Brow Beat

Is 2016 the “Best Year Ever” for Black Film? A Brief History of Hollywood’s Fickle Relationship With Racial Progress.

Denzel Washington and Viola Davis in Fences.

David Lee/Paramount Pictures

Last month, the co-founders of the African American Film Critics Association deemed 2016 the “best year ever” for black filmmaking. Citing films like Fences, Moonlight, and Ride Along 2, Gil Robertson noted that “From comedies to high-quality dramas and documentaries, 2016 will forever represent a bonanza year for Black cinema and all cinema really.” “It has truly been an unapologetically black year in the industry,” echoed Shawn Edwards.

There’s a good chance that Robertson and Edwards are right. But there’s also an uncomfortable hint of familiarity in such a bold statement, a sense that we’ve been in this precarious position before. At any point, it seems, we could recede back to “black” not being “in” in Hollywood, and this guessing game of “How far have black people progressed on screen?” has played out for years.

In a 1969 article citing the success of Sidney Poitier, then the biggest box office draw of any other Hollywood actor of any race, and NFL star–turned–movie star Jim Brown, Martin Abramson of the Democrat and Chronicle wrote, rather hyperbolically, of a “Black Revolution in Hollywood”:

To put it one way: “Black Bonanza Boffo at Boxoffice.” To put it another way: Movies starring black talent are pulling fans into theaters in Peoria, Duluth, Albuquerque, Rochester, and New Orleans … Negroes, after years of struggling for a chance to show what they can do, have taken a little bit of rope they were given and hanged the know-it-alls.

A few years later in 1975, with the hugely profitable (but highly criticized) blaxploitation era waning, Renee Ward in the Los Angeles Times viewed “crossover” hits—films like Mahogany and Cooley High that featured black casts but were not so offensive or militantly black as to offend white audiences—as a sign that black film might continue to proliferate:

Considered a fad doomed to inevitable failure, a few black-oriented movie makers got wise. Knowing blacks were tired of the old themes and that whites were interested in seeing nonantagonistic films starring blacks, they changed their tactics to meet this new demand … The sure-fire profits are no longer guaranteed, but the “crossover” movie is proving that an even bigger profit can be made now than ever before.

But then, just a year later, all black film, vulgar or family-friendly, seemed doomed, as an article in the Detroit Free Press described the “fade out”:

Five years ago, black critics were railing about movies like Shaft and Super Fly, claiming the image they portrayed of black men would poison the minds of young people. Now the critics are silent. No one’s worried about the image of blacks in black movies anymore; they’re worried that soon there will be no black movies at all … After a while, producers began to recognize that the very features that were attracting the black audience were repelling the whites.

Black filmmaking was doomed, it turned out. By 1985, following a fallow period of opportunities, hopes ticked upwards—again—toward the possibility that two successful new movies, the Norman Jewison–directed A Soldier’s Story and John Sayles’ Brother From Another Planet, might mean a “revival” for black movies. From Newsweek:

These successes are minuscule when compared with a phenomenon like Beverly Hills Cop. Yet these movies are setting off repercussions which could change the way the film industry regards black movies … Do two sleepers add up to tokenism or a real change? The coming year should tell a lot.

The New York Times, 1990:

When Melvin Van Peebles first came to Hollywood 34 years ago to break into movies, he was offered work as an elevator operator. Last month he was honored at the Sundance United States Film Festival as a pioneering black filmmaker …

Would the same thing happen in 1990 to a black filmmaker who came knocking on Hollywood’s door? Not likely, for a number of reasons, most of them economic. Black filmmakers are being welcomed into the film industry as never before. Just about every studio in town has a project in development with a black director … or wants to.

The National Post, in an article titled “Finally Invited to the Party: That Seems to Be All It Took for White Audiences to Go See Black Movies,” 2002:

It’s been eight months since Oscar walked out of the Kodak Theatre in the arms of Halle and Denzel … Since then, Barbershop, the Ice Cube movie about chatting barbers, has proven a breakaway hit, taking in US $65-million to date. A sequel is in the works, and possibly a TV series. Now, in its third week of release, Brown Sugar—a kind of hip-hop My Best Friend’s Wedding—appears poised for success, too, with a respectable take of US $18.5-million.

The Tribune Newspapers, 2013, on The Best Man Holiday, A Madea Christmas, and Black Nativity:

[There was a time] when Christmas movies were as reliably white as a North Pole winter … But at the tail end of a banner year for African-American cinema, three new holiday movies written and directed by black filmmakers present an alternative vision to moviedom’s traditional white Christmas … This moment comes less than two years after director Spike Lee told an audience at the Sundance Film Festival that Hollywood studios “know nothing about black people.”

The Chicago Tribune, 2014

With critical praise for the civil rights drama Selma, Chris Rock’s comedy Top Five, and the social satire Dear White People, it looks as if Hollywood has been on a roll this year producing movies showcasing black casts and black directors. Yet all these films—much like 12 Years a Slave and The Butler from last year—have another thing in common: The films struggled to find financing from the biggest movie studios, relying instead on independent producers, black investors and even crowdfunding to get made.

In almost all of these articles, there is at least one person—either a quoted black filmmaker or actor, or the author themselves—who expresses skepticism in perceived marches toward advancement. Even the AAFCA’s Gil Robertson still wondered, “What about next year or the year after that?” Especially when it comes to seeing anything other than whiteness on screen, progress has always been slow, and it’s usually fleeting, accompanied by strong institutional backlash. (Just look at this year’s election.)

While it is worth noting that in comparison with 40 years ago, the number of successful black producers and executives has improved, and 2016 could indeed be acknowledged as the best year we’ve seen yet, the truth is that people of color and other marginalized groups can never afford to become complacent, especially in a business as fickle as Hollywood. It seems best to view this all as Cameron Bailey, the Toronto International Film Festival’s artistic director, does. When asked in a recent interview with Vice about whether we’ve reached a “tipping point,” he replied: “I don’t really believe in it always being an upward path or forward direction in terms of cultural progress. I think things happen in waves and cycles. You can use all kinds of metaphors but there isn’t just one direction.”