Marginal Returns

Screenshot from Amiri Baraka’s The New-Ark (1968), showing as part of Tell It Like It Is: Black Independents in New York, 1968-1986

A small tour of independent black American film-making, past and recent past

It was a new year and everyone was making lists. They asked me too, so I did, disingenuously, over and over, for this critics poll and that outlet. I didn’t really care; lists just aren’t my thing when it comes to evaluating movies. I saw Top Five and it didn’t make my Top Ten, but I still want to talk about it.

The Academy, the critics groups, the guilds, whoever makes up the Hollywood Foreign Press Association, certainly felt differently. Chris Rock’s solipsistic, loudly funny, and ultimately unfulfilling comedy was shut out of the year end back-patting. Despite Rock’s remarkably well-orchestrated promotion campaign for the film, one in which he gave half-a-dozen caustically entertaining and politically savvy interviews to major columnists and hosted one of this season’s more rousing episodes of Saturday Night Live, the movie performed modestly at the box office. Paramount didn’t fork over a record $12 million dollars for this independent production at last year’s Toronto International Film Festival to earn back the $25 million domestic it has produced to date, especially when they spent far more than that opening the movie on a sizable 1,400 screens and giving it the requisite TV/Bus/Billboard Ad treatment movies need to crack the public consciousness. They won’t make it up overseas. According to our hacked friends at Sony; movies starring American Negroes not named Will Smith (even Denzel Washington!) don’t do well internationally. Paramount will consider it a failure at worst and a mild disappointment at best.

Paramount also distributed Selma, a largely terrific movie that even in this season of black discontent with the police, hasn’t been able to gain the expected traction. Compared to Top Five however, it has been a success — after being in theaters two weeks less, Selma made $31 million on a $25 million production budget. With advertising expenses that doesn’t seem so great, but it’s still in 3,100 theaters (as opposed to Top Five’s dwindling 83) and has both moral seriousness and controversy. It’s a Best Picture nominee. Its director, the former publicist and recent Sundance darling Ava DuVernay, has undergone a public unveiling, with stops at the Metropolitan Club, the White House Screening Room, and the Tavis Smiley Show.

So I found it curious, if not unexpected, as a brief brouhaha erupted a few weeks back after DuVernay, as well as her cast, writer, and technicians, were shut out of the Oscar race, even as her movie was not, sort of (without a director nod, the movie is already dead in the water). Al Sharpton called for summits and fury. For a day or two, it seemed every self-proclaimed progressive I knew who happened to work in the film industry and have a Facebook account, was demanding some kind of “justice.” But where had all the love for Chris Rock gone?

Both movies, Selma and Top Five, were released by a studio, Paramount, that regularly brought you its neutered but lively visions of Richard Pryor and Eddie Murphy’s blackness for much of the late ‘70s through the early ‘90s. Those times are past; these two were the only movies Paramount released that had black subject matter all year in 2014. Gina Prince-Bythewood’s well-regarded Beyond the Lights was the only widely distributed non-genre black film distributed by American studios, other than the latest embarrassments from Tyler Perry and Kevin Hart. This partially explains the sudden anger by the Sharptons of the world, but they aren’t doing much agitating to get people to see Prince-Bythewood’s movie or complaining about Rock’s exclusion. So why all the consternation?

While Rock has few peers writing and directing personal black films at the studio level, DuVernay is, and has been, in uncharted water as a black female director. No black American female director released a movie distributed broadly in the United States until 1991, and other than Prince-Bythwood and Cadillac Records director Darnell Martin, no black women have been given the privilege of a non-specialty division studio release since the late ‘90s. While indie directors with studio specialty division releases like Dee Rees (Pariah), Julie Dash (Daughters of the Dust), and Kasi Lemmons (Caveman’s Valentine) find it difficult to sustain momentum, some great young black female directors such as Tina Mabry (Mississippi Damned) are never given another chance, at any level.

