Hollywood and Black Directors

Issue 277

Hollywood does not honor the full range of Black directors' artistic vision.

Peter Carellini Feb 6, 2023

The largest film budget ever secured by an African-American director went to Ryan Coogler in 2018 to helm Black Panther, the twenty-second entry in the Marvel Cinematic Universe. While the movie was met with the expected torrent of racism from usual suspects such as FOX News pundits and some older comic-book fans, it went on to gross $1.3 billion, receiving rave reviews and a whopping seven Oscar nominations. It was celebrated everywhere for its epic representation of the African diaspora, unapologetically so, with all but one lead role played by an actor of African descent.

But something insidious brewed from this success: The big studios, spurred on by the Disney regime, saw African-American screen presence and direction as profitable in a way they hadn’t yet fully exploited. They’d found a means to deflect criticism, more a useful tool to deny naysayers and trolls than a way to do any meaningful uplifting. What should have been an influx of talent behind and in front of the camera led to a new kind of status quo: the most wealthy and powerful filmmaking companies donning a veneer of progressiveness.

This is not the case for smaller films, like Barry Jenkins’ Moonlight (2016); Shaka King’s Judas and the Black Messiah (2021), which depicts the betrayal of Fred Hampton; or the extraordinary portfolio of Jordan Peele. That is the kind of subversive, unyielding work we need more of. I am discussing the tactics of Disney, of Amazon, of Warner Brothers, Apple, and Sony, and how they use surface-level leaps to mask the lack of true racial progress.

One of those hidden tactics is how Hollywood absorbs Black talent. When Joe Talbot’s ethereal, idiosyncratic The Last Black Man in San Francisco came out in 2019, lead actor Jonathan Majors was rewarded by being thrown into the Marvel machine. Barry Jenkins broke ground with his Academy Award-winning indie film, Moonlight, in 2016. His follow-up, If Beale Street Could Talk, released in 2018, was an uncompromising adaptation of James Baldwin’s 1974 novel. Now, Disney has Jenkins, a singular talent, directing a prequel to their 2019 retelling of The Lion King

Nia DaCosta (Little Woods, 2018) was tapped to remake Candyman. Pioneers like Julie Dash (Daughters of the Dust, 1991) and Kasi Lemmons (Eve’s Bayou, 1997) can barely find funding, while white-guilt dreck like Green Book (Peter Farrelly, 2018) is still being bankrolled. Works like Boots Riley’s surrealist, comedic critique of capitalism, Sorry to Bother You (2018), seem like triumphant anomalies.

This has stalled the progress of Black filmmakers and actors, putting a cap on the stories they can tell, while continuing not to grant them the resources that would give them parity with their white costars. Black filmmakers are not encouraged to build legacies of their own. Rather, they are harnessed to established properties that appeal to the broadest possible audience, leaving us all worse off. 

Do you think Disney, which accepts Pentagon funding for its largest brand, would ever give Spike Lee the money to create another screed of righteous anger? What started as an exciting alternative ecosystem has been largely assimilated into the great, military-loving, big-business machine. Watching Ryan Coogler forced to buddy his African monarch with the CIA against a radical revolutionary in Black Panther II (2022) is no substitute.

Black Panther II is an example of the kind of “representation” that the majority audience is comfortable with. When was the last time you saw a major film with Black characters who have bodies out of the norm, are political radicals, or are allowed to be ugly, loud, or cruel? It is packaged, so to speak, in figures like Ariel (The Little Mermaid, 2023), the dignified and emotionless supporting characters in recent Harry Potter films, and comic-book properties already well-worn. What is uplifting about Black talent being sucked into the intellectual-property machine? 

Do you think Disney, which accepts Pentagon funding for its largest brand, would ever give Spike Lee the money to create another screed of righteous anger?

The chances are diminishing that we will be exposed to the oeuvres of the next Sun Ra (Space is the Place, 1974); the next Kathleen Collins (Losing Ground, 1982); or the next Melvin Van Peebles, who after the success of his 1971 Watermelon Man, turned down a three-picture Columbia contract, instead developing the independent film Sweet Sweetback’s Baadasssss Song. This encompasses everyone. No culture is getting the chance to depict subversion.

Forgotten Black Filmmakers

The 1910s and 1920s were no more accepting towards Black filmmakers, but those like Oscar Micheux, Richard D. Maurice, and Spencer Williams banded together against a system they knew would never accept them until either money or public pressure forced its hand. Their work is largely forgotten (none of the big studios have shown interest in preserving it), but revolutionarily, they funded their own films, produced them, and were able to distribute them when civil rights were still 40 years away. They discussed race and the subtleties of prejudice in a biting fashion in an era when Birth of a Nation and later Gone With the Wind were doing the precise opposite.

Even as late as the mid-1990s, Black female directors were carving out their own slice of the independent film scene. This gave them a niche where they had a modicum of control, but it faded as franchise fare took over in the 21st century. 

We should not be applauding leading actors or filmmakers for being given the 20th installment in a superhero franchise, or voice-leading something like Disney’s Strange World (2022) that is doomed to flop. Nor, when a TV show written by white writers includes buzzwords simply to anger conservatives — She-Hulk is one of the worst examples of this — should we think that is anything other than the cinematic equivalent of Nancy Pelosi taking a knee for George Floyd before tossing police bundles of money.

With exceptions like the ABC-TV series Abbott Elementary, set in an underfunded predominantly Black school in Philadelphia, these efforts at discussing race largely remain a polished, homogenized, digestible version, scrubbing away nuance and complexity in favor of a cozy back-pat. The characters are squeaky-clean, reduced to markers of enlightenment for liberals who would clutch their purses if they ever set foot in the hood.

The creators of these films are patting themselves on the back for doing what other artists have been doing for nearly a century, while boxing out any new wave resembling that historic path-carving. This reiterates that the only representation of Black people on mass-market screens will be whatever is deemed profitable, and to hell with any filmmakers who threaten the status quo.

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