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Black Film in
,.he lIew Black “oy!le Boom
and Its Portents
The biting comment of a black Los Angeles gang member in the grimy mise-en-scene of Dennis Hopper’s cop-buddy, actionfantasy Colors (1988) perhaps best summarized the frustrating predicament facing blacks seeking entry to the Hollywood system at the
turn of the 1990s. Asked why he did not leave the gang life and try
something more productive, homeboy (Grand Bush) replies, “Yeah, I
could quit the gangs. . . . Maybe I’ll go to Hollywood and be Eddie
Murphy.” Then he poses a question that sardonically conveys the point
understood by all people of color: “You think America is ready to love
two niggers at the same time?” This bit of subversive dialogue recalls James Baldwin’s notion of the black actor’s “smuggled in reality”;
homeboy recognizes that dominant cinema cannot entirely hide the
fundamental sense of inequality and marginalization that is persistently all too real for African Americans. At the same time, however,
a countervailing sense of expectation grew in that cultural moment,
as Hollywood began to show signs of opening up to black creativity
and energy again. Gradually, all aspects of black filmmaking and filmic
representation began to gain momentum after almost fifteen years
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of stagnation and subordination that for the most part had confined
black cinematic talent and expression to a few major ·’stars.” These
were largely featured in one-dimensional roles or biracial “buddy” vehicles fashioned to accommodate the broadest crossover market (e.g.,
Clara’s Heart [1988], Driving Miss Daisy [1989], Lethal Weapon II
[1989]). Starting in the last years of the 1980s and swelling in the
1990s, the new black film wave was heralded by the release of over
seven black-directed features in 1990, including such pivotal productions as To Sleep with Anger by Charles Burnett, Spike Lee’s Mo’
Better Blues, and Daughters o/the Dust by Julie Dash.
In 1991, the black movie boom continued to expand with the release
of twelve films directed by African Americans, along with over twenty
other productions that starred or had significant roles for black actors.
In many ways, 1991 was a prolific turning-point year that brought to
the commercial screen a range of significant and diverse black feature
films, such as A Rage in Harlem, directed by Bill Duke, John Singleton’s hit Boyz N the Hood, The Five Heartbeats, directed by Robert
Townsend, and the rereleased Chameleon Street, directed by Wendell B. Harris. Also that same year, Whoopi Goldberg won an Oscar
for her “buddy” role as a spirit medium in the mainstream hit Ghost
(1990), making her only the second black woman ever so honored by
the Hollywood system. Serving as a contrasting index of the severity
of the drought between the two black movie booms, production in
1990 and 1991 alone easily surpassed the total production of all blackfocused films released since the retreat of the Blaxploitation wave in
the mid-1970s.
The boom of the 1990s has emerged out of conditions that are comparable to those that fostered the Blaxploitation period, but they also
stand in ironic counterpoint to them. The social contexts of the two
black film waves differ significantly, as one would expect, because of
the increasingly soured and polarized negotiation of black-white “race
relations” in the intervening years. We have noted that, along with
other empowering conditions, the Blaxploitation boom emerged from
a period of militant political activism fueled by the rising identity consciousness and social expectations of African Americans at the end
of the civil rights movement. These forces inspired black intellectuals, artists, writers, and politicians to demand an end to Hollywood’s
pervasive and fundamental subordination of blacks on the screen.
Hollywood’s strategic response to this combination of black social and
intellectual pressure was to produce a wave of cheaply made black
action-adventures set in the “ghetto” that were, with a few notable
exceptions, cranked out by white directors and garnered tremendous
profits for the mainstream commercial system but also subordinated
black talent and creativity to the needs of that system at all levels.
