YOU CAN DO anything you want in the movies, theoretically anyway: describe any idea, tell any story, be whatever or whoever you want. Which helps explain why so many black people find so many movies so frustrating.
It may sound like a trivial concern, but few topics generate as much debate among black people as the state of things in Hollywood. Politics, we know, will always be about compromise, often at our expense. But movies are supposed to be about ideals, about the boldly imagined and never before, and it is here where blacks seek to hold Hollywood accountable. Where else but in Hollywood does someone have the power to create a new cultural or aesthetic vision -- and then project it on a screen as tall as a small office building?
Not all visions, however, deserve such grand display. In L.A., many blacks feel especially aggrieved about Hollywood's choices, especially over the last 15 years, when it has profited nicely from an urban conceit -- I call it "ghettotainment" -- built almost exclusively on images of South-Central L.A.
That's a neighborhood mere miles from Raleigh Studios on Melrose, which is where I gathered with a few hundred other people earlier this month for a screening of a documentary called "Roots of Destruction." The documentary, about mothers of gang members, was made possible not by a studio but by the nonprofit Black Hollywood Education and Resource Center.
The documentary was part of the BHERC Fights Back with Film Media Project. Everybody in the screening room knew exactly what fight BHERC meant, and how it intended to fight it: with independent, low-budget black films that might somehow have a trickle-up effect on the grinding ghettocentrism of heralded movies such as "Training Day" and "Hustle & Flow." It was with a familiar mixture of hope and wariness that the mostly black invitees settled back to watch.
The 30-minute documentary functioned best as a forum for sentiments rarely featured on film. The biggest revelation was that there was no revelation, or even titillation, to be had. These were all South L.A. parents stretched to their limit, modestly dressed and thoughtfully (if a bit cryptically) spoken.
One mother admitted to a drug problem. None were sassy or heroic or particularly right about much, but that was the point -- their very ordinariness seemed so revolutionary on the big screen. "Roots of Destruction" couldn't quite resist the Hollywood impulse to juice things up with a hip-hop soundtrack, but at least the hip-hop was earnest instead of numbing.
During the post-film discussion, we all found ourselves impatient to air our impressions. The audience included old-line activists, gang interventionists, politicians, society matrons, several of the gang mothers themselves and aspiring screenwriters and actors. And we were all eager to take advantage, for this one night at least, of the forum Hollywood had granted us.
But we were not all equally qualified to speak. A representative from the mayor's office stood up and praised the film, decried the urban problems it depicted and promptly began stumping for the mayor's plan for education reform. (He was met with grumbles about politicking.) A middle-class mother who confessed that she sent her kids to private school outside of South L.A. asked the gang members' mothers if the schools couldn't do more about gang problems; when they shook their heads no, she seemed genuinely amazed.
Yet the audience forgave her naivete and almost forgave the schools their impotence, so focused was it on what blacks themselves could and should do about the problems. The discussion, in fact, ended up more as a community rally that just happened to be in Hollywood, rather than a discussion about Hollywood by a community with long-standing complaints against it -- though being in Hollywood certainly helped kindle the bootstraps idealism that carried over from the screening room to the reception hall downstairs. Here, admittedly, changing the big picture seemed more possible than anyplace else.