From a filmmaker’s perspective, it’s fair to say that the beauty in much of the stand-out films of Independent Black Cinema lays in it’s subtext, and the broader context in which much of it’s stories take place.
A backdrop of prejudice and social inequality ever-prevalent and always rearing it’s ugly head…
Not to be confused with the outlandish Blaxploitation cinema of the 70’s that was birthed through such films as Sweet Sweetback’s Baadasssss Song and Shaft in 1971, the Black Independent Cinema movements were distinguished by their stories of black lives at ground level, told with a stark realism and poetic honesty- not unlike such Blues artists as Lightning Hopkins or Son House would tell it with a guitar or harmonica.
One of the many adversities encountered by Black Independent filmmakers has been the shortage, or lack thereof funding and distribution that inhibits it’s reach to a mainstream audience. Secondly is the general accessibility of it’s films, with cinemas and film festivals being primarily in circles of a white dominated industry.
Despite all this, a handful of talented black filmmakers have persevered, and through restricted parameters and limited resources produced outstanding cinematic achievements.
She’s Gotta Have It (1986)
Considered a landmark independent film in the American cinema of the 80’s, Spike Lee’s first feature film was also a significant social piece that was to broaden the horizons of a mainstream America with regards to black filmmaking.
Nola Darling (Tracy Camilla Johns) has everything going for her. She is young, independent, attractive, and the three very different men in her life provide her with all the affection she desires. The problem is each of these suitors want Nola exclusively, but if she so cherishes her personal freedom then why should she feel obligated to commit to anybody?
She’s Gotta Have It is an intelligent piece of realism that manages to peel away subtle layers of social complexity to expose issues of monogamy, gender equality and culture. The respect that Lee shows for his cast is what gives the film it’s strength.
Like John Cassavetes and Francois Truffaut he is patient with the camera, allowing the actors to really play with the drama in the script (or allow the freedom for improvisation).
Shot in 2 weeks during the summer of 1985 in Brooklyn NYC on a shoe-string budget, She’s Gotta Have It was to prove a box office success with a return of more than 4 times it’s initial budget.
The affection that Lee shows for his Brooklyn borough is evident with the location shots amongst public spaces, parks and avenues. His influence would anticipate the migration of many artists and musicians to the area in the coming years.
My Brother’s Wedding (1983)
In 1983, upon the commencement of a long and arduous shoot, director Charles Burnett sent the rough-cut of My Brother’s Wedding to his associate producers.
Despite his requests to finish the edits to his film, Burnett’s work was hastily shipped off without his permission to The New York Film Festival where it was met with mixed reviews, and sadly was never released.
It was to be some 25 years later when Milestone Films were to obtain the rights to the film, and, upon allowing Burnett to re-edit the film as initially intended, My Brother’s Wedding was finally released as it should have been.
Described by the director as a tragic comedy based on the lives of the people who live in South Central Los Angeles, the film is centred around Pierce Mundy (Everett Silas), a middle-aged drifter who cannot seem to grab a foothold on life. Spending most of his days roaming the neighbourhood or working at his parent’s locally-run laundromat, he finds himself at a crucial crossroad when he must decide whether to pay his respects at the funeral of his childhood comrade Soldier (Ronnie Bell), or attend his brother’s marriage to a woman from a more affluent class.
Considered by The Chicago Tribune as ‘one of America’s very best filmmakers’, and The New York Times as ‘The nation’s least-known great filmmaker and most gifted black director…’, sadly the work of Charles Burnett– such a significant director, producer, screenwriter, editor, actor, photographer and cinematographer is far too often overlooked.
His truthful snapshots of a black Los Angeles in the late 70’s and early 80’s are so rich with earthly connotations that they have been likened to the Neorealism of post-World War Italian Cinema. His debut film Killer Of Sheep (1978) is widely considered a pivotal contribution of Black Independent filmmaking.
Nothing But A Man (1964)
A razor-sharp powerhouse of cinema shot amidst the turbulent and socially poignant era of the civil rights movement of America in the 60’s.
With such a profound film as this, it becomes intrinsically complex when one considers where to group it: part coming of age film, part love story, most definitely a social commentary of the 60’s.
Nothing But A Man follows a small-town railroad worker who struggles to find piece of mind within the white dominance and racist attitudes of America’s deep south.
Amazingly, the film was co-written, directed and produced by Michael Roemer, of Jewish roots, who channeled inspiration from his memories of persecution in Nazi Germany. The film was transpired from the culmination of events that he and co-writer Robert Young experienced on their journey to the South in an effort to gain a better understanding of Black culture within the region.
Upon their travels along the Mississippi and through the various families and communities in the deep south, the script was hatched in the 6 weeks upon their return to New York.
The film’s outstanding soundtrack, more than worthy of a mention, came about by a pure stroke of coincidence. A former Harvard classmate of Roemer’s had his law office situated in close proximity to the film’s shoot location and had suggested he listen to music from a new client he had acquired from Detroit, Michigan. Impressed with what he heard, Roemer contacted Motown owner Berry Gordy and obtained the rights for songs by the likes of Stevie Wonder, Smokey Robinson, The Marvelettes, Mary Wells and Martha Reeves for $5000 US.
Known to be a favourite film of Malcolm X, The Washington Post describes it as:
‘one of the most sensitive films about black life ever made in this country…’