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Message to Hollywood: Black films matter!

by Sura Wood

Scene from director Spike Lee's "Do the Right Thing." Photo: Courtesy SFFILM
Scene from director Spike Lee's "Do the Right Thing." Photo: Courtesy SFFILM  

The boffo box office for Ryan Coogler's juggernaut "Black Panther," and the success of "Get Out" and "Moonlight," Barry Jenkins' gentle, gay coming-of-age love story that took home the Best Picture Oscar in 2017, are but the latest message to Hollywood studios that there's a substantial African American (and white) audience hungry for movies by black filmmakers. In that context, and amidst recent campaigns for recognition of black talent in front of and behind the camera, "Black Powers: Reframing Hollywood" couldn't be more timely. Shown over the course of three weeks, this thoughtfully programmed sixth season of "Modern Cinema" is both a second look and a primer on the nearly century-long history of work by African American directors, and a showcase for contributions by their contemporary heirs.

Opening weekend includes Spike Lee's "Do the Right Thing," which marked a seminal moment in American culture and the emergence of an important cinematic voice when it burst on the scene in 1989. Unfolding over the course of a steamy, racially charged summer's day on a single block in the Bedford Stuyvesant neighborhood of Brooklyn, the film, with a jazzy, hip-hop soundtrack punctuating the director's trademark visual motifs, was shot by brilliant cinematographer Ernest Dickerson, who became Lee's frequent collaborator. Lee is among a long line of trailblazers; some, like Oscar Micheaux, are not as well-known to mainstream moviegoers as they deserve to be. His silent-era melodrama "Body and Soul" (1925), starring Shakespearean actor and famous bass baritone Paul Robeson in dual roles as both an escaped convict masquerading as a minister, and his poor but decent brother, offered black movie audiences of the time one of the few alternatives to segregated Hollywood fare.


Scene from director Julie Dashs Daughters of the Dust. Photo: Courtesy SFFILM  

Once called "the greatest cinematic tone poem of American urban life," Charles Burnett's quietly devastating "Killer of Sheep" (1978) is the episodic tale of a disheartened, burned-out African-American slaughterhouse worker whose profession serves as a metaphor for the state of his soul and wider social oppression. Set in Watts during the 1970s and anchored by Burnett's spare, understated script, it was filmed in black & white and made for a song, primarily with a cast of non-actors.

The series highlights the early ventures of an impressive field of women directors, from Kasi Lemmon's heavily atmospheric "Eve's Bayou" (1997), a hypnotic Southern Gothic gumbo of regional rituals, voodoo and Louisiana gentility revolving around a Creole family, and Julie Dash's sensuous, trance-like migration saga "Daughters of the Dust" (1991) to "Middle of Nowhere" (2012), a low-budget, female-centric drama shot in 19 days by Ava DuVernay, who went on to make "Selma" and the disappointing "A Wrinkle in Time," the biggest-budget fantasy directed by a woman of color.


Scene from director Cheryl Dunyes The Watermelon Woman. Photo: Courtesy SFFILM  

With last year's "Mudbound," lesbian filmmaker Dee Rees achieved the distinction of being the first African American woman nominated for an Academy Award for best adapted screenplay. Her 2011 debut feature "Pariah," executive produced by her mentor Spike Lee, is screened here. A sensitive exploration that gets inside the vulnerability and identity confusion of adolescence drawn from Rees' own experiences, it's a coming-out story of budding Brooklyn poetess Alike. The boyish lesbian teenager is tentatively coming to terms with her sexuality, while trying not to alienate her churchgoing family, especially her mother, who disapproves of her daughter's increasingly obvious preference for girls, and prays it's just a phase.

The Liberian-born, Oakland-based Cheryl Dunye, a product of the 1990s "Queer New Wave," is a director, producer and writer of hybrids of documentary and fiction who gravitates towards themes of race, sexuality, gender and the sometimes humorous trials and tribulations of black lesbians. In "The Watermelon Woman" (1996), a disarming critique of Hollywood's obliviousness to queer black women, with pontificating commentary by none other than Camille Paglia, Dunye portrays a version of herself, a newbie black filmmaker taking a deep dive into LGBTQ and black cinematic history. She combined authentic and recreated archival materials from the 1930s and 40s for this loosely structured homage to unsung, forgotten or uncredited black actresses, such as the fictional black lesbian character Fae Richards, whose signature "role" gives the film its name. The title is also a riff on Melvin Van Peebles' Kafkaesque satire "Watermelon Man" (1970), with Godfrey Cambridge, initially in white face, playing a complacent white suburban racist who wakes up one morning horrified to discover he has black skin.

Richmond's own Carl Franklin supplies one of the series' guilty pleasures, "Devil in a Blue Dress" (1995). A stellar follow-up to his break-out sleeper hit "One False Move," this tasty L.A. neo-noir, adapted from Walter Mosley's mystery novel of the same name, is a vintage vehicle for Denzel Washington, to whom the film belongs. He is Easy Rawlins, the restless WWII vet-turned-reluctant-private-eye who's more at home in neighborhood juke joints and smoke-filled clubs - the moody umber "downtown" palette comes courtesy of cinematographer Tak Fujimoto - than on the trail of the missing girlfriend of a white politico, a case that screams, "Trouble ahead!"

Modern Cinema, a collaboration between SFMOMA and SFFILM, screens at SFMOMA's Phyllis Wattis Theater, July 12-29. For more info: sfmoma.org/modern-cinema.


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