Robert Townsend: So, what is a black film? Charles Burnett: Don’t ask me.
One retrospective you are unlikely to see is an expansive (though by no means exhaustive) program examining White Cinema in the 1990s, nor in any other period in the hundred-year-plus history of the medium. Nobody would likely think to. The idea of assembling a collection of works together by the race of the creator may seem a misinformed, act of categorization (we often refuse to even label horror cinema in such broad strokes). But perhaps the simple reason that a retrospective on White ‘90s cinema would seem facetious and ridiculous is precisely the same reason that a Black ‘90s cinema retrospective is timely and important. It is a cinema concerned with both exploring an identity, as well as discovering one. BAM has taken on this task, and their series "Black 90's: A Turning Point in American Cinema" runs from May 3rd-22nd.
The cinema was—and continues to be—a representation of white personhood in the large. “None of the images I saw of African American people, especially the women, suggested that we could actually make movies. We were rarely even in them,” filmmaker Julie Dash recalls on the experience that led her to her first feature, Daughters of Dust (1991). This was problematic because, as she puts it, “my dreams were also molded by the cinema and television stories, where the likes of me didn’t even exist.”
Art, and film specifically, play an important part in our everyday growth and lives, which is an interesting dilemma, for what is there for you to learn if you are not represented in the very fabric that in a large part creates the culture? A large section of features made by black filmmakers in the 1990s find characters surrounding televisions, often watching gangster pictures. While these “heroes” may have Caucasian skin, their plight with the law and their quest to rise from submission against a crooked system to victory was something many non-Caucasian Americans could relate to. And with little else in arts and popular culture they could call theirs, this they did.
The evocation of a black American identity has cropped up throughout cinema history, at first as background or clownish characters, but as the black population rose and had dollars to speak with, some black-facing cinema surfaced, but much of this had white minds behind it.
When fighting in WW2 ramped up and it was clear that African-American soldiers would be required, the government asked Hollywood to increase the visibility of blacks in movies. Interestingly, this request was not only so that black Americans would feel included in the America they were about to be asked to fight for, but also so that whites would get used to seeing black men in jobs that were before now closed to them.
Rather than being a complete opening of new roles and characters for black actors, this request came with guidelines from Army researchers: “Avoid stereotypes such as…affinity for watermelon or pork. Show colored officers in command of troops, but don’t play it up too much. Play down colored soldiers most Negroid in appearance…and omit all references to Lincoln, emancipation, or any race leaders or friends of the Negro,” reports Mark Harris in his book Five Came Back: A Story of Hollywood and the Second World War.
Not surprisingly, this did not usher in an era of new black American experience in the cinema. Black cinema would sometimes subside and then pop up in a new era. During the 1970’s, the works of Melvin Van Peebles and Gordon Parks were some highlights in what mostly became co-opted exploitation pictures.
But, as Julie Dash, above noted, African-Americans were being molded by the very entertainment they were excluded from. Ernest Dickerson’s Juice (1992) plays almost as a frightening investigation into this dynamic. Following four Harlem teenagers, Dickerson creates an urban landscape of rambling, disaffected (nearly all non-white) youth. School is something that is oft mentioned, but never seen. The teenagers leave their homes purportedly for school, but wind up at an arcade where groups hang out and play games. As if to double down on the fact that there is no place for these kids, the cops raid the arcade from time to time.
While Raheem (Khalil Kain) seems to posture as the leader of this group, it is really Bishop (Tupac Shakur) and Q (Omar Epps) that are the strong personalities, very much formed and molded by the interests and entertainments surrounding them. Q has fallen in with the DJ and hip-hop culture. He has a side hustle of mixing cassette tapes and wishes to enter in a DJ competition. Bishop, on the other hand, tired of feeling put-upon and helpless, finds a kindred spirit in the crazed early gangster pictures of James Cagney. In a chilling scene of premonition, Q and Bishop sit in front of the television watching White Heat (1949). Bishop is chomping on cereal and quoting the film. It is clearly not the first time he has seen this. “I’m on top of the world!” he mimics, and in a bit of bravura performing by Shakur, we can see him already equating himself with the criminal underworld, even before committing any crime other than being born black.