In contrast, the black movie boom of the 1990s has materialized out
of a climate of long-muted black frustration and anger over the worsening political and economic conditions that African Americans continue
to endure in the nation’s decaying urban centers. Ironically, the social
character of this anger is the dialectical opposite of the passion that
helped overdetermine the inception of the Blaxploitation boom at a
historical moment when hundreds of American cities burst into flames
as urban blacks , frustrated when “civil rights” gains did not translate into real economic progress for the majority of blacks trapped in
northern ghettos in the mid-1960s, and they increasingly took to the
streets in a series of urban rebellions. Conversely, from the mid-1980s
onward, we have witnessed the rise of an insidious, socially fragmenting violence driven by the availability of cheap guns and crack cocaine
in the nation’s partitioned inner cities. For the most part, black rage
has lost its political focus in this violent apartheid environment; it has
become an internalized form of self-destruction expressed as gang and
drug warfare. If such a situation can be said to have positive effects,
we can see this rage as an energizing element in much of the new black
cultural production, finding expression in a rearticulated criticism of
white racism and a resurgent interest in black nationalism among the
urban youth inspired by the rap lyrics of Public Enemy, N. W.A., Sister Souljah, and Ice-T, or resonant in the films of Bill Duke, Spike Lee,
Matty Rich, and John Singleton.
Black anger has not been confined to the urban poor. Black middleclass children who came of age in time to reap the benefits of the
civil rights movement are finding out that, like the dissatisfied, upwardly mobile “Buppies” that populate Jungle Fever (1991), Livin’
Large (1991) , and Strictly Business (1991), professional positions and
success have not delivered them from the insults and isolation of a
persistent and growing racism that poisons all societal transactions. l
Adding complexity to the social frame, the 1990s are also a moment of
expanding black heterogeneity and “difference,” with such emergent
groups within the community finding voice as gays and women, as
manifest in the work of Marlon Riggs and Isaac Julien, the continued
popularity of black women’s novels, and the increasing call for more
films by black women directors to translate these potent narratives.2
Yet the black community is not without its divisions and tensions, as
is evident in the increasing isolation and distance of the black middle
class from the problems of the black inner city.
Certainly these expansive, diversifying shifts in black social consciousness have resulted, in part, from the progressive efforts focused
on rasing the black standard of living and improving race relations unleashed at the end of the 1960s. And these shifts must be recognized
as evidence of the positive growth of the black social formation. But
distrust is also pervasive. A 1990 opinion poll of black New Yorkers
conducted by the New York Times/CBS found that 64 percent of black
respondents felt that drugs and urban violence were part of a white
conspiracy to eliminate blacks; in the same poll, 32 percent of those
queried suspected that AIDS was invented by scientists with the same
purposes in mind. These beliefs filter into cinema; the implicit premise of Bill Duke’s Deep Cover (1991) is that the slow destruction of
blacks is accomplished through the organized importation of cocaine.
Director John Singleton’S character Furious Styles (Larry Fishburne)
voices similar suspicions in Boyz N the Hood when he gives a streetcorner speech about how “they” funnel liquor, drugs, and guns into the
black community in hopes that “we will kill each other off.” Underscoring this position in real-time media, Singleton followed up on this train
of thought on a popular television talk show, reasserting that AIDS
was an invented disease and part of a genocidal plot against blacks. 3
For African Americans, then, the last decade of the century reveals
a renewed sense of racial oppression and foreclosure , pessimism, and
sinking social expectations. And when compared to the sense of social
unity and purpose forged out of the sharp struggles of the 1960s, African Americans are now going through an intense period of nihilism,
fragmentation, and self-doubt, as they wonder where the next wave of
collective struggle for social change will come from.4
No matter how bleak these perceptions may be , one cannot naively
Copyr~ed, fIYIateria~ LACK FILM IN THE 1990S
dismiss African American understandings of the times as collective
paranoia. Black public opinion and political consciousness have been
alarmed by a sharpening climate of deteriorating race relations , polarization, and outright racial conflict made depressingly tangible in a
steady stream of newscasts and nightmare media images over the turn
of the decade. The deaths of Michael Griffith and YusefHawkins at the
hands of racist lynch mobs in Howard Beach and Bensonhurst (New
York) and the barbaric spectacle, broadcast on global television, of
Rodney King being beaten by white police officers in Los Angeles have
left no doubt in the black social psyche that America is still a racist
society and that white America is persistently attempting to turn back
the clock on whatever racial progress was made during the programs
of “The Great Society” and the turbulent 1960s. Accordingly, Spike
Lee’s invocation in Do the Right Thing of the names of the martyred
Michael Stewart and Eleanor Bumpers as victims of police murder,
and his dedication of Jungle Fever (1991) to Yusef Hawkins , and his use
of the Rodney King tape in the opening of Malcolm X (1992)-all have
struck deep harmonic feelings across the entire range of the African
American community. Further compounding black feelings of alarm
and despair, such sensationalized media events as the Anita HillClarence Thomas Senate hearings, Magic Johnson’s retirement, the
Mike Tyson rape trial, and the social pathology of a white Boston “Yuppie” murdering his pregnant wife and blaming the crime on the mythical black scapegoat and thus provoking a reflex wave of police terror
in the black community only confirm African American feelings that
they have been made the major source of lurid spectacle for an imageinformation driven society unwilling to recognize their humanity.
