Innovative Black Filmmakers Achieve Success

After a number of gifted black actors had established during the 1980’s that a crossover audience existed for films dealing with black subjects, a renaissance of black films and directors emerged.

Summary of Event

During the late 1980’s and early 1990’s, a substantial wave of serious black films entered the mainstream of American filmmaking, utilizing a growing number of African American talents—actors, writers, directors, and composers who managed to redefine the American cinema and expand its horizons to pay closer attention to black culture. The catalyst for this revolution—it was more than simply a trend—was the controversial success of Spike Lee’s Do the Right Thing (1989) Do the Right Thing (film) following the more marginal success of his earlier films, School Daze (1988) and She’s Gotta Have It (1986). By 1990, Lee had become both a national celebrity, appearing in television commercials for Nike shoes, and a respected major filmmaker, creating opportunities for other African American talents such as Mario Van Peebles, whose New Jack City
New Jack City (film) was released early in 1991, and John Singleton, whose semiautobiographical Boyz n the Hood
Boyz n the Hood (film)[Boyz n the Hood] was released later in that year to high critical acclaim. African Americans;motion-picture directors[motion picture directors]
Motion-picture directors[Motion picture directors];African Americans
[kw]Innovative Black Filmmakers Achieve Success (1980’s-1990’s)
[kw]Black Filmmakers Achieve Success, Innovative (1980’s-1990’s)
[kw]Filmmakers Achieve Success, Innovative Black (1980’s-1990’s)
African Americans;motion-picture directors[motion picture directors]
Motion-picture directors[Motion picture directors];African Americans
[g]North America;1980’s-1990’s: Innovative Black Filmmakers Achieve Success[03910]
[g]United States;1980’s-1990’s: Innovative Black Filmmakers Achieve Success[03910]
[c]Motion pictures and video;1980’s-1990’s: Innovative Black Filmmakers Achieve Success[03910]
Lee, Spike
Singleton, John
Van Peebles, Mario
Townsend, Robert
Duke, Bill
Rich, Matty
Washington, Denzel
Freeman, Morgan
Goldberg, Whoopi

These films grew out of the black urban experience and reflected the concerns and culture of African Americans in new and vital ways. What was especially significant was the mainstreaming of those concerns and the development of a substantial crossover audience. There had always been an ethnic audience for films treating African Americans, who earlier in the century had their own film industry that produced pictures outside the mainstream, starring black actors, made for black audiences in segregated theaters. That industry was separate but unequal, serving a limited market.

On occasion, Hollywood had experimented with novelty pictures starring African Americans, such as King Vidor’s Hallelujah (1929); Hallelujah (film)
Vidor, King Andrew L. Stone’s Stone, Andrew L.
Stormy Weather (1943), Stormy Weather (film) noteworthy for the vitality of a cast that included Lena Horne, Bill Robinson, Fats Waller, Cab Calloway, and the Nicholas brothers; and Otto Preminger’s Preminger, Otto
Carmen Jones (1954), Carmen Jones (film) which adapted the opera as a musical starring Dorothy Dandridge, Pearl Bailey, and Harry Belafonte. In addition, occasional pictures attempted to treat significant racial issues, ranging from Elia Kazan’s Kazan, Elia
Pinky (1949), Pinky (film) starring Jeanne Crain as a black girl passing for white in the South, to Stanley Kramer’s Kramer, Stanley
Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner (1967), Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner (film)[Guess Whos Coming] with Sidney Poitier Poitier, Sidney supporting Spencer Tracy and Katharine Hepburn; Poitier played the fiancé of their daughter in this film exploring interracial relationships. In 1961, Daniel Petrie Petrie, Daniel adapted Lorraine Hansberry’s 1959 play A Raisin in the Sun, Raisin in the Sun, A (film) providing starring roles for Sidney Poitier and Ruby Dee, Dee, Ruby and in 1964, Michael Roemer’s Roemer, Michael
Nothing but a Man dramatized the struggle of a black worker (Ivan Dixon) Dixon, Ivan to protect his family against racial inequality. Such efforts as these were few and far between, however.

