Filed Under:  Columns, Opinion

Who’s afraid of a Black Hollywood?

3rd December 2013   ·   0 Comments

By David Dennis Jr.
Contributing Writer

Who remembers Soul Plane? The movie, which came out about a decade ago, was the nadir of Black cinema. The premise was simple (and embarrassing): a cast led by upstart comedian Kevin Hart and Snoop Dogg start an urban airline whose levels of buffoonery were only eclipsed by the amount of stereotypes stuffed into an hour and a half of paint-less Blackface. This was the state of Black cinema only a few years ago: movies that were unmistakably “Black” in the most based and regressive ways possible. And they also failed in the box office.

But something has changed. Maybe it was years of groundwork by Tyler Perry to show a community of African Americans willing to go to movie theaters for films with faces that looked like their – even if the “positive” messages were muddled by poor writing, a Black man in drag and another long list of problematic representations. Maybe it was the resounding success of Precious or the creation of the mystical — and confounding to white corporations — land known as Black Twitter. Whatever the reason, there is now a Black Hollywood. A distinct market where the Black story is told, supported by Black people and making more money than ever before. And New Orleans is right at the center of it.

2013 has seen an interesting relationship between Black America and the stories told about it on the big screen. The year began with a debate as to why a Black man wouldn’t have been allowed to successfully direct a movie like Django Unchained with any amount of success (and that’s a valid argument. Spike Lee directing Django would have been laughed out of every movie studio in America as a Black militant propaganda film, fair or unfair). Then we had a series of movies about the Black struggle which brought about its own set of debates. The Butler and 12 Years A Slave, on the heels of the success from last year’s The Help, made it seem like movies about the Black experience had to only focus on “the struggle.” As if slavery, servitude and despair were the only brush strokes allowed when painting the picture of Black America.

Then something interesting happened along the way. “Black” movies became successful without having to be innately “Black.” Think Like A Man, despite it’s mostly-Black cast, is at its core a movie about dating. It’s not a “Black” comedy or a movie that deals the Black experience in any exclusive way. The movie hit #1 in the box office and was a major crossover hit about a race-less experience and starring Black actors. This is a totally foreign idea to Hollywood. Just this month, Best Man Holiday went head-to-head with Thor at the top of the box office charts. The movie, a sequel to the cult hit Best Man, is another example of a successful movie starring an all-Black cast that tells a compelling story that isn’t “exclusively Black” (despite USA Today calling the movie “race-themed” because what else would a movie with a Black cast be about?)

Now, Hollywood is finally getting the point. Movies can have all-Black casts tell universal stories in the same way that all-White casts can. And thanks to our flexing Black dollars at movie theaters, Hollywood is learning that these movies are successful. Don’t look now, but Black Hollywood is becoming a reality.

And because of the lower tax on movies studios in Louisiana and the way the scenery lends itself to period pieces, many of these films, like the aforementioned Django Unchained and 12 Years A Slave are actually filmed in or around the city. So why not just keep it that way? New Orleans is in need of more stronger pipelines to success for our youths to aspire to and get training for from early ages. If movie studios and directors are insisting that movies get made here, which is a definite boost to the overall city economy, then let’s figure out a way to build some film and art schools in the city to train our kids to be grips or cameramen or makeup artists. If we’re really going to tell the Black story and have Black directors and actors tell these stories, why not encourage young Black men and women to engage in every stage of production?

It’s time to work on building a film and arts school in New Orleans where our kids can capitalize on one of the state’s biggest and growing economic sources. It’s time to stop getting cut out whenever a new revenue stream gets created in New Orleans. Let’s go all the way and make the city the true Black Hollywood.

This article originally published in the December 2, 2013 print edition of The Louisiana Weekly newspaper.

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