African American Cinema


The end of the 1970s saw a great diminution of films by African American directors. This was particularly the case in Hollywood, for the industry had committed to the blockbuster model of filmmaking, more or less abandoning the production of low-to-middle budget films—the range in which most African American movies were placed. Many of the established directors moved to television, while still others worked on direct-to-video releases. A few directors capitalized on the newly developing youth subculture of hip hop with films like Beat Street (Stan Lathan, 1984) and Krush Groove (Michael Schultz, 1985), films centered on the music industry. Another link to popular music was Under the Cherry Moon (1986), a black and white feature directed by and starring the musical artist Prince.

The course of African American filmmaking was redirected, literally, by the newcomer Spike Lee (b. 1957), who in 1986 saw great success with his independently produced first feature film, She's Gotta Have It , an irreverent look at an African American professional woman and her romantic relationships. Well-received by critics and audiences, She's Gotta Have It , along with Hollywood Shuffle (Robert Townsend, 1987), a comedic treatment of Hollywood's racist production practices, and I'm Gonna Git You Sucka (Keenan Ivory Wayans, 1988), a parody of blaxploitation films, heralded a new era in African American filmmaking. The popularity of these three films, as well as the ascendancy of rap music, opened the door for a new generation of directors. In 1991 sixteen African American–directed movies were released theatrically, the most since the era of the race movie. Those titles included Jungle Fever , New Jack City , True Identity , The Five Heartbeats , House Party II , Talkin' Dirty After Dark , Hangin' with the Homeboys , A Rage in Harlem , Chameleon Street , Strictly Business , Living Large , To Sleep with Anger , and Up Against the Wall .

It was also the year of release for Boyz N' the Hood by John Singleton (b. 1968) and Straight Out of Brooklyn by Matty Rich (b. 1971). Both films were tense coming-of-age dramas about male teens trying to make it out of the ghetto (South Central L.A. and Red Hook, Brooklyn) and its pervasive cycle of poverty. While Singleton's film was supported by a major studio (Columbia Pictures), Rich's film was funded by family credit cards and an address on a local radio station for investors. Both went on to receive widespread attention. Singleton became the youngest person ever nominated for an Oscar ® for Best Direction, as well as a nominee for Best Original Screenplay. A number of movies followed in their wake, all featuring young men in urban locales and focusing on crime, such as Juice (1992) and Menace II Society (1993), causing many critics to wonder if it was a case of blaxploitation revisited. In addition, cultural critics lamented the masculinist perspective of the films, concerned that the films perpetuated the stereotype of young urban African American males as crack-dealing gangsters pervasive in the late 1980s and early 1990s. There was also the issue of presenting a singular construction of African American communities—ignoring the true diversity of African American populations.

One film that did diverge from the urban male hegemony was Daughters of the Dust (1991) by Julie Dash. The first feature-length film by an African American woman to be released theatrically, this unique vision, which took more than twelve years to bring to the screen, is a hypnotic period drama, set in 1902 on one of the Sea Islands off the East Coast of the United States. It is a celebration and remembrance of Gullah, a distinct African American culture that developed during slavery. Because of the islands' relative isolation, the inhabitants were able to build a culture more closely linked to that of Africa than were those enslaved on the mainland. Dash uses this setting and rich cultural tradition to tell the story of a family that gathers for what may be their last meal together.

Toward the end of the 1990s, African American filmmaking was no longer typified by the narrow parameters that defined its renaissance. Haile Gerima provided a harrowing, much-needed lesson on slavery in Sankofa (1994), the most successful self-distributed independent feature of African American cinema, while Spike Lee with Malcolm X in 1992 brought the slain activist to the consciousness of a generation with no experience of the civil rights movement. This was also the decade when several women directors came into their own. With Just Another Girl on the I.R.T . (1992), Leslie Harris provided a female perspective on teen life in an urban locale. I Like It Like That 1994) by Darnell Martin (b. 1964), the first film directed by an African American woman to receive studio funding, provides an interesting tale of a woman who, driven by a family crisis, finally comes to full selfrealization. Other women directors who would emerge in the 1990s include Bridgett M. Davis, Alison Swan, DeMane Davis, Cauleen Smith, and Neema Barnette. Cheryl Dunye directed Watermelon Woman , the first African American lesbian feature, in 1996, and in 1997 Kasi Lemmons delivered a haunting, atmospheric drama, Eve's Bayou , the most successful independent film of that year. Chicago-based George A. Tillman, Jr. (b. 1969),

