A few weeks back, I attended a screening in the New Voices in Black Cinema Festival. I often seek out films by and about black people because I want to support my community and like every one else, I have a desire to see images of myself reflected on screen. After watching that film and others like it at similar festivals, I was struck by an important question: what is Black Cinema?
At first, I decided that a black film is one that has a black protagonist and is either written or directed by a black filmmaker. Fruitvale Station fits and so does The Butler. However, the latest efforts by respected black filmmakers John Singleton and Antoine Fuqua do not (Abduction and Southpaw, respectively). Under my definition, a film like Spike Lee’s Inside Man would be a black film so would Amma Assante’s Belle, but I don’t really think the term fits either film. It seems slightly more fitting for Red Tails, but even with a majority black cast and a black writer and director, I don’t know if I would say Red Tails is a black film. My inadequate definition leaves room for the dubious Eddie Murphy vehicle Norbit as well as Tyler Perry’s entire oeuvre. Ride Along and Think Like a Man would qualify while Dreamgirls, The Color Purple, and The Help would not. It’s a curious question – what makes a black film– I believe I’ve yet to find the answer.
When most people I know talk about Black Cinema today, they’re talking about independent films like Big Words, Newlyweeds, Mother of George, and In the Morning (the film I saw at BAM a few weeks back). There are other films with largely black casts like Beasts of the Southern Wild, Blue Caprice and Gimme the Loot, but without a black writer or director behind them, can they truly be black films? Ultimately, does it even matter? Is it still important to have a separate cinema? Are the relatively few people who go to black film festivals the only ones who even vaguely care?
Time to weigh in. What’s your definition of a black film? Is there even such a thing? Have black filmmakers become part of the mainstream? Sound off in the comments.