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‘Exhale’ Strikes Chord With African American Audiences : Studios Are Inept, Not Racist

Melvin Van Peebles wrote, produced, directed and acted in the landmark "Sweet Sweetback's Baadasssss Song" in 1971. He recently wrote and produced the award-winning "Panther" and he is currently editing a feature that he co-directed with his son, Mario

Maybe I just have a hyper sense of fair play, but, gulp, I find myself compelled to take computer in hand in defense of, of all things, the Hollywood studios, which I believe were unjustly maligned in Elaine Dutka’s excellent piece “ ‘Exhale’: The Right Film at the Right Time” (Calendar, Dec. 28). This mind you notwithstanding the fact that the article mentioned me. (“There’s a great sense of anticipation and excitement in the African American community. . . . I [movie-goer Yvonne Divans Hutchinson, an English teacher] haven’t seen the likes of it since the early 1970s when [Melvin] Van Peebles’ ‘Sweet Sweetback’s Baadasssss Song’ ushered in the era of blaxploitation film.”)

Dutka’s article implies that the studios have overlooked the huge box-office potential of the huge silent black majority inside the huge black minority that comprises a population larger than most European nations. Au contraire, the studios have been drooling over the potential of black box-office bucks for decades. Inept, the studios may be, but stupid they ain’t.

The film industry was barely out of Pampers before it started trying to identify the cashbox chromosome on the African strand of the American movie-going public’s DNA. After years of failure they threw up their hands and declared that it didn’t even exist. (Boy, oh boy, I wish I had a nickel for every time I was told, “Mel, baby, there is no such thing as a Negro audience.”) Then, after I struck gold with my aforementioned “Sweetback,” the rush for black bucks was renewed.

A variety of sepia movies were run up the flagpole, but the only genre that consistently made money was a clever perversion of my “Sweetback” formula and thus was born the blaxploitation era. In fact for a moment there Hollywood figured that they had the black audience all figured out. Then under an avalanche of increasingly shoddy material the genre petered out and the studios were back to square zero.

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Currently, cullud action cartoons do well. However, they are not, as Hollywood proclaims, all that the black audiences want to see. First features scraped together by African American directors, often about their ghetto experiences, usually do well, buck for buckwise, at the box office. And yet when Hollywood takes these filmmakers to their breast (simultaneously “suggesting” loftier themes “to make their people proud”) the filmmakers seem to falter. How come? Can’t Negroes handle bigger-budget films (still a pittance of what the white boys gets to work with)? Do they suddenly and collectively lose their blazing talent? Just what the heck is going on here?

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I believe the key to the puzzle is authenticity, or at least what is perceived as authentic. While extremely tolerant on some issues, African American audiences have hair-trigger sensibilities on certain other issues and demand more authenticity than Hollywood movies, black or white, are in the habit of delivering.

Ironically, this freedom, this demand for black authenticity so foreign to Hollywood, has proven good business in other sections of the entertainment industry such as music.

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Of course, any artist--what was that quaint phrase, “regardless of race, creed, or color”?--has to do battle with the Philistines who put up the money and quite understandably want to hedge their bets (traditionally in the movie industry this is done by broadening the consumer base), but in the case of the African American it is a particularly precarious struggle.

However, I do not feel, as many do, that it is out of pure racial malice that the studios goof up. After all, no one intentionally sets fire to his or her wallet.

The simple fact, after all is said and done, is that African Americans are not allowed to tell African American middle-class stories without studio, i.e. white, intervention, and it is this unconscious white perspective forced on the material in the form of “guidance” that is so often disastrous. An African American cineaste soon realizes that the lower down the economic scale and the deeper into the ghetto the story is set, the more likely the studio will feel it just doesn’t know that world, and the more freedom the filmmaker will be allowed.

But let’s not be hasty before we go writing the whole thing off as a hopeless minefield--here comes “Waiting to Exhale,” a living, breathing exception to the rule, an African American middle-class miracle of authenticity. Yes, maybe it’s only a sliver of a certain female reality, a lopsided look and not a particularly politically correct one at that. However, somehow, it has managed to remain authentic. But don’t believe me, look at the box-office figures. They are authentic.

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