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Black Directors in Hollywood

Black Directors in Hollywood

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    Black Directors in Hollywood
    Book Description:

    Hollywood film directors are some of the world's most powerful storytellers, shaping the fantasies and aspirations of people around the globe. Since the 1960s, African Americans have increasingly joined their ranks, bringing fresh insights to movie characterizations, plots, and themes and depicting areas of African American culture that were previously absent from mainstream films. Today, black directors are making films in all popular genres, while inventing new ones to speak directly from and to the black experience.

    This book offers a first comprehensive look at the work of black directors in Hollywood, from pioneers such as Gordon Parks, Melvin Van Peebles, and Ossie Davis to current talents including Spike Lee, John Singleton, Kasi Lemmons, and Carl Franklin. Discussing 67 individuals and over 135 films, Melvin Donalson thoroughly explores how black directors' storytelling skills and film techniques have widened both the thematic focus and visual style of American cinema. Assessing the meanings and messages in their films, he convincingly demonstrates that black directors are balancing Hollywood's demand for box office success with artistic achievement and responsibility to ethnic, cultural, and gender issues.

    eISBN: 978-0-292-79875-5
    Subjects: Film Studies

Table of Contents

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  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-v)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. vi-viii)
    (pp. ix-x)
    Melvin Donalson
    (pp. xi-xiv)
    (pp. 1-8)

    Of the many creative people who collaborate on a motion picture, the director is regarded as the pivotal individual who governs the aggregate elements for completing the final film. In contemporary American cinema, the director serves as both the guiding force behind a film’s effective content and box-office success. Films, consequently, have been called a director’s medium.

    Since the mid-1960s in Hollywood, more than seventy black directors have attained this key position of director. Although this number appears high in the span of the last four decades, in actuality the number indicts commercial cinema when considering that Hollywood’s first feature...

  6. CHAPTER ONE The Pathmakers
    (pp. 9-24)

    In addition to his distinctive career as a professional photographer, Gordon Parks Jr. has also been a published poet, an author of three autobiographies, a novelist, a composer, and a Hollywood director. With an early life filled with racial oppression, restlessness, and violence, Parks could have ended up as so many other blacks did—hopeless, forgotten, and lost. But by his own admission his advantage ‘‘was the great love of [his] family—seven boys and eight girls, and a mother and father who cared about [him].’’²

    Without oversimplifying the importance of his family, Parks details in his autobiography,Voices in...

  7. CHAPTER TWO The Visionary Actors
    (pp. 25-44)

    Unlike Gordon Parks and Melvin Van Peebles, Ossie Davis came to film directing via a lengthy tenure as a writer and actor for the stage. In fact, by the 1990s, Davis had achieved a distinctive fifty-year career in theater and an overlapping forty years in film and television. Ossie Davis has been an artistic forerunner and an amazing example of talent and perseverance.

    Davis’ background has been highlighted in numerous African American biographies, as well as in his enlightening 1998 co-autobiography,With Ossie and Ruby: In This Life Together. Born in 1917 in Cogdell, Georgia, Ossie Davis was the son...

  8. CHAPTER THREE Black Urban Action Films and Mainstream Images
    (pp. 45-65)

    The creative, pioneering efforts of Van Peebles, Parks, Davis, and Poitier were not just transitory occurrences that had no impact on the Hollywood scene. It wasn’t that Hollywood was contritely endeavoring to make reparations for its legacy of African American screen images, nor was there a particular era of egalitarianism that white studio bosses were opening up for black filmmakers. By the early 1970s, it became a clear business strategy that black screen images offered a means for tapping into a large paying audience who found something compelling in those black images. The ‘‘good Negro’’ images may have played well...

  9. CHAPTER FOUR Black Sensibilities and Mainstream Images
    (pp. 66-77)

    With black urban action films presenting the dominant images of blacks in the early 1970s, there seemed to be little room for any other depiction in mainstream entertainment. On the one hand, the prevalence of black superheroes, who were protecting the ‘‘community’’ against the ‘‘man’’ and drugs, provided an affirmation of black existence previously absent from the screen. Regardless of the flaws and redundancy of those black images, they revitalized the business motives of Hollywood studios.

    Many of the black urban action films were in fact shaped by white writers, producers, and directors, often excluding African American filmmakers from the...

  10. CHAPTER FIVE Michael Schultz: The Crossover King
    (pp. 78-94)

    Between 1964 and 1985, Michael Schultz was Hollywood’s major black director of feature films. Unlike other black directors, Schultz won acceptability and approval from the established studios, and he served as a formidable presence in stage and television direction as well.

