Ava Duvernay, who has scored accolades and awards for her debut short film, "Saturday Night Life," and a documentary about an underground club that was an early venue for hip-hop, "This Is the Life," says she has experienced roadblocks at studios when pitching her script for a romantic drama called "The Middle of Nowhere," about a woman whose life is turned upside down when her husband is imprisoned, even though Phylicia Rashad ("The Cosby Show") and Sanaa Lathan ("Love & Basketball") are attached to the project.
Actor Reginald T. Dorsey, who is seeking distributing for "Kings of the Evening," a drama set in the Great Depression that he helped produce and was a hit at the recent Pan African Film Festival, said studios and backers often tell him and other black filmmakers that the financial risks in investing in projects without a high concept or a major star outweigh the benefits and that there is little international interest in small black films. "It's like a slap in the face," he said. "My movie is more than just a black film. It's about where you're from and what you know."
New York University film school graduate Caran Hartsfield said she has been trying to get financing and distribution for a comedic drama, "Bury Me Standing," for the last year and a half. The script, about four family members and their differing reactions to the death of a relative, has drawn interest from Alfre Woodard ("Desperate Housewives"), Mos Def ("Be Kind Rewind") and Katt Williams ("First Sunday").
"When it comes to Hollywood, there's been all this hemming and hawing," Hartsfield said. "They'll say, 'Oh, we love the script,' but it makes people nervous because it's a black drama. It doesn't fit within the formula; it makes them nervous."
Said actor-director Van Peebles, who bounces between working on his own projects ("Baadasssss!") and appearing and directing TV series ("Damages," "Law & Order"): "It's not that we shouldn't have our Tyler Perrys or that we don't want to laugh. But we don't have our 'A Beautiful Mind' or 'Lost in Translation.' The lack of variety gets to be reductive. In Hollywood, there are only so many slots that are going to be filled by African Americans. It's all about what the dominant culture feels is making money at the time. Are there still cinematic minstrel shows? Absolutely."
Still, some surveying the black film scene say that those who feel creatively stifled are seeing only one side of the picture.
Said agent Charles King: "Studios emulate what is successful. I don't think it's specific to the success of Tyler. It shows that family-themed comedic vehicles with African American characters are being embraced by a wide audience."
Kent Faulcon, an actor who has written and directed a thriller about a small-town teacher and a hit man called "Sister's Keeper," agreed. "I feel that there's room for me and those who are bringing something new. The response I've gotten has been overwhelming. I'm not discouraged. I feel enthused -- there's a hunger there."
Clint Culpepper, the head of Sony's Screen Gems, added, "We admire Tyler, but we don't need to copy him. He's the best at what he does, and he's fulfilling that. We want to make movies that people want to see." The studio is developing several culturally based films, including an African American version of "The Big Chill" and a version of Jane Austen's "Emma" in an urban setting.
Screen Gems has been working on several of the projects with Rainforest Films, a black-owned production company. The Atlanta-based producers have been the key force behind several profitable urban-oriented films, including "The Gospel," "Stomp the Yard" and last year's holiday hit, "This Christmas," which many critics felt had a Perry-style vibe.
"All ships rise and fall with the tide, and this is a very good time to be a black filmmaker," said Will Packer, who runs Rainforest Films with his partner Rob Hardy and whose next project, "Obsessed," stars Beyonce Knowles as the wife of a businessman (Idris Elba) who learns her husband is being stalked by a temp worker in his office (Ali Larter from "Heroes"). "I can understand the frustration, that black people are more than Tyler Perry. But you have to understand how Hollywood works, and that when there is that kind of success, other people take note."
Perry's robust output also fuels the debate. "Meet the Browns" is his second film in less than six months ("Why Did I Get Married" was released last October) and is the first of his five films to feature an Oscar-nominated actress (Angela Bassett).
"In many ways, Tyler is to be saluted," said Melvin Donaldson, author of "Black Directors in Hollywood." "He created this niche for himself, using large churches to build on his interest in presenting positivity, a sense of family and faith."
But Todd Boyd, professor of critical studies at USC, called the films "cooning. He's really done more damage than good to the image of black people."