Recently I went to my local library to see a documentary on the history of Black Love in film. The 2011 documentary called Reel Black Love, directed and produced by Darryl Pitts of Chicago, features dozens of interviews with famed actors, actresses, and professionals in the film industry discussing the many ups and downs of Black cinema. What intrigued me the most was to see a collection of films that acknowledged and celebrated romance within the African American perspective. The documentary went as far back as the 50s and 60s to the latest film mentioned, the Terrence Howard film Hustle and Flow. We have truly come a long way from Lady Sings the Blues.
What makes for good Black Love on the big screen? Much like in real life, the romance needs vulnerability, attraction (between the two parties), and charisma. Darryl Pitts, who spent over 20 years in television production, saw that there was no discussion on Black Love in film so he began to do research in the early 2000s on the subject, seeing all the movies on the subject as he could. The main challenge was getting access to celebrities to interview for his project.
Black Love in Film: “Just starting to make our mark…”
When I saw the film, they were just about to cover Lady Sings the Blues, the classic starring Diana Ross and Billy D. Williams, who represented a new kind of appealing Black man on the big screen: classy, in good economic standing, and having purposeful sex appeal. Actors like the legend Sidney Poitier had roles in romance but they were not on the same level that Billy D. had.
Speaking of Mr. Poitier, he starred in one of the most popular films of his career: Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner. It debuted in a small theater in 1967, during a time period when it was illegal to be in a interracial relationship with White people in 16 states in America! One interviewee close to the film stated that the film company Columbia didn’t want to take a risk on the film, with its premise partly based on a romance between a Black man (Poitier) and a young White woman. The film was picketed yet it was well received by many audiences.
“We don’t control our images…”
Now we have more diversity in films, but it seems like we are still in need to fight for the best range of images that represent not just one or two sides of our rich culture and community. The documentary and the discussion that followed opened up the issue that we are aware of today: how to gain more influence on the control of our images, how we are portrayed in film and other areas of media and entertainment.
As a stereotypical “hard to please” community group, one discussion participant in the audience stated that we are our worst critics when it comes to seeing our image. Pitts shared with us in the audience that the defense of our image is in our hands but we have to be more active in taking a stance; we tend to encourage the very things that we are against. For example, how many articles are we going to read about Beyonce’s Grammy performance being either positive or negative? Regardless of what she did, she is a Black American and thus represents us in a way. Pitts said that people are more careful about what they’ll say; no one wants to take about race. That is-the actors and entertainers who want to find and keep working in the business. It’s a challenge indeed for those on box ends of the box office.
“Your money should reflect your belief”
What got a lot of discussion going was towards the end of the Q&A portion when an audience member asked why have there been not enough or a good amount of Black marriages featured in films? I didn’t realize it earlier, but many of the films that were mentioned in the documentary featured couples in dating relationships. Pitts shared an unfortunate mindset that many higher-leveled individuals don’t believe that is the “general Black experience” aka it’s not real or relatable enough to equal to numbers in the box office. This also brings one to question if that goes the same for the lack of diverse roles to play in films and TV. Perhaps, but as Pitts suggested, we have to be willing to support what we believe with our wallets.
Perfect examples for this are Tyler Perry produced films. Most of his stage-plays to movies have done very well, but his first film had only $5 million in production support to get made. Now this man has multiple studios, dozens of movies under his belt, and much more in the works. The key was the support of his audience, primary from the Black, Faith-based Christian community and the chitterling circuit from which he gained popularity while promoting his stage plays years ago. This concept could change how we see ourselves. If we truly stop giving attention (including sharing about shows and movies over social media) to things that damage our community image, we can begin to make a step in the right direction.
“We’re at a dangerous point.”
The debate continued when one woman shared that she watches all the films and TV shows including the ones we hate to watch yet still support, like Real Housewives of Atlanta for example. “They are trying to get somewhere and we have to give them a chance.” She noted that Nene Leakes took advantage of her reality show platform to break into scripted television and is doing well now versus what she presented on the show years ago.
Pitts rebutted with “We’re at a dangerous point. When I look at it 15 years later, we can’t afford to have a negative image be the dominant image.” Children twerking and quoting rappers but can’t read are just two of the examples that he used for his point. “We have to get to a point when we say it’s enough and protect our legacy.” Good points were made by both individuals and it kind of represents where we are right now. We as a community passively take what we can get, and we don’t actively defend our image in an organized and efficient way, well, at least compared to other ethnic groups. This clearly is not just in film, but in many other arenas in which we get access but only just enough for the majority in charge to say that they’re not racist *COUGH-Academy of Motion Pictures-COUGH-Grammys-COUGH*.
Turning discussion into action
What’s next for Darryl Pitts is to continue to promote Reel Black Love, work on a feature film, promote the book about this documentary, and create follow up documentaries on the topics of Black Love in entertainment. At this discussion, he added creating a discussion forum to his plans for 2014. His plans to get Black folks in a room to speak their mind on our image in film and other mediums and what can be done after we leave the room. As ambitious as it is, it will be challenging.
We have to shake the avoidance of the real issues that are affecting us and create some real change that we have power to bring forth. We can’t allow anyone else to tell us how much power we have. This is why we don’t see Black Love and marriages more on TV and film; we are seeing what we complain about yet support now. I’m in the number too, but I demand more, which is why I look forward to participating in the upcoming forum and doing what I can through this blog to encourage my community to create a new image for us and our love in real life and in reel time.
BMWK – What were your favorite Black Love films growing up to now?