In Part 1, having decreed the 1990s a golden age of black film making, TBB acknowledged the quality, but lamented the themes in many of the general release movies.
Many are now dubbed ‘crime thrillers’, but had the tendency to show black characters as criminals, corrupt cops or individuals faced with poor choices. We applauded the creative approaches a handful of directors took and decided that political, educational or gritty dramas were much fewer in number. Love seemed usually to number amongst those poor choices or added dilemmas. So, we made you wait for Part 2 which, 20 years after Claudine (1972) and Sounder (1974) and warm on the heels of She’s Gotta Have It (1986), the 1990s took aspirations in love, family and career and gave us a goldmine of beautifully shot movies – 23 of which are discussed here.
Reginald Hudlin gave us high school comedy House Party in 1990 – unchaperoned, a grounded high schooler sneaking out to an illicit party to explore fledgling romances and illegal beer. Familiar? This film announced to America and the world that the mice will play when the cat’s away in black communities too – Kid’n'Play, to be exact. Whilst there was some brief gunplay, Hudlin presented us with an Homeric Odyssey-type adventure. A Chicago Sun-Times critic declared it, “a canvas… to show us black teenagers with a freshness and originality that’s rare in modern movies…” It earned four sequels – two in the 90s: House Party 2 (college pajama party – George Jackson and Doug McHenry, 1991) and House Party 3 (bachelor party – Eric Meza, 1994). House Party débuted at no.3 at the box office and earned almost 10½ times its $2.5m budget. HP2 débuted at no.5, almost quadrupling its $5m budget and HP3 débuted at no.3, making $19.2m (budget figures not available).
The 1991 Cannes Film Festival was actually dubbed the Black Croisette, bringing four African and four African Diaspora movies to worldwide attention. Three dealt with issues of love in refreshing ways.
Jungle Fever, directed by Spike Lee (yes, Aftab’s book project) intriguingly tackled interracial love with a difference – Wesley Snipes’ architect embarks on an affair with his Italian-American temp and takes on all of the consequences. It earned a Palme d’Or nomination, but won the Ecumenical Jury Special Mention Prize and a specially created Best Supporting Actor Award for Samuel L. Jackson’s crackhead character, Gator Purify. It débuted at no. 3 and tripled its $14m budget.
Bill Duke’s period romantic comedy-drama A Rage in Harlem had Robin Givens’ gangster’s moll Imabelle fleeing to Harlem with a trunk full of gold and finding love with Forest Whitaker’s unlikely hero Jackson. Whilst US critics disparaged it, it screened In Competition and received a 5-minute standing ovation at closing credits. Harlem’s celebration party (and Ice Cube’s post-Boyz premiere party set) were the Festival’s hot-ticket events. It débuted at no. 7 and broke even with its $8m budget.
The Critic’s Prize was awarded to Young Soul Rebels, in which the black British director Isaac Julien explored the roiling tensions between the 1977 Silver Jubilee youth identities of punks, skinheads and soul boys. It was set in London’s inner city and dealt with violence and unrest. It also dealt with a homosexual relationship attempting to transcend the social, political and cultural differences, but not quite managing it. . This film opened only in eight theatres but still made $¼m, a loss on its £1.2m (~$2m) budget.
I class Boomerang, 1992, as another landmark movie by Eddie Murphy, because he had already brought us a razor-sharp, loyal detective in Beverly Hills Cop (1984, 87); a near divine investigator dedicated to finding lost children in The Golden Child (1988); A dignified, elegant African aristocracy in Coming To America (1988) and a reserved 1930s nightclub owner in Harlem Nights (1989). It was no surprise, then, when Reginald Hudlin directed Murphy’s Boomerang. It was the first feature film to fully embrace and commit to celluloid a black version of the modern American Dream of affluence – a black-owned New York advertising Agency, Chantress, run by black urban professionals whose dating scene, whilst predatory and chauvinistic (it was the 90s), revolved around home-cooked candlelit meals, dog-walking and live sports games. However flawed, this narrative was of black city professionals dating. These aspirational themes had been incorporated into mainstream cinema and television since the 1950s, yet here they were for the first time in a modern black romantic comedy. This movie also continued Spike Lee’s themes of female sexual empowerment in Robin Givens’ Jacqueline. Boomerang débuted at no. 3, eventually tripling its $42m budget at the box office.
