We've Gotta Have It
"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.
Q: Are you optimistic? Do you think things are good and getting better for black film?
It's an incredible time! Look at the last fifty years we've been in the movies and how the only time we'd be seen on a screen is when we carry a tray and say, "Yassa, boss!" Or we were the comic relief. Now, you can take Rush Hour [a recent action comedy with Jackie Chan and Chris Tucker] with no white male leads and make $141 million.
Well, there's no doubt about it. The number of black directors working, the variety of films we are able to produce, the number of black stars to work with and even the number of white stars who are excited about working with black directors. I mean, there's no time that's remotely close.
Right now...well, once you had this thing where black people had to, more or less, keep our place. Now, our place in the business of entertainment is that black "product" has the greatest return on the dollar. Meaning that they invest the least amount of money and it makes the most. Often, the most in relation to cost, especially when you look at what Scary Movie did. Which changes the economic formula studios put together to make a movie.
Q: How so?
Some studios are, like, "We only want home-run movies. The kind that get made for $80 million and make, say, $200 million." Then there are studios that are satisfied with doubles and singles. These guys say, "Well, let's try something out with Eddie Griffin and see if it turns out for him the way it turned out for Martin Lawrence." Or Chris Rock, who's alone on the poster for Down to Earth with no white co-stars. It makes $20 million its first weekend. And this happens so regularly now that it's taken for granted compared with fifteen, twenty years ago.
Q: What about other genres, besides comedies? It often seems when black movies venture into drama or even quirkier stories--like yours, Kasi--they're made within very narrow parameters.
That's right. I mean...in terms of how much money you get to make a certain film, there is a formula, OK? It was broken down for me once by someone I heard speak one year at the Summit...