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Two More Myths Drown in ‘Eve’s Bayou’

<i> Earl Ofari Hutchinson is the author of "Beyond O.J.: Race, Sex and Class Lessons for America."</i>

The news that “Eve’s Bayou” was the most commercially successful independently produced film in 1997 should be cause for much rejoicing (“Life Looks Sunny on the ‘Bayou,’ ” Calendar, Dec. 29). It showed that an independent film with an all-black cast, sans the ancient racial stereotypes of crime-dope-guns-freaky sex-cartoon caricatures-human wrecks that too many Hollywood films traditionally reserve almost exclusively for blacks, can do well at the box office.

But equally important, “Eve’s Bayou” shattered two other myths. Writer-director Kasi Lemmons echoed the first myth when she remarked that you can’t really point to any film and say this proves that this film will attract a white audience. What examples can you use?

Lemmons seemed doubtful that whites will go see an all-black film. But why? For decades whites have packed concerts featuring black artists, hailed black sports figures, enshrined black divas, praised the works of black writers, poets and playwrights. If a film is well-crafted and compelling, there is no reason why whites wouldn’t or shouldn’t crowd the theaters to see it. Steven Spielberg’s “Amistad” is a good example. Despite its painful--and still controversial--theme of black slavery, from initial box-office reports a sizable percentage of those who went to see it were white.

The second myth is that independent all-black films are doomed to fail commercially. In the 1930s, pioneer black filmmaker Oscar Michaux made independent films with a poverty budget and no major studio backing or distribution deals.

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These films didn’t present the stereotypical Amos ‘n’ Andy, Stepin Fetchit comedy or minstrel-type song-and-dance depictions of blacks prevalent in that era. The films were dramas, westerns and detective movies. They employed hundreds of black actors, actresses and technicians and were financially successful.

In the 1960s, the critically acclaimed independent film “Nothing but a Man,” about the struggles of a working black couple, enjoyed box-office success. In 1993, black filmmaker Haile Gerima did not wait for or beg Hollywood to bankroll his anti-slavery epic, “Sankofa.” He proved that a commercially successful independent black film can be made and can create jobs and opportunities for dozens of blacks.

Actor Tim Reid failed to interest major studios in his film, “Once Upon a Time When We Were Colored,” about the fight of blacks in a small Southern town against poverty and segregation. Yet it still had a considerable run in theaters and was warmly received by black and non-black audiences.

There are several reasons why independent black filmmakers can have success with their films.

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Blacks carry tremendous clout at the box office. It is estimated that black moviegoers buy an estimated one out of four movie tickets. And more blacks have the wealth and willingness to invest their money in films that portray positive images of blacks. Spike Lee tapped a bevy of prominent black celebrities and personalities to partially bankroll his films “Malcolm X” and “Get on the Bus.”

Most blacks do not fit into the media sensationalized crime-and-violence image of black communities. Nine out of 10 adult black males are not in prison, on probation or parole. Nearly six out of 10 young blacks reside in two-parent households. Teen pregnancy rates have tumbled among black girls and leaped among non-black girls. Three out of four black women have never received welfare payments. Eight out of 10 adult blacks are employed. More than 80% of blacks graduate from high school.

For three decades blacks have played cops, robbers, dope pushers, pimps, whores, presidents, mammies, corporate heads, maids, aliens, astronauts, devils, washerwomen, zombies, oodles of singers and dancers and every role in between. Black moviegoers have become far more discriminate in their movie tastes and are increasingly demanding films that portray them with more dignity than degradation. The smash success of “Soul Food” proved that.

However, no matter how good (or bad) a film is, it will quickly disappear without a skilled promotion effort. And that means spending money. Many times that has not happened with quality black films. The dismal box-office performance of John Singleton’s “Rosewood” is a good example of that. To its credit, Trimark, which produced “Eve’s Bayou,” was willing to shell out the ad dollars to jump-start the film.

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This did not guarantee that it would succeed, but it sure improved its chances. Hollywood, are you listening?


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