15 Images

Black filmmakers

Spike Lee, right, broke new ground in the landscape of black cinema and established himself as a true original voice with his comedy “She’s Gotta Have It,” released in 1986. Lee wrote, directed and costarred in the low-budget, black-and-white film that featured Tracy Camilla Johns as a sexually liberated woman. (FILE PHOTO)
Robert Townsend, center, proved himself to be a scrappy visionary with 1987’s “Hollywood Shuffle,” his sharp-edged satire about the stereotypical roles of blacks in Hollywood films. Townsend wrote, starred in and directed the comedy, which was financed through credit cards. Also featured were Rusty Cundieff, left, and Richard Cummings Jr. (Nathaniel Bellamy / Samuel Goldwyn Co.)
Mario Van Peeples, second from left, followed in the footsteps of his pioneering father, Melvin Van Peeples (“Sweet Sweetback’s Baadasssss Song”), with 1991’s “New Jack City,” which injected the gangster genre with a hip-hop sensibility. The film established Wesley Snipes as a powerful leading man and also featured scene-stealing performances from Ice-T, right, and a young, skinny Chris Rock. From left: Russell Wong, Van Peebles, Judd Nelson and Ice-T. (Warner Bros.)
Matty Rich, right, was just 19 when he wrote, directed and starred in 1991’s “Straight Out of Brooklyn,” his forceful examination of a black family living in a crime-ridden Brooklyn housing project. The film, shot on a shoestring budget, won accolades for its grittiness. Also starring is Mark Malone, left. (Samuel Goldwyn Co.)
Twins Albert, left, and Allen Hughes made their names with tough urban fare such as 1993’s “Menace II Society” and 1995’s “Dead Presidents” before moving into mainstream territory with 2001’s “From Hell,” which starred Johnny Depp and Heather Graham. (J. EMILIO FLORES / For The Los Angeles Times)
John Singleton, left, shown on the set of 2001’s “Baby Boy,” became the youngest person nominated for a best directing Oscar with 1991’s “Boyz ‘N the Hood.” He’s followed that with a steady flow of films, including “Shaft” in 2000 and “Four Brothers” in 2005. He is now directing the movie version of “The A-Team.” (ELI REED / Columbia Pictures)
Tyler Perry, shown in 2006, has become the most powerful black filmmaker in movies today with his string of films that mix comedy and romance with religious and urban melodrama. His “Meet the Browns,” which opened to $20 million on Easter weekend 2008, is the latest of his five films. He has total creative control over his projects. (SPENCER WEINER / Los Angeles Times)
Tyler Perry as Madea, the trash-talking, gun-toting grandmother that is Perry’s most popular — and controversial — character. Many in the black creative community feel the portrayal is offensive and feeds into stereotypes of black men masquerading as women. (ALFEO DIXON / Lionsgate Films)
Filmmaker Ava Duvernay, who won acclaim for the single-mother story “Saturday Night Life” and a hip-hop club documentary, “This Is the Life,” says she has met with resistance while pitching a romantic drama called “The Middle of Nowhere,” about a woman whose life is upended when her husband is imprisoned. (JAY L. CLENDENIN / Los Angeles Times)
The success of Perry’s formula has proven formidable for some black filmmakers. “We want to tell multidimensional stories with in-depth characters,” said D’Angela Steed, right, who is one of the heads of Strange Fruit Media (which produces films and television series) and recently pitched a made-for-TV drama to a cable network. Its response? “What’s the Tyler Perry version?” Nia Hill, left, Steed’s partner, added that the situation extends beyond just a lack of opportunity. “The images that are being put forth are too powerful to be taken lightly.” (Jay L. Clendenin / Los Angeles Times)
Winning support for serious subject matter from black audiences poses an ongoing problem, says Charles Burnett, director of the 1977 portrait of a working-class Watts neighborhood, “Killer of Sheep.” “Trying to get black people to go see ‘The Great Debaters’ was like pulling teeth,” said Burnett, who is seeking distribution for his latest film, “Namibia: The Struggle for Liberation,” about the long battle struggle waged by the African country for independence. “Our own people don’t support stories that make a difference, stories that support the independent spirit.” (JAY L. CLENDENIN / Los Angeles Times)
The indie scene has proven especially tough for black filmmakers to crack. Actor Reginald T. Dorsey, who is seeking distribution for “Kings of the Evening,” a drama set in the Great Depression that he helped produce, said studios and backers often tell him that the financial risks in investing in projects without a high concept or a major star attached outweigh the benefits, and that there is little international interest in small black films. “It’s like a slap in the face,” he said. “My movie is more than just a black film. It’s about where you’re from and what you know.” (JAY L. CLENDENIN / Los Angeles Times)
“When it comes to Hollywood, there’s been all this hemming and hawing,” says Caran Hartsfield, who has been working to get financing and distribution for her comedic drama “Bury Me Standing,” about four family members and their differing reactions to the death of a relative. “They’ll say, ‘Oh, we love the script,’ but it makes people nervous because it’s a black drama. It doesn’t fit within the formula.” (CAROLYN COLE / Los Angeles Times)
Not all filmmakers are feeling stifled in the current climate. Kent Faulcon, an actor who has written and directed a thriller about a small-town teacher and a hit man called “Sister’s Keeper,” says, “I feel that there’s room for me and those who are bringing something new. The response I’ve gotten has been overwhelming. I’m not discouraged. I feel enthused — there’s a hunger there.” (Jay L. Clendenin / Los Angeles Times)
Black filmmakers gather to discuss their successes and struggles in the film world today. From left: Kent Faulcon, Nia Hill, D’Angela Steed, Charles Burnett, Reginald T. Dorsey and Ava Duvernay. (JAY L. CLENDENIN / Los Angeles Times)