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It's high tide for black new wave

CANNES, France -- The French New Wave was a rebirth of French films in the early 1960s, and the German new wave represented the same process in Germany in the 1970s. Now black American filmmakers are developing a new stylistic and personal vision that reached critical mass at this year's Cannes Film Festival. In May of 1991, here in the incongruous setting of the French Riviera, far from the urban settings of most of their films, the black new wave came of age.

The "nouvelle vague" in France began in the late 50's with a trickle of films that seemed to speak in a different voice, with more freshness and confidence, than those around them. By the early 1960's, it was a flood. The same process seems to be taking place 30 years later with a new wave of American films by and about black people.

The black New Wave was predicted by the arrival of Spike Lee on the scene in 1986. His "She's Gotta Have It," which premiered here in the Director's Fortnight of the Cannes Film Festival, was a break with the two central paths of black-oriented films of earlier years: It was neither a self-conscious socially-responsible film, bearing a liberal message, nor was it an exploitation film, using sex and violence as it's currency.

Even more importantly--and this is the key element in the Black New Wave--it was a film that considered the African-American experience in it's own terms, instead of filtering it through implied white values, or tailoring it for white audiences. Lee's film was about a black woman who had the personal and sexual independence more often associated with men, and was delighted by the ways that the men in her life were confounded by that.

As a film critic who had seen virtually every "black film" of the past 20 years, I felt at once I was seeing something new here: A film not only made by blacks, and about blacks, but for blacks. So many of the other black films seemed to be trying to force themselves into white mainstream categories. As a white viewer, I found Lee's approach incomparably more interesting than those tortured "crossover" films that seemed to be translated into an idiom that didn't belong anywhere.

In the late 80's, Lee consolidated his approach . There was "School Daze," a zany and yet dead-serious musical comedy set on campus of a black university, and frankly confronting the issue of skin pigmentation in a story involving lighter and darker-skinned African-Americans. This was a taboo subject among black filmmakers until Lee's films; perhaps it was thought to be impolitic to mention the subject when whites were listening. But "School Daze" was not made in reference to whites; all of i'ts characters and conflicts involved blacks characters.

Lee's "Do the Right Thing" (1989), the most important American film of recent years, did confront black-white relationships, in it's famous story of a black New York neighborhood and an Italian-American pizzeria owner who is still in business there. The movie's characters said out loud what people in such situations really do say and think, and it ended in violence, with the death of a young black man and the burning of the pizzeria. Yet it was a film hope, because it was based, not on hatred, but on empathy. I wrote at the time, and still believe, that it was impossible for any open-minded viewer of either race to leave the movie without more empathy for the members of the other race.

That is the key to Lee's work, and one of the central fact of the New Black Wave which his films have inspired. He has moved on beyond the ritual charges of racism, beyond the image of wronged and angry black characters, to a new plateau of sophistication on which there is room for good and bad characters of all races, on which racism is seen not as a knee-jerk response to skin color, but as a failure of empathy--a failure of the ability to imagine the other person's point of view.

Spike Lee is sometimes perceived in popular journalistic shorthand as an angry young man. He is not. Yes, he feels anger, but it does not define him. He is the most open-minded of filmmakers, as illustrated by his lastest film, "Jungle Fever," in which two of the most sympathetic characters happen to be whites. The film also illustrates the way he allows his black characters the freedom to be all kinds of people--good, bad, intelligent, stupid--instead of limiting themselves to the approved Hollywood black categories of earlier years.

Look at the black family in "Jungle Fever": An architect (Wesley Snipes), his brother, a crackhead (Samuel L. Jackson), their parents, the sanctimonious Reverend Doctor (Ossie Davis), and his long-suffering wife (Ruby Dee). Lee is not constrained by categories. He does not fall into the easy trap of making the Davis character a conventionally good older man, but shows him blinded and limited by his self-righteousness. And by creating two brothers whose walks in life have been radically different, he is able to dramatize the way many black American families bridge the gap between poverty, and the new professional and middle classes. The best scene in the film shows the architect, with his briefcase and Brooks Brothers suit, descending into the hell of a crack house in search of his brother.

Spike Lee is the director whose arrival heralded the Black New Wave, as Goddard and Truffaut launched the new wave in France, and Fassbinder and Herzog gave rebirth to the German cinema. But at the Cannes Festival this year the African-American presence was so strong that the trade papers ran headlines about "black power on the Riviera," and every Paris and London newpaper wrote about the phenomenon.

On one night, for example, there were two big post-screening parties in town, both for films by black Americans. In a nightclub up in town, rap artist Ice Cube performed in a disco jampacked with people celebrating the premiere "Boyz N the Hood," the extraordinary new film by 23-year old John Singleton. Down on the beach, there was a celebration for Bill Duke's "A Rage In Harlem," a romantic comedy based on one of the books of Harlem crime novelist Chester Himes.

