Black Cinema: The Most Misunderstood Cinema?

Does Black Cinema even require it's own genre? And if it does, how do we identify it? We take a look in our article Black Cinema: The Most Misunderstood Cinema?

Clearly there is a desire to recognise minority cinema, even though the reasons for this aren’t clear. Cinema is cinema, but everybody recognises Asian cinema, black cinema, gay cinema, etc. This article focuses mainly on black cinema as it is arguably the most mainstream of these different minority cinemas.

Red Tails 2012

During black history month, DVD chain stores and cinemas will often put out DVD’s under the heading of black cinema, but on perusal of these sections the same films crop up time and again. Films like How High (2001), Big Momma’s House (2000), Are We There Yet (2005) – where are the classics? Sure, a copy of Boyz n the Hood (1991) will be thrown in somewhere, but where is Malcolm X (1992)? Where is any of Spike Lee‘s work? And why aren’t any other Denzel Washington films counted? Or Will Smith?

What constitutes black cinema anyway? Is it any film with a black director? Does that make Hunger (2008) and Shame (2012) examples of black cinema, both of which are directed by famed UK black director Steve McQueen? Is Men in Black (1997), starring Will Smith and with the world ‘black’ actually in it’s title, black cinema? Is it any film with rampant drug use, or violence? Depressingly, the latter seems to be the case.

Let’s look at How High starring Redman and Method Man. This was on the top shelf of a famous entertainment chain store, in the black cinema section, during black history month. It’s directed by Jesse Dylan, a white man, and written by Dustin Lee Abraham, also a white man. Big Momma’s House – directed by Raja Gosnell, a white man, and written by Don Rhymer, a white man. Admittedly, these films aren’t the best cinematic examples, but they are popularly seen as ‘black cinema’.

True black cinema, cinema that explores issues that have plagued the black community, either doesn’t get made or, if it does, doesn’t get very wide exposure. The only major film to have done so is Precious (2009), which is a masterpiece. This broke through because of the powerhouse performances and the fact that the issues involved affect black people, white people, asian people, people of all backgrounds if they found themselves in the same economic and social situation. Red Tails (2012) by George Lucas sought to buck this trend, by being about a squadron of African-American fighter pilots, and it tanked.

Films about black history don’t get made. Spike Lee pointed out, harshly, that in Clint Eastwood‘s films Letters from Iwo Jima (2006) and Flags of our Fathers (2006), he ignored the efforts of African-American soldiers. The fact that there has never been a successful, mainstream movie about a black squadron of soldiers shows this to be true. Eastwood’s film Invictus (2009), about apartheid and Nelson Mandela, showed that a great film could be made about an important part of worldwide black history, but it also bombed.

Has there ever been a critically acclaimed historical epic about the slave trade? Civil war in Africa? The life and career of Martin Luther King? Al Sharpton? Little Richard? Even a fish out of water drama about a black kid growing up in an all-white town? The ‘black cinema’ genre is a nebulous concept that is only used to further define the black community in a negative way, controlled by the white elite.

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