    Schultz was born into a working-class family in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, in 1939. With early dreams of becoming an astronautical engineer, he enrolled at the University of Wisconsin, but he later transferred to Marquette University and joined the Theater Arts Program.²

    In 1964, he traveled to Manhattan and earned the position of assistant stage manager for the American Place Theater....

  11. CHAPTER SIX Spike Lee: The Independent Auteur
    (pp. 95-123)

    Between 1986 and 1996 Spike Lee completed ten feature films, and though this number does not qualify him as the most prolific black director ever in Hollywood, it would be impossible to deny that since the 1990s Lee has been the most visible and controversial black filmmaker. Lee’s popularity has given him a recognition unequaled by other black directors. Due to his film directing, his presence in commercials, his outspokenness on racial issues, and his well-known courtside presence at New York Knicks pro basketball games—Spike Lee has become a celebrity. Yet, despite this celebrity status, Lee continually positions himself...

  12. CHAPTER SEVEN Keeping It Real (Reel): Black Dramatic Visions
    (pp. 124-173)

    In many ways, Charles Burnett does not belong in a discussion concerning Hollywood films. For Burnett, a seasoned and experienced filmmaker, his preference for low-budget, independent films has given him a distinguished status as an artist. Unfortunately, his lack of visibility among mainstream audiences, both black and nonblack, has kept his work in the shadows of ’90s films that examine black experiences.

    Although he grew up in Watts, Burnett was born in Vicksburg, Virginia, in 1944.While studying theater arts at UCLA, hemade a student film in 1969 titledSeveral Friendsand a fourteen-minute graduate-level film,The Horse, completing the university’s...

  13. CHAPTER EIGHT And Still They Rise: Black Women Directors
    (pp. 174-203)

    The dearth of women directors in Hollywood has been emblematic of the extensive sexism and patriarchy within the studio system. The celebrated white women directors of the 1930s and 1940s, specifically Dorothy Arzner and Ida Lupino, led the way for others—many of whom obtained work and prominence in the 1980s and 1990s, such as Amy Heckerling, Martha Coolidge, Nora Ephron, Penny Marshall, Kathryn Bigelow, and Jane Campion. According to critic Christine Spines’ aptly titled essay ‘‘Behind Bars,’’ ‘‘in 1997, women made up only 12.2 percent of the [Directors] guilds members.’’¹ Of the many factors preventing women directors from gaining...

  14. CHAPTER NINE Not without Laughter: Directors of Comedy and Romance
    (pp. 204-251)

    Hollywood films that have presented comedy and romance, or a combination, of the two, have been an industry staple for decades. Comedies, of course, entertain by providing the audience an escape from the formidable problems of the real world outside the theater. For their part, romances plunge headlong into the emotional turmoil that surrounds relationships, exploring the dynamics of failing intimacies or shaping the facets of happy-ever-after unions.

    African American images have been a part of the comedy genre since the silent era, and throughout the studio years, Hollywood’s approach to black peoplewas that they were certainly good for a...

  15. CHAPTER TEN Off the Hook: Comedy and Romance with a Hip-Hop Flavor
    (pp. 252-277)

    Among those who study American popular music, arguments are made that ‘‘rap music’’ is an evolutionary outcome of numerous factors: the African oral tradition; African American work songs; the call-and-response tradition; the doo-wop of the ’50s; soul and funk music of the late ’60s–early ’70s; and the union of music and poetry by artists such as Gil Scott-Heron, the Last Poets, and Don L. Lee (aka Haki Madhubuti). In explaining the origins of contemporary rap forms, in his bookBlack Popular Music in America, author Arnold Shaw asserts that as early as 1974 in the Bronx, rhyming words spoken...

  16. CHAPTER ELEVEN Redefining Crossover Films
    (pp. 278-322)

    The concept of ‘‘crossover’’ has been an operative idea in the marketing of Hollywood films for decades. It took on a particular relevance to African American representation in movies as the early-1970s formula of black urban action movies began to wane in popularity. In his studyAmerican Film Now, critic James Monaco places the term ‘‘crossover’’ into the context of black-white audience appeal and story lines. By the early ’70s, films such asThe Godfather(1972) andThe Exorcist(1973) pulled in not just white audiences, but also audiences that were composed of over one-third black viewers despite the absence...

    (pp. 323-326)
  18. NOTES
    (pp. 327-340)
    (pp. 341-344)
    (pp. 345-354)
  21. INDEX
    (pp. 355-375)