The color of success In 1997, African-American artists pushed the boundaries of 'black film,' earning recognition in front of the camera and behind it.

January 25, 1998|By Ann Hornaday | Ann Hornaday,SUN FILM CRITIC

If film in 1997 will be remembered for anything other than the Big Boat, it might be remembered as a year when films by, about and starring African-Americans made some quiet strides.

Consider such breakout hits as "Soul Food," a family drama starring some of the hottest African-American actors in Hollywood, and "Eve's Bayou," the most commercially successful independent film of 1997. Consider the broadening of themes in such films as "Rosewood," "Hoodlum" and "Love Jones." Consider a year that started out with "Booty Call" and "B.A.P.S." and ended with "Amistad" and "Jackie Brown."

None of these films appealed to everyone. But for all their individual faults, they offer encouraging evidence that the definition of a mainstream "black film" is expanding beyond urban action pictures or sex comedies. And the year's biggest successes -- "Soul Food" and "Eve's Bayou" -- prove that if a more complete picture of African-American life is going to be drawn on screen, it will be because black artists have taken charge of their own celluloid destiny.

Charles Richardson, president of Triad Communications, an entertainment marketing, advertising and public-relations firm, links what happened on the big screen with President Clinton's dialogue on race.

"The opportunity that 1997 allowed was not only for dialogue to take place but for the visual imagery to present more than a one-dimensional dynamic of who we are," he says. "I mean, you look at the kinds of things that happened in 1997 with Cuba Gooding winning [the Oscar for best supporting actor], with Will Smith beating the aliens and saving the world two years in a row, it suggests that there's at least an opportunity to have a box-office presence. That the power structure will say -- if not, 'Let's put these actors in these roles,' -- then 'It can't hurt to have these actors in these roles.'"

Pam Grier, who stars in Quentin Tarantino's "Jackie Brown," agrees. "I think it's better," says Grier, a cult star of the 1970s "blaxploitation" genre, which created African-American heroes and heroines in films laden with sex and violence. "They're doing more character-driven stories, fleshing out the action characters more. I think filmmakers realize there's a thirst and a demand for a good story with characters, whether it's a comedy or drama or musical. They can't be lazy anymore."

It isn't as if we haven't experienced watersheds before. Whether was Spike Lee's "She's Gotta Have It" or Robert Townsend's "Hollywood Shuffle," it seemed as though every few years there was a breakthrough.

"I remember in 1984, when 'A Soldier's Story' was happening, and that year was being talked about similarly," Richardson says. "We had 'Purple Rain,' 'Ghostbusters,' 'Places in the Heart,' and it looked different, right? But nothing happened after that. "What's different this time around is the texture and the fabric of the films that include African-Americans are more varied and diverse, and allow us to be seen as more than monosyllabic or one-dimensional."

Byron Lewis, chairman of UniWorld Group Inc., a Manhattan-based advertising agency, and a co-founder of the Acapulco Film Festival, says that in 1997 black artists took up the production reins of some films. He points to Kenny "Babyface" Edmonds, who produced "Soul Food" as well as writing and performing the musical score. And he mentions "Eve's Bayou," which Samuel L. Jackson offered to produce after he read the script.

"The fact that ['Eve's Bayou'] was basically financed by Sam is really the beginning of cooperative efforts that go along with the ascension of stars that have box-office appeal," Lewis explains, adding that as African-American actors continue to collaborate with filmmakers they will broaden the scope of the African-American experience.

Black stars piggybacking as producers may be the stopgap solution to making more diverse films about the black experience, at least as long as corporate Hollywood remains predominantly white. There are still no black studio executives who have the power to "greenlight" -- meaning release the money to produce -- a film.

Not only are the power players still cutting deals in the lily-white precincts of Malibu and Bel Air, but blacks are still under-represented in the writing and directing ranks. Fewer than 200 of the more than 5,000 members of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences are black; the Directors Guild of America has 365 black members out of more than 10,000.

Citing those numbers and calling them "woefully inadequate," NAACP President Kweisi Mfume established a Los Angeles branch of the organization in December that would monitor and improve the hiring and portrayals of African-Americans in the entertainment industry.

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