Black And White Cinema

Prospero’s F.S. talks to Precious director Lee Daniels about his recent hit The Butler, a film about “a humble but talented butler who ends up serving eight successive presidents during his 34-year tenure at the White House”:

Your films feel very American for the way they concentrate on the rise and legacy of the US civil-rights movement. How well do they travel? Do other countries “get” them?

“Precious” did very well in the UK. And I hope it’s because these films are about people, not history. Similarly in “The Butler”, I saw the presidents as a backdrop to this story about a father and son, about a family trying to survive in America. I think those stories transcend race and country. I am fascinated by the human condition and by family.

There’s a moment in the film when characters criticise Sidney Poitier, the first black man to win an Academy Award for Best Actor. They suggest he ingratiated himself with white men in order to succeed. How do you feel that cinema treats African-Americans now?

I think that black cinema is having a wonderful moment. And it’s getting easier to find finance for these sorts of films, too. It’s a great thing to have made some money on “The Butler” so that we can show people that this sort of thing can be successful. But it’s interesting: I asked my son what he thought of the film. And he said: “Dad, what would mean something to me would be seeing a black Spider-Man, or Superman. When you can create a comic book character like that who is black then I will feel that you are hitting important territory.”

Alyssa considers the willingness of a white audience to engage with “black films”:

[P]art of the point of telling stories about non-white characters is to improve the variety of our storytelling, whether we’re putting new parts of familiar histories on the big screen, tossing new sorts of obstacles in lovers’ paths, or finding variations on family squabbles. But audiences are obviously capable of–and interested–in engaging with all sorts of characters whose lives are different from our own. We happily consume stories about characters who are super-rich, or even whose real estate seems out of whack what they ought to be able to afford. We embrace criminal families and gobble up the exploits of super-people. Plenty of movies that are labeled “black films” portray characters and events that have more in common with the lived experiences of most white filmgoers than the events of movies that are blithely assumed to be accessible to white audiences.

Over time, marketing decisions and the rise of studios like Tyler Perry’s, may have helped codify the idea that the simple presence of black actors in a film automatically transfers that film from one genre to another. But that division is hardly a natural one. And one of the quickest ways to break it down would be to try harder to sell movies to the audiences who ought to like them based on their content, rather than the race of the actors in question. Sell The Best Man Holiday and Think Like A Man to those of us who are burned out on the bad scripts that seem to cling to Katherine Heigl like flies. Push Red Tails not just to church groups, but to survivors of the Greatest Generation and the Boomers trying to understand their parents. And trust Steve McQueen’s arthouse pedigree to bring in everyone from people who want to feel good about themselves by engaging with history, to anyone who swoons over gorgeous shots of palmetto groves.