Robert Townsend and the Black Acting School

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.

12 COMMENTS

  1. really interesting post here. and a question i’ve juggled with for years. i’ve also struggled with “the black experience.” generally speaking, in today’s times, are experiences can be universal. but, perhaps more importantly, i think folks can watch our stories just like we watch theirs.

  2. I agree. A black film can be watched by everyone because it’s about the human experience so all should be able to relate. Well put.

    • We like to think that yes, when it comes to film why should color differences matter. But I feel that behaving this way, we are only acting like ostriches! We know very well that race matters in real life so why dip you head in the sand when it comes to film?

      My take is that, yes black films may speak to a wider audience including white people, but that should not take away from the fact that they are black movies!

  3. I agree with you Candice and Brooks! But the day white people start watching black movies en masse… hmm that would be quite a day ha?

    • that would be tha day! but they like hip hop more than we do so it may already be happenin’ in secret 😉

  4. I digg this. I too have pondered this topic. Me and my folks have debated at dinner, work, amusement park and in the theater. There’s no such thing as a black film or white film since you can’t ever really classify any in any strict sense of the word. If you do, you are going to miss some – that alone is evidence that there’s not such thing.

  5. I will disagree because that is saying that there’s no such thing as black or white.There is! It’s a fact. Society in America and Europe, even in those Southern African countries is divided into black and white. It is what it is. From this premise then it can be difficult to classify what a film is, black or white.
    True that there are oversight. But that’s only a reflection of our false and limited sense of who people are, black or white.

  6. so then whaddaya call a film with both black n white? an oreo lol. no for real theres black films, white films, indian films, asian films, latino films, films for every group. but they can all be good films even though only one group likes them.

  7. You should really cite your sources. The part in which August Wilson is quoted as well as this:

    “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 renderingof them. Hence, could a white director be more suitable from a cultural standpoint?”

    are directly taken from Tommy L. Lott’s essay “A No-Theory of Contemporary Black Cinema.”

  8. This article is interesting. There are some movies that only WE can relate to. For example, slavery movies (I’m well aware that blacks were not the only ones enslaved) and Civil Rights movies are made to educate us. sometimes when I watch them, I wonder how other races might react or how they would feel when watching or even if they would watch. I am sure that if they were to watch those types of movies, they will be able to feel sympathy but I doubt they will ever be able to relate. For that reason, I do believe there is such a thing as a black film.

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