What makes a Black movie 'Black'?

Keith Murphy
·5 min read

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What defines a Black movie?

For the earliest filmmakers of color, the answer was pretty simple: Movies featuring Black actors telling stories intended for Black audiences. Once known by all as "race films," they came first from pioneers such as William D. Foster, who, beginning in 1912, produced silent comic shorts that aimed to improve the representation of Black people — the films were slapstick but never buffoonish. Or Tressie Souders, among the first directors to make movies with a woman's vision. Or the prolific Oscar Micheaux, arguably our first indie auteur, who raised the funds, wrote the scripts, and directed some 40 pictures. They catered to an African-American population starved for positive, dignified images in an era when the most celebrated film was D.W. Griffith's 1915 The Birth of a Nation, an epic of white supremacy that depicted the Ku Klux Klan as heroic and Black Americans (played by white actors in blackface) as less than human. Go into a theater segregated either by law or by custom in the early 20th century, and you'd have no trouble recognizing a Black film.

But the answer to the question quickly got complicated. As a rebuttal to the racism that Griffith had inflamed, in 1916 two brothers, George P. and Noble M. Johnson, formed Lincoln Motion Picture Co., the first African-American-run production company. Their debut short film, The Realization of a Negro's Ambition, was a tale of a Black oilman's rise to riches. A poster for the popular two-reeler touted, "Your first opportunity to see a picture owned, written, acted, and produced entirely by Negroes. Don't fail to see it." The film's director, Harry A. Gant, however, was white. Still a Black film?

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Today you would be hard-pressed to find an easy answer, even as significantly more Black producers, directors, writers, and actors are making their presence felt in a still overwhelmingly white industry. Talents furthering the story of Black cinema include Jordan Peele (Get Out, Us), Dee Rees (Mudbound), Barry Jenkins (If Beale Street Could Talk), Melina Matsoukas (Queen & Slim), Radha Blank (The Forty-Year-Old Version), and Regina King, the Oscar-winning actress who, after years in the business, became a movie director with One Night in Miami. Right now felt like the exact right time for Entertainment Weekly to look at both the legacy and the future of Black movies — if only we could agree on what defined them. Is any film helmed by a Black director inherently Black? And what about those that have headlining Black stars but little to say about the Black experience? These are just some of the questions we took up in a new special edition, A Celebration of Black Film: A Century of Black Excellence at the Movies.

Out now, the new issue looks at more than 100 films that, through much debate, we felt were essentials of Black movie-making. It wasn't easy, folks. A few guidelines helped. First motion pictures featuring predominantly Black casts were considered, as well as those that broke new ground for Black leads and Black directors. Several Spike Lee films were easy calls, and the director himself sat down to discuss them. Films that highlight Black themes fell under that banner, whether or not they were written or directed by Black talent. Steven Spielberg's The Color Purple — yes! Steven Spielberg's Amistad ? No. The historical slave drama put an idealized John Quincy Adams (Anthony Hopkins) at its heroic center. In general, White Savior Formulas were nixed, despite their employing some stellar Black actors. So while Mahershala Ali and Octavia Spencer delivered Oscar-winning performances in Green Book and The Help, those films didn't fit here. Some movies with strong African-American leads also sparked debate. Mel Brooks' uproarious 1974 comedy Blazing Saddles, co-written with Richard Pryor, elevated the great Cleavon Little, and Quentin Tarantino's well-received Jackie Brown (1997) and Django Unchained (2012) featured exceptional performances by Pam Grier and Jamie Foxx, respectively. Yet ultimately the over­whelming aesthetic of both directors made it hard to categorize these movies as Black films.

Disney

We saved perhaps our most intense fighting for the animated musical The Princess and the Frog, with one faction pointing out that the character was, for most of the film, not a Black heroine but a talking frog, and another side arguing that one cannot underestimate the significance of the first African-American Disney princess. What we could agree on was this: All of these films, and more, deserve praise.

What's inside the issue is Black excellence from Paul Robeson, Dorothy Dandridge, and Sidney Poitier, Gordon Parks, Cicely Tyson, and Richard Pryor to Denzel Washington, John Singleton, Viola Davis, Tyler Perry, Chadwick Boseman, Ava DuVernay, and KiKi Layne. Oh, and Mr. Lee has something to say. "I have no problem when one of my movies is called a Black film," the Oscar-winning iconoclast tells EW. "And I have no problem with being called a Black filmmaker. People can say what they feel, but for me, I'm not going to spend any time trying to take out the word 'Black.' That's who I am. That's who my ancestors are."

EW's A Celebration of Black Film is available on Amazon and wherever magazines are sold.

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