Produced by Disney, you would be forgiven for thinking Cool Runnings, 1993 (Jon Turtletaub*) was a fairytale brought to the big screen. It followed a Caribbean bob-sled team competing in the winter Olympics. You’d be wrong. When one’s dream of qualifying for the main Olympics was unfortunately derailed, this quartet of Jamaican sportsmen, who had never experienced snow, chose to train in bob-sledding and made it all the way to the 1988 Winter Olympics in Alberta, Canada. Here was entertainment taken from reality – self-determining black men besting every obstacle! Made as a comedy drama, it débuted at number 3 and more than doubled its $68m budget. Great stuff!
In Poetic Justice (1993), John Singleton presented many things here: a female main protagonist without the film being labelled a ‘chick flick’; Justice, a hairstylist who has inherited family property and owns a cat; Justice’s burgeoning poetic talent (actually the work of Maya Angelou, RIP, narrated and read throughout the movie); a dedicated single father and a road movie. Issues which urban communities experience were represented as undertones – musical talent, violence, substance abuse and neglect, but Singleton concentrated on love and friendship and was rewarded with his romantic drama opening at no.1 and doubling its $14m budget.
Doug McHenry’s Jason’s Lyric (1994) appears to be more drama than romantic, but it did show us that amongst the working class and despite disadvantage and violence, young black adults experience a coming-of-age, as they learn how to deal with love, maturity and the meaning of commitment. It also showcased lesser known acting talent, débuted at no. 3 and almost tripled its $7m budget.
Crooklyn (Spike Lee, 1994) went where Beasts of the Southern Wild (Benh Zeitlin*) was able to follow in 2012. Lee presented a film about community, family, love and loss from Troy’s perspective – a 9 year old girl growing up in a big family with a schoolteacher mum, a frustrated musician dad and four brothers in 1970s Brooklyn. Again, urban issues are present but not foremost, and it dealt with cancer in the black community which may not have been addressed before and rarely since. It is, nevertheless, warm and nostalgic and showed Lee’s deft hand with the urban melting pot of borough. It débuted at no. 3, but did not break even with its $14m budget.
Waiting to Exhale was Forest Whitaker’s 1995 directorial début – a romantic drama, set in Arizona with four black, thirty-something, professional females as the main protagonists. First, it was set in Arizona! Next, it centred on the friendship and support system between them – three career women and one homemaker who was an ex-career woman – and their relationships with men. By all of the number-crunching Hollywood demographics, this movie should not have opened at number one and eventually more than quadruple its $16m budget. It featured a very well-known female cast which included Whitney Houston (not really considered a ‘great actress’) and a more than decent male cast (with an uncredited cameo from Mr Snipes)! The Los Angeles Times called it a “social phenomenon”, but really, the preceding 9 films really should have taken the ‘surprise’ out of it being a ‘surprise hit’. Relatively speaking, at least 7 had been ‘hits’.
Now, I include Vampire in Brooklyn (1995, Wes Craven*) because it is a very interesting case. Two major film stars (Eddie Murphy and Angela Bassett) and a popular TV star (Kadeem Hardison from A Different World) fronted this movie. Maximillian is the sole survivor of a race of Caribbean island vampires and is on a quest for survival. To ensure perpetuation of his species, he is on a limited timetable to find the half human Dhampir of vampire kin living somewhere in New York. On the surface, this is a film about good vs evil. In actuality, this movie presents an attempt at survival at all costs and the nature of romance, loyalty and love. It obliquely examines many issues relevant to any ethnic community, including mental illness and alienation. For example, the ‘mixed race’ Rita witnessed her mother’s insanity stemming from the death of her vampire husband by vampire hunters. She fears for her own sanity and risks remaining out of place and misunderstood by society should she remain in the human world. Of course, love fixes all of that, but the film does a reasonable job of presenting the crossed purposes of multiple points of view.
Now then, Maximillian is suave and mysterious – check. He has the traditional swept back shoulder length vampire hair and drinks blood to survive, resulting in occasional screaming and death – check. Vampires explode in sunlight, so most vampire action must take place at night or in the dark – check. There is comic relief, a creative choice which I enjoyed. The love story and good vs evil stories arc the way they’re supposed to for American audiences. Vampire even débuted at number 3, four days before Halloween, taking most receipts during the first weekend. Yet, it ended up breaking about even with its $14m budget, receipts dropping off sharply over the next 3 weekends, but only falling out of the top 10 on the fourth. Then again, one Chicago-Sun Times critic (the same of the almost patronising HP review above) wrote, “The movie is unpleasant to look at. It’s darker than ‘Se7en,’ but without sufficient purpose, and my overall memory of it is people screaming in the shadows. To call this a comedy is a sign of optimism;…”
The horror genre, and vampirism in particular, has long been used as a metaphor for society’s outcasts. Apparently, you can’t put the metaphors into the actual roles, because that might make it ‘unpleasant to look at’. That said, in 2008 not only did vampires become effortless daywalkers, but they veritably sparkled in the sunlight! Ultimately, Vampire is included here because it had given us something never seen before or since – a suave, mysterious black vampire adept in the art of wooing.
