The first African American woman to direct a major feature film, Dash expresses a vision that is at once poetic and deeply outraged, conveying centuries of oppression and inequality in a brief but brilliantly executed period piece. Dash’s characters, the Gullah, descendants of slaves who lived on islands off the coast of Georgia and South Carolina in the early 1900s, fight to hang on to their West African identity in a world they never chose to inhabit. Since that film, however, Dash has struggled to find funding for her next projects; in the twenty-first century, African American filmmaking is still a tough business, given over for the most part to Eddie Murphy comedies and other crowd-pleasing movies; more serious films often find it hard to get financing or distribution.
The film was an unexpected hit when released, earning more than $7 million in its initial theatrical run. Lee was on his way, creating a series of compelling interrogations of race, sexuality, and cultural politics in films such as School Daze (1988), Do the Right Thing (1989), Mo’ Better Blues (1990), ungle Fever (1991), Malcolm X (1992), 4 Little Girls (1997), He Got Game (1998), Bamboozled (2000), and the atypically straightforward genre thriller Inside Man (2006).
Denzel Washington and Spike Lee in Lee’s Mo’ Better Blues (1990); Lee is perhaps the most influential African American director of late-twentieth-century American cinema.
tensions finally explode in a maelstrom of violence. 4 Little Girls is a wrenching documentary about the Birmingham church bombings in 1963, with a mixture of archival footage, interviews, and stage material effortlessly intertwined. Jungle Fever explores drug abuse and the difficulty of interracial romance in an unforgiving white society. He Got Game, notable for its use of music by Aaron Copland, stars longtime Lee collaborator Denzel Washington as Jake Shuttlesworth, a prison inmate who must coerce his son into playing college basketball for Big State, the governor’s alma mater, in order to be paroled for the murder of his wife years before. Jake is torn between his desire to get out of jail early and the knowledge that he is selling his son to “the man” in order to gain personal favor. Like all of Lee’s films, He Got Game is about conscience, responsibility, and the overpowering effects of racism in American society.
Throughout his career, Lee has thrived on controversy. He has been outspoken about the inherent racism of the film industry and has gone out of his way to hire and nurture African Americans, many of whom might never have had the opportunity to work on a major Hollywood film. Lee scoffed at predictions that Do the Right Thing would incite riots in black neighborhoods (he was proven correct), but later found that studio chiefs were wary of funding Malcolm X for fear that a biopic of the controversial black leader would lead to violence. With financing for the project about to fall through,Lee turned to Oprah Winfrey and Bill Cosby, among others, for funds to complete the filming. Outside assistance notwithstanding, Lee answers to no one but himself in his films, which has led some to charge him with self-indulgence. At times, his sprawling films seem to explode at the seams, layered with so many characters and plot lines that they are difficult to digest in one viewing.
Mario Van Peebles, son of the pioneering African American director Melvin Van Peebles, directed the crime drama New Jack City (1991), followed by the black western Posse (1993); the historical drama about the Black Panther Party, Panther (1995); and Baadasssss! (2003), an homage to his father’s breakthrough film, Sweet Sweetback’s Baadasssss Song (1971). Rusty Cundieff used the conventions of the horror film to create a work of trenchant social commentary in Tales from the Hood (1995), which explores issues of gang violence, racism, and drugs in the guise of a traditional genre piece, and nineteen-year-old Matty Rich created the searing drama Straight Out of Brooklyn (1991), an indictment of a social system that lets millions grow up in grinding poverty due to racism. Kasi Lemmons fought to create the nostalgic coming-of-age story Eve’s Bayou (1997), set in the American South of the 1960s. A young girl learns about love, sexuality, and her cultural heritage as the adults around her try to come to terms with their complex emotional and romantic relation- Kasi Lemmons’s Eve’s Bayou(1997) with Jurnee several short films and obtain the help of one of the film’s stars, Samuel L. Jackson, in order to raise financing for the film, which was a remarkably assured debut feature.
A more commercial filmmaker is John Singleton, whose debut film Boyz n the Hood (1991) attracted considerable commercial acclaim when first released, with its gritty tale of a young black man trying to get into college when all his friends are stuck in the “gang” lifestyle. Since that debut, Singleton’s films have become steadily more audience driven, with the melodramas Poetic Justice (1993) and Higher Learning (1995), as well as the remake of Shaft (2000). However, the historical drama Rosewood (1997), about racist riots in 1920s Florida, demonstrated that Singleton still can tackle a serious subject when he chooses to do so, and he also served as the producer of the critically acclaimed movies Hustle Flow (2005) and Black Snake Moan (2006).
Pam Grier broke through as an African American action heroine in a string of movies in the early 1970s, such as Arthur Marks’s Friday Foster (1975).
The current renaissance in black filmmaking comes after a period in the 1970s when African American action films dominated the landscape, such as Gordon Parks’s Shaft (1971, remade by John Singleton in 2000), and Gordon Parks Jr.’s Super Fly (1972); soon after, Jack Hill’s Foxy Brown (1974) and Arthur Marks’s Friday Foster (1975) were career boosts for dynamic actress Pam Grier. For many emerging auteurs of the new Hollywood, these action films, along with those of other directors, were an inspirational force that offered new opportunities for genre filmmaking.