11/6/2005



How do you define a 'black' movie

Awards show raises question. ? Answer hovers in a gray area.

By Allan Johnson
Tribune staff reporter


Take three recent movies -- "I, Robot," "Hitch" and "The Honeymooners." They all feature African-American stars. But the subject matter of each has little to do with the ethnicity of the stars.

Would they qualify as "black" movies?

"The whole black movie label is difficult to begin with," says Kimberly Elise, 38, co-star of "Diary of a Mad Black Woman," which certainly qualifies. "Trying to define what is a black movie . . . is that something that's made by black people, stars black people, is marketed to black people?"

The question of what makes a black film is sparked by the "Black Film Awards" (9 p.m. Wednesday, TNT), which was taped Oct. 9 at the Wiltern Theatre in Los Angeles and is hosted by Cedric "The Entertainer."

Elise received a "Rising Star" award and is nominated for her role in "Diary." Sidney Poitier was given the "Distinguished Career Achievement Award," and "The Color Purple" became the first film inducted into the Black Movie Awards' "Classic Cinema Hall of Fame."

Unlike the "blaxploitation" slate of action films, comedies and dramas in the 1970s that catered to an enthusiastic African-American audience, the majority of today's films have people of color with prominent parts in front of and behind the camera, working on movies that in many cases aren't exclusive to black audi-ences.

"A black film is a film with a black cast, made by a black director, aimed exclusively for a black audience," offers Sergio Mims, film critic for the African-American-targeted newspaper N'Digo.

However, Mims adds, "The actual definition of black film is getting vaguer by the minute."

"I think that any film that deals with the subject of black people, or has a predominantly black cast," is a "black" movie, says Terrence Howard, 36, a Black Film Awards outstanding actor nominee for "Hustle & Flow," which was nominated for outstanding film along with "Are We There Yet?," "Coach Carter," "Crash" and "Diary of a Mad Black Woman."

Other nominations are for outstanding actor and actress, supporting actor and actress, writing and direction. There are also nominations for best television movie and for director to watch.

Says Romi Crawford, assistant professor of visual critical studies and Africana studies at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago: "I think a black film is a film work that takes into account in some way the relationship of African-Americans or blacks from the African Diaspora to filmmaking practice, means and industry.

"For me, it's in that relation between blacks and the film industry. How one engages in that relationship can be a mixture of black director and black acting talent; black director and black content in story; black content in story, no black director; black production money, nothing else that reads as black."

Blurring the lines

The definition of a "black" movie is blurred, because stars such as Denzel Washington, Jamie Foxx, Will Smith and Halle Berry are headlining movies in which ethnicity has little to nothing to do with the part.

(Argues Howard: "More black people in the position of control need to take the march Sidney Poitier did and demand that 50 percent of production be black.)

That definition is further affected by who is behind the camera. For instance, George Tillman Jr., who with partner Robert Teitel produced "Soul Food" and "Barbershop," both arguably targeted to black audiences but embraced by all.

"The truly good movies are universal," says Mims, also a screenwriter. "They deal with issues that everybody can relate to. Regardless if the film is a black film, has black characters, or white characters, or Asian characters, or Hispanic characters -- a good film transcends."

Meanwhile, directors Antoine Fuqua ("King Arthur"), Angela Robinson ("Herbie: Fully Loaded"), Ken Story ("Fantastic Four") and others are making mainstream pictures.

"I definitely am one of those people who feels like the black author, whether it's the literary author, the black painter or the black filmmaker, has the right to take part in a larger film practice that doesn't always speak or address specifically to the African-American or African or Caribbean experience," says Crawford.

Jeff Friday takes a simple approach in determining what made a movie black-specific.

The former consumer products marketing exec created the Acapulco Black Film Festival in 1996, which moved to Miami and became the American Black Film Festival in 2002.

As part of the fest, Friday devised the Black Movie Awards. For best picture candidates, he uses a basic approach to identify films involving the participation of those of African descent.

Points are given to the African-American players in a film -- executive producer, producer, writer, director, and lead actor and actress. All are given four points each. A supporting actor and actress receive two points each. A film must get a total of eight points to qualify.

(If you were to apply this formula to "I, Robot," "Hitch" and "The Honeymooners," all three would qualify for BMAs -- Smith is a producer for both movies, and Cedric "The Entertainer," who stars as Ralph Kramden in the movie takeoff of the classic TV show, co-stars with Mike Epps, Gabrielle Union and Regina Hall. Under the same guidelines, Denzel Washington's "Man on Fire" would not qualify; Washington was the star, but the other key roles did not include African-Americans.)

A panel of entertainment editors, film critics and other artists then vote for a winner. Nominations of actors, actresses, directors and writers of African descent are solicited, and then a winner in each category is voted on.

Troubling system

Crawford hails Friday's efforts, but she admits that using a point system to decide whether a movie is black-specific "troubles" her.

"We never have to define what is a `white' film, because that's normative," she says. "To make [a] black film about the descent and . . . and racial background of a director, actor, screenwriter, etc., sort of forces us to over-rely on our race as the only thing we're bringing to this endeavor."

Friday, 40, devised the system knowing that determining how a film qualifies as "black" wasn't black and white.

"It's one of those questions that if you ask five people you'll get five different answers," says Friday, a native of Newark, N.J.

"Draw an analogy to fine art: If you see a painting and it's about something about the experience -- black jazz musicians, but the painter is white -- is that black art? If a brother does a piece of art, and he's an African-American person or person of African descent, but there's no black people in it, is that black art? It's a very gray concept."

Friday was clear on the intent of the Black Film Awards -- showcasing the achievements of people of color, especially those not in front of the camera.

"In defining black film, we're also trying to raise the awareness of the importance of behind-the-scenes role," he says, "and really shine the spotlight on the entire process of making a movie, versus what most people do, which is just look at who is in the movie.

"I'm sure we're going to have this one year," Friday adds. "If you've got a black director, a black writer and a black producer, and they make a film about two little white kids in Utah, that's a black movie, as far as we're concerned."