Since Spike Lee burst on to the feature film front almost a decade ago, a host of other African American directors have followed in his wake. The Hughes brothers, Carl Franklin and Bill Duke are now part of the mix as Hollywood--confronted with the popularity of hip-hop and rap, not to mention the profitability of low-budget offerings such as “Boyz N the Hood” and “Menace II Society"--has come to realize that black culture sells.
Small, personal stories such as Darnell Martin’s “I Like It Like That” and Doug McHenry’s sensual “Jason’s Lyric” surfaced last year, joining mass-appeal fare like Keenen Ivory Wayans’ “A Low Down Dirty Shame.” Preston Whitmore II’s “The Walking Dead,” the story of four African American Marines in Vietnam, is opening on Friday, and Franklin’s mystery “Devil in a Blue Dress” is due out later this year.
One of the current box-office hits is “Higher Learning,” John Singleton’s first interracial story, in which college students confront identity, diversity, sexism and escalating racial tensions. It’s a montage of the world as the director sees it--a license rarely afforded black filmmakers in the past.
And yet, there is a marked lack of optimism in the African American ranks--no sense that they’ve finally “arrived.”
“People ask me how it feels being part of the black cinematic wave,” says Mario Van Peebles (“New Jack City,” “Posse”), whose father Melvin, along with Gordon Parks, Sidney Poitier and Charles Burnett, helped to map out the terrain in the ‘70s. “But as I understand it, a wave gains momentum and then crashes on the beach. A string of flops could put an end to it all, since the industry views us as interconnected--a cinematic basketball team.”
Several other leading African American filmmakers talked about how much progress has been made and, like Van Peebles, they pulled no punches. While opportunity is there, they agree, a double standard persists when it comes to black stories and black talent. In a display of candor rare for Hollywood, they publicly targeted the system--and themselves.
African American directors are still shunted toward ethnic themes more limited in scope and less costly to finance than other Hollywood fare. Spike Lee landed Universal’s high-profile, big-budget street drama “Clockers,” based on the Richard Price novel. But when he--or a Thomas Carter (“Swing Kids”) or a Bill Duke (“The Cemetery Club”)--takes on “mainstream” assignments, they become the broadest of targets.
“On ‘Cemetery Club,’ people asked me what a black guy knows about three Jewish women in the Bronx,” recalls Duke (“A Rage in Harlem,” “Sister Act 2"). “On the part of critics, there was an implicit ‘stay in your place.’ No one asked Martin Scorsese, an Italian American, what qualifies him to direct ‘The Age of Innocence.’ ”
Twenty-three-year-old Matty Rich, who last year followed his shoestring “Straight Out of Brooklyn” (1991) with Disney’s family drama “The Inkwell,” says he can’t wait to break out of the pack.
“I want to do ‘Home Alone,’ ‘Dennis the Menace,’ ‘The Nightmare Before Christmas,’ ” he says. “If the industry can accept the imagination of Tim Burton, why not mine?”
While Duke and Rich express frustration with Hollywood’s compartmentalization of blacks, the Hudlin brothers (“Boomerang”) are among those who have focused on African American themes by choice. Not only is it what they know, they say, but--in light of the industry’s not-so-benign neglect--there’s a lot of unexplored territory they can claim as their own.
Getting the studios to buy it isn’t easy, however.
“It’s doubly hard for black directors because we often make films that haven’t been made before,” says Reginald Hudlin. “Instead of seeing them as opportunities to broaden its base, the industry regards them as risks not worth taking. The permanent government of Hollywood--the studio executives and agents--needs to change, and not by recruiting sun-tanned versions of themselves: blacks who not only share their taste but feel the need to prove how ‘mainstream’ they are.”
The very concept of “mainstream,” these directors agree, is badly in need of redefinition. Rap singer Snoop Doggy Dogg was on the cover of Newsweek. “Boyz N the Hood” did well on pay-per-view in all markets, not just urban ones. And the white audience that stayed away from theaters showing “Posse” (a black Western, denigrated by the majors to whom Van Peebles was pitching the project, as “Boyz N the Saddle”), caught up with the film on video, where it ultimately turned a profit.
