Article Analysis of Black Film of The 1990s Reflection Paper


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Black Film in
,.he lIew Black “oy!le Boom
and Its Portents
The biting comment of a black Los Angeles gang member in the grimy mise-en-scene of Dennis Hopper’s cop-buddy, actionfantasy Colors (1988) perhaps best summarized the frustrating predicament facing blacks seeking entry to the Hollywood system at the
turn of the 1990s. Asked why he did not leave the gang life and try
something more productive, homeboy (Grand Bush) replies, “Yeah, I
could quit the gangs. . . . Maybe I’ll go to Hollywood and be Eddie
Murphy.” Then he poses a question that sardonically conveys the point
understood by all people of color: “You think America is ready to love
two niggers at the same time?” This bit of subversive dialogue recalls James Baldwin’s notion of the black actor’s “smuggled in reality”;
homeboy recognizes that dominant cinema cannot entirely hide the
fundamental sense of inequality and marginalization that is persistently all too real for African Americans. At the same time, however,
a countervailing sense of expectation grew in that cultural moment,
as Hollywood began to show signs of opening up to black creativity
and energy again. Gradually, all aspects of black filmmaking and filmic
representation began to gain momentum after almost fifteen years
Copyrighted Material
of stagnation and subordination that for the most part had confined
black cinematic talent and expression to a few major ·’stars.” These
were largely featured in one-dimensional roles or biracial “buddy” vehicles fashioned to accommodate the broadest crossover market (e.g.,
Clara’s Heart [1988], Driving Miss Daisy [1989], Lethal Weapon II
[1989]). Starting in the last years of the 1980s and swelling in the
1990s, the new black film wave was heralded by the release of over
seven black-directed features in 1990, including such pivotal productions as To Sleep with Anger by Charles Burnett, Spike Lee’s Mo’
Better Blues, and Daughters o/the Dust by Julie Dash.
In 1991, the black movie boom continued to expand with the release
of twelve films directed by African Americans, along with over twenty
other productions that starred or had significant roles for black actors.
In many ways, 1991 was a prolific turning-point year that brought to
the commercial screen a range of significant and diverse black feature
films, such as A Rage in Harlem, directed by Bill Duke, John Singleton’s hit Boyz N the Hood, The Five Heartbeats, directed by Robert
Townsend, and the rereleased Chameleon Street, directed by Wendell B. Harris. Also that same year, Whoopi Goldberg won an Oscar
for her “buddy” role as a spirit medium in the mainstream hit Ghost
(1990), making her only the second black woman ever so honored by
the Hollywood system. Serving as a contrasting index of the severity
of the drought between the two black movie booms, production in
1990 and 1991 alone easily surpassed the total production of all blackfocused films released since the retreat of the Blaxploitation wave in
the mid-1970s.
The boom of the 1990s has emerged out of conditions that are comparable to those that fostered the Blaxploitation period, but they also
stand in ironic counterpoint to them. The social contexts of the two
black film waves differ significantly, as one would expect, because of
the increasingly soured and polarized negotiation of black-white “race
relations” in the intervening years. We have noted that, along with
other empowering conditions, the Blaxploitation boom emerged from
a period of militant political activism fueled by the rising identity consciousness and social expectations of African Americans at the end
of the civil rights movement. These forces inspired black intellectuals, artists, writers, and politicians to demand an end to Hollywood’s
pervasive and fundamental subordination of blacks on the screen.
Hollywood’s strategic response to this combination of black social and
intellectual pressure was to produce a wave of cheaply made black
action-adventures set in the “ghetto” that were, with a few notable
exceptions, cranked out by white directors and garnered tremendous
profits for the mainstream commercial system but also subordinated
black talent and creativity to the needs of that system at all levels.
In contrast, the black movie boom of the 1990s has materialized out
of a climate of long-muted black frustration and anger over the worsening political and economic conditions that African Americans continue
to endure in the nation’s decaying urban centers. Ironically, the social
character of this anger is the dialectical opposite of the passion that
helped overdetermine the inception of the Blaxploitation boom at a
historical moment when hundreds of American cities burst into flames
as urban blacks , frustrated when “civil rights” gains did not translate into real economic progress for the majority of blacks trapped in
northern ghettos in the mid-1960s, and they increasingly took to the
streets in a series of urban rebellions. Conversely, from the mid-1980s
onward, we have witnessed the rise of an insidious, socially fragmenting violence driven by the availability of cheap guns and crack cocaine
in the nation’s partitioned inner cities. For the most part, black rage
has lost its political focus in this violent apartheid environment; it has
become an internalized form of self-destruction expressed as gang and
drug warfare. If such a situation can be said to have positive effects,
we can see this rage as an energizing element in much of the new black
cultural production, finding expression in a rearticulated criticism of
white racism and a resurgent interest in black nationalism among the
urban youth inspired by the rap lyrics of Public Enemy, N. W.A., Sister Souljah, and Ice-T, or resonant in the films of Bill Duke, Spike Lee,
Matty Rich, and John Singleton.