During the early 1970’s, a trend for black films developed, led by Ossie Davis, Davis, Ossie Melvin Van Peebles, Van Peebles, Melvin and Gordon Parks, Sr. Parks, Gordon, Sr.
Cotton Comes to Harlem (1970), Cotton Comes to Harlem (film) directed by Davis from a story developed by Chester Himes, Himes, Chester and Shaft (1971), Shaft (film) directed by Parks, presented black policemen as hero figures. In a television interview aired November 9, 1971, in New York City, Davis noted that “the choice of materials and employees is determined by those who have no direct knowledge of the black experience.” Melvin Van Peebles, the director of Watermelon Man (1970) Watermelon Man (film) and Sweet Sweetback’s Baadasssss Song (1971) Sweet Sweetback’s Baadasssss Song (film) , asserted that black films “should all work toward the decolonization of black minds and the reclaiming of black spirit,” goals that were not to be widely achieved for another twenty years. The most lucrative films of the 1970’s trend were Parks’s Shaft and, later, the drug drama Super Fly (1972), Super Fly (film) directed by Parks’s son, Gordon Parks, Jr. Parks, Gordon, Jr.

The number of films directed by African Americans increased in the early 1970’s, but each year brought only a few dozen. Clearly, a market was developing, but the audience was largely ethnic and the films produced were by and large regarded as “blaxploitation” pictures, sexually oriented films with a focus on action and violence. A substantial crossover audience was needed, and that was not to come until the end of the 1980’s, when the content of black films had developed. Film critics of the mid-1970’s were unsure about where black filmmaking would go or whether black directors would ever reach more than an ethnic audience.

The widening of the crossover audience took place during the 1980’s, thanks to the efforts of white filmmakers who were determined to make films that would treat the black experience honestly and were willing to risk experimenting with predominantly black casts. Leading the way was Norman Jewison Jewison, Norman with A Soldier’s Story (1984), Soldier’s Story, A (film)[Soldiers Story] adapted by the African American playwright Charles Fuller Fuller, Charles from his own stage work A Soldier’s Play (1981) Soldier’s Play, A (Fuller) and featuring an amazing cast that included Howard E. Rollins, Jr., Denzel Washington, Robert Townsend, and Adolph Caesar. Steven Spielberg Spielberg, Steven directed The Color Purple (1985), Color Purple, The (film) which was adapted from Alice Walker’s 1982 novel but not scripted by the novelist herself. Spielberg’s film made Walker’s story less grim and ornamented it with sentimentality, but the Spielberg touch also made it a popular success and turned Whoopi Goldberg into a major star. These two films opened the mainstream market to stories about the black experience.

Another significant development was the rise of an increasingly large pool of gifted black actors with drawing power at the box office. Denzel Washington shot to prominence as a consequence of A Soldier’s Story, for example, as did Robert Townsend. Howard E. Rollins, Jr., Rollins, Howard E., Jr. established his credentials forcefully in Ragtime (1981), Ragtime (film) directed by Miloš Forman. Forman, Miloš Danny Glover Glover, Danny gave a memorable performance as a loyal black farmhand in Places in the Heart (1984) Places in the Heart (film) and went on to star in Grand Canyon (1991) Grand Canyon (film) and with Mel Gibson in Lethal Weapon (1987). Lethal Weapon (film) Morgan Freeman gained notice for his acting ability in Driving Miss Daisy (1989). Driving Miss Daisy (film) Eddie Murphy Murphy, Eddie became a major star during the 1980’s in such films as Beverly Hills Cop (1984), Beverly Hills Cop II (1987), and Trading Places (1983). Gregory Hines Hines, Gregory made his film debut in Wolfen (1981), a supernatural thriller, and was transformed into a leading actor by Francis Ford Coppola’s Coppola, Francis Ford
The Cotton Club (1984), Cotton Club, The (film) in a role appropriate for a dancer who began performing at the Apollo Theater at the age of six. The career of television talk-show host Arsenio Hall Hall, Arsenio received a tremendous boost when Hall appeared as Eddie Murphy’s comic sidekick in Coming to America (1988) and in a smaller part in Harlem Nights (1989). Oprah Winfrey, Winfrey, Oprah another talk-show host, became a national celebrity after costarring with Whoopi Goldberg in The Color Purple.

