing, I felt like I had been reunited with friends that I had not seen in far too long. Certainly, there were things I took issue with in the movie.  [No spoilers.] I wanted more screen time and character development for Jordyn (Nia Long), the character to whom I most relate and who had been central to the plot of the first film.  I felt like the Christian themes in the movie were much more heavy-handed than in the first, and in this regard, bore all the traces of a movie produced in the age of Tyler Perry.

But mostly, I enjoyed myself and reveled in watching successful black folks struggle to keep up the façade of success, especially while encountering market pressures to produce. I watched a family’s faith being tested, and I watched these black couples and friends struggle through and work out their friendships and relationships with one another.

This is the kind of black life that I know. And it felt good to be able to go to the movies and see characters I could relate to. Because they were black and college-educated and human and complicated, yes. But mostly because the film took black humanity as a given rather than as a thing to be proved.

Nostalgia can be a dangerous thing. It makes us look at the past with rose-colored glasses, determined to demonize the current moment while forgetting all that didn’t work about the past. But then there is racism, which is premised on a kind of forgetting. In this country, racism works by giving a few crumbs (during Emancipation and Reconstruction, then again during civil rights) and snatching them back with a vengeance, while smacking you for reaching out your hand.

In those moments, remembering becomes really important. We should remember that there was robust black film and television in this country before we ever saw the likes of a Tyler Perry. Therefore, there is no need to tell the story as though he was Jesus come to save a dying world.

I hope “The Best Man Holiday” is the start of something beautiful again, the start of complicated, multilayered portraits of black life that round out (rather than silence) the world Tyler Perry has created. I hope these films in all their beauty expose the racial lie of Hollywood, namely that black art doesn’t sell and that black life doesn’t matter..

Being seen, being recognized, when you have been unseen and misrecognized for so long, absolutely matters.

And to say it like we said it back in the ’90s: “Y’all betta recognize!”

Brittney Cooper

Brittney Cooper is a contributing writer at Salon, and teaches Women's and Gender Studies and Africana Studies at Rutgers. Follow her on Twitter at @professorcrunk.

More Related Stories

Featured Slide Shows

  • Share on Twitter
  • Share on Facebook
  • 1 of 11
  • Close
  • Fullscreen
  • Thumbnails

