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Open Thread: What Makes A Black Film a Black Film?

By Kendra James

Every so often it pays to check in on the current “Black Film” rubric– ie, What makes a Black Film a Black Film? It’s a question I found myself struggling with as I wrote about Dear White People last week and realised that I couldn’t bring myself (and director Justin Simien didn’t want his audience) to stick it in the same category of Madea’s kooky and poorly directed adventures. But why is that?

Like a lot of popular movies that fall into the Black Film category Dear White People has a majority black cast, a black director, and deals with subject matter meant to resonate with a Black audience. Yet even beyond being an Indie, it’s clearly a different beast than 2014′s well performing Ride Along which seems to more easily fall into the traditional Black Film category. Making comparison and thinking about other movies that also seem to fall without question into that category -let’s consider movies like The Best Man series, the Barbershop series, and romcoms in the vein of Think Like a Man or Why Did I Get Married- I started to wonder if maybe it becomes a question of quality.

To include quality on the rubric is clearly problematic, leaning towards the implication that to be placed in the Black Film means to be a bad film. But do we place 12 Years A Slave in that same Black Film category? What about The Butler? They fall under the drama genre, but so do movies like Stomp The Yard, ATL, Coach Carter, or The Inkwell; a group of enjoyable, if otherwise unnotable films, with black directors and casts found under the “Urban Drama” category on Amazon . (Urban Drama being another way of saying “a drama with Black people in it.”)

Does it really come down to a question of quality with, perhaps, a side of pedigree- films nominated for multiple awards in various categories? It’s a tricky qualifier. Stomp The Yard with white protagonists is called Bring It On and it’s a comedy or a teen movie, not a “white film”. Coach Carter is called Hoosiers or Miracle and again it’s not a white film, it’s a sports drama. The Inkwell becomes a drama/romantic comedy directed by Nancy Meyers, starring Meryl Streep, and… well, you can see the trend. There’s no real need to recategorise any of these films as “Black” or “Urban”, but for some reason we do.

But what if beyond the merits of the cast, director, subject matter, and relative quality, it’s a simple matter of character relateability? White viewers are conditioned with the societal requirement that it’s necessary to at least pretend to empathise with the Solomon Northups of the world. The Kenya McQueens? Not so much. With that we’re left with a qualifier almost more insulting than the question of quality. While Black audiences are expected to relate and empathize with white characters in films regularly, the moment we ask them to do the same for us suddenly it’s a Black Film. In that case, the categorization is almost left up to the white viewer alone.

So is it cast/director, subject matter, quality, or a question of white audiances being unable to empathise with characters who look nothing like them? What actually makes a Black Film? Thoughts?