Oscar Micheaux would be proud of the progress African-American filmmakers have made in the last 30 years or so, although there is still far to go.
For those unfamiliar with Oscar Micheaux, he was a pioneering Black film producer and director. Working against tremendous odds, Micheaux made nearly 50 films from 1919 to 1948.
At the time of this writing, “Lee Daniels’ The Butler” is the No. 1 movie in the United States, having taken in something like $100 million. That would have been unheard of in Micheaux’s day, all the more so for a Black filmmaker.
Throughout the years there has been an array of African-American filmmakers and many, such as John Singleton, Gordon Parks, Ossie Davis, Reginald and Warrington Hudlin, Robert Townsend, Julie Dash and Keenen Ivory Wayans, are generally familiar, but far more have labored without the rcognition they deserve.
THE FIRST to break out on a larger and consistent scale was Spike Lee.
Born Shelton Jackson Lee in Atlanta, the maverick film producer, director, writer and actor first came to the public’s attention in 1986 with a very unusual film titled “She’s Gotta Have It.” Despite having a paltry budget of $175,000 and being shot in only two weeks, “She’s Gotta Have It” wound up taking in $7,000,000 at the box office.
The much-discussed film was made via Lee’s production company, 40 Acres and a Mule.
Movies are by their very nature entertainment vehicles. However, Spike Lee has become known for the controversies — sometimes intense — that he deliberately courts.
One prime example was “Do the Right Thing,” a 1989 excursion into the Bedford-Stuyvesant section of Brooklyn where racial tensions mount with disastrous results.
FAR LESS intense was the film that preceded it, “School Daze” (1988), but it too focused on a controversial issue — division at a Black college based on something that has long been an issue, though not usually openly discussed, in the Black community — skin complexion.
In that film, Lee’s unconventionally delivered conclusion was an admonition to “Wake up!”
“Everything I do is scrutinized,” said Lee, with only a faint trace of resentment, adding that he is not one to be dictated to.
With "Malcolm X," released in 1992, Lee again stirred up controversy, though not nearly as much as the slain ’60s Muslim human rights activist himself routinely did.
In the process Lee also created a massive amount of renewed interest in Malcolm X. It was almost a fad. There were, for example, Malcolm X caps and T-shirts everywhere you looked.
That film starred Denzel Washington (who was featured in other Spike Lee films as well). Lee has never had trouble luring big stars to his films, including Halle Berry, Samuel L. Jackson, Hill Harper, Ossie Davis, Ruby Dee, Laurence Fishburne, Giancarlo Esposito and Alfre Woodward.
Among his other films arer “Mo’ Better Blues,” “He Got Game,” “Clockers,” “Jungle Fever,” “Get on the Bus,” “She Hate Me,” “Girl 6” and “Crooklyn.”
INTERESTINGLY, Spike Lee had well-publicized issues with another Black filmmaker, Tyler Perry (Emmitt Perry, Jr.), whose success had surpassed his own.
It has been said that this is part of the reason for Lee’s biting words, but that is only speculation. In any event, Perry got tired of it and fired back, complete with expletive, and Lee subsequently issued an apology.
Lee felt that too often Perry’s movies, like his stage productions, made too much use of certain racial stereotypes, an accusation that Perry had heard before and has heard since, though not nearly as often because it is hard to argue with someone as phenomenally successful as director, producer, screenwriter, actor, playwright, songwriter and author as Tyler Perry.
His career was launched in 2005 with the onsite film “Diary of a Mad Black Woman.” It was there that he introduced the public to his most famous character played by himself, the sassy, frequently combative-but-often compassionate, wisdom-spouting Madea.
ALTHOUGH his movies are for anyone who wants to see them, Perry has said that he is largely focused on segments of the Black community that are traditionally overlooked by (White) filmmakers and playwrights.
“It’s attitudes (like Lee’s) that make Hollywood think that these people do not exist, and that is why there is no material speaking to them,” Perry once said. “Madea can talk about God, love, faith, forgiveness and family.”
Controversies notwithstanding, Perry has had one box office bonanza after another, among them “Meet the Browns,” “I Can Do Bad All By Myself,” “Meet the Browns,” “Madea’s Family Reunion” and “Why Did I Get Married?”
His stars have included Angela Bassett, Janet Jackson, Blair Underwood, Taraji P. Henson, Cecily Tyson, Maya Angelou, Lynn Whitfield and Rick Fox.
LEE DANIELS, producer, director and actor, has been a major presence for a number of years now. Indeed, the 2001 production, “Monster’s Ball,” was a box office success and, in fact, earned star Halle Berry an Oscar in the Best Actress category.
However, her character enraged a substantial number of African-Americans who felt it did a disservice to Black people, and to Black women in particular.
But Lee Daniels is obviously not afraid of a little, or even a lot, of controversy. This was proven again in 2009 with “Precious.”
It too was a success at the box office and the winner of critical acclaim, in addition to making Gabourey Sidibe an attraction and winning a Best Supporting Actress Oscar for Mo’Nique. Daniels won a Best Director Academy Award nod.
Even so, the harshness of “Precious” was too much for some people.
But he has soared into the stratosphere with “Lee Daniels’ The Butler,” which has won praise all the way up to President Barack Obama. In this film, the real life story of Cecil Gaines, who served eight presidents during his White House tenure, is told.
Director Daniels assembled an impressive cast, including Forest Whitaker, Oprah Winfrey, Vanessa Redgrave, Cuba Gooding, Jr., Robin Williams and Lenny Kravitz.
“When I make movies, I don’t ever go out there to please everyone, just myself,” said Daniels. “I never try to make a film for the masses. I just try to tell a story. I won’t sell my soul to Hollywood to make run-of-the-mill stuff.”
Hopefully, no producer/director worthy of the title would either. — Steve Holsey contributed to this story.