That Paramount is doing more films of this ilk than the rest of the studios these days is, given the paucity of their output, more a sign of failure than progress. But something deeper is going on. Weaned on a generation’s worth of hollow political victories, tokenism in high places, and the logic of PR versus actual organizing, blacks are used to claiming symbolic victories as actual milestones. Affirmative Action versus reparations for housing discrimination, for instance. African-American studies departments instead of universal salaries. Regardless, British brother Steve McQueen standing on stage with a victorious smile on Oscar night last year was enough to quench our insatiable desire to win something, sometime, somewhere in America, and not have it ultimately feel like a hollow victory. At least until it wasn’t. So here comes Sharpton to complain about fake problems while Rome is burning and Charles Burnett and Julie Dash and Darnell Martin and Bill Duke are on the underemployment line.

The studio tried to muscle both movies into the conversation late in the year, but neither quite got there in the way it wanted them to — despite the fact that Selma has human minutia and a fair share of humor, it was too serious and contested a version of our somewhat recent history not to draw rankles. Selma may also have been released a bit too late to capitalize on the Ferguson Moment, and Top Five would have had to have been fucking Manhattan to push its way through into contention. It wasn’t. The movie was funny, but not funny/poignant in the mostly artificial, Award baiting way studio(ish) comedies that contend, from Jerry McGuire to The Grand Budapest Hotel, usually are.

The biggest problem with Top Five as a piece of art rather than an industry race horse is that I never quite bought its stakes. The crisis Rock’s character is undergoing is interesting, but not as interesting as that of his reality TV star wife, brilliantly played by Gabrielle Union, who gets far less screen time (or seriousness consideration) than she deserves. What the movie leaves unexplored, what it didn’t have the courage to do, was to really bum us out. Instead, we’re left wondering what to feel when Rosario Dawson’s tears trail down her face in the film’s penultimate scene.

Dawson is, as always, an appealing screen presence, and an able foil for Rock, but her SUNY-Purchase-educated, ex-alcoholic, butch-haircut-wearing Times reporter doesn’t add up. Working under an alias to provide cover for her previously slanderous coverage, only to quickly fall a swoon over her subject, feels too convenient and too unlikely for such a pro. The development, despite the quality of their banter, never gets the emotional intelligence engine of the movie going the way it should. Top Five doesn’t keep you wanting to leave the gags and return to the walking-and-talking romance, even though the gags themselves make you feel a little sick inside. The Houston sequence involving Cedric the Entertainer is a romp, but it belongs in a different movie. Worse yet is its unrelenting, tone-deaf endorsement of catcalling. It’s never a good thing for a comedy with ambitious when all its biggest laughs to come from DMX and Jerry Seinfeld in ninth inning cameos.

Unlike Top Five, Selma wore its seriousness on its sleeve. The movie is a balancing act between a fairly radical depiction of black self-organizing and internal ideological strife, mixed with mainstream liberal sensibilities and nostalgia that seemed awards savvy. Oliver Stone’s version of events this is not. Charles Burnett once filmed a similar movie, but he never won Sundance and his version, Selma, Lord, Selma, played on the Disney Channel before TV was hip, so that didn’t really count. DuVernay’s quickly shot and edited movie (it just wrapped in the summer) didn’t get out to the guilds and critics in time, some prognosticators say. Others, like Sharpton, just know it’s racism. But perhaps everyone puts so many expectation on Major Black Movies because America watches so few of them.

It would have been curious to see Paramount try to campaign for Top Five. Maybe it could have carried Selma to glory. How refreshing it would have been to watch DuVernay get out in front of her critics, proudly proclaim the complexity of the King character, a hard and fast womanizer and devoted family man and spiritual/political leader to a large swath of the country’s most abused citizens, whose fraying coalition produced one last major legislative victory. Once the New York Review of Books and the Washington Post are on your ass for playing fast and loose with LBJ’s kindness, you know your Oscar goose is cooked, even with the 60ish, white liberal, “I fell on my sword to end Vietnam” crowd that makes up so much of the voting block. Still, I think it would have made things interesting for them to come out swinging. Instead, DuVernay pulled a Kathryn Bigelow and played the “I’m an Artist” card while discussing the controversy with Gwen Ifill, refusing to state her intentions and their implications.

