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It's Not All Black and White : Spike Lee's films helped pave the way for the black directors of the '90s. Now he and they have become disenchanted with the industry's desire to pigeonhole them.

February 19, 1995|Elaine Dutka | Elaine Dutka is a Times staff writer

Since Spike Lee burst on to the feature film front almost a decade ago, a host of other African American directors have followed in his wake. The Hughes brothers, Carl Franklin and Bill Duke are now part of the mix as Hollywood--confronted with the popularity of hip-hop and rap, not to mention the profitability of low-budget offerings such as "Boyz N the Hood" and "Menace II Society"--has come to realize that black culture sells.

Small, personal stories such as Darnell Martin's "I Like It Like That" and Doug McHenry's sensual "Jason's Lyric" surfaced last year, joining mass-appeal fare like Keenen Ivory Wayans' "A Low Down Dirty Shame." Preston Whitmore II's "The Walking Dead," the story of four African American Marines in Vietnam, is opening on Friday, and Franklin's mystery "Devil in a Blue Dress" is due out later this year.

One of the current box-office hits is "Higher Learning," John Singleton's first interracial story, in which college students confront identity, diversity, sexism and escalating racial tensions. It's a montage of the world as the director sees it--a license rarely afforded black filmmakers in the past.

And yet, there is a marked lack of optimism in the African American ranks--no sense that they've finally "arrived."

"People ask me how it feels being part of the black cinematic wave," says Mario Van Peebles ("New Jack City," "Posse"), whose father Melvin, along with Gordon Parks, Sidney Poitier and Charles Burnett, helped to map out the terrain in the '70s. "But as I understand it, a wave gains momentum and then crashes on the beach. A string of flops could put an end to it all, since the industry views us as interconnected--a cinematic basketball team."

Several other leading African American filmmakers talked about how much progress has been made and, like Van Peebles, they pulled no punches. While opportunity is there, they agree, a double standard persists when it comes to black stories and black talent. In a display of candor rare for Hollywood, they publicly targeted the system--and themselves.


African American directors are still shunted toward ethnic themes more limited in scope and less costly to finance than other Hollywood fare. Spike Lee landed Universal's high-profile, big-budget street drama "Clockers," based on the Richard Price novel. But when he--or a Thomas Carter ("Swing Kids") or a Bill Duke ("The Cemetery Club")--takes on "mainstream" assignments, they become the broadest of targets.

"On 'Cemetery Club,' people asked me what a black guy knows about three Jewish women in the Bronx," recalls Duke ("A Rage in Harlem," "Sister Act 2"). "On the part of critics, there was an implicit 'stay in your place.' No one asked Martin Scorsese, an Italian American, what qualifies him to direct 'The Age of Innocence.' "

Twenty-three-year-old Matty Rich, who last year followed his shoestring "Straight Out of Brooklyn" (1991) with Disney's family drama "The Inkwell," says he can't wait to break out of the pack.

"I want to do 'Home Alone,' 'Dennis the Menace,' 'The Nightmare Before Christmas,' " he says. "If the industry can accept the imagination of Tim Burton, why not mine?"

While Duke and Rich express frustration with Hollywood's compartmentalization of blacks, the Hudlin brothers ("Boomerang") are among those who have focused on African American themes by choice. Not only is it what they know, they say, but--in light of the industry's not-so-benign neglect--there's a lot of unexplored territory they can claim as their own.

Getting the studios to buy it isn't easy, however.

"It's doubly hard for black directors because we often make films that haven't been made before," says Reginald Hudlin. "Instead of seeing them as opportunities to broaden its base, the industry regards them as risks not worth taking. The permanent government of Hollywood--the studio executives and agents--needs to change, and not by recruiting sun-tanned versions of themselves: blacks who not only share their taste but feel the need to prove how 'mainstream' they are."

The very concept of "mainstream," these directors agree, is badly in need of redefinition. Rap singer Snoop Doggy Dogg was on the cover of Newsweek. "Boyz N the Hood" did well on pay-per-view in all markets, not just urban ones. And the white audience that stayed away from theaters showing "Posse" (a black Western, denigrated by the majors to whom Van Peebles was pitching the project, as "Boyz N the Saddle"), caught up with the film on video, where it ultimately turned a profit.

"It would help shareholder value and box office both if we could convince the studios to adopt a more modern perspective on what is 'commercial,' " says producer Warrington Hudlin. "Every year, some huge shock shatters Hollywood's conventional wisdom. 'Schindler's List,' which many viewed as a $20-million thank-you check for 'Jurassic Park,' ended up closing in on $100 million in the U.S. and Canada alone."


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