Black and white movies Must directors be color-coded?

April 18, 1993|By Bronwen Hruska | Bronwen Hruska,New York Times News Service

In the film "CB4," an excruciatingly white director named A White, who apparently has never met a black person, sets out to make a "rapumentary" about the group CB4. In one scene, as White and the rappers drive down a Los Angeles freeway, a car pulls alongside and sprays their Land Rover with bullets.

"It's my first drive-by," the beaming White says afterward. "Wow! We got all shot up." Clearly, "CB4" not only parodies rap, it parodies whites who think they understand it.

The film is directed by Tamra Davis, who is white.

Another recent movie, the dramatic comedy "Cemetery Club," pokes gentle fun at the nuances of life among three Jewish widows; it was directed by Bill Duke, who is black. And the black director Thomas Carter was behind the new "Swing Kids," about white German youths who resist Nazism by dancing to swing music.

What these films have in common is that all three directors were working outside their racial or ethnic worlds. Such crossover filmmaking first became an issue in 1990, when Spike Lee asserted he was more qualified than the white director Norman Jewison to make a film about Malcolm X.

"White Americans will never know what it feels like to be an African American in this country," Mr. Lee said at the time. "This is a story of Malcolm X, whose life you might say is very symbolic of the whole African-American experience. At the same time, that's not saying that only whites should direct white films or blacks can direct black films, but there are specific cases in which where you are from, your environment, will help."

Many directors emphasize the importance of such ethnic authenticity. In "Mac," his directorial debut, John Turturro depicts his Italian-American family in Queens.

No one else, he says, could have made the movie he wanted to see: an honest portrayal of Italian-Americans. "I've seen people try to make movies about us," he says, "which is fine. It can even be fun, but it's not our world."

Do filmmakers of one race or ethnic group have enough cultural insight to make substantial films about another race or culture? The "write-what-you-know" school says no. Others argue that the outsider may have a clearer view, citing a plethora of important films about American society by foreign directors. For instance, "One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest," exploring life in an American mental hospital, was made by the Czechoslovak director Milos Forman.

But even if outsiders successfully cross racial and cultural boundaries, some minority directors contend they should be making the films themselves, because their voices have been suppressed for so long. What's more, black directors and producers, among them Mr. Lee, John Singleton and Reginald and Warrington Hudlin, have proved that movies by and about blacks can be bankable.

Blacks at the top

The Hudlin brothers have a rule at their production company: on any project, most of the top positions should be filled by blacks. Reginald Hudlin admits that the arrangement constitutes a quota system but says it helps prevent whites from edging into their territory.

He argues that while white directors shouldn't make movies about blacks, black directors should be able to make them about whites. His reasoning is that whites with only superficial knowledge of black culture have directed black movies. But black directors, he says, haven't had that chance; plus, they are required to know white culture intimately to succeed in a white society, and therefore are better prepared to make intelligent, successful films about whites.

Black filmmakers criticize white directors like Steven Spielberg for their takes on the black experience. Mr. Spielberg was said to be out of his depth trying to interpret the lives of Southern blacks in the 1985 film "The Color Purple," which was based on Alice Walker's novel.

As the issue stands now, the politically correct party line is that white directors should keep their hands off black films. "CB4" should be a good barometer of any shift in that attitude.

The screenplay is by two black writers, Nelson George, who is also the producer, and Chris Rock, a "Saturday Night Live" regular who stars in the film. Ms. Davis won the directing job because, as a top rap videomaker, she was fluent in the language of MTV and hip-hop.

Her film, wrote Janet Maslin in the New York Times, "promises sharper satire than it actually delivers." The middle-class teen-agers in the movie dress up in "gangsta" attire -- Jheri Curl wigs and heavy gold chains.

During filming, Ms. Davis repeatedly sent actors back to costuming to achieve a more authentic look. The grainy black-and-white "Straight Out of Locash" video the rappers make throughout the film takes its cues directly from N.W.A and its "Straight Outta Compton" video.

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