Saturday, January 28, 2012

They Shoot Black Movies...Don't They?

Pioneer African American Filmmaker, Oscar Michaeux

They Shoot Black Movies...Don't They? 
(The Realization of a Hustlerz Ambition)

By Barry Michael Cooper

At the dawn of the Black Hollywood Renaissance of the '90s, the sodality of filmmakers like Spike Lee, F. Gary Gray, The Hudlin Brothers, Bill Duke, Stan Lathan, John Singleton, The Hughes Brothers, George Jackson, Doug McHenry, Mario Van Peebles, Robert Townsend, Keenan Ivory Wayans, Kevin Hooks, Fred "Fab Five Freddy" Braithwaite, Charles Stone, III, Nelson George and this writer, to name a few, felt like the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood. We--like Rossetti, Millais, and Hunt at the height of their artistic revolt in the U.K. during the late 1800s--were cinematic reformers, rejecting the cartoonish mythos of African American life, as depicted in the Black Exploitation flicks of the 1970s. In the 1990's we were Dr. Martin Luther King, we were Malcolm X, we were Gordon Parks, we were Melvin Van Peebles. We were insatiable American Dreamers, like Oscar Michaeux; albeit with limos, first-class, transcontinental transport, five-star luxury hotels and cuisine, Armani-Brioni-Versace-Zegna-Valentino-Ferragamo gear, expanding bank accounts, and cell phones. We had Been To The Mountaintop and had G.P.S.'d that noble glide-path while tracking the Realization of a Negro's Ambition, guided by the voice from an ancestral control tower which intoned, By Any Means Necessary. 

We just knew The Dream would last forever.

Twenty years later Spike Lee--one of the most talented and prolific directors this country has produced in the 20th Century--can't get a green light for the sequel to Inside Man, despite the fact that the original film grossed nearly $200 million dollars worldwide. Twenty years later, two supremely talented actresses--Viola Davis and Octavia Spencer--are given Oscar nods for their portrayals of wise but weathered Mississippi domestics in a highly praised film titled The Help. 

Twenty years many black filmmakers (including myself) haven't had a movie financed by a major studio in over twenty years.

Twenty years later and America has its first African American President of the United States, seeking re-election for a second term at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue.

Twenty years later, African American filmmakers navigate a course that is slightly sticky, smelly, and saggy, the aftermath of an exploding Dream deferred by Hollywood's Grand Illusion of Inclusion.

Twenty years later, is this the way it's supposed to be?

Wednesday, January 25, 2012

James McBride: "Being a Maid"

The late, great Oscar-winning African American actress, Hattie McDaniel

This is a powerful and thought-provoking essay written by the brilliant screenwriter and Spike Lee collaborator James McBride--his produced work includes "Miracle At St. Anna, and current Sundance Film Fest lighting rod "Red Hook"--regarding Hollywood's retrograde state-of-affairs, when it comes to African American film. It almost seems as if Hollywood--like the GOP--is lobbying for a new "Jim Crow" in Hi-Res HD. McBride's commentary is a most cogent and brutally honest assessment of life on the celluloid plantation, in the era of a Black Commander-In-Chief.

Being a Maid

by James McBride

Last night, President Obama, our first African American President, delivered his third State of the Union address. On that same day, the American Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences nominated two gifted African American actresses, Viola Davis and Octavia Spencer, for Oscars for playing maids in The Help. This is 73 years after the first African American to win an Oscar, Hattie McDaniel, garnered the award for the same role – as a maid, and a slave maid at that, winning the Oscar in the Best Supporting Actress category on Feb. 29, 1940.

And here we are, in the year of our Lord, Jan 25, 2012. Maybe I’m getting old, but the irony of this is too much. Or perhaps I’ve heard this song before. In the 1970’s, when I was a freshman at Oberlin College, my white friends and I used to sit up and talk about racism and solving society’s problems all through the night until the sun rose. Not much good came from these talks, the least of which is I hoped to get laid, which rarely happened. But on those cold nights, I was convinced that when I walked out of college, racism would be just about finished. Instead, it smashed me across the face like a bottle when I walked into the real world. Now, 33 years later, I find myself talking about the same thing I talked about when I was a college freshman.

I have no take with Ms. Davis and Ms. Spencer. They’re outstanding actresses. But the nomination of these two women by the Hollywood community 73 years after Hattie McDaniel won for the same role speaks for itself. As co-writer and co-producer of Spike Lee’s newest film “Red Hook Summer,” and his previous feature film “Miracle At St. Anna,” I have a clear eyed view of what the cultural display of African American life means to hearts in Hollywood, a land of feints and double meanings and as tricky to navigate as anything inside the Beltway. I wish someone had told me this when I was a freshman at Oberlin.

America is a super power not because we make the biggest guns. We’re a superpower because our culture has saturated the planet: Levis, Apple, Nike, Disney, Coke, Pepsi, McDonald’s, Jazz, Rhythm n Blues, Rock ‘n Roll, and Hip Hop. Our culture dominates the world far more than any nuclear bomb can. When you can make a person think a certain way, you don’t have to bomb them. Just give them some credit cards, a wide screen 3D TV, some potato chips, and watch what happens. This kind of cultural war, a war of propaganda and words, elements that both Hollywood and Washington know a lot about, makes America powerful beyond measure. The hard metal of this cultural weaponry, much of it, emanates from the soul of Blacks, the African American experience in music, dance, art and literature.