At the "Boyz" party, I found myself sitting next to Frank Price, president of Columbia Pictures and the man who gave Singleton , then 22 and still in film school, the green light to write and direct the film. "When John came in and started to talk about his ideas," Price said " was reminded of another kid who walked into my office once--Steven Spielberg." Singleton wanted to make a film about a bright black kid who grows up in South Central Los Angeles, who lives in the middle of gang violence and the other usual ghetto problems, who is surrounded by ways to go wrong, but who is raised by a father who takes his responsibilities seriously. The movie, which played out of competition in a category called "Un Certain Regard," was by general agreement the most talked-about and well-liked film at Cannes this year, and Price seemed pleased with himself for having placed a wise bet on Singleton.

The "A Rage In Harlem" party, down at the beach, was besieged by so many paparazzi, it was almost impossible to get in. I was glad I'd had a chance to talk to some of the guests more quietly, a couple of nights earlier, in one of those endless Cannes conversations at La Pizza, down by the harbor, which stays open all night. At the table were Bill Duke, an actor and TV director who was making his film directorial debut with "A Rage In Harlem"; his leading actress, Robin Givens, and Duke's agent, Hillard Elkins. We were talking about the new kind of American black cinema that seems to be emerging.

"A Rage In Harlem" is an example: a comedy and a love story, with a wide variety of characters, all of them black, and a freedom to portray a complete range of behavior without playing to an unseen, hypothetical white audience. One problem Duke said he was frustrated by, as an actor, is the pious Hollywood reluctance to cast blacks in negative roles: "We can't get those good roles as villains because they're afraid of offending us." For example, two gifted actors, Morgan Freeman and Lou Gossett, fiercely competed for the prime role of Dr. Hannibal Lecter in "The Silence of the Lambs," but liberal Hollywood's wisdom was that a black shouldn't be seen in such a negative light. So the role went to Anthony Hopkins.

One of the freedoms of the black new wave is the ability to create black villains, such as Danny Glover's Easy Money in "A Rage In Harlem," or Samuel L. Jackson's crackhead in "Jungle Fever" - a character so shattered, he terrorizes his own mother, in a performance so strong, it won the Cannes prize for best supporting actor.

Lee, Singleton and Duke were all at Cannes, but back home in the United States, no less than 19 films directed by African-Americans are set for release before year's end. "That's more than in the previous decade," Lee said during a Cannes panel discussion, exaggerating, but not by much. Already in 1991, Mario Van Peebles' "New Jack City" has emerged as a genuine box office and critical success, with grosses of around $45 million and praise for the strong performance of Wesley Snipes as a murderous drug kingpin. Now here is Snipes again, in "Jungle Fever," as a white-collar architect, showing the growing range of roles available to the top black actors.

Other films, such as the low-budget, reportedly strong "Straight Out of Brooklyn"; the "Diner"-style coming-of-age movie "Hangin' With The Homeboys," and Robert Townsend's "The Five Heartbeats," about a vocal quintet, are also in the mix. Some of them make it, like "New Jack City." Some don't: Audiences revealed little desire to see "The Five Heartbeats." Yet the secret financial weapon of many black films is their above average performance in the video rental and sales market. Before she made "Ghost," for example, Whoopi Goldberg starred in several box-office flops. Producers kept hiring her because her films all made money on video. Even "The Telephone," a film that she personally disliked and hardly opened theatrically, was a top video moneymaker.

In examining theatrical receipts, however, you still hear the key word "crossover" in any discussion of black-oriented films. Will a film cross over and attract white filmgoers, or will it play mostly to blacks? Recent experience seems to indicate that the less a film consciously tries to "cross over," the more luck it is likely to have. White audiences are tired of lectures and message pictures about racism, or themes toned down to make them more palatable. But many are interested in the black American experience itself. They won't pay for preachy parables, but when directors focus on realistic black characters and their lives, there is a white audience out there for them.

The proof in that seems to be "Boyz N the Hood," which has the potential for the kind of success enjoyed in earlier years by "Stand by Me," "Diner," "Mean Streets," "The Last Picture Show," "American Graffiti" and all the other movies about strong-willed young people on the brink of manhood. One night late in the festival, I went out to dinner with Singleton and we talked about the possible career paths for a 23-year-old with a hit picture. He mentioned two directors as his examples: Spike Lee and Steven Spielberg. He said he likes pictures that made people laugh, and made them cry.

And that's it, really. Movies are not an appropriate medium for political and intellectual messages. The written word is best for those. Movies make you feel. If it is possible to generalize about black-oriented films of earlier years, it was that too many second thoughts went into them. The people who financed, produced, distributed and made them were too concerned with "proper" images, with messages, with ideological correctness, with crossing over. The black new wave takes its tone from Lee, who is as happy to offend blacks as whites, who allows his characters the freedom to be flawed and relieves them of the obligation to be exemplary. Lee's films are about emotion, and about universal desires and needs. They are not self-conscious. They are not rewritten to respond to the feelings, real or imagined, of white viewers. Each of the previous "new waves" in film history has given voice to the generation disenfranchised by the film establishment that came before it. The black new wave breathes that same free air.

Roger Ebert

Roger Ebert was the film critic of the Chicago Sun-Times from 1967 until his death in 2013. In 1975, he won the Pulitzer Prize for distinguished criticism.

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