Equally important, one must note that the present atmosphere of
racial scapegoating and intolerance, as well as an overall acceptance
of the “new” racism, has not erupted out of the murky depths of the
most ignorant strata of the white social hierarchy. In great part, the
national mood has been engineered and encouraged by the intensifying
racist tone of mainstream political rhetoric and discourse rooted in the
backlash politics of the Reagan years. This most recent wave of “nativism” started with the evocation of Cadillac-driving, parasitic welfare
queens during Ronald Reagan’s 1980 bid for the presidency; continued
through the successful exploitation of white fear focused on two black
THE NEW BLACK MOVl rctJ”~htedI MciteritJf> I
men, Willie Horton and Jessie Jackson, during George Bush’s 1988
presidential campaign; and the 1990 Senate race of Jesse Helms, who
made a crude appeal for white votes to defeat his African American
opponent by blatantly advertising that “you needed that job, and you
were the best qualified, but it had to go to a minority because of a racial
quota.” In the same year, a former Klansman-Nazi, David Duke, called
himself a Republican and won 44 percent of the vote in his 1990 bid for
a Senate seat in Louisiana. On the national stage, Pat Buchanan picked
up Duke’s themes and code words, winning a substantial white “protest
vote” against George Bush in the early 1992 presidential primaries and
the applause of delegates at the Republican National Convention. 5
Given this kind of establishment legitimation of playing the “race
card,” one can hardly wonder that in Los Angeles the pent-up frustrations of disenfranchised people, sparked by a long series of brutalities and injustices culminating in the racist verdict in the Rodney
King police brutality trial, exploded in spring 1992 into the worst civil
rebellion the nation has experienced in this century. Very much in the
same way that the 1950s lynching of Emmett Till or the 1960s assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., marked defining moments in
African America’s ongoing struggle for racial justice, the stark videotape, the acquittal of the four white police officers, and the uprising
that followed it marked a consciousness-shaping moment for a whole
new generation of Americans. 6
Gauging the temperament of the market, creating trends, or staying in sync with the popular mood of its various audience segments
and fusing them into a dominant consumer consciousness is work that
occupies a large slice of the film industry’s business talent, research,
and capital. Hollywood traces an intricate path over the course of this
restless, racially tense cultural period. While the mainstream production system is willing to admit a few black directors and black-focused
films to its exclusive club for obvious reasons of profit, the industry
has also been quick to co-opt these new shifts in racial politics and
attitude among whites and African Americans. Following trends set
in the 1980s, the commercial cinema system has continued to stock its
productions with themes and formulas dealing with black issues and
characters that are reassuring to the sensibilities and expectations of
an uneasy white audience. These filmic images tend to mediate the
Copyri~eq lVI~t~riaB LAcK FILM IN THE 19905
dysfunctions and delusions of a socity unable to deal honestly with its
inequalities and racial conflicts, a society that operates in a profound
state of racial denial on a daily basis. Thus images are polarized into
celebrations of “Buppie” success and consumer-driven individualism
that are consonant with a sense of black political quietism , tokenism,
and accommodation, or condemnations of violent ghetto criminals,
gangsters, and drug lords. These figurations can hardly be perceived
as accidental at this cultural moment. Indeed, one of the most revealing and subtle instances symbolizing Hollywood’s sharpened, carefully
maintained racial hegemony occurs in the most profitable comedy ever
made, Home Alone (1990). In the film , an abandoned eight-year-old
(Macaulay Culkin) seeks to fool two burglars into thinking his house is
occupied by rigging a life-sized photo cutout of Michael Jordan to run
around on a toy train track. Given the film’s astounding commercial
success and broad audience influence, this scene is unsettling not only
because its reification of Jordan represents the extent of black participation in the movie , and by implication in the exclusive, upper-class,
suburban white domain of the narrative, but also because it implies
one of the primary ways African Americans are constructed in the
popular imagination: as one-dimensional, cardboard celebrity cutouts.
