“Never has there been a better time to be an African-American filmmaker,” Spike Lee wrote in a May 1999 piece for the New York Times. He’s not wrong, of course, especially when what’s been happening in the past few years is compared with fifty, forty or even twenty years ago, when the box-office fizzle of the 1978 musical The Wiz was regarded by industry pundits as the end of the “blaxploitation” era.
The more recent explosion in black film, which Lee himself helped detonate with the unexpected triumphs of She’s Gotta Have It (1986) and Do the Right Thing (1989), has brought an unprecedented diversity of African-American sensibilities and voices to both mainstream and independent film. Even a limited recitation of 1990s black films–from such art-house legends as Charles Burnett’s To Sleep With Anger (1990), Julie Dash’s Daughters of the Dust (1991) and Carl Franklin’s One False Move (1991), to such pop phenomena as John Singleton’s Boyz N the Hood (1991), F. Gary Gray’s Friday (1995) and Forest Whitaker’s Waiting to Exhale (1995)–is enough to suggest the breadth of African-American movie-makers’ work at the millennial cusp.
Progress? Yes, if your idea of progress is being allowed to make the same proportionate amount of art and schlock as mainstream Hollywood. For every To Sleep With Anger or Daughters of the Dust, there are at least a half-dozen Booty Calls or Next Fridays or any manner of cinematic junk food custom-designed for the lowest common denominator. While comedies with African-American leads are swiftly packaged and delivered to multiplexes, black-themed dramas are given a narrow window for mainstream distribution at those rare times when they’re “green-lit” by studios. Moreover, there remains a nagging insularity within Hollywood’s power structure that prevents true multiculturalism on- and offscreen.
Then again, it wasn’t so long ago that Hollywood couldn’t imagine any financial prospects for “product” aimed at black audiences. Now, not even the dimmest bulb in the big-studio boardroom can ignore or dismiss black people’s power to generate dollars by the bushel. Last summer, films made by, for and with African-Americans were pulling in some of the biggest box-office receipts of that all-important season. While highly touted star vehicles with Mel Gibson (The Patriot) and Jim Carrey (Me, Myself and Irene) were underperforming at the ticket counters, Keenen Ivory Wayans’s relatively modest spoof, Scary Movie, collected more than $230 million worldwide. The news was even good for lower-budget productions such as Gina Prince-Bythewood’s Love and Basketball, made for $13 million, which earned $28 million.
At this fertile moment for black film, I talked with five African-American filmmakers who have shown the ability to walk the tightrope between commercial and noncommercial projects: Melvin Van Peebles, the unreconstructed maverick who single-handedly altered the American movie landscape with his Sweet Sweetback’s Baadasssss Song (1971); Stacy Spikes, former marketing executive with Miramax and October Films, who founded New York’s annual Urban World Festival for minority films and is now CEO of Urbanworld Group, an independent film distributor; Kasi Lemmons, an actor turned director who’s followed up her 1997 cult success, Eve’s Bayou, with another Gothic mystery, The Caveman’s Valentine, released in March in selected cities; Reginald Hudlin, director of House Party (1990) and The Great White Hype (1996); and John Ridley, novelist (Love Is a Racket), screenwriter (U Turn, Three Kings) and co-producer of the NBC series Third Watch. Following is an edited transcript of the interviews.