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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Gibbs’ comments reflect the complex issues that black women filmmakers face when trying to get films about black women made. In this economic climate, Hollywood isn’t taking very many creative risks. Stories about black women are thought of as risks because they do not “guarantee” success — that is, make money overseas. (Meanwhile, Will Smith is the biggest international box office draw.) While other filmmakers, like Michael Mann and Kathryn Bigelow, get to make films that perform extremely well and some that do not, most black women do not get that type of leeway or the ability to grow as artists. Some blame the business model, but there’s something else at work.

Gramercy Pictures’ Something New (2006) boasted an all-black, all-female slate, from Moroccan-American director Sanaa Hamri to writer Kriss Turner to lead producer (and Hollywood studio veteran) Stephanie Allain. And it had the very appealing Sanaa Lathan as its star. But the movie grossed only $11 million, meaning that it underperformed in terms of box office receipts. Contrast that with, say, Tyler Perry’s Madea Goes to Jail (2009), which grossed more than $90 million at the box office. It stands to reason that Perry will be the go-to guy to make films about black women. It helps that he helps finance his films, too.

Still, others like indie filmmaker Tanya Steele don’t buy the it’s-just-business argument. “People’s views of black people are so narrow. People argue that it’s a business model. I don’t think that’s what it is. I think it’s what people think that black people are. Enter Tyler Perry.”

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.

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