Many of the popular stars of the 1980’s, both in film and on television, were black, reflecting mainstream acceptance. The Cosby Show
Cosby Show, The (television program) completed an eight-year television run in 1992 after frequent appearances at the top of the ratings. Bill Cosby’s Cosby, Bill earlier work with Robert Culp Culp, Robert in the television series I Spy
I Spy (television program) established the black-white buddy formula in the 1960’s. The black renaissance of the 1980’s and 1990’s represented a culmination of audience acceptance by both black and white audiences and the appearance of a large number of African American artists capable of doing original, entertaining work.

Independent filmmaker Spike Lee in 1991.

(AP/Wide World Photos)

The transition from bebop to hip-hop culture can be dated to Beat Street (1984), Beat Street (film) the first film to popularize rap culture. The success of that film might suggest that American culture had become less racist and more willing to accept, or at least examine, black culture. Spike Lee explored racial tensions, however, in Do the Right Thing and Jungle Fever (1991), Jungle Fever (film) showing that tensions and racism still existed. Certainly the films of the 1990’s were far different from such black exploitation features as Super Fly, less superfluous and ephemeral, more realistic, original, and inventive. This was particularly true of the films of Spike Lee, John Singleton, and Matty Rich, which examined social problems and attitudes in depth from a distinctly black perspective.

The black renaissance hit full force in 1990 in two separate but related ways, in films directed by mainstream directors who used black actors and in films directed by African Americans. One of the very best films of 1989, for example, was Driving Miss Daisy, directed by Australian Bruce Beresford Beresford, Bruce and adapted from Alfred Uhry’s Uhry, Alfred Pulitzer Prize-winning play (pr. 1987), starring Morgan Freeman as Hoke Colburn, Miss Daisy’s compassionate chauffeur, and Esther Rolle Rolle, Esther as Idella, her sardonic cook. The same year saw Glory, Glory (film) directed by Edward Zwick, Zwick, Edward a film that told the story of a black regiment that fought against the Confederacy during the Civil War, starring Morgan Freeman and Denzel Washington, with Matthew Broderick Broderick, Matthew as Robert Gould Shaw, the white colonel who organized and led the regiment. Washington won the Academy Award for Best Supporting Actor Academy Awards;Best Supporting Actor for his portrayal of a runaway slave turned soldier in Glory. In 1991, he starred with rap music artist Ice-T in the police drama Ricochet. Driving Miss Daisy received Academy Award nominations for Best Actor, Best Actress, and Best Picture, but at the same time the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences virtually ignored Spike Lee’s Do the Right Thing.

With a new generation of African American directors in place by the 1990’s, it became less likely that films dealing with black topics would be made by white directors. Spike Lee continued to stabilize his reputation with Mo’ Better Blues (1990), Mo’ Better Blues (film)[Mo Better Blues] which featured strong performances from Denzel Washington and Wesley Snipes, Snipes, Wesley followed by Jungle Fever (1991) and the controversial Malcolm X (1992), Malcolm X (film) which went over budget and resulted in a public argument between Lee and the studio over funding to complete the picture.

Although still the most visible of black directing talents, Lee faced strong competition by 1991. The first to challenge Lee was Mario Van Peebles, whose New Jack City (1991), New Jack City (film) a film about a police crackdown on drug dealers, received nationwide attention when riots broke out in theaters where it opened. John Singleton’s Boyz n the Hood eclipsed both New Jack City and Jungle Fever when it was released at midyear and was the consensus pick of critics around the nation for the top film of 1991. For that film, Singleton became the youngest person and the first African American to be nominated for an Oscar as Best Director.


The impact of the black renaissance in film was obvious in the other major black films released in the early 1990’s: Matty Rich’s Straight Out of Brooklyn (1991); Bill Duke’s A Rage in Harlem (1991), followed by Deep Cover, starring Laurence Fishburne Fishburne, Laurence and released in early 1992; Robert Townsend’s The Five Heartbeats (1991); and Topper Carew’s Carew, Topper
Talkin’ Dirty After Dark (1991). Other films in production in 1991 were released in 1992, such as Ernest Dickerson’s Dickerson, Ernest
Juice, extending interest in the problems of black urban neighborhoods, and Reginald Hudlin’s Hudlin, Reginald
Boomerang, which undertook to reinvigorate Eddie Murphy’s sagging career by starring him in a comedy-romance with Robin Givens, Halle Berry, Grace Jones, and Eartha Kitt. Boomerang was dominated by black talent; it was coproduced by Warrington Hudlin, Hudlin, Warrington the director’s brother and cofounder of the Black Filmmakers Foundation.