Devil in a Blue Dress, 1995, was adapted from an award-winning 1990 novel. Carl Franklin presented a WWII army veteran (yes, we were there, too!), unfairly laid off from his factory who chooses to become a private investigator. For me, this had undertones of Chinatown (1974) and presented Denzel Washington’s Easy Rawlins choosing a non-typical path to help people, including those of his own community. This film had an authentic noirish feel and was beautifully shot, but was also interesting for a couple of other reasons. In the 1990s Washington rarely did love scenes, and they were never with white women. The bi-racial Jennifer Beals was cast as white and some of the promotional shots suggest that Devil contained a love interest between the two. It didn’t. Devil débuted at no. 3 and generated less than ⅔ of its $27m budget.
The Tuskegee Airmen 1995 (Robert Markowitz*) is an HBO TV movie which I just had to include, as it announced to the world that, not only had there really been a black contribution to WWII, but that, against all odds, there had been hugely successful black combat pilot squadron, which was constituted on the 4th July 1942. This first, out of Tuskegee Army Airfield, Alabama, was the 332nd Fighter Group. Oh, it also debunked the ‘medical fact’ that “Negroes are incapable of handling complex machinery,” including, as it did, pilots, navigators, bombardiers, maintenance staff, support staff and instructors. They earned a Distinguished Unit Citation in 1945, a Luftwaffe nickname of the Schwarze Vogelmenschen (Black Birdmen) and the Ally nickname of Redtails or Redtail Angels because of their impressive combat record. Anthony Hemingway used this title in the big screen re-make, Red Tails, in 2012. George Lucas, an uncredited co-director, is married to the black and beautiful Mellody Hobson, chairman of Dreamworks Animation and had to use his own money to make it, having been turned down by major film studios on the premise that it had an “all-black” cast with “no major white roles.”
Spike Lee continued his long relationship with Cannes when Girl 6, his further exploration of alternative ideas of sex and romance, screened Out-Of-Competition in 1996. Here, he presented an aspiring actress in New York who attempts to take a stand against the treatment of women in the movie industry, but has to take a job as a phone-sex operator to make ends meet. She becomes increasingly immersed within the telecom world. Eventually, she can leave it all behind, take on the movie industry again and take the rejection with a renewed strength. It débuted at no.7 and only made back ⅓ of its $12m budget.
I include Bad Boys, 1995 (Michael Bay*) because it gave us a detective duo not in a Yankee inner city, but in beautiful Miami, so, Tubbs and Trudie (Miami Vice) weren’t the only black people down there! We’d seen Martin Lawrence’s family man, Marcus Burnett, before – he lived in a family home in suburbia, which was basically Danny Glover’s Murtaugh all over again (Lethal Weapon series, 1987, 89, 92, 98). But Will Smith’s Mike Lowry was new to the big screen. Lowry was a rich kid who had inherited money and lived in a penthouse apartment with a concierge, but who chose to become a police officer. Of course, the concessions were that Lowry was a ‘player’ who had a thing for exotic dancers and Burnett was obsessed with having ‘quality time’ with this wife. Bad Boys débuted at no.1 and made back nearly 3.5 times its $19m budget in the US plus nearly 4 times its budget abroad (~$141.4m worldwide).
Soul Food, 1997, was the big family film of the 90s. As with Spike Lee’s predecessor, Crooklyn, George Tillman Jr chose the eyes of a child (11 year old Ahmad) through which to show us the Joseph family of Chicago. Longstanding traditions revolving around the large Sunday mealtime begin to suffer, with the death of the Matriarch, Big Mama Jo. Coping with this major life event heralds major changes in the lives of the close-knit and supportive family (and extended family) members. Despite featuring a lawyer quitting his job to pursue a career in music and an ex-con, Soul Food was thought to have presented ‘a more positive image of African-Americans in a Hollywood film’. It débuted at no.3 and made nearly 6 times its $7.5m budget.
Theodore Witcher’s Love Jones, 1997, was a small indie film about a poet and an unemployed photographer, who meet in a bohemian nightclub and, being immediately attracted to each other, become lovers. Their emotions take a while to catch up and their social group debate love and relationships, as Larenz Tate’s Darius Lovehall and Nia Long’s Nina Mosely try to overcome fears, self-interest and their friends’ opinions to just be together. It showed a cool, jazz-tinged side of 90s culture made up of poetry slams and finger snap appreciation amongst twenty-something black intellectuals and débuted at no.6. It just exceeded its $10m budget at the box office, but remains a cult classic today!
