On Bill Gunn and Spike Lee
On a Sunday night late last June, I stepped into the School of Visual Arts Theatre in Manhattan for the world premiere of Spike Lee’s Da Sweet Blood of Jesus with a sense of foreboding. It was in the air of the place, a mild gloom, despite being packed with well-dressed and excited negroes of every shape and size and color, the ebony and the high yellow, most of them notably well-off. For my part, I was less than casket sharp, as they say in parts of the South, but playing the schlubby journalist at festivals is something I’ve grown accustomed to. Soon enough I spotted other members of that schlubby tribe, in T-shirts and poorly fitting jackets, clutching their press tickets. Those pale journalists and a smattering of indie-film folks, lackeys for the small and midsize distributors still interested in a new Spike Lee joint, made up most of the whites in attendance. In these parts, they seemed exotic.
It was the American Black Film Festival’s first year in New York, and it had a lot riding on this screening, perhaps even more than Mr. Lee. One of the country’s most venerable auteur brands, Spike Lee is the most famous African American filmmaker the United States will likely ever produce. He doesn’t need the American Black Film Festival to survive, but the Festival does need him. No one gives a shit about the American Black Film Festival. For most people, Spike Lee is American black film, and where he goes, critics will follow.
Da Sweet Blood of Jesus was financed largely through a controversial Kickstarter campaign that Lee, who is reportedly worth $40 million, undertook the previous summer. His bankroll padded by $1,418,910 from more than six thousand contributors, Lee made the film quickly and without fanfare. He needed a comeback. His previous feature, a 2013 remake of Park Chan-wook’s elegant and hyperviolent Korean grindhouse hit Oldboy, skipped festivals altogether, probably because its distributors didn’t want it to be thought of as a “festival circuit” film. Lee seemed unhappy with the effort; he dropped the “Joint” branding at the end of his credit for the first time since his earliest films.
Except for the commercial success of his first foray into pure genre filmmaking, 2006’s heist and hostage thriller Inside Man, Lee has not had a real hit since 1998’s He Got Game, which debuted at number one at the box office and grossed $21 million in theaters. Since then, returns, both financial and aesthetic, have been diminishing. Is Spike Lee still a major American artist? Was he ever? The self-satisfaction and intellectual malaise of his most recent works is troubling enough to warrant some skepticism and soul-searching, even among his fans.
In the ’80s, Lee found his niche speaking for black middle-class audiences in pictures that seemed, given the climate of the industry, more or less impossible before his arrival. No one was making movies about middle-class black hipsters (She’s Gotta Have It, 1986), Greek life at historically black colleges (School Daze, 1988), or the causes of Brooklyn riots (Do the Right Thing, 1989). Displaying a black-American-centric sensibility absent from the indie sector and the studio world, these films signaled the dawn of a career unlike any American film had ever seen. Along with the Nike commercials he was making a fortune on, these films gave Lee an importance few directors achieve in a lifetime, much less after three features.
His next three films, Mo’ Better Blues (1990), Jungle Fever (1991), and Malcolm X (1992), the last of which I saw on the big screen as a 9-year-old with my entire family, elevated Lee to the first rank of American auteurs. Had he never made another film, like other black directors who showed early promise only to find their careers at the mercy of Hollywood executives uninterested in marketing their visions and a black community unwilling to support its own stories financially, we might still think of Lee as the greatest black American director. But instead Lee continued with the lucrative side gigs, and continued to make movies of interest and quality — Clockers (1995), Get on the Bus (1996), He Got Game (1998), Summer of Sam (1999), Bamboozled (2000), 25th Hour (2002) — until just after the towers fell. 25th Hour, about a convicted drug dealer (Edward Norton) making the rounds on his last day of freedom before serving a seven-year sentence, is shot through with disorientation, fear, and uncertainty. It remains one of the most evocative American films to grapple with the larger urban mood in the wake of September 11.
