Growing up, I watched many films and TV shows centered around black culture. I don’t think it was intentional, my mother (a Mexican woman) just enjoyed them, and before I was old enough to have a say in what was on the TV, I would put up with whatever she was watching. It wasn’t because I was mixed, or trying to understand my roots, I just watched them by default. I didn’t appreciate, or even understand these shows until years later. I remember watching films such as Set It Off, Soul Food, Friday, Crooklyn, Boyz N the Hood, Antwone Fisher, and I watched TV shows such as Living Single, In Living Color, A Different World, the Fresh Prince of Bel-Air, and occasionally, Family Matters and Sister, Sister.
It seems the 90’s and early 2000’s were great for black entertainment. This period in time was filled with empowering shows and films that displayed blackness unapologetically. Many of the shows mentioned portrayed educated, successful, and strong black men and women, and/or they brought attention to many struggles in the black community, such as racism, drugs, poverty, and black-on-black violence. Personally, they taught me valuable lessons, such as be proud of who are and where you come from, don’t apologize for your success, and the importance of family and friendship. For a while, I have been pondering on the absence of these shows today. Today, many of the great sitcoms and films of this period would never even leave the pages of a script.
In today’s society, I feel as if these shows and films are few and far in between. Through the late 80’s and early 2000’s, it seemed as if there were dozens of memorable black films coming out every year, but now audiences are lucky to receive just one. There have been several period films showcasing black culture, but the amount of contemporary pieces have dwindled. I ask myself, are there really not that many positive black shows and films, or am I not looking hard enough? With the exception of Black-ish and The Carmichael Show, no other series come to mind. In regards to film, Tyler Perry dominates- and his formula and stereotypes have been recycled over and over again since 2004. Additionally, it seems there is very little room for new black talent and the same rotation of stars are continuously used for mainstream cinema and television.
So, my question is: What happened to contemporary black cinema and television? Is it due to the fact that there are not enough black creators stepping up to the plate? Or is it due to the silencing of black creators? I decided to investigate before I formed an opinion.
In my investigation, I noted in multiple reports of the struggle for financing for black films. This stems from the corporate greed of today’s major studios. They don’t see black or white necessarily, but green. With many major tentpole films, studios aim to cater to international markets, China being the biggest with the 2015 box office raking in $6.8 billion. Countries such as China have had a long-standing cultural bias against dark skin, which explains why so little primarily black films are released in foreign countries, if any at all. Studios and investors don’t want to make the financial risk. With the surge in global cinema, more and more precautions are taken to protect investments. Why do you think there is a remake and sequel pandemic? Originality and uniqueness (according to the Hollywood bigwigs) do not bring in the big bucks, and apparently neither do people of color. Many of the black films today struggle to gain financing. Instead of securing funds from studios, a lot of black films are made from contributions from individual investors or crowdfunding campaigns. In a 2013 interview, director Spike Lee stated that the tentpole system has caused the industry collapse. The films he had made in the past, such as Malcolm X, probably would not be made today. There is a strong possibility that Hollywood execs were riding the wave of the black entertainment renaissance, and when new opportunities arose, they moved on.
Also, according to the most recent MPAA Theatrical Market study, at 56%, Caucasians still make up the largest share of frequent movie-goers in the US, while African Americans make only 11%. This leads to a type of chicken or egg question: Are there less black films because of the lack of black movie-goers, or are there less black movie-goers due to the lack of black films? In regards to international markets, that was not always a factor in films’ financing and success. As far as television, the best and biggest efforts at inclusion are on streaming platforms such as Netflix, Hulu, and Amazon. But what about the major networks? There still seems to be a major lack of color on all spectrums. In an article on Jezebel, it is reported that major networks started to merge in the later 90’s and early 2000’s, and wanted to appeal to more “mainstream” markets. As the 2000’s progressed, sitcoms were sidelined for reality TV due to its low production costs and scripted dramas, and as cable television evolved, channels and demographics were fragmented. Now there is BET, TV One, Centric for black people, and all the other channels are split up- the major networks primarily catering to caucasian audiences.
With the rise of streaming content and social consciousness, hopefully black cinema and television will face another revival that will be here to stay. Slowly, but surely, diversity is being brought back to the screens.