Black anger has not been confined to the urban poor. Black middleclass children who came of age in time to reap the benefits of the
civil rights movement are finding out that, like the dissatisfied, upwardly mobile “Buppies” that populate Jungle Fever (1991), Livin’
Large (1991) , and Strictly Business (1991), professional positions and
success have not delivered them from the insults and isolation of a
persistent and growing racism that poisons all societal transactions. l
Adding complexity to the social frame, the 1990s are also a moment of
expanding black heterogeneity and “difference,” with such emergent
groups within the community finding voice as gays and women, as
manifest in the work of Marlon Riggs and Isaac Julien, the continued
popularity of black women’s novels, and the increasing call for more
films by black women directors to translate these potent narratives.2
Yet the black community is not without its divisions and tensions, as
is evident in the increasing isolation and distance of the black middle
class from the problems of the black inner city.
Certainly these expansive, diversifying shifts in black social consciousness have resulted, in part, from the progressive efforts focused
on rasing the black standard of living and improving race relations unleashed at the end of the 1960s. And these shifts must be recognized
as evidence of the positive growth of the black social formation. But
distrust is also pervasive. A 1990 opinion poll of black New Yorkers
conducted by the New York Times/CBS found that 64 percent of black
respondents felt that drugs and urban violence were part of a white
conspiracy to eliminate blacks; in the same poll, 32 percent of those
queried suspected that AIDS was invented by scientists with the same
purposes in mind. These beliefs filter into cinema; the implicit premise of Bill Duke’s Deep Cover (1991) is that the slow destruction of
blacks is accomplished through the organized importation of cocaine.
Director John Singleton’S character Furious Styles (Larry Fishburne)
voices similar suspicions in Boyz N the Hood when he gives a streetcorner speech about how “they” funnel liquor, drugs, and guns into the
black community in hopes that “we will kill each other off.” Underscoring this position in real-time media, Singleton followed up on this train
of thought on a popular television talk show, reasserting that AIDS
was an invented disease and part of a genocidal plot against blacks. 3
For African Americans, then, the last decade of the century reveals
a renewed sense of racial oppression and foreclosure , pessimism, and
sinking social expectations. And when compared to the sense of social
unity and purpose forged out of the sharp struggles of the 1960s, African Americans are now going through an intense period of nihilism,
fragmentation, and self-doubt, as they wonder where the next wave of
collective struggle for social change will come from.4
No matter how bleak these perceptions may be , one cannot naively
Copyr~ed, fIYIateria~ LACK FILM IN THE 1990S
dismiss African American understandings of the times as collective
paranoia. Black public opinion and political consciousness have been
alarmed by a sharpening climate of deteriorating race relations , polarization, and outright racial conflict made depressingly tangible in a
steady stream of newscasts and nightmare media images over the turn
of the decade. The deaths of Michael Griffith and YusefHawkins at the
hands of racist lynch mobs in Howard Beach and Bensonhurst (New
York) and the barbaric spectacle, broadcast on global television, of
Rodney King being beaten by white police officers in Los Angeles have
left no doubt in the black social psyche that America is still a racist
society and that white America is persistently attempting to turn back
the clock on whatever racial progress was made during the programs
of “The Great Society” and the turbulent 1960s. Accordingly, Spike
Lee’s invocation in Do the Right Thing of the names of the martyred
Michael Stewart and Eleanor Bumpers as victims of police murder,
and his dedication of Jungle Fever (1991) to Yusef Hawkins , and his use
of the Rodney King tape in the opening of Malcolm X (1992)-all have
struck deep harmonic feelings across the entire range of the African
American community. Further compounding black feelings of alarm
and despair, such sensationalized media events as the Anita HillClarence Thomas Senate hearings, Magic Johnson’s retirement, the
Mike Tyson rape trial, and the social pathology of a white Boston “Yuppie” murdering his pregnant wife and blaming the crime on the mythical black scapegoat and thus provoking a reflex wave of police terror
in the black community only confirm African American feelings that
they have been made the major source of lurid spectacle for an imageinformation driven society unwilling to recognize their humanity.
