The very notion of the Black Art film is often crushed beneath the popularity of Black commercial cinema. It would appear that no matter how well crafted, nuanced, and urgent the Black Art film can be, all someone like a Tyler Perry (and his Johnny-come-lately knock off David E. Talbert) have to do is throw on a dress and allegedly shoot a film in six days from a script cobbled together from worn out clichés and it raked in 70 million on over 2200 screens within 3 weeks of it’s release last October. Meanwhile, a Black Art film, like Barry Jenkins’ MOONLIGHT after scrambling for 3 years from disparate sources for financing to be produced has to roll out slowly screen by screen, city by city before a nationwide release on 650 screens after months of advance critical raves, word of mouth and the approval from White cultural institutions for a chance to break even on its P&A budget and perhaps be nominated for an award or two.
What this seems to mean is that in conjunction with the powerful obstacle of a White controlled Global Entertainment Industry that controls, if not the production, then at least the distribution and exhibition of film- Black film is still shackled to the feet of a White supremacist power structure. It is a White power structure that controls directly or indirectly how Blacks are allowed to represent themselves on the Global screen and more importantly upon how many screens Blacks will be allowed to see themselves. And yet in spite of this fact, the real obstacle to Black freedom in the cinematic representation of all the many facets of Blackness on the Global screen is the fickle, herd-like mentality of a large majority of the Black audience. Of course not every Black person is a part of this fickle herd, but apparently there are enough of them to form a significant portion to pay out over 70 million in ticket sales to see Perry’s six day creation of decades old clichés.
The push-back (among many push-backs) against the previous observation is that Perry has a built in audience for his work and therefore to compare his work unfavorably to a pretentious Black Art film is just elitism at its most insufferable.
To that I say, Not everyone is a fool who must suffer a fool.
That is to say, the Black Art film (defined here as the Black film that represents less seen but no less authentic facets of Blackness in ways that defy both clichés and the approval of Black middle class Christian conservative values) is needed now more than ever considering these final days of the Obama administration.(1) Whether you will join in pissing on his legacy or not, the fact that a well educated Black man was elected twice to run this hypocrisy filled, phobia laden country is a potent symbol that many a confederate flag waving White person (and self hating persons of color) voted for Donald Trump to dismantle. Now perhaps we’ll have to turn that symbol into a shield- but why not a Sword? The Black Art film is needed because its very existence tells tone deaf and fragile White folks as well as judgmental and comfort seeking Black Christian conservatives that the Black communities are not monolithic structures of crime and comic relief to be used alternately to fulfill political agendas of control, capitalism and consumption. By contrast, the Black Popular Film represents the generalized and commodified aspects of Blackness that are used to limit what is to be considered the “authentic” Black experience: Slavery, Christian Religion, music, dance, drug dealing, drug abuse, crime, single parent families and sex (hetero-normative, homo-shameful).
The Black Art film often represents all that is overlooked, neglected and left to fester and rot within the many communities (global and domestic) that make up what is called Blackness. After all, racial prejudice itself is just a function of essentialism that obscures a full and productive view of humanity.
What I intend to discuss here are the differing foundational paradigms of the Black Art film (typified by Barry Jenkins’ latest work, MOONLIGHT) and the Black Popular film (typified by Tyler Perry). Since Perry’s work is the least interesting but the most commercially successful, I’ll start with him first, sparing as little disdain as fairness will allow.
I have already discussed in great detail the repetition of character types in Perry’s Madea and non-Madea films that makes his work so comforting to Black middle class Christian conservatives in a chapter I devoted to Perry in my book, Slave Cinema: The Crisis of the African-American in Film. Here, very briefly I’d like to note that another major reason Perry’s work is so accessible to a large number of Black audiences is that the formal structure of the works has never risen above the sophistication of a Black sitcom or better yet a daytime soap opera. Over and over again in Perry’s films characters express their feelings to each other in crystal clear dialogue which is underscored with music in a maudlin presentation that is no different than those White characters in the daytime soap operas that were once all the rage in the 70s, 80s, and early 90s during the 47-year-old Perry’s formative years (which coincidentally includes the formative years of his core Black Christian conservative fan base). Perry’s work looks familiar, feels cliché, and cashes in at the Box office because it is based on 3 decades of daytime television soap opera dramatics with the White characters types replaced with familiar Black character types (some would say stereotypes), that many have come to accept as a Black middle class Christian-approved representation of Black life. The drug-dealing young Black thug, the unwed mother, the absent Black father, the narcissistic womanizer, the bible thumping elder… etc, et al. Perry’s Madea films merely add a comic element to these familiar character types, and even more familiar “Black” circumstances that exist because they have been over-represented in various media forms that shape how we look at ourselves as Black people. It is alleged that Perry only needed six days to shoot BOO- A MADEA HALLOWEEN. Were this six-day shoot the measure of any other filmmaker than Tyler Perry it would have been an astonishing feat, but as it stands, six days to shoot a hodge-podge of worn out dramatic clichés with a character that is no less than a cross-gender clown act, was 5 days too many in this writer’s opinion.
