Moving Beyond the Niche

by Guest Contributor Melissa Silverstein, originally published at Women and Hollywood

A couple of weeks ago the NY Times ran a piece about the lack of progress of African American directors over the last decade. It seems that African American filmmakers suffer the same issues as women filmmakers — being stuck in a niche and unable to get out. Whether it’s right or not, or desired or not, most African American directors get pigeon holed into creating stories for African American audiences which are still not seen as “mainstream.” Personally, I would rather see a film like The Secret Life of Bees directed by an African American woman like it was, because I would venture to say that Gina Prince-Bythewood (pictured top right) would do a better job than a white woman or white man. I don’t see anything wrong with that. But because women and people of color are seen as “niche audiences” anyone who is in those groups gets stuck. I don’t think the problem is with the audiences. The Secret Life of Bees was a steady earner all through the fall with black and white women. I think the word niche is evil and should be banished. Why aren’t stories like Cadillac Records which boasts an amazing performance from Beyonce (tell me why they couldn’t sell her?) seen as American stories? Once the movie business figures out that they can make money by getting people beyond the “niche” maybe we will see more opportunities for African American directors and women directors.

Some points from the article:

You could now literally count on one hand (using two fingers) the number of black directors who can get their projects made and distributed at a steady rate. One is (Spike) Lee…while the other is Tyler Perry.

Momentum for African-American cinema, it would seem, has been curtailed or at least stalled in part by studio executives’ preconceptions that black films are “niche product” with limited appeal. Yet at the same time black directors and producers still express optimism that they not only can continue to cultivate their black audiences but also can reach out further and wider to the mainstream…

Darnell Martin, the director of Cadillac Record is a cautionary, yet surprisingly typical tale of what happens to women directors:

Ms. Martin places much of the blame for her sporadic career in the feature-film business on the conflicts she had over the promotion of “I Like It Like That.” “They insisted on making me the poster child for the film, the ‘female Spike Lee,’ and I said, ‘Look, I don’t mind that. I’m proud to be a black woman director, and I want that out there.’ But we’d gotten some great reviews, and I felt that was what they should be leading with. If it had been a white director, they would have emphasized the reviews, but instead they were trying to get people to see it only because I was black.

“So I fought pretty hard over that. Actually it was more like a head-on collision. And I was told, ‘If you continue like this, you will never work again.’ And I thought, ‘That’s O.K., I paid off my student loans what’re they going to take away from me?’ So I was getting known for being someone you couldn’t control.”

She also held on to a stubborn selectivity. “I was offered a lot of things that were about women of color, but I didn’t know yet how to make those things good.”

Though the success of movies like “The Secret Life of Bees” perpetually makes black filmmakers more hopeful about their prospects, African-American films still have barriers to break. “The biggest,” Mr. Berney said, “is outside the U.S. where the perception remains within the industry that the international audience for African-American product is close to zero. And yet when you consider the global popularity of hip-hop culture and by extension, black culture, you have to wonder whether this perception comes from outmoded thinking from international buyers who aren’t in tune with today’s audience.”