Everything on Earth that we are able to observe is cyclical in nature. Films are no different. Back in the early 90s, gangster movies, hood-themed films, and over-the-top comedies were the only types of cinema, featuring predominantly black casts that Hollywood saw fit to allow on the silver screen. Though black actors, directors and public relations reps were getting more work in those years than ever before because of these films, the effect was a double-edged sword.
America is the media capital of the world, and Tinseltown politics made for a long tradition that painted minorities with broad strokes of racist assumptions and condescending stereotypes. Films like Boyz N the Hood (1991) and New Jack City (1991) garnered critical-acclaim from across the media spectrum, giving birth to a new genre of Blaxploitation films that were far more graphic in content than any of their 70s counterparts ever were. And while these were well done, a buffet of copycats are destined to spring from any Hollywood success story.
Though none would blatantly cannibalize the plotline of any of its respective counterparts, themes of trigger happy, desperate and savage black people roaming the inner cities of America became common throughout the decade. Menace II Society (1993), Juice (1992), Fresh (1994), and others would follow. While these offerings were successful in their own right, mainstream acclaim would largely elude them. Along with roles depicting African Americans as lazy, shiftless, sneaky, untrustworthy and chronic criminals.
These themes and powerful imagery helped non-African American men and women worldwide formulate biased opinions on black people. The 90s also featured more black comedies than ever before. Likely spurned by the overwhelming success of comedian Eddie Murphy in the late 80s, Hollywood green lit black comedies that were admittedly funny. But just as was the case with the street genre, the initial luster of these offerings would eventually wear thin.
Boomerang (1992), Coming to America (1988), Hollywood Shuffle (1988), and to an even lesser extent CB4 (1993), each steered clear of buffoonery in favor of talented actors and good writing. However, that trend gave way to what was coined by director Spike Lee as “coonery” by mid-decade.
Though Spike would try to hold the line for quality, the wave of coonery would persist with such films as Sprung (1997), Houseguest (1995), and just about everything created by a Wayans Brother in the entire decade. Bebe’s Kids (1992) was certainly an animated ghetto mess.
Were these films funny? Hell yeah! Did they cast black folks in even a remotely sophisticated light? Hell no!
But can any of these alleged offending actors and filmmakers be blamed? Despite the consternation of some so-called enlightened movie-goers and culture critics, many African Americans who starred in and, in some cases, directed and produced these works have gone on to become A-list stars. At one time it seemed as though Jamie Foxx was being called a coon every other week for his role in films such as Booty Call.
But all cycles come to an end. And the comedic phase opened the door to intelligent and thoughtful offerings such as Soul Food (1997), Eve’s Bayou (1997), The Wood (1999), The Best Man (1999), and Brown Sugar (2002). They all punctuated a decade and started the new millennium off on a note of optimism and creativity as coonery and stereotypical roles seemed to fade.
The rising prominence of such directors as F. Gary Gray, Antoine Fuqua and Malcolm Lee seemed to point to a new era of quality. However, according to Hollywood, nobody really wanted to go see films featuring smart black people in contemporary settings. Such offerings were soon relegated to the indie realm if they were even made at all. Instead, Hollywood put bucks behind Soul Plane (2003).
As the decade of the 2000s came to a close, the pendulum of black film and roles of color with merit seemed to be swinging back towards quality with such actors as Denzel Washington, Forest Whitaker and Halle Berry appearing in a litany of quality offerings such as The Taking of Pelham 1, 2, 3, The Last King of Scotland, and the X-Men franchise, respectively.
In 2012, we saw the bubblings of an age of resurgence for quality African American films helmed by black directors with roles featuring African Americans. Salim Akil’s Sparkle remake, Ava Duvernay’s Middle of Nowhere, and Spike Lee’s Red Hook Summer.