But along comes the Black Art film that complicates those familiar representations of Blackness: not by avoiding clichés, but instead by modifying them in ways that cause the viewer to see Blackness as a multi-faceted gem of humanity- rather than merely a Black man in a dress and wig. Although Barry Jenkins’ film MOONLIGHT contains very familiar Black character types – like the young Black drug dealer; the crack addicted single mother; young Black thugs; Gay Black males, etc – none of these familiar character types are presented in familiar ways to the audience. From the choice of music, to its 3 act structure, with each act opening with a declarative visual prologue, MOONLIGHT does fascinating work in getting us to see ourselves as Black people: as complex human beings enmeshed in a web of White supremacy that maintains a ghetto where very few can ever realize their true potential and ambition.
Although the film deals with homosexual subject matter, it deliberately avoids the fem/butch binary and other easily digestible comic/hysterical/camp tropes that frame how homosexuality is usually presented in American cinema. Moreover, the film avoids a pat glorification of substance abuse and drug dealing seen in previous Black films about “the hood”, that were once commercially popular in the 1990’s, and still exists as an underground genre today. Barry Jenkins’ MOONLIGHT finds the visual and dramatic poetry in the everyday lives of a class of Black folk that does not look for redemption in respectability politics, higher education, jobs, and church- but instead, redemption is found at a human level; a love for one another that doesn’t reach towards a White institution, wealth, hetero-normativity, or religion, as a way out of the tense dramatic conflicts placed on the screen.
And just how does Jenkins succeed in re-purposing clichés to de-familiarize the familiar and find the visual and dramatic poetry in the everyday lives of a particular class of Black folk? For an answer to that question we must look at the formal paradigm that supports the Black Art film. In many ways, what allows the Black Art film to be different from the Black Popular film is that its practitioners like Jenkins, Julie Dash, Nate Parker, Charles Burnett, Terence Nance, Ava DuVernay, Tanya Hamilton and others have actually studied film as an art form. In particular, they have studied the works of well known Foreign and White modernist auteurs like Welles, Godard, Truffaut, Fassbinder, Wenders, Wertmuller, Pasolini, Bertolucci, Antonioni, Chantal Ackerman and others. But before you push back on the notion of how the Black Art film be created from studying the work of White masters- that is before you throw the famous discussion ending quote of Audrey Lorde as a rebuke: “For Master’s tools will never dismantle the Master’s house,” at this suggestion- I would implore you to consider how studying the works of foreign auteurs (White, Black and others) frees the Black cinematic imagination from the tyranny of the White American visual regime of racial representation. That is to say, that the modernist filmmakers of the 60’s and 70’s international cinema were breaking formal boundaries, codes, and dramatic tropes to challenge the status quo in ways that could not and would not be done on American television, and on the American movie screen at that time, and even today. Just as Woody Allen, Martin Scorsese, Brian DePalma, Francis Coppola, and George Lucas had their cinematic imaginations (but certainly not their racial imaginations) liberated by watching the work of these European masters in the 70’s, so also have many Black filmmakers who are making these exceptional Black Art films. Julie Dash, known for her Black Art film classic, DAUGHTERS OF THE DUST (1991), admits to being influenced by,” avant garde, Latin American, African and Russian cinema,” as well as many of her cohorts that are collectively known as LA Rebellion filmmakers. (1)
The point I’m making is that a Black filmmaker like Barry Jenkins can have their imagination liberated by looking at foreign auteur cinema, and subsequently build the courage to throw off the shackles of the White-controlled Global Entertainment Industry that merely wants to force Black filmmakers into representing Blackness on screen with the simplest possible representations, to maximize its profits with as little financial investment as possible. (2)
To be clear, Jenkins is not imitating the work of those White European auteurs, but rather using their creative freedom as a jumping off point for his own personal expression within the medium of cinema. It is in this way that the Black Art film is the liberated and liberating canvas of the Black auteur. I, myself, only noticed how Jenkins had liberated his imagination while recently re-watching French director Jean-Luc Godard’s notoriously difficult and notoriously misunderstood city film, TWO OR THREE THINGS I KNOW ABOUT HER (1966, Deux ou trois choses que je sais d’elle). TWO OR THREE THINGS is a political film that investigates the role of the artist as filmmaker in examining the class reorganization of Paris in 1966, and the creation of its suburbs that would today become its ghettos. Within TWO OR THREE THINGS, there is a sequence titled,” Medicine For Melancholy,” and I immediately recognized this as the title of Jenkins first feature length work from 2008. Could this be a coincidence, I wondered; but knowing that Jenkins studied film at Florida State University, it was not impossible to conceive that the housing issues in Godard’s TWO OR THREE THINGS could have been a catalyst for the housing and race issues within Jenkins’ MEDICINE FOR MELANCHOLY.
