Tag Archives: hollywood

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

Check it out: United Colors of Amani

Amani Starnes’ new web series centers on what it’s like to be an “ethnically ambiguous” actress in Hollywood and the recipient of a host of stereotypes and biases. Starnes writes that she has “dealt with the ‘What are you?’ question her whole life. But what does it mean to be black, white, and everything in between as she navigates the entertainment industry and life in LA? The United Colors of Amani, a comedy with sociological undertones, sheds light on the uncomfortable, awkward, and outrageous constructions of race permeating showbiz.”

Episode 1: The Tryout

Mistakes, Huh?: Watching Orange is the New Black

Orange is the New Black, Netflix Promo.

Orange is the New Black, Netflix Promo.

Perusing my usual monthly reading, I found myself amazed at how many stories were about the Netflix original show Orange is the New Black – and the similarities in language used to describe the plot. I had seen a few reviews here and there, and knew the show was about a privileged white woman who spent a year in a woman’s prison.

But what stood out was how often the word “mistake” came up. I saw the term so many times, it seemed like Piper Kerman ended up in prison due to bad breaks. Mistaken identity? Wrong place at the wrong time? Get dumped via post it note and almost get arrested smoking outside of a bar? (Hey, it happened to Carrie Bradshaw.)

In a Fast Company review – where the word “mistake” appears in the opening line, and is used twice more in the next two paragraphs – I finally found out why Kerman was locked up:

Kerman fell in with people whose lifestyles seemed exciting–as much because one of them ran money and smuggled narcotics for a West African drug lord as in spite of that fact. And when she agreed to help the woman who’d brought her in to that circle usher a suitcase full of undeclared cash from Chicago to Brussels, she made what she describes now as her “biggest mistake.”

So she was banging a drug smuggler and agreed to run some money for them – yeah, could have happened to any of us really. Just minding your own business, taking a suitcase of cash on an international trip…

Anyway, despite my skepticism, I tuned into watch the show. While I’ve been intrigued and interested by the developments in episodes the first five episodes, there’s been this strange undercurrent dulling my enjoyment of the show. I couldn’t quite put my finger on why, until I read an excerpt of an interview with the showrunner, Jenji Kohan:

You’re not going to go into a network and sell a show on really fascinating tales of black women, and Latina women, and old women and criminals. But if you take this white girl, this sort of fish out of water, and you follow her in, you can then expand your world and tell all of those other stories. But it’s a hard sell to just go in and try to sell those stories initially. The girl next door, the cool blonde, is a very easy access point, and it’s relatable for a lot of audiences and a lot of networks looking for a certain demographic. It’s useful.”

Fascinating – particularly since the most compelling stories to me are about the side characters. I’m not watching for Piper, though it’s been interesting to see her (and her family) coping with her new reality. I am watching to hopefully see how Sophia works out her relationships and medical needs, and to figure out why Daya and her mother have such an acrimonious relationship. But I suppose I’m not in the network’s idea of ideal demographic, and I just have to hope Piper’s development leaves a little space to revisit some of the supporting characters.

I’ll keep watching before I do a longer analysis, but readers, what are your thoughts?

Idris Elba is Hollywood’s Troublemaker

by Guest Contributor Shane Thomas, originally published at Media Diversity UK

There are few names as globally recognisable as Nelson Mandela. And likely even fewer whose name generally invokes strong feelings of warmth and goodwill.

Mandela was recently in the news as a result of his ill health, with elements of the online world and news networks partaking in an emetic game of “Nelson Mandela death watch”. Mercifully, at the time of writing, Madiba is still with us, and he has become a talking point again by proxy, due to the release of the trailer for Mandela: Long Walk to Freedom.

The aforementioned is a movie biopic, traversing Nelson Mandela’s life. Early indications suggest that it is being positioned as strong contender for the 2014 Academy Awards. If the release date of January 3rd next year isn’t a sign to this effect, then the fact that the film’s production company is The Weinstein Company certainly is.[1]

On face value, this would seem to be a positive sign for diversity in Hollywood. After all, it’s a film where black characters are front and centre, without – as Jamilah King succinctly put it – needing a “white co-pilot”. And if you don’t think that this is an issue, more often than not, when films are made about communities of colour, the proviso is that a white character is a key cast member.[2] Continue reading

Don Cheadle, Kerry Washington talk race, activism, gender and Hollywood

Above, actors Kerry Washington (Scandal) and Don Cheadle (House of Lies) speak with Variety magazine.  The conversation includes the following exchange:

When people reference your race when describing your career, is that a point of pride, or is it something that you think is overplayed in the media as part of your story?

