No doubt the Oscars’ overlooking of black industry players this year will come in for sharp criticism, accompanied by hand-wringing and amorphous pledges to do better. Yet the ensuing platitudes are likely to omit a very important detail: with a few notable exceptions, 2010 was a figurative wasteland for black cinema.
By no means should this imply that quality black films do not exist — plenty do, and the industry is replete with examples of excellent movies with black actors and directors at the helm. The principal problem is that for every emotional Eve’s Bayou or Precious, there’s a proportionately farcical Soul Plane or a Lottery Ticket. In short, much of what is considered marketable fare in Hollywood skews toward the comedic or romantic variety with an urban (and often buffoonish) flavor. While many laudable and noteworthy independent black films (such as the little-seen Night Catches Us) do get made, they often debut to minuscule audiences, virtually non-existent industry buzz and sharply limited distribution. Many have talented yet unknown actors and directors that lack name recognition and track record that brings in audiences. Suffice to say, most well-made black movies are hard-pressed to find financial success and mainstream accolades.
It’s not difficult to fathom why. A thoughtful 2009 New York Times article accurately detailed the state of contemporary black cinema and what continues to hamper its development. Despite the commercial and critical successes of Mr. Washington, Ms. Berry and especially Will Smith — all of whom have enjoyed a variety of roles that steadfastly defy stereotyping — Hollywood continues to view black moviegoers through a woefully circumscribed prism. To them, black movies are less mainstream products than they are niche. And let’s be frank: the overwhelming majority of black consumers give them ample reason for doing so.
- Javier E. David, The Grio