Equally important, one must note that the present atmosphere of
racial scapegoating and intolerance, as well as an overall acceptance
of the “new” racism, has not erupted out of the murky depths of the
most ignorant strata of the white social hierarchy. In great part, the
national mood has been engineered and encouraged by the intensifying
racist tone of mainstream political rhetoric and discourse rooted in the
backlash politics of the Reagan years. This most recent wave of “nativism” started with the evocation of Cadillac-driving, parasitic welfare
queens during Ronald Reagan’s 1980 bid for the presidency; continued
through the successful exploitation of white fear focused on two black
THE NEW BLACK MOVl rctJ”~htedI MciteritJf> I
men, Willie Horton and Jessie Jackson, during George Bush’s 1988
presidential campaign; and the 1990 Senate race of Jesse Helms, who
made a crude appeal for white votes to defeat his African American
opponent by blatantly advertising that “you needed that job, and you
were the best qualified, but it had to go to a minority because of a racial
quota.” In the same year, a former Klansman-Nazi, David Duke, called
himself a Republican and won 44 percent of the vote in his 1990 bid for
a Senate seat in Louisiana. On the national stage, Pat Buchanan picked
up Duke’s themes and code words, winning a substantial white “protest
vote” against George Bush in the early 1992 presidential primaries and
the applause of delegates at the Republican National Convention. 5
Given this kind of establishment legitimation of playing the “race
card,” one can hardly wonder that in Los Angeles the pent-up frustrations of disenfranchised people, sparked by a long series of brutalities and injustices culminating in the racist verdict in the Rodney
King police brutality trial, exploded in spring 1992 into the worst civil
rebellion the nation has experienced in this century. Very much in the
same way that the 1950s lynching of Emmett Till or the 1960s assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., marked defining moments in
African America’s ongoing struggle for racial justice, the stark videotape, the acquittal of the four white police officers, and the uprising
that followed it marked a consciousness-shaping moment for a whole
new generation of Americans. 6
Gauging the temperament of the market, creating trends, or staying in sync with the popular mood of its various audience segments
and fusing them into a dominant consumer consciousness is work that
occupies a large slice of the film industry’s business talent, research,
and capital. Hollywood traces an intricate path over the course of this
restless, racially tense cultural period. While the mainstream production system is willing to admit a few black directors and black-focused
films to its exclusive club for obvious reasons of profit, the industry
has also been quick to co-opt these new shifts in racial politics and
attitude among whites and African Americans. Following trends set
in the 1980s, the commercial cinema system has continued to stock its
productions with themes and formulas dealing with black issues and
characters that are reassuring to the sensibilities and expectations of
an uneasy white audience. These filmic images tend to mediate the
Copyri~eq lVI~t~riaB LAcK FILM IN THE 19905
dysfunctions and delusions of a socity unable to deal honestly with its
inequalities and racial conflicts, a society that operates in a profound
state of racial denial on a daily basis. Thus images are polarized into
celebrations of “Buppie” success and consumer-driven individualism
that are consonant with a sense of black political quietism , tokenism,
and accommodation, or condemnations of violent ghetto criminals,
gangsters, and drug lords. These figurations can hardly be perceived
as accidental at this cultural moment. Indeed, one of the most revealing and subtle instances symbolizing Hollywood’s sharpened, carefully
maintained racial hegemony occurs in the most profitable comedy ever
made, Home Alone (1990). In the film , an abandoned eight-year-old
(Macaulay Culkin) seeks to fool two burglars into thinking his house is
occupied by rigging a life-sized photo cutout of Michael Jordan to run
around on a toy train track. Given the film’s astounding commercial
success and broad audience influence, this scene is unsettling not only
because its reification of Jordan represents the extent of black participation in the movie , and by implication in the exclusive, upper-class,
suburban white domain of the narrative, but also because it implies
one of the primary ways African Americans are constructed in the
popular imagination: as one-dimensional, cardboard celebrity cutouts.
