’The Help’? Fine, but is Hollywood ignoring modern black life?
It may seem odd, with "The Help" gobbling up box office dollars, to lament the lack of movies about African Americans.
But the announcement Tuesday that Brad Pitt, Chiwetel Ejiofor and director Steve McQueen would collaborate on a new film called "Twelve Years a Slave" brought to the fore an uncomfortable reality: It may be a very good moment for movies about black history, but it's a terrible time for movies about the contemporary black experience.
"The Help," which looks at the segregated South in the early 1960s, and "Twelve Years," a true story about a free black man who was kidnapped and enslaved in 1853, both hark back to an era when equality was a distant dream and racism the norm. These films follow a long line of dramas set amid the slavery of the 19th century and the segregation of the 20th: "Beloved," "Amistad," "Mississippi Burning" and "The Color Purple," to name a few.
And more historical films are on their way. Quentin Tarantino's "Django Unchained" is about an escaped slave (Jamie Foxx) who becomes a bounty hunter so he can free other slaves, while "Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter" gives a genre fillip to a story about the 16th president, his friendship with a slave and the general difficulties of being black in America circa the early 1860s.
What we don't have in all these explorations of blacks in America, however, are dramas that speak to a contemporary experience, a "Boyz n the Hood" or even a "How Stella Got Her Groove Back," both of which now seem to have come out very long ago (and, indeed, did -- 20 years ago for "Boyz" and and 13 for "Stella").
Instead of a hard-hitting exploration of the ghetto, John Singleton is now making Taylor Lautner action movies (the upcoming "Abduction").
Even Spike Lee, fimmaker laureate of the black experience, has turned away, temporarily at least, from those themes to concentrate on a remake of the Asian action hit "Oldboy," a function, perhaps, of studio and financier unwillingness to support a modern black drama.
There is, indeed, the occasional, and far more niche, comedy such as Salim Akil's "Jumping the Broom." The one major filmmaker exception, of course, is Tyler Perry, who has recently backed a relatively contemporary black saga (the 1987-set "Precious") and directed another modern dramatic look at black lives ("For Colored Girls") but generally makes broad comedies that speak as much as to cross-dresing absurdities as to potent sociological truths (and, yes, Madea-ites, we know you'll object).
“There are not a lot of [contemporary black dramas] being made—there’s really nothing outside of 'Colored Girls' this year," Singleton acknowledged when asked about the subject by 24 Frames this past winter. While he said he rued the absence, he personally felt the need to make another sort of movie at this point in his career.
"For now I wanted to tell stories about youth and youth culture in a different way," he said -- not saying, but perhaps not needing to, that getting a more black-centric movie made for any significant budget would be a steep climb.
In some ways, all of this is progress. Before the 1980s, there weren't even many period movies about American blacks, the occasional "Raisin in the Sun" or "To Kill a Mockingbird" excepted. There's also no question that a racially riven South is a ripe setting for a movie; the dramatic opportunities are abundant and rich.
To be fair to Hollywood (in a way), it doesn't make many dramas about contemporary people of any color, betting that these movies are too niche to be worth their time or money. Most compelling dramas these days about people of any color come from outside the system, if they come at all.
Still, as black history finds itself enjoying a new cinematic moment, it's worth noting and even questioning the absence of contemporary-set films. The focus almost exclusively on the period South is, after all, not only a disservice to Americans of all colors, and particularly to the nearly 40 million black people who live in this country. It is also a disservice, in its way, to the South, offering a frozen-in-amber view of the region instead of capturing its more complex modern dynamics.
The desire to look back is an understandable and even healthy part of what movies do. But with so much gazing into the rearview mirror, it's fair to ask why Hollywood seems so intent on avoiding so much of what sits on the road today.
-- Steven Zeitchik
Photo: Octavia Spencer and Viola Davis in "The Help." Credit: DreamWorks