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 audiences being unable to empathise with characters who look nothing like them? What actually makes a Black Film? Thoughts?

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  • anonsaga

    Basically, a ‘black film’ or ‘black program’ is any movie or TV series with prominent visual African representation that is NOT a high-quality comedy/blaxploitation/slave narrative.

    Comedy: Fresh Prince of Bel Air, Chappelle’s Show (NOT black programs); Tyler Perry’s House of Payne, Girlfriends (black programs)
    Blaxploitation: Jackie Brown, Boyz in the Hood (NOT black movies); Black Dynamite, Malibu’s Most Wanted (black movies)
    Slave Narrative: 12 Years a Slave, Django Unchained (NOT black movies); Roots, Rosewood (black movies)

    Alternatively, it may also be any movie or TV series that depicts more than ‘1’ romantic relationship between a black man and a black woman.

  • fionamcgier

    I’m all for any movie that will entertain me and make me feel like I’m experiencing what the characters are. When I chose “Peeples”, which was directed by Tyler Perry, husband rolled his eyes. Tyler Perry might have made his name playing a stereotypical black woman, but I’m hoping that now he will make the movies he wants to…because he can. This movie was so funny that we both laughed with it, and it didn’t matter that the cast was all black…we still enjoyed it. It wasn’t a stereotype of anything except a good movie. Too bad so few people saw it.
    Husband and I often haunt the local video store (yeah, we’re old-school), and pick up videos that we haven’t heard of, taking a chance on unknowns. We’re quite willing to watch movies starring people who aren’t white. We’ve been pleasantly surprised a lot. And often we ignore the big releases because quite frankly, Hollywood has been pretty bereft of new ideas for a long time. The smaller, more indie movies are usually better. And the ones I really enjoy, I do a short write-up about for my blog.

  • Suzanne Lander

    It’s at least the advertisers’ belief that we couldn’t empathize. I’ve never even heard of most of those films. It’s so nice to know someone decided for me that I wouldn’t want to see them 😛

  • Melle Be

    I think its shameful that u wouldnt characterize ‘Dear White People” as a black film. You’re implying that only kitschy comedies with a black cast are black films (by comparing Madea and Ride Along to DWP). Its a black film bc of the reasons u stated. Black is not a performance, its not some monolithic culture. And its problematic that ur having a hard time categorizing a black film (bc “black” isnt a genre, come on now!) and questioning its “black”ness bc of it. Really, racialicious, really? Get out of the white gaze, and try again?

    Theres a history there. Black people dont assign a film to be “black.” Its white people that do that. Bc black as a culture, history, AND as a skin color is so complex, I would never simplify it to “just black.”

  • ProfChrisC

    I’m sorry but many “black” films are greenlit to appeal to black folks (and least common denominator at that), comedies (Kevin Hart is flavor du jour for bammas) and just not very good quality. If you want quality, its likely going to have to be a drama or something such, directed by either a white person, or a Brit or non American black, and have a combo of indie white producers and blacks.

  • PlusSizedWomanist

    No, its not the quality. The fact that a black person is the main character and the film is focused on their life makes it a “black film”

    Because Black is the extreme opposite of the “default human being” and thus we must be categorized as such.

    Black folks know we have varying genres of film. We know we do, but in a white supremacist society, it is just boiled down to “black film” with no analysis to the genre or content. Mostly Black cast and storyline? *chucks into the black film bin”

    But I am not here for the tone of this article in how it pretty much gentrified how black movies are with its “oh I dont wanna put 12 years a slave with MADEA!”

    Of course they arent the same. Anchorman isnt going to be on the same level as Schindler’s List. The tone reeks of blue blooding and I am really not comfortable with it