Black experience in focus

Issue section: 
(388)

The runaway success of the searing artistic triumph that is 12 Years A Slave has illuminated a wider shifting landscape of black cinema. We are at a pivotal moment for black experience stories driven by black talent or led by a black majority cast.

Recent headlines about these films aptly encapsulate this period. In Bloomberg Businessweek, for instance, there's: "In Hollywood, Black is the New Black"; Vanity Fair, "Emancipating Hollywood"; New York Times, "A Breakout for Black Filmmakers", and from Hollywood Reporter, "Whites Suddenly Gripped By Black Dramas".

The current crop of "race-themed" films, as Hollywood calls them, include 12 Years A Slave, The Butler, Mandela Long Road To Freedom, Django Unchained and a few films yet to be released in the UK. These are Fruitvale Station, about the fatal shooting of a black man, and the period film Belle by black British female director Amma Asanta.

So why have black filmmakers been given the opportunity to make serious work about racial inequality and racial violence? And what does this phase tell us about the global audience for films that are usually regarded as too challenging and niche for the commercial mainstream?

The previous African-American renaissance in filmmaking in the 1990s was partially backed by the studios and in the main, with honourable exceptions, had a softer political focus. One New York Times headline at the time was, "In Hollywood, Black Is In". The article continued, "Black filmmakers are being welcomed into the film industry as never before. Just about every studio in town has a project in development with a black director or wants to."

These black experience films had a modicum of box office success and often received studio financing, with New Line Cinema backing House Party, Columbia pictures financing John Singleton's Boyz In The Hood, Warner Bros backing Mario Van Peebles' New Jack City and Spike Lee making a deal with Universal Pictures. Few of these films directly tackled state racism as part of the black experience.

This wave of serious black filmmaking was shortlived, crashing on the rocks of commercial expediency. According to Garry Null in his book Black Hollywood From 1970 to Today, the spectre of racism in Hollywood had been exorcised. His naive belief in the unfettered marketplace predicted a new generation of sustainable black filmmaking.

The fate of Beloved and Amistad spelled the end. Beloved - budgeted at 53 million dollars with 30 million dollars in marketing - was the most expensive film ever made about the black experience and it flopped. It therefore became common industry currency that black films don't cross over to the mainstream.

Fast forward to 2013 and things are both better and worse. The new crop of films may show a new seriousness with a wider audience but the failure of the blockbuster addicted studios to take financial risks was predictable.

Lee Daniels, director of The Butler, said, "Hollywood would not allow me to make a black drama. I couldn't get this movie off the ground even after Precious made 100 million dollars around the world." So The Butler, like 12 Years a Slave (22 million dollars), was not backed by the studios but by a patchwork of independent financing. By Hollywood's standards, the budgets were modest but that doesn't stop the trade papers claiming this as a triumph for Hollywood.

Particularly heroic have been the sheer will and focused passion that have driven this crop of black filmmakers into production. In response to the question, "Has the US become more or less racist since the Obama Presidency?" Lee Daniels said, "I think that people are angry that he's president and I think that they are showing their true colours and then I come out of my edit room and Trayvon Martin has happened."

According to Steve McQueen, "I'm always astonished by American filmmakers...when they never cast one black person, or have never put them in a lead in the movie. It's shameful. It's unbelievable."

It's too early to say that black film is thriving, according to the black cultural critic Todd Boyd. But he says it is not a stretch to link Hollywood's keen interest in these stories to the election of Obama in 2008. "The visibility of the nation's first African American president has made the issue of race visible throughout the culture and one of the places we are seeing that is in Hollywood."

These films have been released in a field of change in the political culture around race. Both filmmakers and audiences are ready to seriously address issues of racial equality and state violence. When the promise of a post-racial America is so much hot breath on a cold knife it's understandable that audiences seek new answers in black history and its discontents.