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Shaping the Future of African American Film

Shaping the Future of African American Film: Color-Coded Economics and the Story Behind the Numbers

Copyright Date: 2014
Published by: Rutgers University Press
Pages: 296
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  • Book Info
    Shaping the Future of African American Film
    Book Description:

    In Hollywood, we hear, it's all about the money. It's a ready explanation for why so few black films get made-no crossover appeal, no promise of a big payoff. But what if the money itself is color-coded? What if the economics that governs film production is so skewed that no film by, about, or for people of color will ever look like a worthy investment unless it follows specific racial or gender patterns? This, Monica Ndounou shows us, is precisely the case. In a work as revealing about the culture of filmmaking as it is about the distorted economics of African American film, Ndounou clearly traces the insidious connections between history, content, and cash in black films.How does history come into it? Hollywood's reliance on past performance as a measure of potential success virtually guarantees that historically underrepresented, underfunded, and undersold African American films devalue the future prospects of black films. So the cycle continues as it has for nearly a century. Behind the scenes, the numbers are far from neutral. Analyzing the onscreen narratives and off-screen circumstances behind nearly two thousand films featuring African Americans in leading and supporting roles, including such recent productions asBamboozled, Beloved, and Tyler Perry'sDiary of a Mad Black Woman,Ndounou exposes the cultural and racial constraints that limit not just the production but also the expression and creative freedom of black films. Her wide-ranging analysis reaches into questions of literature, language, speech and dialect, film images and narrative, acting, theater and film business practices, production history and financing, and organizational history.By uncovering the ideology behind profit-driven industry practices that reshape narratives by, about, and for people of color, this provocative work brings to light existing limitations-and possibilities for reworking stories and business practices in theater, literature, and film.

    eISBN: 978-0-8135-6257-5
    Subjects: Film Studies, Sociology

Table of Contents

  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-vi)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. vii-viii)
    (pp. ix-xii)
  4. Introduction: The Color of Hollywood–Black, White, or Green?
    (pp. 1-26)

    On April 20, 2012, director Tim Story’sThink Like a Man, a cinematic adaptation of comedian Steve Harvey’s self-help book,Act Like a Lady, Think Like a Man, debuted on over two thousand screens across the United States. Produced on a $12 million budget,¹Think Like a Manearned $34 million in its opening weekend, holding the number-one spot for top-grossing movies for two consecutive weeks. Starring a predominantly black ensemble cast, including four black women in lead roles—rare for a studio-distributed romantic comedy—the production earned a total of $92 million in domestic box office after eighty days...

  5. PART ONE: Finding Freedom on Stage and Screen

    • 1 The Plantation Lives!
      (pp. 29-56)

      Academy Award–nominated actress Alfre Woodard’s suggestion to look beyond screenplays as a source for good material offers a useful although precarious intervention in the future development of African American film due to the critical interrelation between theatrical and cinematic production. Plays with predominantly white casts and their cinematic companions examined in this chapter illuminate the specific challenges of adapting African American drama for the screen.

      Exemplary of commercial theater, Broadway mirrors Hollywood in casting, narrative, and reliance on the bottom line. Tracking economic data according to source texts exposes greater frequency of adaptation and higher gross receipts of productions...

    • 2 Insurrection! African American Filmʹs Revolutionary Potential through Black Theater
      (pp. 57-92)

      Plays with predominantly black casts are less likely to be adapted into films. This is in part because adaptations of plays with predominantly white casts have been more lucrative. Those plays with predominantly black casts that have been adapted to film tend to receive comparatively lower budgets and less distribution than their white-cast counterparts, shedding new light on the complications of filmmaking in a racialized world. This chapter explores some of the potent possibilities residing in black theater’s intersection with black film. Specifically, plays such asA Raisin in the Sun, A Soldier’s Play, Bopha!, Tyler Perry’sDiary of a...

  6. PART TWO: Black Pathology Sells [Books and Films]?

    • 3 Playing with Fire: Black Womenʹs Literature/White Box Office
      (pp. 95-130)

      Given the racial dynamics of the entertainment industry, films by and about black women are poised to fail. Yet since 1980, there have been three cinematic adaptations of books by black women, all with black female protagonists, that are among the highest-grossing of all African American film dramas. Based on budget/gross ratios, number of screens, and length of time in theaters, the success ofThe Color Purple(1985),Waiting to Exhale(1995), andPrecious(2009) suggests that, like black theater, black literature can have a positive influence, both economically and artistically, on the development of African American filmmaking. Black women’s...

    • 4 Breaking the Chains of History and Genre
      (pp. 131-166)

      Considering the influence of early novels on historical films such asThe Birth of a Nationand the various film versions ofUncle Tom’s Cabin, translating written language for private consumption into a publicly consumed visual language historically limits black representation. It also inspires intertextual discourse between African American novelists and filmmakers. As theater and performance studies scholar Peggy Phelan explains, “Performance implicates the real through the presence of living bodies. In spectatorship there is an element of consumption: there are no left-overs, the gazing spectator must try to take everything in. Without a copy, live performance plunges into visibility—...

  7. PART THREE: Itʹs Not Just Business:: Color-Coded Economics and Original Films

    • 5 The Paradox of Branding, Black Star Power, and Box Office Politics
      (pp. 169-200)

      The Ulmer Scale, developed by James Ulmer, a film analyst, journalist, and contributing writer to theNew York Times, in 1997, tracks and scores star bankability, which refers to “the degree to which an actor’s name alone can raise full or majority financing up front for a motion picture.”¹ The higher the score, the greater the actor’s bankability. Don Cheadle’s discovery of the Ulmer Scale parallels an incident in Morrison’sBelovedwhen a former slave recounts the moment he discovered his economic value in the slave market. While the Ulmer Scale tracks the value of actors from all races, the...

    • 6 Big Business: Hip-Hop Gangsta Films and Black Comedies
      (pp. 201-238)

      From 1995 to 2012, there have been more films produced from original screenplays than any other source material. Novels run a close second, while stage plays are far less frequently adapted, even among African American films.¹ While the preceding chapters have used adaptation to expose plantation ideology within theater, publishing, and film, this chapter examines the influence of plantation ideology on films with original screenplays.

      Among African American films, the most economically successful genres that feature original screenplays are hip-hop gangsta films and comedies. The latter is one of the most accessible commercial genres, as evidenced by the prevalence of...

  8. Conclusion: The Story Behind the Numbers
    (pp. 239-250)

    Black cultural producers continue to occupy a precarious position in Hollywood, but there are promising indicators that suggest change is afoot. On July 1, 2012,Beasts of the Southern Wild, Benh Zeitlin’s cinematic adaptation of southerner Lucy Alibar’s play, opened on four screens in the United States. Produced in collaboration with Court 13 and the playwright, the film focuses on a little black girl named Hushpuppy (Quvenzhané Wallis) and her relationship with her ailing father, Wink (Dwight Henry), in a fictional southern Louisiana town known as “the Bathtub,” where they are constantly under threat of flooding. Less than a year...

  9. APPENDIX: Ulmer Ratings of Selected Actors
    (pp. 251-254)
  10. NOTES
    (pp. 255-278)
    (pp. 279-282)
  12. INDEX
    (pp. 283-304)
  13. Back Matter
    (pp. 305-306)