Black filmmakers take movies in new directions Positive: African-American film leaders leave behind exploitative stereotypes and offer diverse, inspiring, innovative stories.

April 07, 1996|By AMY DAWES | AMY DAWES,LOS ANGELES DAILY NEWS

LOS ANGELES -- In a groundswell, new films are moving away from exploitative stereotypes of African-Americans and offering diverse, positive and inspiring visions of black American life.

They are all the work of African-American filmmakers who are bringing increasingly innovative movies to television and cinema.

From Spike Lee's treatment of the Million Man March to DEF Pictures' production of "Fast Girls," the true story of a national championship track team made up of girls who grew up in a housing project, American cinema is in the midst of a new wave of African-American filmmaking.

The movement owes itself in part to the small but growing infrastructure of African-American filmmakers whose experience and success are giving them more influence over the stories they can choose to tell.

In Martin Lawrence's stylish comedy-thriller "A Thin Line Between Love and Hate," entertainment is clearly the main agenda, but Mr. Lawrence admits there's more to it.

"With all the fun, laughter and sexiness, it's still a film with a message," said Mr. Lawrence, who stars in, co-wrote and makes his directorial debut with the story of Darnell, a playboy who gains some maturity in his attitudes toward women after a spurned lover (Lynn Whitfield) sets out to wreak revenge a la "Fatal Attraction."

"It's saying to men and women that relationships are important, and it's time to be more responsible about hurting the people you care about," said Mr. Lawrence, 30, who recently married and has a 2-month-old daughter.

"This is the male side to the 'Waiting to Exhale' coin," said producer Doug McHenry. "We focus on another dimension of African-American relationships, and intentionally move away from the exploitative and violent stereotypes that have depicted our everyday lives up to now."

'Soul of the Game'

Other movies continue the trend. On April 20, HBO debuts its $7 million production "Soul of the Game," a powerful, inspiring story about baseball greats Satchel Paige, Josh Gibson and Jackie Robinson, and the obstacles they faced in overcoming the color barrier that kept them out of baseball's major leagues until 1947, when Robinson was recruited for the Brooklyn Dodgers.

The movie's director, Kevin Rodney Sullivan, said projects of this nature "are very important to me. Without disparaging the movies that have gone before, we're overdue to see more dimension in the African-American experience."

Mr. Sullivan -- who also directed a segment of HBO's recent "America's Dream," an anthology based on short stories by leading African-American writers and starring talents such as Danny Glover and Wesley Snipes -- said that the opportunity to dramatize the story of the Negro League ballplayers in "Soul of the Game" had a personal dimension for him.

"I had great passion about these men, because they gave me an opportunity to pay homage to my grandfather, who was a sharecropper in Alabama, and my father, who was in the service and then drove a bus for 30 years. Now, I get the opportunity to make films. That succession of opportunity is at the heart of the story. Satchel Paige and Josh Gibson created the environment that Jackie Robinson, [the youngest of the players], could flourish in."

On a more contemporary front, newly formed DEF Pictures has announced plans to begin production this summer on the movie "Fast Girls," based on the true story of eight teen-age girls and their trainer, Darrel Hampton, who came out of Oakland's worst housing project to become a record-breaking national championship track team.

"The projects were a terrible environment, but Hampton and the girls taught each other how to become winners," said Debra Martin Chase, one of the movie's producers. In addition to their athletic achievements, Ms. Chase said, many of the young African-American women went on to Stanford, Harvard and other top universities. "Their victories helped turn around the entire community as people started taking pride in themselves because of the girls," she said.

Remake from 1947

Ms. Chase heads development for Whitney Houston ("Waiting to Exhale"), who is in production on "The Preacher's Wife" at Touchstone Pictures. Houston stars opposite Denzel Washington in a remake of the 1947 Christmas fantasy "The Bishop's Wife," which starred Cary Grant and Loretta Young, and was nominated for the Oscar for best picture. Penny Marshall directs the new version.

"It's a story set in the working-class African-American community, but it's not about race; it's about values, faith, hope and love," Ms. Chase said. "To me, this is the next wave of movies."

Producer George Jackson, who co-produced "A Thin Line Between Love and Hate" and has been partners with producer McHenry since their groundbreaking hip-hop music movie "Krush Groove" nearly 10 years ago, said he would prefer that audiences -- and journalists -- stop looking at movies as either black or white.

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