New Directors Flesh Out Black America, All of It
A New Black Wave?: Nelson George discusses the state of black cinema through a close reading of “Pariah,” directed by Dee Rees.
By NELSON GEORGE
But in “Pariah” the gaze of desire doesn’t emanate from predatory males but A.G.’s, that is aggressive lesbians, who, in a safe space where they enjoy the fellowship of peers, can be true to themselves. Other films have depicted this particular black alternative life (as did a couple of memorable characters in HBO’s masterly series “The Wire”), but no film made by a black lesbian about being a black lesbian has ever received the kind of attention showered on Ms. Rees’s film. It was a major success at the Sundance Festival in January and, even before its limited release on Wednesday, has entered the conversation as a long shot Oscar contender courtesy of the aggressive folks at NBC Universal’s specialty arm, Focus Features.
Ms. Rees, a slight, boyish 34-year-old with a shy demeanor, was recently named breakthrough director of the year at the Gotham Awards, and the film received two Spirit Award nominations, acknowledgements of good will toward the picture in the independent film world. But “Pariah” is important, not simply as a promising directorial debut, but also as the most visible example of the mini-movement of young black filmmakers telling stories that complicate assumptions about what “black film” can be by embracing thorny issues of identity, alienation and sexuality.
In addition to “Pariah” these features include Rashaad Ernesto Green’s “Gun Hill Road,” Andrew Dosunmu’s “Restless City,” Alrick Brown’s “Kinyarwanda” and Victoria Mahoney’s “Yelling to the Sky.” The first four made their premieres at Sundance in January, while Ms. Mahoney’s effort appeared at the Berlin Film Festival in February. (Two other films that should also be added to this group: Barry Jenkins’s “Medicine for Melancholy,” from 2008, a day in the life of two black bohemians wandering the streets of San Francisco, and Qasim Basir’s “Mooz-lum” (2011), a character study of a Muslim teenager in the Midwest.)
Along with their festival pedigrees these films and filmmakers share a number of connections. Ms. Rees, Mr. Green and Mr. Brown all attended New York University and received guidance from a professor named Spike Lee. ”Pariah” and “Restless City” were both shot by Bradford Young, a brilliant young director of photography who won the excellence in cinematography award at Sundance.
Most important, the points of view of the films expand the palette of images for black American filmmakers. Mr. Green’s “Gun Hill Road” is set in the Bronx and looks at the tension among a Latino ex-con father, his transgender son and the son’s black lover. Mr. Brown’s film, shot in Central Africa, uses multiple story arcs to dive into the moral abyss of the Rwandan genocide. Mr. Dosunmu captures the hustles and hardships of African immigrants working in and around Canal Street in Manhattan. Ms. Mahoney presents an autobiographical look at a family of a young woman growing up black and Irish in a quasi-suburban, quasi-hood section of Queens. Ms. Rees’s film, though clearly a coming-out story, is also about the ethical evasions affecting all members of a seemingly stable African-American family.
I use African-American, as opposed to black, very specifically in describing the drama at the heart of “Pariah,” since African-American means descendants of African slaves brought to America. Black, however, casts a wider net in dealing with works that depict the lives of people from the entire African diaspora. Mr. Green, who is black and Puerto Rican, and Ms. Mahoney, who is black-Irish, tap into both sides of their ethnicity in their films, just as Ms. Rees looks at herself as both black and lesbian, reconciling the two in her work just as her protagonist does in the film. The African-American Alrick Brown’s journey into the thickets of a brutal African experience and the Nigerian Andrew Dosunmu’s vision of life for Africans in America represent a much needed, unromantic dialogue between blacks on both sides of the Atlantic.
Traditionally films made for, and often by, African-Americans have fallen within a very narrow definition of our experience. Forty years ago the notorious blaxploitation era was in full stride with crime melodramas its stock and trade. Though there was plenty of hack filmmaking then, some gifted directors (Melvin Van Peebles, Gordon Parks, Gordon Parks Jr.) helped create a worthwhile canon of films in which “the brother man” consistently trumped “the other man” (white authority). Many of the accompanying soundtracks (Isaac Hayes’s “Shaft,” Curtis Mayfield’s “Superfly,” Marvin Gaye’s “Trouble Man”) were more artful than the images they supported.
Twenty years later, in 1991, 16 films were released theatrically that were directed, produced or written by African-Americans, a historic year that was documented in a cover article in The New York Times Magazine. (I was part of that wave. My screenwriting credits include the 1991 comedy “Strictly Business.”) In retrospect the films of 1991 were really quite varied: a tale of Afrocentric feminism (“Daughters of the Dust”), interracial love drama (“Jungle Fever”), soul era nostalgia (“The Five Heartbeats”). But it was hood movies that grossed the most at the box office (“Boyz N the Hood,” “New Jack City”) and defined that period.
