Black Women and the Hollywood Shuffle

There's a reason Tyler Perry and Lee Daniels are the ones we see making movies about the lives of African-American women.

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She elaborates, "The characters in Perry's films are the type that make money, so his characters become the model. When you're shopping around your screenplay, they're looking at that as the model that makes money. You hear that black people aren't going to go for this, and that is problematic." She adds, "Perry is determining what black representation is going to be for a while."

So why is it that black female audiences gravitate to Tyler Perry's films but not to Something New or Fox Searchlight's Just Wright, which was also directed by Hamri? Could it be the church model at work? That is, the phenomenon in which black women support men and institutions (like the church) that often participate in and benefit from their oppression?

Daryle Lockhart, CEO of TheBlackBoxOffice.com, believes that it is more of a function of marketing than anything else. "Tyler Perry's brand is popular to a certain segment of society. He communicates in his messaging that his films are made by, for and about black people. We are programmed to respond when his movies come out in a way that isn't done in other marketing for black films." Perhaps black women need to be "programmed" to support films by black women in the same way that they support Perry and Daniel's films? It seems that black men and women should be able to work together instead of canceling each other out.

DuVernay agrees. "I don't have a problem with black men telling stories that deal with black women as protagonists. My problem is that there are only half a dozen that are being made. It's not the man; it's the amount."

Indeed, the numbers are not in our favor. If Hollywood is making only 225 to 250 films per year, 6 percent of which are being directed by women, that means that approximately 14 films will be available for women to direct in general. Where does that leave black women directors, let alone writers? Nowhere, is the answer, particularly when box office receipts don't offset the cost of making a film.

Still, there are those, like Lockhart, who argue that you can't use the box office to measure a film's worth. "We've got to stop giving the box office so much weight. It doesn't speak to film as art. We've got to go back to telling real stories -- and honestly, on the indie side, from Julie Dash on down, the best filmmaking is being done by black female filmmakers."

If black audiences in general and black women specifically are willing to support Perry's films, then they should also support Hamri's films, especially if they want to see more black women making movies and telling stories in Hollywood. Then again, it's not just black female audiences who need to support black women filmmakers. Black women filmmakers need to be stronger advocates for their own projects.

Filmmaker Nzingha Stewart, executive producer of the upcoming film For Colored Girls Who Have Considered Suicide When the Rainbow Is Enuf, based on the play by Ntozake Shange, interned with director Brett Ratner (X-Men: The Last Stand) when she was first starting out. Watching Ratner in action taught Stewart a lot. "As women, I kind of think that there is an area where men do a little bit better than us, which is being more aggressive when getting a film made. [Ratner] talked about his projects in a way that women do not."

The process of adapting For Colored Girls to the big screen is one example of what can happen when black female filmmakers try to make movies centered around the lives of African-American women. Stewart is matter-of-fact as she recounts what happened: "I wrote a draft. The draft enabled me to option the script. I started sending it out to actresses, and everybody was really excited. We then took it to a studio. Tyler [Perry] became involved, and now the movie is getting made."

What she doesn't say is this: The blogosphere blew up with outrage when it was reported that Stewart originally had been tapped to direct but Perry pushed her out of the director's chair. Stewart declined to comment on the circumstances surrounding how decisions were made, which raises another issue.

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