Inside Man, the last financial success and first deeply impersonal work of Lee’s career, was well made but slight, with purely commercial aspirations. The troika of Miracle at St. Anna (2008), Red Hook Summer (2012), and Oldboy have few partisans; meandering, overlong, and unfocused, they’re all hampered by a sensibility that feels wrong for the material. Miracle, Lee’s picture about black GIs, has scenes of great emotional weight, but its structural coherence is torpedoed by a silly present-day framing device that makes the film a Russian doll of flashbacks. It’s also overburdened by self-righteous writing (“We served our country too,” one character says, in one of the many speeches about racial injustice), and, in what’s since become a bad habit for Lee, excessive musical cues. Lee’s bombastic style — already straining against his material in She Hate Me, with its animated sperm shooting out of Anthony Mackie’s cock — overwhelms Miracle with sentimentality and smugness.
In the ’90s, Lee was too big for festivals. Not anymore. In 2012, Red Hook Summer premiered to mixed notices at Sundance, a place Lee had never felt the need to take his narrative films before. It was the first narrative Lee shot digitally without a name cinematographer, and his crew consisted largely of recent alums from his NYU graduate filmmaking class, not the union vets he was used to. He came to Sundance with something to sell, but no one wanted to buy it: Red Hook Summer was released through a service deal with a small start-up distributor called Variance Films, to whom Lee paid an undisclosed sum to distribute the film. There were subway ads, but no televised trailers, no billboards. The movie quietly disappeared from view in a way none of Lee’s narrative films had since the dawn of his career.
Da Sweet Blood of Jesus might be just another dud if it weren’t also a remake of Bill Gunn’s Ganja & Hess (1973), a legendary film in certain cinephile circles, especially black ones; the mere fact of a remake represents a bold claim by Lee. Rumored to be the lover of several white-boy starlets of the ’50s, such as Montgomery Clift and James Dean, Bill Gunn was for a short while a darling of the New York theater world before he began his varied career as a novelist, playwright, and filmmaker. Like so many fascinating black actors from the era, Gunn was never blessed with roles that spoke to his talents. Nor was his motion-picture work granted the distribution and cultural platform it deserved. After adapting Kristin Hunter’s novel The Landlord for Hal Ashby to direct (resulting in one of the earliest narrative films to document the gentrification of Brooklyn), Gunn made his directorial debut with Stop (1970), which made him one of the first four African Americans to direct studio films, alongside Melvin Van Peebles, Ossie Davis, and Gordon Parks. That of those four filmmakers’ work only Gunn’s is now unavailable is no accident of history. Beloved in neither gay nor black circles, Stop has all but disappeared. It was pulled from theaters following a brief run in 1970 and never released on home video. It last screened in its original 35mm in 1990, following Gunn’s death, at a Whitney Museum retrospective of his work curated by his publisher and collaborator Ishmael Reed.
In retrospect, Gunn’s next feature, Ganja & Hess, should have made him America’s first broadly celebrated black auteur. The first film directed by a black American to screen at Cannes, the 1973 picture was, like Stop, vigorously suppressed before it could make an impression. Its backers anticipated a Blacula redux, a cheap vampire movie with brown faces to satisfy the grindhouse crowd. What Gunn delivered instead was a brooding and mysterious film built on erotic lyricism and the parochial aspects of black American life. At Cannes it was greeted by a standing ovation. Its backers at home were less enthusiastic. They angrily seized the film from Gunn, and it was recut several times into bastardized versions that later crept into B-cinemas and home video under lurid titles like Blood Couples and Double Possession. It was re-released in the late ’90s at the behest of its producer Chiz Schultz, who spearheaded a reconstruction of the director’s cut from materials found in the attic of the film’s editor. By then the legend of Ganja & Hess had spread, though its stylings and concerns were still too baroque, and too negro, for the sort who put the cult in “cult film” to latch onto completely.