For Q, his calling is in the music, and it is in large part this music that has helped give rise to popular Black Cinema in the ‘90s, a cinema that burgeoned and exploded from the safety of the familiar tales of urban gang violence to other new avenues and facets of black life. The rise of hip-hop music in the 1980s created not only an alternate and powerful cultural identity for the (usually male) African-American, but also revealed an entire new market and customer: African-American-made art for the African-American consumer.
In essence, Juice plays out as an analytical investigation into this new identity. The music is a powerful signifier, often packaged in gangsta rap format. Q follows the music, while Bishop follows the image it presents. Ernest Dickerson, the director of Juice, is best known for his collaborations with Spike Lee, as director of photography. Juice shares with Lee’s early pictures an affinity for exaggerated performances and natural production design. Dickerson shot Spike Lee’s trailblazing Do the Right Thing (arriving in 1989, its climatic riot perhaps an ignition to the cinema about to follow). While Lee’s incendiary piece of cinema paved the ways both artistic and economic for the Hughes Brothers (Menace II Society, 1992), John Singleton (Boyz n The Hood, 1991), and Matty Rich (Straight Out of Brooklyn, 1991) to examine contemporary urban life, Lee spent the early ‘90s expanding the voice of black cinema and the stories it could tell.
In 1991’s Jungle Fever (also shot by Dickerson), Lee examines an interracial love affair between a black man and an Italian woman. Lee’s provocative title and less than nuanced interviews at the time betrayed the fact that Jungle Fever is actually a tender and heartfelt portrayal of not just the couple, but also their extended families. His 1994 tale, Crooklyn, is itself a family melodrama, witnessing the Carmichael family navigate through 1970s Brooklyn. With sweeping imagery and a detour into an anamorphic-lensed South, Lee farther widened the scope of black cinema, by telling the tale from the point of view of a nine-year-old African-American girl, Troy.
It is finally with 1996’s Clockers in which Lee stakes his claim on the urban crime picture that the ‘90s gave rise to. Interestingly, this Spike Lee Joint was almost a “Martin Scorsese Picture,” authored by white novelist Richard Price. Scorsese, attached to the Price script as a director, saw in it something more suited for Lee.
It continues Lee’s investigation into morality in all its shades of grey. Perhaps Harvey Keitel and John Turturro, as detectives, have a slight margin on being the good guys in this picture. But not by much. They are casually racist, manipulative, and eat and joke over some of the most viciously rendered dead bodies seen in cinema. The shocking opening of Clockers, with its crime scene images of dead black bodies, plays as a hard-to-swallow follow-up project to Cauleen Smith’s Drylongso (1998), in which a young woman takes on the project of photographing young black males, because, as she sees it, she’s “taking pictures of black men because they are becoming an endangered species.” If these white cops in Clockers are the heroes, it might simply be because the film takes place in hell…which is to say modern Brooklyn. Lee and cinematographer Malik Hassan Sayeed shoot the film in blazing colors on a high contrast film stock that can hardly hold the grain together. The colors shock, dilute, and never comfort.
In the center of the film, we have Mekhi Phifer as Strike, who is neither good nor bad. He has never had a choice to be either, growing up in this hell where the cops routinely strip search you, the outside community views you as a criminal by birth, and all around you the only opportunity seems to be in crime. Even Q, in Juice, had to subsidize his potential musical escape through the theft of records. And the fact that Dickerson shoots Juice as a horror film places his Harlem very close to Lee’s Brooklyn. Lee spends much time in texture and a depiction of an uninhabitable world where good may not exist, and may in fact be just a lesser layer of evil.
Strike gets it from all sides, his environment is a prison. In ever the familiar coda to a film of this period, Strike gets on a train and heads out of the city. For the only escape is to leave. You cannot work within this society. Escape taunts these characters. Trains tear up the geography of Juice and A Rage in Harlem (Bill Duke, 1991), while the chopping blades of helicopters are merely part of the ordinary soundscape of Menace II Society and Boyz n the Hood. In Charles Burnett’s To Sleep with Anger (1990) characters walk along train tracks near their home. “I could stay and look at train tracks all day,” one character says to the reply of, “we laid enough of em, didn’t we?” They built and toiled on this land, but it was never theirs. The train tracks they walk on no longer run.