The black films of the late 1980’s and early 1990’s focused, to a greater or lesser degree, on black themes and issues. They reached mainstream audiences with something more than standard Hollywood blockbuster fare, and they showed that African American artists were providing many of the new ideas in American film. African Americans;motion-picture directors[motion picture directors]
Motion-picture directors[Motion picture directors];African Americans

Further Reading

  • Bogle, Donald. Bright Boulevards, Bold Dreams: The Story of Black Hollywood. New York: Random House, 2005. History of African Americans’ experience in the motion-picture industry in the first half of the twentieth century provides context for the achievements of black filmmakers in the 1980’s. Includes photographs, bibliography, and index.
  • _______. Toms, Coons, Mulattoes, Mammies, and Bucks: An Interpretive History of Blacks in American Films. 4th ed. New York: Continuum, 2001. Important volume by a black critic examines depictions of blacks in films. Chapters progress by decade. Concludes that even in the 1970’s, films featuring blacks often still used “degrading myths and clichés as well as . . . stereotypes to define the black experience” and American black movies remained “distorted and far from satisfying.”
  • Corliss, Richard. “Boyz of New Black City.” Time, June 17, 1991, 64-68. Evaluates the explosion of black films in 1991 and credits Spike Lee with creating “the market for the black-movie rage.” Summarizes Lee’s career and profiles John Singleton, Matty Rich, Charles Burnett, Bill Duke, and others.
  • Cripps, Thomas. Black Film as Genre. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1978. Thorough and scholarly treatment of the earliest films made by African Americans for black audiences, with black creative roots in the persons of producers, directors, writers, or performers. Traces the “genre” from the silent period to the 1970’s. Singles out six films for in-depth analysis.
  • Friedman, Lester D., ed. Unspeakable Images: Ethnicity and the American Cinema. Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1991. Collection of essays examines the treatment of ethnicity in American film. Mark Winokur’s “Black Is White/White Is Black” considers the“strategy of racial compatibility in contemporary Hollywood comedy.” Robyn Wiegman discusses “gender, race, and the bourgeois ideal” in an essay titled “Black Bodies/American Commodities.” Paul S. Cowen’s “Social-Cognitive Approach” offers a taxonomy of films involving ethnicity.
  • Kroll, Jack. “How Hot Is Too Hot? The Fuse Has Been Lit.” Newsweek, July 3, 1989, 64-65. Examines the controversial nature of Do the Right Thing and the riot that Spike Lee dramatizes in the film. Asserts that, in attempting to be “both ingratiating and militant, Lee has done the wrong thing.”
  • Leab, Daniel J. From Sambo to Superspade: The Black Experience in Motion Pictures. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1975. Traces black stereotyping from the origins of the motion picture to the popularity of the so-called blaxploitation films of the 1970’s. Concludes that up to the mid-1970’s, except for a few exceptions—such as Sounder (1972), The Learning Tree (1969), and Nothing but a Man (1964)—“the film image of the black is as condescending and defamatory as it has ever been.”
  • Leland, John, and Donna Foote. “A Bad Omen for Black Movies?” Newsweek, July 29, 1991, 64-65. Addresses concerns about violent outbreaks at theaters showing Boyz n the Hood, despite the film’s strong antiviolence message. Discusses the problem in the context of similar outbreaks of violence at the release of New Jack City four months earlier.
  • Murray, James. To Find an Image: Black Films from Uncle Tom to Super Fly. Indianapolis: Bobbs-Merrill, 1973. Discussion of the evolution of black cinema up to the early 1970’s by the first black critic to join the New York Film Critics Circle. Devotes separate chapters to Sidney Poitier (“The Black Superstar Finally Arrives”) and Ossie Davis, as well as to directors Gordon Parks, Sr., and Melvin Van Peebles.

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