Like Gunn himself, the film is an unclassifiable piece of work. Gunn’s symbol-heavy narrative creates a world in which the word “vampire” is never used, and the usual tropes of the genre are discarded (daytime really ain’t no thang for negro bloodsuckers). Shot in hazy Super 16, the opening sequences glide from frozen tableaux of neoclassical European sculpture to extended, documentary-like scenes of a Pentecostal church, replete with speaking in tongues and lustily belted spirituals. It’s a vampire movie that feels at once like a vaguely remembered daydream concerning negro church life, post–Civil Rights black class consciousness, and lucid erotic nightmares. While Gunn’s film focuses on a wealthy black man, and so raises questions about the travails and wages of black assimilation, its interests are opaque and only incidentally political. Bill Gunn, unlike the most prominent black American directors of his era or afterward, had no desire to make everybody’s protest movie.
In the film, Duane Jones is memorably assertive and taciturn as Dr. Hess Green, an anthropologist living in a gothic Hudson Valley mansion and studying a long-vanished (and fictional) African civilization known as Myrthia. Hess reads as self-made, a man with one foot in and one foot out of the larger black community. Though he attends a black church where his chauffeur, played by the musician Sam Waymon (better known as the little brother of Nina Simone), is a pastor, he also has a self-consciously aristocratic mien and a son expensively educated in private schools, who is most comfortable speaking to his father in French.
Trouble begins when the local archaeological museum assigns him a new research assistant named George Meda, played by Gunn himself in a memorably animated and feline manner: his high-pitched voice and unruly shock of negro hair make him come across like a haunted, less-jheri-curled Lionel Richie. After spending an odd evening together getting acquainted, Hess discovers Meda sitting in a tree behind his home with a noose in his hand, threatening to hang himself. Convincing the man not to kill himself on his property is paramount to Hess. “Mr. Meda,” he pleads, “I am the only black man who lives in this neighborhood, so if another black washes up ashore I can assure you the authorities will drag me in for questioning.”
The drunken Meda comes down from the tree, and, after indulging Meda’s bizarre, obliquely self-revelatory conversation for a while, Hess goes to bed, crisis seemingly averted. In the middle of the night, however, the formerly suicidal Meda turns homicidal, bursting into Hess’s room and stabbing him with a Myrthian dagger. Meda follows his attack with a bath — after which he shoots himself in the chest. Hess wakes up following the attack unharmed, with a dead research assistant in his bathroom and a new thirst for blood, which he immediately whets by licking Meda’s off his bathroom floor. At first he robs blood banks to feed his thirst, but soon his cravings lead him to the seedier parts of New York City — the negro night spaces in which so many blaxploitation fantasies were lived out — to seduce victims for his fix.
When Meda’s wife, Ganja (Marlene Clark), a nouveau riche arriviste, comes looking for her husband, she falls swiftly in love with Hess and his haute bourgeois lifestyle. “I’m very valuable,” is how she introduces herself to Hess, and when he asks her straightforwardly why she came to his estate, she replies, “Money.” They begin a torrid relationship, and even after she discovers her husband’s body, hung frozen in Hess’s cellar, she marries Hess in front of a small crowd of mostly white people. (One of them is William Gaddis, a friend of Gunn’s.) In the midst of one of their sexual encounters, Hess makes Ganja into a vampire. They soon find themselves luring young men to their home to extract their blood.
Hess comes to rue his lifestyle. It’s a lonely and morally degrading slog, killing for blood, not to mention the tedium of being physically cold all the time. Despite what might promise to be the eternal companionship of Ganja, he finds himself seeking redemption in the arms of the Christian God. Standing shirtless in his basement, in the shadow of a cross that hangs from the ceiling, he drops dead. Gunn, whose film treats both the teaching of black Protestantism and the myth of vampirism literally, saw the irony of casting the salvation of Christ as freedom from immortality as opposed to the doctrinaire Christian reading. Ganja, however, lives on, and the last image of the film is of a new young man rising, undead, to join her.