But DuVernay is a woman and new to the game, while Rock is male and long famous and can say more or less what he pleases as long as he doesn’t go full-on Amiri Baraka. Part of his charm is that he sends up certain traditions of black parochialism and black conservatism in a guise everyone from whites liberals to lapsed black nationalists have more or less accepted and championed, even if they’d never try to do the same in polite company. His most famous routine from his breakthrough 1996 HBO special Bring the Pain affirms that Blacks (or American Negroes of African-Americans or whatever) hate Niggers more than Whites do. He’s a respectability politics kind of guy on some level, but not in a sneering, pull your pants up, don’t steal the pound cake, Negroes shouldn’t be mad at the white man for pissing on them for 400 years, Bill Cosby sort of way.

So while Rock can make a movie that, however charming at times, insidiously promotes unseemly notions of how black men (can) behave, he also convincingly excoriated the White Hollywood Establishment (one that had just handed him at $12 million dollar check) for rarely if ever believing in the value of making any, let alone tonally dexterous, black movies like Top Five. DuVernay didn’t come out and defend her vision for King. She once described the same industry’s indie component as being as equally and hopelessly white as the corporate environment where Rock swims. But now that she swims there too, she has mostly been polite, thoughtful, and deferential. She’s smart enough to realize she can’t afford to seem angry, and she lives to fight another day. However, unwilling to do the kabuki dance Quentin Tarantino does for far more outrageous ahistorical visions every three years on the Charlie Rose Show, she opted for the same rope-a-dope our embattled President uses with Republicans, all confident sidesteps and defensive footwork. In refusing to acknowledge where she and her writer drew their history, DuVernay dodged a battle she probably could have won.

Regardless, both movies feel like minor miracles. Despite their faults or Paramount’s inability to market them properly, they’re thoughtful movies about recognizable black adults, which for as long as I’ve been alive have been very difficult to find. If history proves a good predictor, both Rock and DuVernay will face uphill battles to make more movies at the studio level with this amount of control. Not because these films failed to meet expectations, but because it has never been otherwise for black directors in Hollywood and Indiewood, with just a few rare exceptions. This is another way of saying they’ve already won and yet perhaps, like in any good casino, there is no winning to be had.

***

This is a lesson that is reinforced by a remarkable program that begins this coming weekend the Film Society of Lincoln Center. It’s a series of movies that, however formidable many of them are, you likely haven’t seen before and in many cases, given how rare it is for any venue to find an occasion to screen them, you may never see again. So hurry. Curated by Jake Perlin and Michelle Materre, Tell It Like It Is: Black Independents in New York 1968-1986, showcases a bevy of films by tri-state area black filmmakers that were lost, semi-lost, and merely shoved to the margins.

The series is full of compromised and ruined careers, the forgotten or shamed ethos of late Black Power, the detritus of a black cinema that could have been but never quite was. Telling it Like It Is features work from some of the all time greats of black American filmmaking, from Spike Lee (whose ascendance, marked by screenings of his earliest films, is the the program’s chronological conclusion) to Bill Gunn (whose legendary vampire film Ganja and Hess screens, as does his rarely seen, probably unfinished, experimental soap opera Personal Problems) to the sadly little known Kathleen Collins, whose 1982 film Losing Ground, which stars Gunn, is the centerpiece of the affair. Receiving its first week-long theatrical release coinciding with the rest of program, the film is a comedy, by turns bleak and sanguine, about a couple that might have been aliens as far as mainstream American motion pictures go: Two black intellectuals and cultural workers.

Full of vibrant use of color, Losing Ground is an aesthetically unusual film. Collins’s 4:3 frames are often stodgy and her dialogue wouldn’t be out of place at a conference of PhDs, but the movie’s defiant intellectualism and odd storytelling rhythms feel at home in this tale of a philosophy professor (Seret Scott) and a painter (Gunn) who bicker with the best and yet seem, at least on the surface, to have it made. The creeping sense that maybe their middle class intellectual tranquility isn’t built to last starts to pervade the material very early, long before they decamp to upstate New York for a summer in which she decides to star in a student film with a sultry, cape wearing co-star (Duane Jones), while he becomes increasingly obsessed with a local Puerto Rican woman he uses as a model for his paintings.

Despite its warmth, the movie keeps us about half an arms length away, even as feelings are hurt and behavior grows more unhinged. It has both the lyrical, emotionally heightened quality of a musical, and the chilly, clinical quality of sadomodernism. It contains multitudes and, like much of the program, is a time capsule of an era when the prevalent American images of blackness hadn’t yet been defined by some bogus dichotomy of The Cosby Show or crack-cocaine, when scared, suburban white people had no idea who Willie Horton or Two Live Crew were, when a million political possibilities, seemingly closed in our increasingly regimented and unimaginative era, still hovered on the margins of mainstream progressive discourse.