Charles Burnett’s film, arriving in 1990, serves as a reply to the filmmakers at the time concocting stories contingent upon escape (Lee, Hughes Brothers, Singleton). To Sleep with Anger follows a family who escaped their troubled past, referred to as their life in the South (geography ever-representative in this cinema). Now it returns home to them, in the form of Danny Glover’s Harry. From the film’s powerful opening sequence it is clear that Burnett is dealing in allusions to hell. Over the opening credits, Burnett’s camera captures a seated, well-dressed man with his shoes in flames. He hardly reacts. Then, over a match cut, the picture moves to another exterior location, where a shoeless man, Gideon, reads a Bible. As we meet his family, we see tensions, strife and disagreements abound, with the youngest son being perpetually scolded. Then Harry comes to town, with his talk of gambling successes, mistreatment of women, and run-ins with the law, and other sordid tales Gideon thought he left behind in the South.
Such talk begins to seduce the younger son, and brings to the fore the response to the escapist ending of many of these films: where are you running to? The film seems to already have an answer: “You can’t just run away…the past can always try to lure you.” Or as Caine from Menace II Society might more bluntly put it when he is asked to flee to Georgia: “Ain’t nothing gonna change in Atlanta. I mean, I’m still gonna be black.”
This is not to say that Burnett is not hopeful, but that he finds his solution more in strength of family and relationships than in physical escape. Even with all the miles traveled from the South to liberate Gideon and his wife Suzie from their past, Harry still finds them. It is Suzie, in fact, who has the strength and resolve to keep the family together—culminating in a shocking scene in which she ends an escalating fight among the siblings by closing her hands over a knife blade. She has seen hell. She knows what it is and has no desire to return. The film ends with Gideon attempting to tell her a joke set in Hell. She quickly shuts him up. “I don’t care to hear any tales of colored people being in Hell.”
Gideon responds, “Black people. Any people.”
Suzie: “Gideon, I don’t care to hear any tales about any people being in Hell.”
This idea of escape—or the inability to do so—from the black experience of being stuck in a personal hell is a key ingredient of Black ‘90s cinema, even as Burnett and Lee suggests that physical escape may be futile. Location in these movies is as detrimental as any antagonist, and it is in fact the characters’ immobility that is rendered so presciently in the works of these filmmakers: The exodus of families in Devil in a Blue Dress (1995, “This city is too fast for us…”); the travels South via public transport of Boyz n the Hood and A Rage in Harlem.
The train is a running motif in Clockers. Strike has a large train set and a great affinity for trains, though he’s “only ever ridden the subway,” Keitel tells him. The opening of Juice is filled with labyrinthine tracks that literally cut through neighborhoods the characters cannot escape from. Images of trains likewise flood A Rage in Harlem and the soundtrack of Boyz n the Hood is a cacophony of airplanes, vehicles and noise—literally the noise of others’ mobility stifling the characters.
Matty Rich’s Straight Out of Brooklyn sets its lead character, Dennis, on the path of crime in order to get out of the projects, and straight out of Brooklyn. But where are these characters running to? A new beginning? A chance at a new identity?
Burnett’s film seem to suggest the black identity is transitive and malleable. The films examine characters who are figuring out just who they are and want to be, rather than who they have been told they are.
That so many of the heretofore-discussed films fall into the category of crime or noir should be of no surprise to us. As critic Manthia Diawara argues, noir serves as an ideal genre, its tropes easily redeployed to represent class conflict as well as “black rage at white America.” In doing so, Diawara claims, this redeems “blackness from its genre definition by recasting the relation between light and dark on the screen as a metaphor for making black people and their cultures visible. In a broader sense, black film noir is a light (as in daylight) cast on black people.”
As such, it is a daylight descending on a people still discovering their identities—a cinema both of discovery and creation, as well as dealing with the past
The past is a dangerous thing, and something to confront or to retreat from, as Gideon and Suzie do, leaving the South to escape the past that Harry represents in To Sleep with Anger. But, as these examples illustrate, it is the confrontation that is liberating. As Harry states, “I have no enemies because I don’t live in the past,” and later, “I don’t make any bones about where I’m gonna spend eternity…when you’re made to feel like half a man, what do you think the other half is?”
The other half is perhaps best personified in Menace II Society, the Hughes Brothers’ debut feature, and a response to John Singleton’s own powerful entry into black cinema, Boyz n the Hood. Not unlike Juice, Clockers, or Straight Out of Brooklyn, Boyz is a tale of a young black man residing in hell (in this case South Central, but it could by NYC or Chicago, or any other urban American sprawl) who yearns for freedom and must break from his friends in order to achieve something like an escape.