Yet it wasn’t until I saw the final shot in MOONLIGHT, when a young version of the main character, Chiron, is seen standing by the ocean shore in Florida and the camera moves closer to him as he turns to face it and the audience that I realized that Jenkins had found a way of ending his film that evokes the famous freeze-frame ending of Francois Truffaut’s iconic Art film, THE 400 BLOWS (1959, Les quatre cents coups). Moreover, MOONLIGHT itself could be seen as a film that evokes the travails of Truffaut’s main character Antoine Doinel (Jean-Pierre Leaud) in the series of films he made following the life of this adolescent, without ripping off or directly imitating that series as a bastardization.
So it is clear that Jenkins has liberated his cinematic imagination- and by extension, all those who see and appreciate his work- through a careful appreciation of past cinematic works that allowed for a personal expression within the commercial medium of cinema. The very moment we get beyond thinking of cinema as solely a cash-making enterprise, the quicker we can get to understanding cinema as a weapon against the status quo. A study of the former modernist art films provides the formal tools necessary to dismantle the prison house of American racial representation because such films expose the processes of identification that commercial films used to seduce the spectator into believing the “Hollywood” illusion. By liberating the Black cinematic imagination, we can then call into question the stereotypes and belief systems that keep us from unifying together to fight the illusions of White supremacy. The Black Art film is a cinematic means to humanize the representation of Black people –NOT to Whites- but humanizing ourselves to ourselves so that we might one day actually stand together in unity, with all of the different facets of Blackness unencumbered by the respectability politics of Black Christian conservatism, against the coming increased oppression of the Trump administration and its White supremacist supporters (White, Black, or other).
The Black Art film reaches few, but tells Black people so much about themselves; whereas the Black Popular film reaches many, but tells Black people so little about themselves. Where one could say that there was a generation of Black filmmakers who, by fate or economic means, were afforded the opportunity to learn from White modernist filmmakers, today, such a class structured elitism is no longer necessary as many of the challenging works by Black Art filmmakers can be accessed on line, through the Black World Cinema TV subscription service which you can access here.
If the real obstacle to Black freedom in the cinematic representation of all the many facets of Blackness on the Global screen is the fickle, herd-like mentality of a large majority of the Black audience, then all that stands in our way are those false shepherds of Black consciousness that continue to put Black minds to sleep by their reliance on limited perceptions of Blackness and stereotypes to quickly communicate, cash in and maintain these limited perceptions.
All that stands in our way to freedom is our own limited perception of ourselves that obscures the multi-faceted gem of Blackness; Films like Barry Jenkin’s MOONLIGHT are the guiding lights on a path to our creative liberation- and then a full unified rebellion.
When the chains of self-hate are broken and we embrace ourselves as we truly are, only then can the revolution begin…
Andre Seewood is a PhD. student in The Media School at Indiana University-Bloomington and he is the author of (Dismantling) The Greatest Lie Ever Told to The Black Filmmaker. Pick up a copy here.
1) Please see: Cara Buckley’s article, Julie Dash Made a Movie. Then Hollywood Shut Her Out, in The New York Times.
2) Here I would raise the question of whether or not Tyler Perry was forced to make BOO in six days for Lionsgate, rather than it being a restriction of his own volition. As Sergio Mims has often said, Perry is more of a businessman than a passionate filmmaker, and outside of the passion of a genius, only unmitigated greed would make a filmmaker accept such a task to make a feature length film in six days.