Moreover, the co-optation and exploitation of black images and culture pervades the media industry in general. This trend is especially
marked by the commercial success and consumption of urban rap and
hip-hop culture among a vast, crossover, white youth population that
has come to identify openly its milder suburban discontents with black
anger and rebellion. 7 But perhaps the revelation of the multivalent
complexity of black images and the media uses of these are best contrasted by the juxtaposition of the opulent, soothing image of a black
professional class rendered on “The Cosby Show” in contrast to the
stark, real-time , genocidal slaughter of urban blacks on the nightly
eleven o’clock news. It is little wonder that by the beginning of the
1990s, blacks felt that they existed in the dominant social imagination as media-constructed “stars” and fantasy figures or as criminals,
while according to almost every social-material index , the quality of
black life in this country steadily declined. 8 Or cinematically, as Spike
Lee insightfully transcodes these perceptions in a dialogue about race
between the bigoted Pino (John Turturro) and Mookie (Lee) of Do the
v 1~QA)’8j1#1tep f’II’P~eria/6 1
Right Thing, in Pino’s words, Prince, Magic Johnson, Eddie Murphy,
et al. are “different,” the media-worshipped exceptions, and the rest
are just “niggers.”9
Considering these vast political and social changes centered on race
relations in the past two decades, one irony is that the Blaxploitation
boom was a series of movies made for black audiences mostly by white
directors, while the 1990s wave has been made by black directors for
black audiences with the broader range of crossover consumption in
mind. The similarities between the facilitating economic backgrounds
of both movie booms demand discussion in response to a set of central
concerns or questions most often arising among the new black critics and directors: Is the new black movie boom a cyclic or periodic
phenomenon trapped within the context of Hollywood economics? And
will this new boom signal a real and permanent opening for blacks at
all levels in the industry?
Both black film waves arose during periods of economic crisis and
downturn in film industry earnings. In the present instance, Hollywood, after a peak box office year in 1989, followed by the second-best
summer ever in 1990, was encouraged to expand production, with the
result that six or seven major studios pumped out almost two hundred
films.lo But the turning point for studio profits started with the 1990
Christmas season and the chilling effects of the Persian Gulf War on
the entertainment business in general, when box office receipts started
to soften. In the opening months of 1991, Hollywood found itself overinvested in a series of lackluster, expensive blockbusters, which combined disastrously with a glut of films already chasing shrinking box
office profits. Once more, the commercial film industry was to find
itself on the downside ofthe profit curve and sliding into one of its periodic economic crises. In the words of Variety reporter A. D. Murphy,
the domestic box office “hit a speed bump” in April 1991, as profits continued to fall through May to a deflated box office intake of $82 million for the first week of June, compared to $111 million a year before,
a 26 percent drop in revenues.11 Added to the bite of a cruel spring
and further complicated by a deepening national recession, the summer of 1991, the period that accounts for 40 percent of studio earnings,
proved to be equally disappointing, with the box office down by 7 to 10
percent and industry profits in general estimated to be off by as much
Copy,;~/itteq ¥ CjlfEjWiarhACK FILM IN THE 19905
as 15 percent. As a further indication of the pervasive seriousness of
the situation, the slump at the box office and the anemic condition of
the film industry were paralleled by a crash in video rentals, which by
October 1991 had fallen off by 25 percent. Overall, the recessionary
slide continued with big independents going under, majors like MGM
foundering, and all studios backlogged with expensive flops and trying to cut expenses. By the start of the anxious 1992 summer season,
ticket sales were at a fifteen-year low. 12
Within this bleak economic context, Hollywood, and the media industry in general, once again turned its attention to the size and consumer power of the mythical, ever-shifting black movie audience, variously estimated at 25 to 30 percent (overrepresenting its 13 percent
portion of the population).13 The fact that Hollywood has known about
the disproportionately large black moviegoing audience since the early
1950s gives further credence to the argument that the movie industry
routinely ignores black filmic aspirations and marginalizes black box
office power until it can be called on, as a sort of reserve audience,
to make up sinking profit margins at any given moment of economic
crisis. Accordingly, then, two of these moments of crisis were the
studio profit slumps that coincided with the rise of black film production waves in the late 1960s to early 1970s and again in the late 1980s
into the 1990s.
This argument is further supported when we look back on the abrupt
manner in which Hollywood curtailed the earlier Blaxploitation wave,
despite the fact that black-focused and black-cast films continued to
make money as late as 1976, as evidenced by the hit directed by Michael
Schultz and starring Richard Pryor, Car Wash. At that moment, the
industry reasoned that blacks would attend crossover and blockbuster
movies with the formulaic ingredients of sex, violence, and action in
the same numbers as they would more black-focused films . Therefore,
once Hollywood found its way out of the economic doldrums and returned to making blockbusters, epitomized by the tremendously successful The Godfather (1972) and The Exorcist (1973), which drew 35
percent black audiences, the industry saw no need to continue a specifically black-focused product line. Moreover, for the past two decades
Hollywood has increasingly employed the short-term profit strategy
of making “small” films in short “cycles” organized around various
themes and genres aimed at specific audiences. 14 Thus much of the evidence tends to support the argument that expanded waves of black
movie production occur in short cycles (four years or so) in an inverse
relationship to the overall prosperity of the dominant film industry.