“It would help shareholder value and box office both if we could convince the studios to adopt a more modern perspective on what is ‘commercial,’ ” says producer Warrington Hudlin. “Every year, some huge shock shatters Hollywood’s conventional wisdom. ‘Schindler’s List,’ which many viewed as a $20-million thank-you check for ‘Jurassic Park,’ ended up closing in on $100 million in the U.S. and Canada alone.”
If Spike Lee’s 1986 “She’s Gotta Have It” served notice to the industry that blacks were hungry for stories about African American culture, three years later his “Do the Right Thing” proved that whites would turn out as well. Though he had the luxury of shooting a personal story like “Crooklyn,” Lee says, studio executives are generally wary of green-lighting an African American project that’s not a “gangsta-hood movie or a non-threatening comedy.”
“We’re seeing a throwback to the black exploitation films of the 1970s,” maintains Lee, who has tried to counter the trend by executive-producing last year’s “Drop Squad,” Rusty Cundieff’s upcoming “Tales From the Hood” and Nick Gomez’s “New Jersey Drive,” which premiered at Sundance. “The industry is convinced that only violence--what they call ‘realism'--sells. African American filmmakers write scripts that they know will get financed. Breaking the cycle takes courage on both parts.”
Since Robert Townsend came out with his $100,000 “Hollywood Shuffle” in 1987, his goal has been to portray a more multifaceted view of African Americans.
“As an actor, I see myself as a black Tom Hanks,” he says. “But there are no romantic comedies, no ‘Sleepless in Seattle N the Hoods.’ ”
The best way to ensure diversity, says producer Doug McHenry (“New Jack City”), is by taking control. When he and his partner, George Jackson, signed a deal with Savoy Pictures giving them the right to green-light pictures up to $15 million, they obtained a level of autonomy achieved by few filmmakers of any race.
Their $7-million “Jason’s Lyric,” distributed by Gramercy last fall, was something of a breakthrough: the first African American Generation X film, devoid of gang warfare, with an employed and monogamous male in the lead--which, McHenry says, may be why every studio turned it down. Only when he bought the script himself did independent PolyGram Pictures come aboard.
The portrayal of what McHenry calls the screen’s hottest couple since Dorothy Dandridge and Harry Belafonte in “Carmen Jones” ruffled feathers, however. To get an R rating, McHenry had to snip scenes he considers less explicit than those in “Basic Instinct” and remove “a scintilla of thigh” from a poster less provocative than those for “The Lover” and “Truth or Dare.”
“The system views black men as more threatening,” he says.
Jack Valenti, president of the Motion Picture Assn. of American, which along with the National Assn. of Theater Owners monitors the ratings board, bristles at the suggestion of racism.
“Three members of the board are African American,” he points out. “And the decision was unanimous.”
Darnell Martin’s critically acclaimed feature film debut, the $5.5-million “I Like It Like That,” was also an eye-opener. Columbia went along with her demand to direct her original screenplay. But the studio, she says, changed the title from “Blackout” to play off the success of Lee’s “She’s Gotta Have It” and “Do the Right Thing.” They also wanted to make the project more commercial by making the Latino characters African American and casting bankable stars.
An assistant cameraman on Lee’s “Do the Right Thing,” Martin scoffs at those who term her rapid rise a “Cinderella tale.” “That term is an insult to me,” she says. “My mother carried a couch on her back five flights up and taught me that no guy on a white horse was going to save me. My gender, however, was significant to Columbia. They wanted me to take out some of the more violent scenes because they didn’t think I had the (guts) to do them--and labeled me ‘the first African American female movie director’ as part of the hype. Problems arose when I refused to play the role of an urchin pulled out of the Bronx, grateful for a seat on the bus.”
When box-office grosses are compared to negative costs, African American directors have been more successful in the domestic marketplace than their white counterparts--and they were working with production and marketing budgets far lower than the norm.
Keeping costs down is both an insurance policy in case white audiences don’t show up and a response to the widely held notion that the increasingly important international market won’t connect with African American themes.
Still, foreign indifference isn’t etched in stone. “Boyz N the Hood,” “Menace II Society” and “New Jack City” did well in some countries abroad. And Julie Dash’s critically acclaimed 1992 “Daughters of the Dust” is approaching the status of a cult film worldwide. Success comes down to education and exposure, the directors say. To mount an “offensive,” McHenry premiered “Jason’s Lyric” at the Venice Film Festival. And, terming the foreign market “the next frontier,” he asked MPAA chief Valenti for strategic support.
