Across The Street, Around The World Festival: The New Blaxploitation?
Journalist Lindsay Johns is dissatisfied with the state of black cinema. With films frequently undermining the strive for equal representation, it is Johns’ opinion that black artists are continually selling their race short for the sake of audience expectations. Writing of the problem in the Evening Standard, he made the declaration that – far from depicting a community of progress – “contemporary black culture, both in the US and here in the UK, is still being defined by the reductive paradigms of black masculinity that [Blaxploitation] films glibly purvey – the pimp, the hustler and the player.”
“Black cinema needs to get out of the ghetto,” Johns announces, now standing to deliver his opening argument at a panel debate provocatively titled ‘The New Blaxploitation?’ “I am not for a second denying that representations of the black underclass show audiences one reality, but – crucially – this is not only reality”. Striving for more stories about protagonists who are “incidentally black,” Johns wonders “where is the rom-com about a black bank manager, or a black barrister? Where are the intellectual pyrotechnics of a Woody Allen, or a Ken Loach?” With the current market dominated by gangland tales and a spate of recent ‘hoodie films’ (Shank, Kidulthood), Johns believes these films are conspicuously absent. It’s about time, he says, that black cinema stopped propagating the outdated idea that “white is cerebral, whilst black is physical”.
Siding with Johns, one audience member expresses her concern about the lack of a balanced representation. Introducing herself as “a writer and mother”, she comments; “I have DVDs like Brown Sugar and all of Spike Lee’s films to show my daughter, but what about the kids who don’t have that?” Johns agrees, appealing to veteran rap artist KRS-One’s coined phrase, “Edutainment”. A frequent volunteer with a Peckham based children’s charity, he says that he would never allow the kids he mentors to see the current output of UK black cinema. “I wouldn’t want them to think that these characters are all they can aspire to.”
But with such a variety of black written literature on offer, another audience member wonders why is it that black artists can make it in one medium, but not in another? How is it that the films conveying a positive image of black role models often don’t reach the screens of UK cinemas, with even the star power of Denzel Washington failing to secure theatrical release for the story of the Wiley College debate team, The Great Debaters? Charles Thompson, founder and CEO of Screen Nation, believes it is more than a matter of content. Film is an expensive medium; producers and distributors would rather fund projects that they know people will pay to see than take a risk on something new.
Charles understands that film companies are trying to draw in young audiences, but are they getting it right? The fact is, if the tickets are selling, the answer from a business perspective seems to be yes. “It’s up to audiences to decide when they’ve had enough,” he states. David Shear, head of distribution for Revolver Entertainment, agrees that there is a lack of balance, but he also agrees that the problem is not a simple one. One problem is that there is simply a lack of different scripts, but another is that even distribution companies (referred to throughout this debate as “the gatekeepers”) have gatekeepers themselves. “Cinemas need to be willing to break up their schedules to show your film and journalists and critics need to promote it,” Shear comments, and – with hoodie films proving consistently lucrative – we are simply getting stuck in a glut of the same old thing.
Mo Ali director of Shank, is on hand to offer a practitioner’s view point. Recently offered an urban set comedy, he turned the opportunity down; he doesn’t want to stay in the ghetto any more than Johns does. However, he also doesn’t want to direct films about black barristers. “I want to be Steven Spielberg, not Spike Lee”, he comments. Race is not an issue for Ali – he didn’t set out to become “black filmmaker”, he just wanted to be successful at his art. “You can get through a door with a hoodie film,” he continues, “You can use the opportunity to get in behind the gatekeepers and then change things from the inside.” Writer-Producer Alita Simpson agrees. “As filmmakers,” she says, “our minds can look beyond our current project. We might need to make certain types of films to get started, but give us a chance. Let me make four or five films before you decide whether I’m pigeon-holing every black male.”
But “why wait?” asks Sylvaine Rano. Editor for NuCinema.co.uk, she believes that black filmmakers should set out and make the films they want to make, even if they have to do it under their own steam. The experiences of producer Pikki Fearon (Rollin’ with the Nines, Dead Man Running) are testament to her viewpoint. “When I first went to the UK film council for funding, they told me the scripts were too gangster. So, I took them something different and they said it was too commercial!” That was when Pikki knew that he had to do things his own way. “I wasn’t given the chance,” Fearon comments, “I took the chance.”
But are Fearon’s crime films a regressive step for the black community? And, for that matter, were the Blaxploitation films of the 1970s? “We’ve said a lot about the paradigms that they may have created,” one audience member suggests, “but without these films a certain segment of black American society wouldn’t have been able to articulate the hardships they were suffering at that point. You can’t just dismiss them on face value.” Film historian and organiser of the debate, Kunle Olulode, takes things even further. “Blaxploitation saved Hollywood,” he argues, “MGM was going bust and it was these films that kept it going. The Spike Lee’s of black cinema may have arrived in the 1980s, but that wouldn’t have been possible without Blaxploitation opening the door.”
So, if we are experiencing a new wave of Blaxploitation, could it just be a stepping stone for greater things? It is Shear’s belief that the hoodie film is already on the way out. “Like all these genres, it’s dying from over saturation. It’s going to go the way of the London ‘geezer film,’” he observes, “People realised it was popular and tried to replicate it, but soon we’ll have had enough.” Speaking of an upcoming Revolver project, he continues; “It’s the directorial debut of Adam Deacon, who starred in Shank and both Kidulthood and Adulthood. And it’s going to be a comedy.” It sounds promising. But with its title, Anuvahood, being accompanied by a storyline that sees “a young man quitting his job and vowing to become a respected gangster”, it may be a while before black British cinema truly gets out of the ghetto.