One cannot say whether or not this particular black movie boom of
the early 1990s will end as arbitrarily and suddenly as its predecessor,
but this wave’s expansion and survival beyond its short-term economic
utility to the commercial film industry will largely depend on how
quickly Hollywood realizes that the ongoing racial diversification of its
future audience is permanent and irreversible, arising out of the oftenstated fact that the sovereign collectivity of “whiteness” will be just
another large minority beyond the year 2000. Or, stressing the connection between shifting racial demographics and box office profits, as
marketeer Warrington Hudlin puts it: “If, within the next 30 years,
America is going to be predominantly a nation of people of color, then
white studio executives had better begin to understand who their consumer is going to be.” 15 Moreover, Hudlin has been quick to apply this
insight to his own film output with the success of the formula comedy
House Party (1990), which cost $2.5 million to make and earned more
than $25 million.
Besides the tendency of black films to come in “waves,” one must
consider the abiding film industry principle that, perhaps more than
any other, enforces the economic limits of black narrative features.
Studio executives figure that black-focused films are a lucrative venture as long as they are cheaply made. The current production cost for
bringing in a “small film” is anywhere from $1.5 to $10 million, and
the top end of this range is about a third of what the average commercial film costs. Thus Hollywood makes these modestly budgeted
black features with the expectation of recovering the capital invested
and turning a profit from the black audience alone. An added appeal
of such low-budget features is the industry gamble that it will occasionally hit the jackpot with a big success, as it did with New Jack
City (1991), which cost $8.5 million and earned over $47 million, or the
top-grossing black film Boyz N the Hood (1991), which was made for a
modest $6 million and , so far, has earned over $60 million. 16 Obviously
both films are exceptional , for they not only did well with black audiences, but they have successfully crossed over into broader consumer
fIIIiflf~riaB LACK FILM IN THE 1990S
markets. Among other things, because of its rap soundtrack and the
presence of Ice-T, New Jack City was not only a hit with its targeted
black youth population but attracted a large, young white audience.
And doing even better with Ice Cube, Boyz was a hit with the domestic
black and white audience and is garnering a huge business overseas.
Crossover power or, more properly, the lack of it, is exactly the
factor that marks out the budgetary limits of the black feature film.
For as these usually cheaply produced vehicles approach the studioimposed $30 million “glass ceiling” on production costs, these films
must rely on drawing the white or foreign audience, or both, to meet
the high profit ratios Hollywood demands of them. From the industry
perspective, when the production costs of a black film approach this
budgetary limit, one of two things must happen. Either the film does
not get financed (and therefore is not made) or during the long tangled
course of production its black point of view, politics, or narrative gets
co-opted or in some other way altered to accommodate broader (white)
audience sensibilities to guarantee the profit margins demanded by
studio executives. Certainly these are the kinds of concerns and pressures that dogged the production of Malcolm X , with Spike Lee’s protracted struggles with Warner Bros. and the Completion Bond Co.
over financing. In Boomerang we see these same pressures overdetermining yet another result. Here, even a benign black-cast, dominant
cinema romantic comedy with the star power of Eddie Murphy came
up a commercial flop because, among other things, it was not successful enough at crossing over to offset its $40 million-plus costs.
The dominant film industry’s de facto budget ceiling and its adoration for the much-publicized success of a few recent black films and
black directors notwithstanding, the scope and direction of the 1990s
black movie boom cannot entirely be reduced to the crass business of
merely turning a profit as its sole motivating force. In an often overlapping, complex manner, the diverse sources of inspiration , financial strategies, and production circumstances of the new black cinema
wave tend to bifurcate , with black films and filmmakers moving into
subtly different perspectives. We can distinguish these different outlooks, calling them black “independent” cinema and the “mainstream”
employment of black creativity in the dominant cinema system, but
these lables overstate the case somewhat. The line of feature films
THE NEW B LAC K M 0 V IICeJ!1lP~htad l MateriEl” 7
spanning the work of Micheaux in the 1930s; Van Peebles, Parks, and
Poitier in the 1970s; Woodberry and Burnett in the early ’80s; and Lee,
Singleton, Duke, Dash, and Paley, among many others, in the 1990s
is more tangled than such terms imply. And while these two outlooks
have always had their debates, the surge of new black feature films
coming into circulation combined with the ongoing demand for more
black-focused vehicles seems to have lessened some of the more pronounced distinctions between them.