The association of the vampire with the aristocrat is as old as Dracula, and has always implied the extraction of vital life forces by the wealthy. Ganja & Hess adds another layer by making its well-heeled vampire a serial perpetrator of black-on-black crime. In Gunn’s film, when Hess exclusively attacks poorer negroes, images from pastiched African (“Myrthian”) rituals flood the screen, accompanied by a ominous, horror-movie drone of synth strings; it’s as if Hess’s vampirism were a way of forming a connection to an atavistic past, one he could only study at a cold distance as long as he was fully human. It is as strange a portrait of the black bourgeoisie as has ever been offered on film, and for his pains the film brought Gunn obscurity and neglect.
No such fate will likely visit Spike Lee. It took a combination of luck, talent, and unyielding ambition for Lee to become the face of whatever we speak of when we speak of black cinema. He is now etched permanently in the national memory as a rabble-rousing cultural touchstone. As he has grown older and richer, his relevance as a media persona hasn’t waned as much as his reach as a filmmaker. Lee’s increasingly tone-deaf and heavy-handed narrative filmmaking is antithetical to Gunn’s mix of lyrical, moving camerawork and biting cynicism. A telling contrast lies in their use of music: where Ganja & Hess unfolds largely without a score, Da Sweet Blood of Jesus is plagued by desperate underscoring through-music — a never-ending sound track of neo-soul and neo-Tropicália, crowdsourced through Twitter, that strains to save the movie from its jerky pacing.
Things are similarly awry in the design and aesthetic of the film: what’s veiled or suggestively opaque in Gunn’s film is dialed up and garish in Lee’s. Lee’s overly crisp, wide depth-of-field digital sheen replaces the gauzy Super 16 of Gunn’s gloomier telling. A modern beach house on the shores of Martha’s Vineyard — the island where Mr. Lee and many other members of the negro elite, including the 44th President, “summer” in the wispy confines of Oak Bluffs — stands in for the Hudson Valley mansion. The home becomes something to scrutinize (how much those curtains must have cost!), and the lush colors of the décor, lighting, and costumes — deep browns, reds, blues, and yellows — provide too much visual information, running counter to the mystery of the story. Ganja and Hess, played by the Broadway actor Stephen Tyrone Williams and the British-Iraqi actress Zaraah Abrahams, are ten or so years younger than in Ganja & Hess, and much more flamboyant. They get married wrapped in Kente cloth, ride in private jets, and put on designer clothes even to go to the bathroom. Where Hess in the original was ecumenical in his tastes, Lee’s version makes him out to be a high-class pan-Africanist only interested in collecting African art. Even the recondite “Myrthia” is transformed into the real — and therefore implausible — Ashanti.
What Lee’s remake handles most clumsily is class; it is as if Lee’s own astronomical wealth has blinded him to its essential meaning. Lee’s need to underline everything with a thick political marker gets in the way of the point he appears to be making. In the original, Hess’s wealth was shrouded in mystery; in the new version, it turns out that his family owned “the first black firm on Wall Street.” On his large estate, which Hess claims measures “about forty acres,” he holds forth about the ills of contemporary society: “We do live in a blood society. The United States is the most violent country in the world.” But violence appears not to be the issue so much as “addiction” — as vague an idea as Lee has ever put on screen. “Change is impossible because we’re addicted to our society,” one white woman tells Hess at a party, “especially the upper middle class, because they’ve taken the damn thing in such large doses.” “What decides whether one is a criminal or not is which side of the law your fix is on,” says another. Lee has always been heavy-handed, but in the past he tempered his didacticism by threading through ambiguities and political impasses that made lessons hard to extract. It’s hard to view Da Sweet Blood of Jesus and remember the deeply felt paradoxes that made his best work so watchable.
Lee’s sloppy approach to class issues ends up straining the plausibility of his film. In Lee’s film as in Gunn’s, Hess seduces and kills ghetto women, but here all of them are light-skinned and well-dressed. The scenes of seduction and murder reach such queasy unreality that it’s clear Lee sees these events as simply fodder for an exploitation flick he can only commit to halfheartedly. Hess meets one victim, a crisply enunciating mother — she unspools dialogue like “You ask mad questions! Dang!” without a shard of credibility — minding her own business on a park bench outside the projects with a baby in her arms. Inexplicably, he convinces her with little difficulty to go upstairs with him so he can bleed her. It’s hard to believe a child-rearing, light-skinned, stately-looking black woman would be sitting on that park bench in the first place, let alone allow a total stranger into her home to have sex with her in the presence of her child. Nor does it seem plausible that Lee’s Hess, fed with silver spoons since childhood, would know the first thing about the Fort Greene projects where he scores his victims.