Eve’s Bayou, 1997, was a landmark film for several reasons: director Karen ‘Kasi’ Lemmons is a black woman from the American South (St. Louis) and this was possibly the first time a general release black movie featured fantasy in the form of the supernatural, curses and voodoo. Lemmons presented Eve Batiste, a 10 year old from a middle class family in a prosperous St. Louis town, one hot summer, whose idyllic family life begins to crumble around her father, Dr Batiste’s, infidelity. Voodoo has been repeatedly depicted in mainstream movies, so mainstream audiences were not thrown by the prosperity of the majority black cast or even the black, female director, maybe because there was the comfort of the familiar. It was overwhelmingly positively received, débuting at no. 8, and more than doubled its $6m budget.
Beloved, 1998, (Jonathan Demme*) was a fantasy horror film starring heavyweights Oprah Winfrey, Danny Glover and Thandie Newton. It was set in the outskirts of post-civil war Cincinnati and follows a woman and her family as she is haunted by a poltergeist, which leads to the revelation of the sort of Sophie’s Choice love can drive a slave to. Beloved débuted at no. 5 but made back only ¼ of its $80m budget. Still, it was nominated for an Academy Award for costume design.
I’m sure that even director Kevin Rodney Sullivan would agree that 1998’s How Stella Got Her Groove Back could not have been the ’start’ of the changing face of black cinema. It certainly gave us a Cougar decades after The Graduate dared to, and before they became popular in mainstream television. Angela Bassett’s Stella – a forty something stockbroker and single mother – embarks on a Caribbean holiday romance with Taye Diggs’ younger man, also an affluent professional. Stella débuted at no.2 and more than doubled its $20m budget.
Rick Famuyiwa’s romantic comedy, The Wood, 1999, was so much more than cold feet on the eve of a wedding. Personally, I think this film exceeded 1994’s Crooklyn in childhood nostalgia. The Wood’s flashback scenes to the coming-of-age misadventures of a trio of friends is so well-observed – hair, crushes, first kisses, Prom and disastrous dancing – it’s all there. Emotionally, it reached me all the way in North-East London, and so transcended the Inglewood neighbourhood in which it was set, presenting a brighter city childhood. This utter delight débuted at no.6 and more than quadrupled its $6m budget.
Malcolm D Lee presented an impressive ensemble cast of aspiring professionals in The Best Man, 1999. The main protagonist, Taye Diggs’ writer, Harper, is on the brink of career success and a serious relationship. He attends his best friend’s wedding, over which a succession of revelations, both verbal and those included in Harper’s début novel, threaten to derail the union. This was a production from Lee’s cousin Spike’s company and it débuted at no.1, then more than tripled its $9m budget.
Just as the decade began with a British film (YSR), so it ended with another – The Secret Laughter of Women. Directed by Peter Schwabach* and written by Misan Sagay (her first feature), it was made in 1998 (UK-Canada), but received its UK release at the London International Film Festival on November 29th 1999. This romantic comedy centred on Nia Long’s unwed mother Nimi and Colin Firth’s married Matthew negotiating cross-cultural love. Matthew is a loner and a writer and Nimi is a landscape architect living amongst her extended family. The beauty in this film was that it was set amongst a wealthy Nigerian ex-pat community on the Côte d’Azur in the South of France. Nigerian culture is beautifully observed in dress, language, humour and the ‘Parable Battle’ Nimi’s mother engages in with Nimi’s aunts and the Reverend Fola – a potential suitor for Nimi in her family’s eyes. One reviewer for The Observer wrote “… this exotic emigré community on the Cote d’Azur is neither explained nor explored…” and other reviews generally show just how uncomfortable mainstream critics can be when reviewing any work with a different culture brought to the fore [Read TBB’s Critic’s Debate review]. The Total Film reviewer complained about “… a disappointingly predictable trajectory…” when most general release films follow the Monomyth formula of the Hero’s Journey (another article for another day). Box office stats were not available.
The dawn of serious film production by black talent which began in the 1980s was raised up and gained momentum in the 1990s. Amidst the stifling over-representation of crime thrillers of every squalid stripe, these 23 films showcased a lot of black film making talent displaying versatility across multiple genres. This was not just in acting, but in writing, directing and cinematography too.
