22 June 2006

Black cinema, black identity

“One of the reasons I originally wanted to make films was that I got tired of what they [Hollywood filmmakers] were doing… I knew I could do better. At least, I knew it wouldn’t be hard to do better than that… It took me ten years to get a chance to do it their way, and what I discovered at Columbia Pictures is that their way gets in my way… I just did my best and got on with my own independent career.”
[Melvin Van Peebles, African-American filmmaker]

What does Black cinema stand for anyway?

A portrait of African-American life and history: The hardships of the black man; the inequality between the blacks and the whites; the black man defying the system that incarcerates him; the narrow, racist thinking that affects – even destroys – both the black and white communities; the larger racial and cultural stories of African Americans. Black cinema is the voice of the African American whose spirit cannot be destroyed or taken away by white people or white power.

In creating this portrait, Black cinema also creates black stereotypes. The black man escaping slavery and fighting for freedom; the black man being punished for the colour of his skin; the black man as the cause of fear and suspicion (with or without a gun); the black man as the criminal and fugitive; the black man displaying extraordinary physical fitness, particularly in sports; the black man endowed with exceptional sexual powers; the black man in the service of the white.

Of course, there are strong messages of black unity, pride, determinism, attitude and challenge in Black films which are lessons for us all. In fact, there is one aspect of Black cinema which has always fascinated me. It’s the repeated theme of black identity. No matter how sophisticated or action-packed or romantic or humorous or sexual Black films tend to be, this aspect of reducing everything down to one single theme of race – race as the identity of a huge population – is an enormous strength historically and politically… as well as a masterful technique in communication.

Fascinating this may be, loaded with great historical, cultural and political meaning in the US, but how much of this affects the international film audience is perhaps a long argument.

Some questions come to my mind: Are Black American films accepted well by the international audience? How important are Black American film directors to the international film community? Do Black American actors play a special role in films which is not otherwise found in films produced by America? Should the international audience perceive – or even expect – a significant difference in a Black American film from its white counterpart?

And most important of all, outside the US, is there a large enough audience for Black cinema?

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