After the ABFF screening, the baffled audience stuttered their questions. “What message are we supposed to take from this film, Spike? And my second . . .” one audience member said before he was cut off by the director, who exclaimed, “I don’t talk about the meaning of my films anymore, I haven’t for fifteen years, I stopped doing that.” Lee, with his trademark intimidation, stifled debate over his intentions before it even began. The director was willing, just barely, in the most canned responses, to allude to the film “being about addiction” in an ever more addiction-prone world. Perhaps these banalities hid a deeper problem — that the movie was an allegory of Lee’s own addiction to high society, his need to preserve himself above the black filmmakers whose work he wouldn’t abide. Or, perhaps, an allegory for the New York he helped turn into a luxury product he neither desires nor understands.
The so-called “New Black Cinema” of the early ’90s didn’t yield many lasting directorial careers, save those of Lee and John Singleton. Where have you gone, Julie Dash? Leslie Harris? Matty Rich? Darnell Martin? These young black filmmakers made celebrated debuts in late Bush or early Clinton years only to, for the most part, disappear.
White studio execs were largely to blame. But black audiences were partly responsible, too; they didn’t show up for the best of these films. Charles Burnett’s To Sleep with Anger (1990), a masterpiece on par with his revelatory student film Killer of Sheep (1978), found audiences that were overwhelmingly small and white. Burnett, considered by many the greatest American black filmmaker, has had only one widely distributed feature since, 1994’s The Glass Shield. A flawed but potent movie set in the immediate aftermath of the LA riots, it was taken away from him and recut at the behest of Harvey Weinstein, likely to its detriment.
Lee’s celebrity, which grew exponentially while he shucked and jived with Michael Jordan during his Mars Blackmon years, shielded him from such indignities. For much of his career in the studio system, Lee received final cut, giving him the authority to make his films as he wished. In an America that seems to prefer a single black arbiter of negro feelings and beliefs, his career and public persona have eclipsed everyone else’s. It has also, somewhat dispiritingly, eclipsed his own filmmaking.
In many ways, this state of affairs seems to suit Lee just fine. He, too, seems to prefer a single black arbiter. More than a few young filmmakers Lee has mentored at NYU, black and white, have offered casual anecdotes of his evasiveness and defensiveness when dealing with potential heirs. One ex-student of Lee’s once bemoaned at a party how his professor would read the scripts of students who were the sons of white billionaires but not of those like him, who’d grown up on the streets of black Bed-Stuy (unless they were gay and female, a baffling wrinkle). “A sucker move,” the student said. Another, a documentary filmmaker, went so far as to say that his mentor was happy to help cinematographers, actors, and documentarians who were black, but male narrative directors were another story; he liked being the only iconic American film director among black males and wished, in his heart of hearts, to stay that way.
The morning after the premiere, I took the subway from my apartment in the Bronx, where I’ve settled since Bed-Stuy became too expensive, to the Forty Acres and a Mule offices in Fort Greene to interview Lee. A neighborhood long lost to most of the middle class through gentrification, Fort Greene is still home to poor folks who reside in the Whitman and Ingersoll projects just north of Fort Greene Park, where Lee shot much of She’s Gotta Have It, and near where his father, a jazz musician, has lived since 1969.
The original home of Forty Acres and a Mule, which relocated five years ago to South Elliott Place, was in a firehouse on the southeast corner of Fort Greene Park. In my early years in the city, as I would pass it while riding a bus down DeKalb Avenue, its imposing African-themed flag billowing above the street always seemed to me a beacon of hope, the shining star of black filmic achievement. The flag, which had been relocated, too, didn’t hold quite the same power in front of 75 South Elliott.