You can say what you like about Eddie Murphy, but in creating his production company, he was able to attempt themes in his movies that would never have been green-lit otherwise, and which have not generally been attempted since. Along with all of these films, revisit some and view them with wiser eyes. Mainstream critics’ opinions are often influenced by their own rigid perceptions and completely miss not only the cultural references which make these films enjoyable, but also the cultural importance of seeing black represented in a different light!
The 90s prove that black film makers are good at navigating ensemble pieces dealing with relationships; at storytelling from a child’s perspective; at giving a film with a female cast (or lead) gender cross-over appeal; at believably representing the opposite sex on screen (Forest Whitaker and Kasi Lemmons in particular); at making films which do translate overseas; at producing movies which, on average, début in the top five during an opening weekend and, on average, generate at least double their budget costs in box office receipts. This means that black films make money for their investors!
Further, Soul Food inspired a spin off TV series which aired 74 episodes over 5 seasons (Showtime, 2000-2004) and is the longest-running series of its ‘kind’; Love Jones is still regarded as a cult classic; House Party, Bad Boys and The Best Man both scored multi-million dollar-generating sequels, with Bad Boys and Waiting to Exhale both currently in sequel talks; The Noughties continued the proliferation of general release black movies and gave us further classics like Love and Basketball (Gina Prince Bythewood, 2000), Brown Sugar (Rick Famuyiwa, 2002), Something New (Sanaa Hamri, 2006) and This Christmas (Preston A Whitmore II, 2007).
This year alone, Kevin Hart had two no.1 films Ride Along (Tim Story) which made over $153m and Think Like A Man Too (Tim Story, $65.2m). About Last Night (Steve Pink*) débuted at no.2 and made $48m. Each of these films generated box office receipts which were over 86% domestic (USA). Whilst Exhale and Stella generated mainly domestic revenue, this might be the first time a black male lead achieved it in a major grossing film.
Although many actors other than the quite brilliant Washington, Snipes, Jackson, Smith and Murphy were pushed very much to the fore, sadly, one legacy has been that many of the most prolific directors, writers and actors of that time have not sustained that decade of high-flying promise.
Legacy for the rest of the African Diaspora
On the other hand, many US States now host their own black film festivals, which are often international. The British romantic drama Hard Time Bus (Dean Charles, 2014) débuted in the Hollywood Black Film Festival in 2013, winning Best Feature Film, which was followed by selections for the American Black Film Festival (New York) and the BBIFF See below).
Worldwide, there are an increasing number of film festivals dedicated to the Diaspora-influenced point of view: several in Canada (Montreal and Toronto), Berlin, Africa (including The Pan-Africa International Film Festival, Cannes) and the Caribbean (Bahamas, Belize Cuba, Dominican Republic, Guadeloupe, Trinidad & Tobago, Jamaica and Puerto Rico. And of course African film has had a solid track record at Cannes, where Jamaica’s strong 1970s film output has been gathering momentum.
The script of Chris Browne’s Ghetta Life won the Hartley Merrill International Screenplay Award at Cannes 2006, then became the first Jamaican film featuring an all-Jamaican cast to be fully funded by Jamaicans. It won the Best Pitch Award at the 2011 Marché du Film. Also presented that year was Pascale Obolo’s Calypso Rose: The Lioness of the Jungle (Trinidad & Tobago). This year, Mary Wells’ Kingston Paradise débuted at the Marché du Film and was the first Jamaican movie to be represented at this event by a reputable Hollywood commercial film distributor and agent (California Pictures, LA).
Here in the UK, there has been growth of afro-centric and urban film festivals and awards such as Screen Nation Film & TV Awards, the Movie Video & Screen Awards (MViSAs) at Birmingham Black International Film Festival (BBIFF), the Edinburgh African Film Festival, Welcome to Busseywood (Peckham & Nunhead Free Film Festival), and the British Urban Film Festival (BUFF). British Comedy Gone Too Far! (Destiny Ekaragha, 2013) won the 2013 London Comedy Film Festival Best New Comedy Award.
So, there are many, many more platforms for black film makers to showcase their brand and gain recognition in the feature film arena. As regards directors, Richard Ayoade, Steve McQueen and Amma Assante are regularly included on watch lists for up and coming British directors and McQueen has been trailblazing down the Awards route [listen to his artistic journey].
October, Black History Month 2014
The inaugural Back 2 Black @ BAFTA Black History Month event to celebrate the achievements, culture and history of African-Caribbean people in the UK took place on October 5th in central London [read TBB's review].
Award-winning British comedy Gone Too Far! has been released this October. Catch it, support it and maybe the legacy of the 90s will push us all to do greater things.
article for the british blacklist by @DescantDeb