Martinique-born Euzhan Palcy, who followed her successful “Sugar Cane Alley” (1984) with MGM’s “A Dry White Season” (1989), believes that foreigners are actually more receptive than white American audiences.
“I tell black actors and directors to have one leg in Europe,” she says. “If black directors have good films at Cannes, the French are proud to give us a stage we don’t have in the U.S.”
When Hollywood does spring for middle-budget African American stories, such as the $15-million “Passenger 57,” there’s often a major black star in the mix. Wesley Snipes, who starred in that film and in “Drop Zone,” has evolved into a leading African American action hero. Denzel Washington helped propel “The Pelican Brief” past the $100-million mark. Whoopi Goldberg (“Sister Act,” “Boys on the Side”) is one of Hollywood’s highest-paid actresses. And, though the tepid performance of “Beverly Hills Cop III” didn’t help, Eddie Murphy still commands big bucks on the comedy front.
“There’s been more progress in the ‘show'--the acting end--than in the ‘business’ arena,” says Bill Duke, who started out on the other side of the camera himself. “But that helps us as well. When we come up with bankable stories, there are bankable stars to cast in them. Black superstars provide the missing leverage.”
Like Duke, Kevin Hooks (“Passenger 57") came out of television--a playing field he considers more level than that of feature films. Before making the leap to the big screen in 1991, he regularly directed episodes of “A Year in the Life” and “St. Elsewhere.”
“In TV, we were evaluated by the work we did--our ability to work with actors and make the schedule,” Hooks says. “Everything on the feature end is far more categorized and limiting. But, then, there’s a lot less riding on an hour of ‘Northern Exposure’ than on a $25-million feature they hope will make $100 million.”
When it comes to African American programming , however, the networks lag far behind cable.
“The only way cable can distinguish itself is by taking chances,” explains Warrington Hudlin, producer of HBO’s “Cosmic Slop,” a multicultural “Twilight Zone.” “They have to give the people what they can’t get for free.”
Female African American directors, not surprisingly, get the shortest end of the stick.
The black action-adventures or gangsta fare considered easiest to market are perceived primarily as a male domain. And in an industry reluctant to mount projects about women of any sort, the African American variety falls through the cracks.
One exception is 20th Century Fox’s adaptation of Terry McMillan’s best-selling “Waiting to Exhale"--the story of four African American women in Phoenix--due to start shooting later this month with Whitney Houston and Angela Bassett in two of the leads. When it came time to assign a director, however, a man--Forest Whitaker--got the nod.
Julie Dash is unapologetic about her preference for female themes:
“Thousands of directors in the Directors Guild are making films about guys. Why should I dip into their gene pool when a whole segment of society is being ignored?”
In an attempt to counterbalance stereotypical images, Debbie Allen featured a woman “with no redeeming qualities” in her upcoming feature film debut “Out of Sync.”
“Not every black woman needs to be a woman with a heart,” she says, “yet you never see any black actresses playing ‘tough’ and ‘cold’ like Kathleen Turner and Sharon Stone. That’s not to say we don’t need positive images, though. My children were thrilled when they saw Denzel Washington riding in on that horse in ‘Much Ado About Nothing'--and leading the pack, on top of it all.”
Male or female, African American directors get fewer turns at bat. A miss or two can relegate them to lower budgets--or, even worse, the dugout.
Spike Lee is the only black director assured of getting his films made whether or not they make money. And even he believes he’s judged by a double standard.
“Racism permeates Hollywood, as it does every aspect of corporate America,” says Lee. “African Americans have to be 10 times better to succeed.”
To leverage their way into the system, black directors have joined forces at times. Reginald Hudlin got his first Hollywood deal through Lee. His brother, Warrington, heads the Black Filmmaker Foundation, a source of grant money and networking support. When Darnell Martin turned down an offer to do her movie for a lower budget at the independent New Line Cinema, the Hudlins were instrumental in getting her script to the studios.
Still, the lack of quality projects fosters competition.
“We’re all sitting on the sidelines, wanting to be Michael Jordan,” Townsend says. “It’s sad. George Lucas gives Spielberg and Phil Kaufman and Francis Coppola notes. Though black directors are a small fraternity, we can all be in it.”