Lee had caused a stir the previous February during a Black History Month–themed appearance at nearby Pratt Institute, where he was asked to address “the other side” of the gentrification debate. In blue Nikes and a hoodie emblazoned with the slogan DEFEND BROOKLYN, he said:
Why does it take an influx of white New Yorkers in the south Bronx, in Harlem, in Bed-Stuy, in Crown Heights for the facilities to get better? The garbage wasn’t picked up every motherfuckin’ day when I was living in 165 Washington Park. . . . What about the people who are renting? They can’t afford it anymore! You can’t afford it. People want to live in Fort Greene. People want to live in Clinton Hill. The Lower East Side, they move to Williamsburg, they can’t even afford fuckin’, motherfuckin’ Williamsburg now, because of motherfuckin’ hipsters. What do they call Bushwick now? What’s the word?
“East Williamsburg,” someone called from the audience.
I was ushered into Lee’s second-floor rehearsal space, which was serving as a staging area for journalists. I sat at a small table in the middle of a building-length room with wood flooring, its walls stocked with memorabilia: the pizza box Lee carries in and out of Sal’s Famous in Do the Right Thing, a gargantuan one-sheet from the Italian release of Scorsese’s Mean Streets, signed by Lee’s fellow NYU alum. The other journalists and I made small talk, scanned emails on our phones. I checked the early reviews. My pallid interlopers from the night before had mostly given it a pass. Richard Brody praised it on his Front Row blog for the New Yorker, saying that “Spike Lee has entered his Mannerist period, which, in movie terms, can be defined as making a film on the basis of images rather than experience.” No kidding. Scott Foundas from Variety had clearly found the film wanting, but he didn’t bring the knives out. It was too loaded for anyone outside the tribe to pour salt on the wound of a filmmaker who had so lost his way.
When I arrived on the third floor, it was mostly silent except for Lee yelling at one of his staffers for leaving a stack of boxes unattended in a hallway. He spied me quickly, out of the corner of his eye, and immediately ceased his theatrics; the media was watching. I followed him into the editing room, its blue walls covered, floor to ceiling, with paintings and images of Michael Jackson. It was the single creepiest room I entered in 2014.
I sat on a leather couch and produced my laptop, making small talk as I prepared to record the conversation. Mr. Lee’s legs were crossed, one orange-Nike-bearing foot perched not far from my computer. “What you got for me?” he asked.
Although he spoke lovingly of Gunn, he spent the better part of the next thirty minutes bobbing and weaving around my questions like Floyd Mayweather. He wouldn’t address whether there was latent meaning in Hess’s newfound class status and youth, or in his preference for mulatto victims (“I’m just trying to cast the best people, I wasn’t trying to find the most light-skinn’ded actresses I could!”). He cared not to elaborate on how his methods have changed or evolved as he’s grown older; whether he enjoys the newfound freedom of not having financiers to answer to; if, indeed, he has any more original stories he’s dying to tell, themes he’s hankering to explore. He seemed, in many ways, resigned.
It is odd to see Spike Lee, a filmmaker who came to prominence as someone with a bold and uncompromising voice, become, in his midfifties, something resembling a hack — a Jay-Z and Beyoncé–era rich black navel gazer. This is an intelligent and remarkably accomplished man who seems to have little or nothing left to say in his films and has abdicated control of their meaning. I was more than a little sad.
After we mercifully concluded, he grew somewhat more magnanimous, for a second. He stood as I was putting away my computer. “Thanks for coming all this way,” he said.
“I used to live down the street in Bed-Stuy until recently. Got rent-sabotaged out just last month,” I replied. He asked where I was currently living, and I told him the northern Bronx. Suddenly the wall of defensiveness he’d erected as soon as he stopped yelling at his employee fell away. His face softened. I watched him utter a brief but full-throated laugh. I couldn’t tell if it was schadenfreude or a jadedness that he normally kept to himself.
“Just give it some time. Pretty soon, you won’t be able to afford to live there either.”