Another reason for black filmmaking’s sense of overall cohesion derives from the fact that out of social and economic necessity, black independent and mainstream impulses are both forced to struggle with
a fundamental paradox, a corollary to Hollywood’s budget ceiling, that
subtly influences all black cinema production in this country. Whatever
its orientation, black cinematic expression, as much of black culture,
has nearly always been proscribed, marginalized, exploited, and often
ignored. Thus black filmmakers of both persuasions are constantly
called on to create out of an uncompromised, forthright perspective
that recovers the long-suppressed sensibilities, aspirations, and narratives of the black world and struggles to bring them to the cinema
screen. At the same time, because moviemaking is such a capitalintensive business and is so largely dependent on mass markets, consumer trends, and fashions, these same filmmakers must appeal to a
broad enough commercial audience to earn sufficient revenues at the
box office to ensure that their candid visions of the black world will
be successful. And, what is equally important, that their work will be
sustained in a succession of feature films . In other words, the black
filmmaker must struggle to depict the truth about black life in America
while being inextricably tied to the commercialized sensibilities of a
mass audience that is for the most part struggling to deny or avoid the
full meaning of that truth.
It is interesting, then , to look at the new wave of black films and
directors, noting that the “independent” directors are usually ahead
of, in search of, or aim at building a new audience for black cinema.
Or these directors aim at transforming social relations, reflecting a
particular set of problems or crises vexing the black collectivity, say,
like Charles Burnett’s To Sleep with Anger (1990), which in its intricate narrative seems to articulate all these issues. Or their films speak
CopyrtgNeq ll(la,fwialaLACK
for the consciousness of newly formed subjectivites, barely emergent
from the vast social continuity of blackness, say, for groups or subcultures like black women or gays, or for the unassimilated Third World
within the United States, or even for those politicized or intellectual
blacks who demand more narrative depth , character development, and
political clarity than is usually provided by formula entertainment and
mainstream commodities. Productions such as Daughters of the Dust
(1990), Lookingfor Langston (1989), Sidewalk Stories (1989), and Chameleon Street (1989) all exemplify films that struggle to render forthright, nuanced interpretations of black life against the co-opting, homogenizing pressures of the commercial cinema system.
Another important distinguishing facet of the independent impulse
has to do with the way these films articulate fresh cinematic styles
and visions. Such directors as Julie Dash, Wendell Harris, and Charles
Burnett are struggling, a la Antonioni, Bufluel, Godard, Altman,
or, more recently, Wayne Wang and Jim Jarmusch, to create insurgent, new cinematic languages, images, and narratives. These would
be capable of decentering or opposing the staid filmic conventions of
the sovereign Hollywood “norm” with its technological verisimilitude
of violence, glossy, color-saturated surfaces, continuity editing, “invisible style,” and avoidance of political or social engagement that
suggests the possibility of social change. Thus , through their experimental languages, black independent films often defy the standardization of the dominant cinema product, as well as the dulled expectations of its consumer audience, in order to tell the stories of emergent
sUbjectivities in radically new ways. Certainly the acidic, voice over
monologue of the masquerading protagonist in Chameleon Street, the
“magic real” manipulations of space-time in Daughters of the Dust,
and the black and white pantomimic construction of Sidewalk Stories
all aim not only at speaking in stylistically new ways but also through
new formulations of identity and subjecthood.
One director who has come to epitomize the black independent impulse and its aspirations is Charles Burnett, who was schooled at
UCLA and reared in the 1970s black film environment known as the
“L.A. rebellion,” which also produced Billy Woodberry, Julie Dash,
Haile Gerima, and Larry Clark. Always true to the sense of political and aesthetic autonomy bred of those insurgent times, Burnett has
teP lMateriiJi~ 9
persistently refined his vision over the past several years with such
films as his masterpiece feature Killer of Sheep (1977), as well as My
Brother’s Wedding (1984) and the screenplay for Billy Woodberry’s
Bless Their Little Hearts (1984). As part of the new wave, Burnett’s
feature To Sleep with Anger (1990) was greeted with buoyant, critical
expectations and the hope that this black movie boom would be more
broadly representative of black filmic styles, life, and culture than its
Blaxploitation predecessor. Yet, in many ways, To Sleep with Anger,
which was produced by popular black star Danny Glover for under $1.5
million, provided by S. V

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