For Allen and Albert Hughes, this was all a bit too simple, as well as sentimental. They aimed to set the record straight. What sets Menace apart, and makes it monumental, is the skill and precision with which the Hughes brothers dismantle the escape myth. It is a truly visionary work, a mix of style and gut-wrenching realism that once aims at the upper echelons of pure cinema while also providing a powerful, albeit nihilistic vision of the black experience.
Inspired by the films of Martin Scorsese, and particularly Goodfellas, the Hughes brothers employee the blueprint of the modern gangster film to tell their tale. It feels only fitting that a tale of youth grown up relating to Scarface and other gangster pictures should have their story told in its style. The filmmakers pull out all the stops: voiceover, extended hand-held and tracking shots; slow motion.
Menace plays like a boiling cauldron, or a ticking time bomb. We follow an inner-city teen, Caine, from childhood (even prior, as the film sets a newsreel segment during the Watts Riots of ‘65, in which the filmmakers suggest it is the environment that breeds such violent characters) until when he ceases to be. Every mistake he makes sends him farther down a wormhole he cannot crawl out of. He starts out as an accessory to a liquor store murder—an event captures on surveillance camera that his friend O-Dog is fond of showing off. From there, Caine gets arrested hijacking a car, but the past is patient! This trouble gets his fingerprints on file and they show up at the liquor store murder. He meets a girl, gets her pregnant, and then beats her cousin up when he confronts him. In the hood, you pay for your every move, and Caine makes way too many moves to pay with anything but his life.
This tragic denouement, filmed in slow motion, with the soundtrack dropped out so that all we hear is a low rumble, is the film’s final act of fury. The most innocent gets shot (Shariq, Caine’s friend who has found religion), the most wicked is left unscathed (O-Dog), and the circle of violence continues, represented by the revolving trike wheel of Jada Pinkett’s son, witness to all. After seeing the Hollywood-ized version of flight at the end of all these films, the Hughes brothers decided to illustrate that sometimes it is too late; sometimes you have come too far. The result is one of the most gut-wrenching scenes of street violence ever committed to film.
The past is not only personified in violence, however. We all have a past we must confront. In 1999’s The Best Man, Taye Diggs, as up-and-coming novelist Harper Stewart, is about to release his first book, a thinly disguised take on his life amongst his college friends and lovers. Interestingly, as open as Harper is with his readers, he has not been so with his friends, who are reading his book through a stolen preview copy. Throughout the picture, Harper will try to keep people from decoding the book’s secret—an illicit affair with his best friend’s fiancé.
The book embeds itself into the marital weekend in much the same way that Harry settles in with Gideon’s family, or Bishops’s criminal schemes dictate Q’s chance at DJ stardom, or Tre’s (Cuba Gooding Jr.) chance at a college escape is hindered by Doughboy (Ice Cube) in Boyz n the Hood. What we have done, these films seem to say, dictates what we may be able to do, and it is in confronting these people, places, and things, that these characters may achieve some semblance of growth or freedom.
Reginald Hudlin’s 1992 Boomerang, which on the surface seems like a fun romantic comedy (albeit one that may play as sexist in today’s climate), farther explores similar issues while also providing a refreshing upscale take on African-American life. Eddie Murphy and Robin Givens head a marketing firm (employed seemingly with only African-Americans, the film is a who’s who of the period’s comedic talent). Murphy plays a ladies’ man who cannot seem to settle. “I’m Mr. Romance when I meet a girl,” he says, “Then once I hit it, I lose interest. You can’t put that on me.”
While the film unfolds the way one might anticipate a traditional rom-com to and is shot eloquently but standardly (long wide takes interspersed with reaction close-ups), the film continues both the quest for identity and confrontation with the past. Murphy’s marketing executive is responsible for bringing together black art to draw black commerce, to concoct marketing campaigns that speak to and for the black individual. He is, in a sense, through his work, finding a black identity.
Viewed through this lens, one can see this mainstream comedy aiming to coexist and contribute to the burgeoning black cinema of the times. In his review for Boomerang, Roger Ebert noted how Eddie Murphy, with no film in competition, had attended the Cannes Film Festival premiere of Boyz n the Hood, and led in the cheering after the screening. Ebert wondered what he was doing there and surmised perhaps that he “was seeking out new influences to direct his career.”
