Moviegoers still line up for violence

April 09, 1997|By GREGORY KANE

"Finally, Hollywood is realizing that gangs are not the only African-American story."

That quote is attributed to Chris Hewitt of the St. Paul (Minn.) Pioneer Press. He was commenting about the movie "Love Jones," which was released in mid-March and actually made the top-10 movie list for at least one week.

"Love Jones" is a love story that stars Larenz Tate, he of "Menace II Society" and "Dead Presidents" fame. In "Menace," Tate played the terrifyingly homicidal O-Dog who, in the opening scene, murders two Korean merchants. Later, he executes TC gang member in a reprisal shooting and blasts a crack head at point-blank range for a social impropriety. In "Dead Presidents," Tate played a Vietnam War veteran who masterminds an armored car robbery.

In "Love Jones," Tate plays a novelist and poet who falls in love with a photographer played by Nia Long. What took such a movie so long to get to the screen? Quiet as it's kept, black folks -- the overwhelming majority, as it turns out -- are something other than criminals, thugs, murderers and gang bangers. Some of us actually have gainful employment. Some of us actually fall in love.

Only a handful of recent Hollywood movies has portrayed that reality. Even the dreadful "Waiting to Exhale" -- written by a woman whose ultimate dream, I suspect, is to become a serial castrater -- showed black folks in middle-class jobs at least trying to find some semblance of a love life.

Other movies joining "Love Jones" and "Waiting to Exhale" recently have been "The Preacher's Wife," "Once Upon a Time When We Were Colored" and "The Inkwell." The latter film also starred Tate as a shy, introverted black youth who falls in love during his summer vacation at Martha's Vineyard. All five of these films have in common their portrayal of blacks as normal, functional, middle-class or working-class folks who are not reprobates or homicidal maniacs.

(Two of the most recent black movies, "Booty Call" and "B.A.P.S," are comedies. Because there is already an extensive funny Negro glut in both movies and television I feel they are best left with scant mention.)

What these movies don't have in common is overwhelming support from audiences, either black or white. "Waiting to Exhale," the worst of the lot, drew the largest audiences, with moviegoers lined up to see sellout show after sellout show. There were few people at the weekend showing of "Love Jones" I attended, indicating that after less than one month it's starting to fade. "The Inkwell" was also short-lived. "Once Upon a Time When We Were Colored" had only a limited theater run.

All these movies had those so-called positive images black folks claim we are dying to see. But, with the exception of "Waiting to Exhale," how did the other four compare at the box office to the Jada Pinkett/Queen Latifah shoot-'em-up, smoke-'em-up bank robbery flick "Set It Off"? Black folks, with our bad, ofay-bashing selves who are so critical about how white Hollywood refuses to show positive images of us, had best ask ourselves why so many of us opted to see four pot-smoking bimbos on a bank robbery spree vs. the intelligent and articulate black folks who made "Love Jones" and "The Inkwell" such delights.

There is a lesson to be learned here, especially for those who see it as their sacred duty to protect the Great African-American Positive Image. People -- and it doesn't matter what their race is -- go to the movies to be entertained. They don't go to see positive images. They don't go to be uplifted. That's what church is for.

People go to the movies for enjoyment. And the movie selections of black Americans probably mirror those of Americans in general. "Waiting to Exhale" was a box-office smash because of its male-bashing theme. Male-bashing, a multiracial phenomenon, has become an American passion since the rise of feminism and, if the truth be told, is not entirely unjustified.

"Set It Off" is just the basic violent, cops and robbers shoot-'em-up that Americans have enjoyed for years. It just has women protagonists instead of men, with lots of murder, drug use and gratuitous sex thrown in for good measure. The black Americans who flocked to see it showed they have the same tastes in movies as did those folks who went to see Al Pacino and Robert DeNiro in "Heat."

The question isn't why Hollywood continues to make films like "Set It Off" and "Heat." The question is why millions of Americans still pay money to go see the stuff.

Pub Date: 4/09/97

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