However, 2013 has been far different with several films featuring African American actors starring in films of quality and depth, some of which are vying for Oscars and Golden Globe awards. 12 Years a Slave, Lee Daniels’ The Butler, Fruitvale Station, 42, The Best Man Holiday, Black Nativity and Mandela: Long Walk to Freedom each feature black thespians depicting characters in circumstances that are as black as it gets as far as subject matter depicting African Americans in a positve or dignified light are concerned.
The only standout reminder of the coonery past was A Madea Christmas, the most recent offering from often criticized film mogul Tyler Perry. But unlike the heyday of silly film, this Madea offering isn’t doing nearly as well at the box office as his prior works and might end up being his poorest performing Madea movie of all time.
Tyler Perry has dominated the box office for at least five years, but audiences may have cooled on his brand of comedy. With his genius being not in the quality of his works but the overwhelming quantity, Tyler can green light his own projects seemingly at will. For an African American director to be able to do that is revolutionary in itself. However, balance is still sorely needed in Hollywood.
The Question: How do African Americans make sure that quality and content are held in high regard in black Hollywood?
Simple: Go see the films in theaters, opening weekend specifically, and even support them when they’re released on DVD. This show's gatekeepers the power of the black dollar and that black moviegoers are willing to pay to see images that feature them in a positive light. Reflecting on and understanding the past can help heal the future. And at a cursory glance, 2014 appears to have much in store for the black viewing audience. Hopefully the 2013 trend of intelligent, stimulating, well-rounded Black cinema will continue into 2014.
Below is an abbreviated list of this new year's films that are currently gaining the biggest, blackest buzz.
Ride Along- Starring- Kevin Hart, Ice Cube, Tika Sumpter
Synopsis: A security guard goes on a mission with his fiancée’s brother to prove his worth.
Release Date: 1/17/2014
About Last Night- Starring- Michael Ealy, Joy Bryant, Regina Hall, Kevin Hart
Synopsis: An adaption of the David Mamet play Sexual Perversity in Chicago, the film is about two couples who question their premature hook up from the night before.
Release Date: 2/14/14
Repentance- Starring: Sanaa Lathan, Forest Whitaker, Anthony Mackie, Mike Epps
Synposis: A psychopath stalks an inspirational author and his family for sins committed in the past.
Release Date: 02/28/2014
The Single Moms Club- Starring: Nia Long, Tyler Perry, Amy Smart, Wendi McLendon-Covey, Terry Crews, Cocoa Brown
Synopsis: A group of mothers bond together in the aftermath of an act of vandalism.
Release Date: 03/14/2014
A Haunted House 2- Starring: Marlon Wayans, Liana Mendoza, Dave Sheridan, Iva La’Shawn
Synopsis: A comedy about a young bachelor who remarries after dealing with a possessed girlfriend only to fight another demonic presence.
Release Date: 03/28/2014
Belle- Starring: Gugu Mbatha-Raw, Susan Brown, Tom Coulston
Synopsis: A Royal Navy Admiral sends his interracial daughter to be raised by his aristocratic uncle in the Bahamas during the 1700s.
Release Date: 5/2/2014
TRAILERS COMING SOON
Think Like A Man Too- Starring: Gabrielle Union, Megan Good, Regina Hall, Michael Ealy, Romany Malco, Kevin Hart
Release Date: 06/20/2014
Get On Up- Starring: Chad Boseman, Tika Sumpter, Octavia Spencer, Viola Davis, Jill Scott
Release Date: 08/01/2014
Addicted- Starring: Sharon Leal, Kat Graham, Boris Kodjoe, William Levy, Tasha Smith, Tyson Beckford
Release Date: 09/05/2014
No Good Deed-Starring: Idris Elba, Taraji P. Henson
Release Date: 09/12/2014
The Equalizer-Starring – Denzel Washington, Chloe Grace Moretz, Melissa Leo, Marton Csokas
Release Date: 09/26/2014
Annie- Starring: Quevanzhane Wallis, Jamie Foxx, Cameron Diaz, Adewale Akinnuoye-Agbaje, Dorian Missick, Tracie Thoms, Rose Byrne
Release Date: December 19, 2014