DC: I think I’m somewhat defined by my race for sure, and I’m good with that and I actually want that to be a part. … I think that should be fodder for our work — we should use all aspects of ourselves. I’m always trying to find a place where that’s actually an impact on what I’m doing as opposed to going, “Well, we’re all just people and we’re the same.”

KW: I agree. I think it’s relevant. I think gender is relevant. I bring something to the table as a woman; I bring something to the table as a woman of color. So I feel like, if it’s the only thing you focus on, then it’s a danger, and if you never talk about it then it’s a danger.

More excerpts here.

The Business Of Diversity: Why Hollywood Needs Integration

By Guest Contributors Zach Stafford and Nico Lang

Choscar

Illustration: Joseph Lamour.

Over the years, people of color have had the hardest time breaking into the ‘biz’ or just simply being recognized for the work that they have done on the silver screen.

It was in 1939 that the first African American person–Hattie McDaniel–won an Oscar for her supporting role in Gone With the Wind. It took 30 years for another African American person to win again: Sidney Poitier won Best Actor in a leading role for Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner?, a film that tackles racial divides and interracial dating at the onslaught of integration. But how much have we integrated since then?

In their 2011 New York Times article, “Hollywood’s Whiteout,” staff film critics Manohla Dargis and A.O. Scott wrote, “[Race] in American cinema has rarely been a matter of simple step-by-step progress. It has more often proceeded in fits and starts, with backlashes coming on the heels of breakthroughs, and periods of intense argument followed by uncomfortable silence.” Their article came out in response to the 2010 Academy Awards where zero African Americans were nominated, which struck many as peculiar within this Obama Era where ideals around post-racism circulated from sea to shining sea.

The lack of people of color at the Academy Awards was a stark reminder that Hollywood was still very much divided. Let’s play a game: Can you name a prominent black actor under 30? Someone that, if you walked up to a random person on the street, they would know who you are talking about? Didn’t think so.

Continue reading

Argo And The Trouble With Hollywood Logic

By Latoya Peterson

(L-R) Ben Affleck as Tony Mendez in “Argo” and the actual Tony Mendez. Via ABC News.

There are posts where you already know how things are going to fall out before you even write it.  This is one of them.

We’ve talked about the controversy with Argo before.  Arturo broke down the man behind the movie back in July:

The more you read about Antonio Mendez, the more his exploits make Burn Notice look like Get Smart: the Colorado native who grew up in a single-parent household went from answering a random want ad to a 25-year career in the CIA as an “espionage artist,” specializing in helping assets get out of tough situations.

“I would say the whole thing was like James Bond but even better. I was involved in Moscow creating tradecraft, knocking the socks off the KGB,” he told Open Your Eyes magazine in 2008. “If you are surrounded by an army of that kind of counterintelligence and you can still do your business, Bond doesn’t even get close to that.”

Mendez went on to write two memoirs about his experiences in the field. But his most celebrated operation, an extraction of six U.S. diplomats from Iran in the first days of the regime of the Ayatollah Khomeni, was the subject of a 2007 article in Wired Magazine. As Joshuah Bearman wrote, this particular plan would take a more cinematic turn – literally – than the usual covert actions: Mendez actually created a fake movie production.

Many people–including our friends at Racebending and Latino Rebels–have already pointed out that Ben Affleck squandered a prime opportunity to put a Latino actor in the lead for Argo. And we’ve heard the usual pushback that comes to discussing casting in Hollywood.  
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The Bourne Legacy And Manila’s Militaristic Mapping

By Guest Contributor Bryan Ziadie

I’ve heard a few friends’ opinions so far about The Bourne Legacy, the latest installment in the Bourne film franchise. The last set of sequences in the film got particular attention. Those scenes take place in Manila. It seems to be the case here in the Philippines that people, at least those I know, managed to stay immersed in the film up until that point. After this, a feeling of strange misrecognition of the landscape took over. This may be because what we’re shown through the camera work in the Manila scenes suggests a perception of the Philippines not unfamiliar to a militarized American pop-culture industry that’s easy to identify with it until you find that familiar spaces have become the focus of the camera’s lens.

Rooftop-Hopping

One thing that I’ve noticed about First World action sequences that take place in Third World settings is the position of the camera. You often find it hovering above, looking down on metal, shanty-town rooftops as protagonists run across, leaping from one roof to the next either in pursuit of, or escape from, the enemy. A couple examples that come to mind can be found in Edward Norton’s Incredible Hulk and, in Inception, the scene that takes place in Mombasa. I can’t actually remember the movie Quantum of Solace very well, but the video game features a shanty-town, rooftop-hopping stage.

(Don’t watch the whole video, it’s actually pretty boring)

But, to say on track, here’s an illustrative scene from Bourne.

(Watch the whole video. It’s actually pretty badass.)
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