b. Shelton Jackson Lee, Atlanta, Georgia, 20 March 1957

The most prolific African American director since Oscar Micheaux, Spike Lee is credited with heralding a renaissance of African American filmmaking, initiating a radical break from Hollywood's neo-minstrelization in the 1980s, and reestablishing the commercial viability of "political" cinema. As one of the few African American directors considered an auteur, his films concern the dramatic tensions of personal conflict informed by social hierarchies of power—particularly of race and class, encoded in a highly expressive and recognizable style.

Lee graduated in 1979 with a degree in mass communications from Morehouse College, and in 1982 with a graduate degree in film from New York University's Tisch School of the Arts. His thesis film, Joe's Bed-Stuy Barbershop: We Cut Heads (1983), won an Academy Award ® , helping him to secure interest from two talent agencies, William Morris and International Creative Management (ICM). When neither company could find him work in the film industry, Lee went independent, securing financing with the help of friends and the Black Filmmakers Foundation for She's Gotta Have It (1986). The film, produced by Lee's newly formed company, 40 Acres and Mule (a reference to America's broken promise to African Americans during Reconstruction), was shot in twelve days with a budget of $175,000. It went on to earn more than 8 million dollars at the box office and the Prix du Film Jeunesse at Cannes. She's Gotta Have It is considered the catalyst for a resurgence in African American filmmaking, demonstrating the commercial viability of films about African Americans by African Americans.

Similarly, his second feature, School Daze (1988) also did well at the box office, earning more than twice its production costs. It was his third film, Do the Right Thing (1989), that would secure his reputation as a director of artistry and vision. This postmodern masterpiece, concerned with rising tensions in a Brooklyn, New York, neighborhood over the course of a hot summer's day, is a complex and compelling film examining race relations, police brutality, class differences, and gentrification.

Lee expanded his talents, working in the area of music videos, television commercials, and public service announcements. He won an Emmy for a segment of "Real Sports" and he directed two documentaries: the Oscar ® -nominated Four Little Girls (1997), about the 1963 bombing of a church in Birmingham, Alabama, that resulted in the death of four African American girls; and Jim Brown: All American (2002) a feature on the sports icon. Further, his impact on the industry includes the introduction of a number of African American actors to the cinema and the reinvigoration of the careers of Ossie Davis and Ruby Dee. He has also produced films by other African American directors that have become classics of African American cinema, including I Like It Like That (1994), The Best Man (1999), and Love & Basketball (2000).


She's Gotta Have It (1986), Do the Right Thing (1989), Malcolm X (1992), Clockers (1995), Four Little Girls (1997), Summer of Sam (1999), Bamboozled (2000), A Huey P. Newton Story (TV, 2001), Inside Man (2006)


Fuchs, Cynthia. Spike Lee: Interviews . Jackson: University Press of Mississippi, 2002.

Guerrero, Ed. Do the Right Thing . London: British Film Institute, 2002.

Lee, Spike, with Kaleem Aftab. Spike Lee: That's My Story and I'm Sticking to It . New York: Norton, 2005.

Reid, Mark. Spike Lee's Do the Right Thing . Cambridge, UK and New York: Cambridge University Press, 1997.

Frances K. Gateward

Spike Lee.

directed Soul Food (1997) and Men of Honor (2000), and produced the sleeper hit Barbershop (2002), its sequel Barbershop 2 (2004), its spin-off Beautyshop (2005), and its television adaptation for Showtime. The Best Man (1999) by Malcolm Lee was a welcome change for many moviegoers, as it was the first ensemble film by an African American director about a sophisticated group of college-educated, professional African Americans.

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