For the past two weekends, two films with black directors and mostly black casts have garnered considerable attention.
LISTEN HERE: Is it time to retire the term ‘black film’?
Tyler Perry’s latest Madea film cost about $20 million to make and has already brought in more than $56 million.
Barry Jenkins’ “Moonlight,” shot on a shoestring budget, has been almost universally praised by critics and has earned more than $1.5 million playing in just four theaters over the past two weeks.
These successes have led some to wonder if black film is entering into a new chapter, and if the title “black film” ought to be retired for the term: “film.”
BY CALLING A FILM A BLACK FILM, DOES THAT CONFINE IT?
You know, it depends. If we say ‘French film,’ we understand that we’re probably talking about a film that is in the French language, but we’re probably also talking about a film that references French culture. I could say ‘a French film,’ and it might be made by an Algerian or a Moroccan, and it will be in the French language but it will very much not be about the French culture.
I think that what we have to do is to allow the notion of black film to evolve just like we have every other genre of film: German film, Japanese film, all those films can carry those monikers, but they’re all just films. They’re all cinema.
WHAT IF THE MOVIE HAS NOTHING TO DO WITH THE BLACK EXPERIENCE? SAY A BLACK FILMMAKER IS HIRED TO DIRECT A FILM ABOUT UNICORNS AND RAINBOWS?
Then you’re going to have yourself a film about unicorns and rainbows that is a black film. It’s gonna be a black film about unicorns and rainbows. And by the way, if it were a woman directing that film, then it would be a film about unicorns and rainbows that’s very female.
SO THE IDENTITY WILL ALWAYS BE THERE. MOONLIGHT DIRECTOR BARRY JENKINS WAS ASKED WHETHER HE SAW HIMSELF AS A BLACK FILMMAKER OR JUST A FILMMAKER. HIS RESPONSE WAS THAT THERE’S NO TIME WHEN BLACK CEASES TO BE A DEFINING CHARACTERISTIC.
This is absolutely true. It’s true of us. Me, I’m a film critic, but I’m unequivocally a black film critic. My thoughts about film are filtered through my blackness because I’m black all day, every day.
ARE WE GOING TO START CLASSIFYING MOVIES DIFFERENTLY GOING FORWARD OR WILL THEY ALWAYS GO BACK TO THOSE LABELS?
You know, I think that they will always sort of go back to those same categories. What we need to expand is our understanding of what those categories mean. ‘Black film’ don’t necessarily mean Tyler Perry and Kevin Hart and “Boys in the Hood.” It can also mean Daughters of the Dust, wonderful Julie Dash’s movie. “Killer of Sheep,” by Charles Burnett. It might even mean a film that stars a white kid doing things in a white neighborhood that some black guy thought of.
Press the blue play button above to hear the full interview.
(Questions and answers have been edited for brevity and clarity.)
by Tim Cogshell | Off-Ramp
You don’t need to wait for the local art house to put on a themed film festival. Tim Cogshell, film critic for KPCC’s Filmweek and Alt Film Guide, and who blogs at CinemaInMind, is producing a series of DIY Film Festivals for Off-Ramp listeners to throw in the comfort of their own homes.
This DIY film festival is about miscegenation. Don’t know or remember what it means? Good.
Miscegenation is sex or marriage between people of different races — usually whites and blacks. It was illegal in much of the U.S. until the 60s, and was also either taboo or forbidden in cinema. This DIY festival, including a documentary, a short silent film, and even a few TV episodes, is inspired by Jeff Nichols’ new film “Loving,” which is about the 1967 miscegenation case that changed the law and the movies.
1. “The Loving Story” 2011
“Loving” was inspired by the HBO documentary, “The Loving Story,” which is the first film of our festival. Mildred and Richard Loving were an interracial couple who married in 1958, despite Virginia’s anti-miscegenation laws.
As good as the new narrative film is, the 2011 doc is better.
The Hays Code, the rules the movies were governed by, stated explicitly: “Miscegenation (sex-relationships between the white and black races) is forbidden.” When the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in favor of the Lovings, the 1930 Hays Code was replaced by the Classification and Rating System Administration. But before that, miscegenation was still fodder for Hollywood.
2. “What Happened in the Tunnel” (1903)
The earliest film to take on miscegenation may have been Edwin S. Porter’s very short 1903 film “What Happened in the Tunnel.” It was considered funny in 1903, but the film probably contributed to the earliest rules on the miscegenation.
3. “Imitation of Life” (1934)
In the first “Imitation of Life,” Fredi Washington plays Louise Beavers’ fair-skinned daughter who rejects her black heritage — and her mother — in favor of passing into the white world and landing a white husband. It barely made it past the censors, but today it’s in the National Film Registry, and Time called it one of “The 25 Most Important Films on Race.”
You might also want to check out Douglas Sirk’s 1959 “Imitation of Life,” which is still popular among African American women of a certain age.
4. “Pinky” (1949)
In “Pinky,” Jeanne Crain is a young woman who slips into passing as white almost by accident when she goes away to nursing school. She feels guilty, but yet so aware of what being white could mean to her life. Pinky doesn’t hate being black, she just wants what life being white could offer … including the white man who wants to marry her.
5. “Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner?” (1967)
Next on our list, Stanley Kramer’s “Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner” from 1967, in which a white girl falls in love with a black man, played by Sidney Poitier, and when the families meet for dinner, they hash it out earnestly. This film took a beating from the left and the right from the day it was released, as we saw in “The Butler,” when David Oyelowo’s young Black Panther disparages Sidney Poitier. It’s problematic for any number of reasons, but I defend its intention — fervently. Before the change in the movie code or the Loving decision, “Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner” faced down the nations’ bigots.
6. “Movin’ with Nancy” (1967)
After the Loving case, the notion of miscegenation in film and television evolved. Soon we saw the first kiss on American prime time network TV when Kirk and Uhura kissed in a 1968 episode of “Star Trek.” The suits from the network resisted the interracial kiss — but the tepid peck made it to air and is said to be the first such kiss on network TV.
Or maybe it wasn’t:
The December 1967 episode of “Movin’ with Nancy” features a kiss between Nancy Sinatra and Sammy Davis, Jr. more than a year before that “Star Trek” episode. The easy, friendly kiss comes at the very end of the photo session scene. A few years later, in February of 1972, Sammy would go on plant the kiss that sealed the deal for anti-miscegenation attitudes in America once and for all.
When Sammy kisses Archie Bunker, it was effectively the first kiss between a Protestant-white-male-bigot and a black-male-converted-Jew on American television.
It was on the cheek, and in many ways is reminiscent of that original kiss in Edwin S. Porter’s short silent film. Only this time it’s not racist and is actually funny. It left the nation a little stunned and ended the issue of miscegenation in American media — forever — although the state of Alabama would not repeal its miscegenation laws until the year 2000.