If there is any historical precedent for this emerging 21st-century movement, it is a collective of black filmmakers who attended the University of California, Los Angeles, in the ’70s, making films that existed under the commercial radar and addressed subjects from neo-realism to pan-Africanism. Among the standout writer-directors in this loose collective were Haile Gerima, Julie Dash and Charles Burnett, whose 1977 masterpiece, “Killer of Sheep,” has been inducted in the National Film Registry.
The desire to identify a new generation of black filmmakers is as important for American cinema as it is for filmmakers and audiences. Halle Berry, Cuba Gooding Jr., Samuel L. Jackson, Wesley Snipes, Queen Latifah, Ice Cube, Regina King and Nia Long are among the Oscar nominees, leading men and women, and television regulars who were given their first major exposure in films written, produced and directed by African-Americans. A generation of household faces came out of these films, faces that would otherwise never have had star-making opportunities to carry a film. That these actors crossed over, often to colorblind roles in mainstream entertainment, is a testament to both their skills and the underappreciated role black filmmakers have played as talent scouts.
The acclaim for the previously unknown Adepero Oduye’s performance as the young lesbian Alike in “Pariah” is typical of how black film spotlights otherwise marginalized actors. And there is a very human desire to see people on screen who resemble you, but are better looking, stronger and larger than life. It is the power of movies at their most elemental.
This current mini-movement has none of the certainty about black identity that defined previous periods. Identity — the search for it, the limitations of it, its fluidity — is at the core of all these dramas. Such themes speak to a sophistication that previous generations of filmmakers didn’t possess or rejected since rigid definitions of racial identity are much easier to market. Then again, none of these films have made a substantial dent at the box office.
So a lot rides on the reception for “Pariah,” both as the introduction of Ms. Rees as a major filmmaker and a symbol of this incipient new wave. Certainly some of the excitement surrounding it was ignited by “Precious” in 2009. Both films are small dramas about sexual issues confronting young African-American women in New York City. “Precious,” Lee Daniels’s gothic take on Sapphire’s novel, made $63 million worldwide (on a budget of $10 million), won the screenwriter Geoffrey Fletcher an Oscar for his bold adaptation, and was anointed by Oprah Winfrey and Tyler Perry as executive producers. The film played well to mainstream as well as black audiences, which may have emboldened Mr. Perry to direct “For Colored Girls” (2010), an adaptation of Ntozake Shange’s feminist play, and surely factored into the marketing strategy for this year’s black-women-theme blockbuster, “The Help.”
That’s not to suggest that ”Pariah” subscribes to any kind of formula. There is a gentle, almost tentative quality to the journey of Alike (subtly played by Ms. Oduye) that is very much a reflection of Ms. Rees’s personality. This highly autobiographical film began as a feature script in 2005, became a much-lauded short and was expanded back into a feature, with the support of a bevy of executive producers and independent film institutions (Sundance Institute, Tribeca Film Institute, IFP, Film Independent). It was shot in 19 days in and around Brooklyn.
While attending New York University from 2003 to 2007 Ms. Rees worked as an intern on Spike Lee’s Hurricane Katrina documentary “When the Levees Broke,” and his Denzel Washington vehicle, “Inside Man.” Mr. Lee, who has been the artistic director of N.Y.U.’s graduate film program for nearly a decade, critiqued drafts of the script and advised Ms. Rees and her producer, Nekisa Cooper, on fund-raising.
At N.Y.U. Ms. Rees came in contact with Mr. Brown, Mr. Green and several other emerging talents, including Seith Mann, a graduate who has built a successful career directing television dramas like “Dexter.”
“During Seith’s time a lot of the black students began calling themselves ‘the League,’ ” Ms. Rees told me, a reference to the all-black baseball league that ended in the ’50s. The shorthand speaks to a sense of camaraderie that is shared by many of the black students there. If there’s a thread connecting their work, it is that “none of us have reductive views” of black identity, she said. “There are different ways to be. There is no monolithic black identity. My film is less about coming out than becoming into who you are and how to be that person. I think we want an extreme diversity of images and voices. And it is not enough to have a lot of films in one year, but to have an ongoing supply of films.”
Mr. Lee, who taught Ms. Rees, Mr. Green and Mr. Brown in his third-year directing class, is cautious about too much talk of a new wave, noting that very few of the directors who emerged in ’91 are still making features. Still, Mr. Lee, whose own feature “Red Hook Summer” will have its debut at Sundance, is “optimistic about the talent out there and the work being done,” he said in an interview. “But I told Alrick, Dee and Ernesto all the same thing: You got one done, but you can’t rest on your laurels. Don’t make one film and then travel with that one print to film festivals. You need to get the next one going and the one after that. The idea is to build a body of work.”
Ms. Rees has been busy doing just that since Sundance, writing an HBO pilot, another film for Focus and a spec script about an insurance adjuster, all featuring lesbian or bisexual characters. “Sexuality is not an issue” in these scripts, Ms. Rees cautioned. And in a comment that could refer to racial identity as well, she added, “They are people, and that’s just part of who they are.”