Fuck George Jefferson, it’s Spike Lee who has moved on up. He didn’t want to be like Melvin Van Peebles, trumpeting the accomplishments of one movie he made forty-five years ago in some tattered sweatshirt he wore around the apartment — a nice one in Columbus Circle, bought with Wall Street speculation money. He didn’t want to spend thirty years trying to get his first movie distributed and bumming around Africa, as Charles Burnett has, asking dictators and strongmen for funding. And he didn’t want to be like Bill Gunn, thumbing his nose at the genres he was expected to make. He wanted to be noticed, to make a lasting impact on a broader cultural stage. He wanted to gentrify Black Brooklyn himself. He didn’t want slumming, Sundance-hungry white filmmakers — like Oscar nominee Benh Zeitlin, or Slamdance winner Keith Miller, or filmmaker-brand Quentin Tarantino, or any other white liberal making inauthentic stories about black poverty or bondage or struggle — to do it for him. Then he gave up. He moved to the Upper East Side, the story goes, and got citizenship in the Republic of Jaguar commercials, the brand of “Brooklyn” emblazoned on limited-edition Absolut Vodka bottles with his name underneath.
But these days Lee—minus the fame, fortune, and ritzy address—is just like the rest of us. In mid-January, a full month before its “theatrical release,” Da Sweet Blood of Jesus was released through Vimeo on Demand for a fraction of what a new videocassette of Clockers would have cost in 1995. The film will grace a few coastal theaters and fade into oblivion along with most of the other movies given weeklong runs in New York City in 2015, a number which will likely exceed the 950 the Times reviewed last year.
It might not feel this way because of the recent successes of Steve McQueen, Ava DuVernay, and Ryan Coogler, interesting black directorial voices all, but black movies by black people that are not beholden to the desires of white audiences — black films in which the characters are, you know, alive, as opposed to symbolic stand-ins — have always been exceedingly rare. “Black cinema” is no better off than it was in 1984, just after Lee debuted his senior thesis film and Gunn finally gave up directing for good, while his novel Rhinestone Sharecropping, about how nearly impossible it is for negroes to make nondegrading work in Hollywood, gathered dust on bookstore shelves. “I want to say that it is a terrible thing to be a black artist in this country,” Gunn wrote in the Times in 1973, “for reasons too private to expose to the arrogance of white criticism.”1 How is it possible that this still rings true? How likely is it that Charles Burnett, Haile Gerima, Julie Dash, Wendell B. Harris Jr., Tina Mabry, Dee Rees, Dennis Dortch, Billy Woodberry, Larry Clark (the black one), Leslie Harris, Darnell Martin, Rashaad Ernesto Green, Michael Schultz, Kasi Lemmons, Barry Jenkins, Shaka King, Damon Russell, or Moon Molson will get a directing job on the kind of topical, studio-financed film that Lee, for more than a decade, made seem commonplace?
And so we wait. We wait for a black public to find ways to pay for its own media, and for its stars — like Will Smith, or Robert Johnson, or DuVernay’s industry midwife Oprah — to start their own studios with their own ambitions and novel ideas for reaching black (and nonblack) audiences. We wait for athletes like Baron Davis and Chris Webber, who have already begun financing films, and wealthy negroes you and I have never heard of to provide a more muscular financial backing for specialty films with content that speaks to the concerns of the African diaspora. For indie-film prognosticators to stop doubting the ability of films with black characters to perform overseas. For young white studio heads with a love of hip-hop but no middle-class black friends to stop telling seasoned negro filmmakers something is or isn’t “black” enough for their studio to produce, market, and distribute. A man can dream, can’t he?
In the same letter, he wrote, “When I first came into the ‘theatre,’ black women who were actresses were referred to as ‘great gals’ by white directors and critics. Marlene Clark, one of the most beautiful women and actresses I have ever known, was referred to as a ‘brown-skinned looker’ (New York Post). That kind of disrespect could not have been cultivated in 110 minutes. It must have taken a good 250 years.” ↩