Placing his familiar screen persona in the world of black influencers for the story he conceived, Murphy then tapped Reginald Hudlin to direct (an important cog in the black cinema wheel, he directed House Party, which is also part of the BAM retrospective, acted in Spike Lee’s She’s Gotta Have It, and executive produced and wrote Bebe’s Kids, also screening) and filled out the cast with a showcase of black talent.
Ultimately, this is what is most fun in viewing Boomerang within the context of this retrospective. Eddie Murphy’s cinema both looks backwards and forwards at this moment in time. In a quick cameo, he casts Melvin Van Peebles (whose Sweet Sweetback’s Baadasssss Song ushered in a “new wave” in black cinemas during the 1970s and whose Watermelon Man, about a white racist who one day wakes up black, inspired the title for the first film to be directed by a black lesbian, 1996’s The Watermelon Woman) as an editor on one of the campaign spots. Notice also how Murphy attempts to take Robin Givens on a date to an event for the Black Filmmaker’s Project (an institution thanked in the film’s closing credits).
And while at the time of its initial run some tried to state that Boomerang is “not a black film” (whatever that is) simply because it recounted the experiences of the affluent, it is clearly recounting a black experience. Murphy was brave enough to let black people have normal wants and desires other than surviving being black. Yet while the film mostly exists in a hermetic black space, the reality of the black American experience seeps through when a white retailer at a Matsuda store reminds Murphy and his friends of how expensive their goods are, that there are no refunds, and that they “don’t keep cash in the registers…”
While played for comedy, Murphy’s quip after scaring a white passerby with his black presence, (“See how frightened he is? Just from a black man screaming ‘Naaaar!’ at him?”) is as clear an example of social segregation (and of how one race perceives another as entirely “other”) as a similar example in Juice, when, as a white man crosses the street to avoid a group, they shout “Boo!” In this world, if the white characters are not oppressors with badges, they tend to be little more than a fearful whimper, such as the wisp of a white man who comes to the hood to commission grand theft auto in Menace II Society.
There is more connective tissues than simply the color of the filmmakers that connects the dark noir of Menace and Juice to the romantic escapades of The Best Man, House Party, and Boomerang. It is a quest for identity, not only in life, but in art. Will Greaves, the 1970s documentarian, coined the term “mental enslavement,” calling it “the passive wholesale acceptance of white middle class values by blacks.” While the Hughes brothers are telling the audience “what is real,” so too are Malcolm D. Lee and Reginald Hudlin, who are liberating other byways and avenues of the black experience.
If A Rage in Harlem shows characters leaving home in search of new beginnings and To Sleep With Anger is an attempt at such new beginnings, then The Best Man and Boomerang pave the way for a new black experience, when the running is finally finished.
The ending of Devil in a Blue Dress may represent the moment when the character ceases to run and stakes a claim for himself. Easy (Denzel Washington) settles down for a talk and a drink with a pal, and soon he says, “I forgot all about [the past]…and I sat with my friend on my porch at my house. And we laughed a long time.”
As powerful as Julie Dash’s Daughters of Dust is, with its acceptance of the past (the rape of a loved one) and its hope for the future (the unborn child), the film is still a tale of exodus, of leaving the old land for life in a new world—in this case the damaged world we know. But where will any of these characters go where their exchanges with whites aren’t “Naars” and “Boos?” It might not be an easy road, but settling in and building a community seems essential.
While black filmmaking of the 1990s did appear to have similar topics on its mind, it was much more than a single-minded moment (Just Another Girl on the I.R.T.’s take on an unwanted pregnancy; Eve’s Bayou’s chronicle of a fraudulent existence; Waiting to Exhale’s exploration of friendship and love). Still, as New Jack City and Boyz n the Hood became hit films, and hip hop artists began rising to cross-cultural fame, filmmaker Rusty Cundieff noticed a tendency of the times and he confronted it in perhaps the best way: through slapstick comedy, taking the framework of This is Spinal Tap!, turning metal into rap music, and calling it Fear of a Black Hat (1993).