Working in a time of social upheaval, of great moral and political confusion, the filmmakers in the program often choose to ignore these larger discussions, but when they don’t, it sheds some light on the ways in which the aftermath of the Civil Rights Movement left black activists vulnerable to ideological attack. But you won’t find SuperFly or The Spook Who Sat By the Door in this program. You’ll instead find filmmakers working fully within the still unindustrialized world of American independent film, during an era of reenergized political conservatism, one that was finding new ways to control and marginalize blacks— Out with Jim Crow, redlining and quasi-state sponsored terror, in with the drug war, reverse redlining and mass incarceration! — just as organizational decay and the excesses of the Black Arts Movement, Afro-centrism, and Black Nationalism were weakening black America’s activist community. Blaxploitation these movies are not. If anything, they are an attempt to transcend such unnuanced images. As a whole, they only remain a partial success.

This is most evident in a pair of works meditating on the life and work of the late Amiri Baraka. The former poet laureate of New Jersey was at the height of his nationalism phase when making The New-Ark, a 1968 film, originally shot for public television about his radical free school for black children and the other nascent attempts at black separatism. Produced by Baraka cultural organization Jihad Productions (you can’t make this stuff up), which also made Baraka’s still lost debut short film Black Spring, the movie gives you a glimpse of Newark as a cauldron about to boil over, a black majority city where they were hardly, if at all, represented in the city’s government. Communities for a United Newark ran a “black slate” that year, a list of proposals meant to address the needs its most underrepresented sector. In the film, you see Baraka shilling for the proposals, handing out leaflets, and politicking everywhere he goes. Black pedagogy, cultural nationalism, and power are the ostensible goals, even if one might seem remiss to point out that these Negroes didn’t know what a black pedagogy actually was.

But Baraka hadn’t always been like this. The 60s made him do it! He used to, as is explained to us in St. Claire Bourne’s In Motion: Amiri Baraka, hang out with white, mainly Jewish, beat poets in the village during the heyday of their scene. He fraternized and came of age as a writer around folks like Allen Ginsberg, who is interviewed in the legendary Bourne’s half hour documentary, originally made for public television and shot in an early ‘80s video format that lends it a grizzled charm when viewed on a modern transfer in a big cinema.

The son of middle class parents who had fawned over the idea of him succeeding in a mostly white school, Baraka (then LeRoi Jones) had been reared in majority white institutions and felt comfortable with them, from the Military to the Village Beat Poetry world. After finding success as a poet in the late ‘50s and early ‘60s, he began to settle down. He was married to Hattie Cohen, his editor, in 1960. As you can probably surmise, she was both white and Jewish. As the ‘60s wore on, as Negroes demanded to be called blacks and a desire for “cultural nationalism” started entering the air, Baraka became weary of his white friends, white wife, and half-white child. He left the village for Harlem, divorcing his wife, breaking up with his friends, and leaving a child behind in the process. But not before he wrote 1964’s The Dutchman, still one of the most racially incendiary plays this racially divided country has ever produced. While in Harlem, he founded the Blacks Arts Repertory Theatre/School, the central lab for his nascent Black Arts Movement. Eventually he changed his name and washed up in his native New Jersey, where the battles we see him fighting in The New-Ark were waged.

The movie juxtaposes vérité of a middle aged Baraka, then a professor at Rutgers whose radicalization had been thoroughly neutered by the cultural and political defeats of the late ‘70s, undergoing a trial for a trumped up resisting arrest charge, with more formal interviews with him, his confidants both past and present. He recants his previous nationalist leanings (he preferred Third World Marxist-Leninism at this point, presumably) in the present day sections, although he doesn’t apologize for them.

It’s perhaps easy, given the terror many blacks are still subjected to, and the economic decay that the Obama era ironically visited upon the black middle class, to see contemporary parallels between the political goals of then and now. But the cultural walls Baraka tried to build feel, in our overly networked, no-brow, postmodernist society, a bit baroque. Still, what else was a black intellectual to do? What would I have done? Even hindsight, in this case, is not 20/20.