Moreover, the co-optation and exploitation of black images and culture pervades the media industry in general. This trend is especially
marked by the commercial success and consumption of urban rap and
hip-hop culture among a vast, crossover, white youth population that
has come to identify openly its milder suburban discontents with black
anger and rebellion. 7 But perhaps the revelation of the multivalent
complexity of black images and the media uses of these are best contrasted by the juxtaposition of the opulent, soothing image of a black
professional class rendered on “The Cosby Show” in contrast to the
stark, real-time , genocidal slaughter of urban blacks on the nightly
eleven o’clock news. It is little wonder that by the beginning of the
1990s, blacks felt that they existed in the dominant social imagination as media-constructed “stars” and fantasy figures or as criminals,
while according to almost every social-material index , the quality of
black life in this country steadily declined. 8 Or cinematically, as Spike
Lee insightfully transcodes these perceptions in a dialogue about race
between the bigoted Pino (John Turturro) and Mookie (Lee) of Do the
v 1~QA)’8j1#1tep f’II’P~eria/6 1
Right Thing, in Pino’s words, Prince, Magic Johnson, Eddie Murphy,
et al. are “different,” the media-worshipped exceptions, and the rest
are just “niggers.”9
Considering these vast political and social changes centered on race
relations in the past two decades, one irony is that the Blaxploitation
boom was a series of movies made for black audiences mostly by white
directors, while the 1990s wave has been made by black directors for
black audiences with the broader range of crossover consumption in
mind. The similarities between the facilitating economic backgrounds
of both movie booms demand discussion in response to a set of central
concerns or questions most often arising among the new black critics and directors: Is the new black movie boom a cyclic or periodic
phenomenon trapped within the context of Hollywood economics? And
will this new boom signal a real and permanent opening for blacks at
all levels in the industry?
Both black film waves arose during periods of economic crisis and
downturn in film industry earnings. In the present instance, Hollywood, after a peak box office year in 1989, followed by the second-best
summer ever in 1990, was encouraged to expand production, with the
result that six or seven major studios pumped out almost two hundred
films.lo But the turning point for studio profits started with the 1990
Christmas season and the chilling effects of the Persian Gulf War on
the entertainment business in general, when box office receipts started
to soften. In the opening months of 1991, Hollywood found itself overinvested in a series of lackluster, expensive blockbusters, which combined disastrously with a glut of films already chasing shrinking box
office profits. Once more, the commercial film industry was to find
itself on the downside ofthe profit curve and sliding into one of its periodic economic crises. In the words of Variety reporter A. D. Murphy,
the domestic box office “hit a speed bump” in April 1991, as profits continued to fall through May to a deflated box office intake of $82 million for the first week of June, compared to $111 million a year before,
a 26 percent drop in revenues.11 Added to the bite of a cruel spring
and further complicated by a deepening national recession, the summer of 1991, the period that accounts for 40 percent of studio earnings,
proved to be equally disappointing, with the box office down by 7 to 10
percent and industry profits in general estimated to be off by as much
Copy,;~/itteq ¥ CjlfEjWiarhACK FILM IN THE 19905
as 15 percent. As a further indication of the pervasive seriousness of
the situation, the slump at the box office and the anemic condition of
the film industry were paralleled by a crash in video rentals, which by
October 1991 had fallen off by 25 percent. Overall, the recessionary
slide continued with big independents going under, majors like MGM
foundering, and all studios backlogged with expensive flops and trying to cut expenses. By the start of the anxious 1992 summer season,
ticket sales were at a fifteen-year low. 12
Within this bleak economic context, Hollywood, and the media industry in general, once again turned its attention to the size and consumer power of the mythical, ever-shifting black movie audience, variously estimated at 25 to 30 percent (overr …
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