This mockumentary chronicles the rap group N.W.H. (Niggas with Hats). Rap music, which gave rise and voice to a people that often studied the work of fictional white gangsters (“Some George Raft and James Cagney type shit!” a character in Menace proclaims), quickly became the art form that proved vital to a large part of the identity and personhood emerging among African-Americans during this period.
Cundieff riffed on the N.W.A. story (alongside other rap acts) and also created the catch-all hybrid of a black filmmaker he calls Jike Spingleton (“I had a hat before you, I had glasses before you, and I was short before you!”). Labeled as a “black auteur,” Jike represents something both refreshing and current in that Hollywood moment, while also at a more subtle level, insinuating how the black auteur could be boiled down to…a N.W.H. That Cundieff created the representation of the black director with a few pieces of clothing and his diminutive stature suggest that this black auteur was, perhaps, created? Concocted? Allowed? Not legitimate entirely?
Other problematics here are two-fold. Writer/director/star Rusty Cundieff acknowledges the particular narrative that rap and early 90s cinema is providing. For every analysis of a tale in which a black man’s freedom is taking the law into his own hands, there is also a tale where we see a young black man with a gun. As Cundieff observed the cinema of the 1990s create entertainment out of real-life tragic inspirations, he decided to take things to their zany conclusion, having NWH rapper Tasty Taste, once 6'4, involved in a bazooka incident which decreases his height by a foot.
But since none of the violence perpetrated by N.W.H. (such as the deaths of managers, the pummeling of several characters such as Vanilla Sherbert, and the consistent pulling out of weapons) is challenged, what the film is saying becomes murky. N.W.H. routinely beat up, and perhaps even kill (“we were out of town”) others, but this is all for jokes. Or maybe this is Cundieff’s point? That our fandom and acceptance of this work is an acceptance of the violence and crime that goes into it? Or perhaps, like Ice Cold (lead member of N.W.H.), we are putting politics where they don’t belong in order to make our low laughs high (such as a political assessment of the song “Come Pet the P.U.S.S.Y”). Perhaps Cundieff would two years later find F. Gary Gray’s Friday most refreshing. Written by Ice Cube and DJ Pooh, the film is content to hang out with its protagonists, who themselves are content to do little at all, other than simply be.
To end at the beginning then, what is Black Cinema? The ‘90s were a fresh time for new, unheard voices with varied American experiences. Since this was the first time many of these creators were given power to speak, it is no wonder that similar themes and issues were addressed. As Burnett has professed, “You never knew when or if you would be able to make another film so the tendency was to try and include everything in it.” However, he also admitted that the makers did have a consciousness of this thing called “black cinema.” “We would shut down restaurants…and the debate was…who was making black films and we couldn’t define what a black film was but we kinda knew it when we saw it.”
Sadly, as Matty Rich pointed out as early as 1992, “the problem is the door is already closing. These [filmmakers] from last year are in. But it’s not open for many newcomers. There can’t be too many of us. The system isn’t designed for us to be very dominant.” Those who made the cut had varied careers over the following decades, sometimes in “black cinema,” sometimes clearly not. Some were able to overcome and confront the label. Allen Hughes said, “We resented the fact that every time we got into an interview, they would ask us about John or Spike like we were all the same people. And Western Culture tends to look at black people as all the same…I don’t think we need to label us a new wave of black cinema…it’s just cinema. We’re all gonna tell stories.” And with the untimely passing of John Singleton this April, we need to help foster these creators before it is too late to hear their stories.
Luckily, over the past few years, and with the aid of the victorious Oscar grab for 2013’s Moonlight, the film industry seems willing to fund new stories.. But what we should really pick up on is the unique voices and tales displayed with Dope, Moonlight, Blindspotting, Sorry to Bother You, and Get Out, to name just a few. Rather than look back and view this as simply another movement, perhaps we as viewers should permit these creators room to tell the tales they wish to tell in the way they wish to tell them. They are by far the freshest voices and most creative minds at work today. As Jordan Peele proclaimed, “I don’t see myself casting a white dude as the lead in my movie. Not that I don’t like white dudes, but I’ve seen that movie.” Rather than try to label these disparate voices as one, maybe we should let each speak for itself, and be grateful we are perhaps at a place where we can finally begin to hear them without the filter of genre label.
"Black 90s: A Turning Point in American Cinema" runs May 3–22, 2019 at BAMcinématek in Brooklyn.