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    Beautiful Darkness by Fabien Vehlmann & Kerascoët
    Kerascoët's lovely, delicate pen-and-watercolor art -- all intricate botanicals, big eyes and flowing hair -- gives this fairy story a deceptively pretty finish. You find out quickly, however, that these are the heartless and heedless fairies of folk legend, not the sentimental sprites beloved by the Victorians and Disney fans. A host of tiny hominid creatures must learn to survive in the forest after fleeing their former home -- a little girl who lies dead in the woods. The main character, Aurora, tries to organize the group into a community, but most of her cohort is too capricious, lazy and selfish to participate for long. There's no real moral to this story, which is refreshing in itself, beyond the perpetual lessons that life is hard and you have to be careful whom you trust. Never has ugly truth been given a prettier face.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    Climate Changed: A Personal Journey Through the Science by Philippe Squarzoni
    Squarzoni is a French cartoonist who makes nonfiction graphic novels about contemporary issues and politics. While finishing up a book about France under Jacques Chirac, he realized that when it came to environmental policy, he didn't know what he was talking about. "Climate Changed" is the result of his efforts to understand what has been happening to the planet, a striking combination of memoir and data that ruminates on a notoriously elusive, difficult and even imponderable subject. Panels of talking heads dispensing information (or Squarzoni discussing the issues with his partner) are juxtaposed with detailed and meticulous yet lyrical scenes from the author's childhood, the countryside where he takes a holiday and a visit to New York. He uses his own unreachable past as a way to grasp the imminent transformation of the Earth. The result is both enlightening and unexpectedly moving.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    Here by Richard McGuire
    A six-page version of this innovative work by a regular contributor to the New Yorker first appeared in RAW magazine 25 years ago. Each two-page spread depicts a single place, sometimes occupied by a corner of a room, over the course of 4 billion years. The oldest image is a blur of pink and purple gases; others depict hazmat-suited explorers from 300 years in the future. Inset images show the changing decor and inhabitants of the house throughout its existence: family photos, quarrels, kids in Halloween costumes, a woman reading a book, a cat walking across the floor. The cumulative effect is serene and ravishing, an intimation of the immensity of time and the wonder embodied in the humblest things.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    Kill My Mother by Jules Feiffer
    The legendary Pulitzer Prize-winning cartoonist delivers his debut graphic novel at 85, a deliriously over-the-top blend of classic movie noir and melodrama that roams from chiaroscuro Bay City to Hollywood to a USO gig in the Pacific theater of World War II. There's a burnt-out drunk of a private eye, but the story is soon commandeered by a multigenerational collection of ferocious women, including a mysterious chanteuse who never speaks, a radio comedy writer who makes a childhood friend the butt of a hit series and a ruthless dame intent on making her whiny coward of a husband into a star. There are disguises, musical numbers and plenty of gunfights, but the drawing is the main attraction. Nobody convey's bodies in motion more thrillingly than Feiffer, whether they're dancing, running or duking it out. The kid has promise.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    The Motherless Oven by Rob Davis
    This is a weird one, but in the nervy surreal way that word-playful novels like "A Clockwork Orange" or "Ulysses" are weird. The main character, a teenage schoolboy named Scarper Lee, lives in a world where it rains knives and people make their own parents, contraptions that can be anything from a tiny figurine stashable in a pocket to biomorphic boiler-like entities that seem to have escaped from Dr. Seuss' nightmares. Their homes are crammed with gadgets they call gods and instead of TV they watch a hulu-hoop-size wheel of repeating images that changes with the day of the week. They also know their own "death day," and Scarper's is coming up fast. Maybe that's why he runs off with the new girl at school, a real troublemaker, and the obscurely dysfunctional Castro, whose mother is a cageful of talking parakeets. A solid towline of teenage angst holds this manically inventive vision together, and proves that some graphic novels can rival the text-only kind at their own game.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    NOBROW 9: It's Oh So Quiet
    For each issue, the anthology magazine put out by this adventurous U.K.-based publisher of independent graphic design, illustration and comics gives 45 artists a four-color palette and a theme. In the ninth issue, the theme is silence, and the results are magnificent and full of surprises. The comics, each told in images only, range from atmospheric to trippy to jokey to melancholy to epic to creepy. But the two-page illustrations are even more powerful, even if it's not always easy to see how they pertain to the overall concept of silence. Well, except perhaps for the fact that so many of them left me utterly dumbstruck with visual delight.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    Over Easy by Mimi Pond
    When Pond was a broke art student in the 1970s, she took a job at a neighborhood breakfast spot in Oakland, a place with good food, splendid coffee and an endlessly entertaining crew of short-order cooks, waitresses, dishwashers and regular customers. This graphic memoir, influenced by the work of Pond's friend, Alison Bechdel, captures the funky ethos of the time, when hippies, punks and disco aficionados mingled in a Bay Area at the height of its eccentricity. The staff of the Imperial Cafe were forever swapping wisecracks and hopping in and out of each other's beds, which makes them more or less like every restaurant team in history. There's an intoxicating esprit de corps to a well-run everyday joint like the Imperial Cafe, and never has the delight in being part of it been more winningly portrayed.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    The Shadow Hero by Gene Luen Yang and Sonny Liew
    You don't have to be a superhero fan to be utterly charmed by Yang and Liew's revival of a little-known character created in the 1940s by the cartoonist Chu Hing. This version of the Green Turtle, however, is rich in characterization, comedy and luscious period detail from the Chinatown of "San Incendio" (a ringer for San Francisco). Hank, son of a mild-mannered grocer, would like to follow in his father's footsteps, but his restless mother (the book's best character and drawn with masterful nuance by Liew) has other ideas after her thrilling encounter with a superhero. Yang's story effortlessly folds pathos into humor without stooping to either slapstick or cheap "darkness." This is that rare tribute that far surpasses the thing it celebrates.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    Shoplifter by Michael Cho
    Corinna Park, former English major, works, unhappily, in a Toronto advertising agency. When the dissatisfaction of the past five years begins to oppress her, she lets off steam by pilfering magazines from a local convenience store. Cho's moody character study is as much about city life as it is about Corinna. He depicts her falling asleep in front of the TV in her condo, brooding on the subway, roaming the crowded streets after a budding romance goes awry. Like a great short story, this is a simple tale of a young woman figuring out how to get her life back, but if feels as if it contains so much of contemporary existence -- its comforts, its loneliness, its self-deceptions -- suspended in wintery amber.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    Through the Woods by Emily Carroll
    This collection of archetypal horror, fairy and ghost stories, all about young girls, comes lushly decked in Carroll's inky black, snowy white and blood-scarlet art. A young bride hears her predecessor's bones singing from under the floorboards, two friends make the mistake of pretending to summon the spirits of the dead, a family of orphaned siblings disappears one by one into the winter nights. Carroll's color-saturated images can be jagged, ornate and gruesome, but she also knows how to chill with absence, shadows and a single staring eye. Literary readers who cherish the work of Kelly Link or the late Angela Carter's collection, "The Bloody Chamber," will adore the violent beauty on these pages.

  • Recent Slide Shows

Comments

Loading Comments...