What do we mean when we call a film, black? You may argue that we all know Inception is not a black movie and neither is The Help nor Shawshank Redemption. However, most of these definitions, perhaps, are based on audience reactions, which vary from film to film.
Either way, wouldn’t we be missing a host of films if our very definitions of black films were too exclusive or too inclusive?
Still, a dilemma remains in naming black films. I cannot discount the reaction to do so. Naming black films may be a result of the deep-seated concern for the way and manner in which Hollywood has lampooned black people. It is a concern that provides an important reason to be skeptical about any concept of black cinema that would include films that demean us.
So, where does that leave us? How can we accommodate a strict cultural criterion or definition of what is black cinema without invoking a notion where naming black film is based on some version of our perceived biological difference?
Many times, what we may categorize as black film, stem from this inherent notion of our biological difference. Furthermore, the issues of control in the filmmaking processes itself cannot be overemphasized. Notably, August Wilson was one of those people who demanded a black director for a film version of his play, Fences. Spike Lee also vehemently demanded to direct Malcolm X, which was initially going to a white director.
Is there a rule?
Black people don’t direct Italian films and Italians don’t direct Jewish films. Jews don’t direct black films?
Although Wilson and Spike Lee’s demands may have committed them to accepting any director who was biologically black for the stories in question, they clearly would not have wanted a black director who lacked the cultural sensibility required for a faithful rendering of them. Hence, could a white director be more suitable from a cultural standpoint?
Furthermore, can a film count as black cinema when it merely presents a black face version of white films (Obsessed) or when it merely reproduces stereotypical images of black people (Tyler Perry’s Madeas)?
I feel that the issue itself is compounded by the fact that white films are not racially named. So why should black films be racially categorized? As long as race is something only applied to non-white people, as long as white people are not racially named, white people continue to function as the human norm and Hollywood continues to function as the film norm.
Yet, this does not make the question of, what is a black film, go away! Whatever the definition might be, I would like to believe that it is not entirely based on our biological difference or the representations of blackness on the screen. It must mean more than that. And I hope it would include a cultural, political and social challenge to Hollywood’s master narrative in order to disrupt and redirect the pervasive and demeaning Hollywood influence on the representations of blackness.