Matty Rich admits to being “cocky and arrogant” in the wake of the acclaim accorded his “Straight Out of Brooklyn.” Traveling in limos and meeting movie stars, he says, took a toll. After he tangled with Spike Lee and publicly dismissed him as “a middle-class, third-generation college boy,” Lee countered with a suggestion that Rich sign up for film school.
“Spike paved the way for filmmakers like me, but I’m not going to bend down and kiss his behind like the others do,” Rich says. “Unfortunately, with black directors, it’s not ‘I got a penny, you got a penny, let’s put it together and make it pay off.’ It’s every man for himself.”
Replies Lee: “Rich wears his lack of education and film experience as a badge of honor--but it caught up with him in ‘The Inkwell.’ It’s that kind of thinking that leads young blacks to label anyone getting A’s ‘white boys.’ We’ve got to get over this ignorance (expletive) and channel our competition in a positive way. Every time a new (John) Coltrane album came out, the stakes were raised.”
Duke terms such talk “disappointing and irresponsible.”
“Black culture is the only one to air its dirty linen in public,” he says. “It’s going to take all our energy just to maintain our presence. Enough of this fratricidal infighting.”
The media, the directors contend, fan the flames. The fortunes of one black director are seen to be riding on another’s. The work of each is constantly compared. When “Hollywood Shuffle” hit the screen, critics said, “Move over, Eddie Murphy.” When the Hughes brothers’ “Menace II Society” came out, one reviewer called it “the movie John Singleton wanted to make when he directed ‘Boyz N the Hood.’ ”
“Why do they feel the need to put down one director to let other brothers emerge?” Debbie Allen wonders. “It ties your hands if you listen to it.”
Last May, a report released by the Directors Guild of America conceded that, with regard to minorities, the goal of parity was still nowhere in sight. Though eight African American directors were hired by DGA signatories last year--an improvement over the year before--for some categories employment opportunities had actually decreased.
Rather than bucking the system, Van Peebles suggests, why not sidestep it altogether? Working in the independent arena not only minimizes reliance on studio formulas but also maximizes artistic control. On his “Panther,” a drama based on the Black Panther movement and due out from Gramercy in May, he worked for scale in exchange for the right of final cut.
“Since my only vices are stereos and ice cream, money is less important in the scheme of things,” he says. “Instead of doing ‘Revenge of the Ninja Bimbos’ or ‘Shaft Goes to the 7-Eleven,’ I want to focus on black history--an area, the studios told me, about which blacks are ignorant and whites don’t care. The movie business is 30 years behind the music world. Though the public accepts Jimi Hendrix as ‘rock’ and Whitney Houston as ‘pop,’ the studios are still stuck on color.”
In the wake of such sleepers as “One False Move,” “The Piano” and “Four Weddings and a Funeral,” Hollywood is trying to harness the independent spirit. Julie Dash, however, refuses to bite.
“What the studios really want is directors for hire,” she says. “Disney sent me ‘The Inkwell,’ and I sent it back. I’m not capable of shooting films by committee.”
African American directors find themselves in a Catch-22, questioned about their choices on both political and professional grounds. Spike Lee was asked whether he’d ever feature whites in his films. “Would they have asked Bergman if he was always going to shoot Swedish people?” Lee replies.
Carl Franklin was second-guessed about choosing the Walter Mosley mystery “Devil in a Blue Dress"--a period tale of an African American war veteran--instead of non-ethnic projects he was offered after his acclaimed “One False Move.”
“Some people perceive ‘Devil’ as a black-themed picture and thought I’d made a mistake,” recalls Franklin, who just signed on to direct “Reliable Sources,” a thriller about journalistic ethics written by Joe Eszterhas. “This business tends to pigeonhole you, and if you start moving away from crossover films the studios begin to think that (black-themed films) are all you can do. Still, my approach to material is personal, not political. If you spend your life looking over your shoulder for approval, you’re working outside yourself.”
It’s all so tiresome, Euzhan Palcy concludes.
“If the system--if the world--were a different place, I’d like to just shoot a story--films about Indians, whites, whomever,” she says. “But black filmmakers bear a heavy burden. We’re pioneers, opening the frontier, trying to rehabilitate the black man’s dignity. For years, our people have been used to letting others talk for us. Now we’re talking for ourselves."*