As this year sees the 30th anniversary of the hit 90’s TV show, The Fresh Prince of Bel Air…
TBB looks back at the decade that gave rise to a golden age of feature films and television shows written, directed, or starring black talent. This is a story all about how for a brief moment in time, black creatives took their seat at the production table.
As the curtains closed on the 1980’s Eddie Murphy was still cresting on the success of Raw and Coming to America, our eyes were seared by the brilliance of Spike Lee’s Do the Right Thing, and our hearts continued to find steady comfort in the familiar and the yet un-sullied familial surrounds of the Huxtable’s home life in The Cosby Show. Meanwhile, the music charts were dominated by Michael and Janet Jackson, hip-hop was entering its ghetto fabulous stage and in the arena of sport, Mike Tyson and Michael Jordan reigned supreme. This cultural maelstrom of black excellence pointed to the viability and broad cross-over appeal of black-led ventures.
With a freshly-inked first-look agreement at Time Warner, legendary music impresario Quincy Jones was prime for a good pitch, and producer Benny Medina (a.k.a. J. Lo’s manager) had just the right project. Loosely based on his early years, Medina had moved in with an affluent Beverly Hills family following a childhood of drifting between foster homes. Rapper Will Smith, who had never acted before secured the role after auditioning on the spot during a party at Quincy’s home. The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air aired in September of 1990 and kicked off a decade that saw black sitcoms green-lit in record numbers. From sitcoms built around the talent of stand-up comics such as Martin, Sinbad, Jamie Fox, and Steve Harvey to long-running sketch shows like In Living Color and the UK’s The Real McCoy, The 291 Club and Get Up, Stand Up.
The public service remit for British broadcaster Channel 4 was ‘to appeal to the tastes and interests of a culturally diverse society’ and led to the creation of one of Britain’s longest-running and much-loved comedy, Desmond’s. Centred around the comings and goings of a family-run barbershop in London’s Peckham, the show’s writer St. Lucian born Trix Worrell told the Guardian newspaper that he “… wrote it for white people so they could see how black people really are. At that time, the negative press about muggings and shootings was all we seemed to get. I was fed up with it.” The show came to an end due to the ill-health of lead actor Norman Beaton but it forever remains a part of the fabric of British television.
Over on the big screen, more films featuring or directed by black talent were released in the first two years of the 1990s than had been in the 1980s as a whole. Whoopi Goldberg stole every scene in Ghost. The role of reluctant psychic Oda Mae Brown was almost given to Tina Turner (yes, really) and singer Patti LaBelle also auditioned, but Goldberg bagged herself the part and the Oscar for Best Supporting Actress. Although the film went on to take $505 million at the box office Whoopi lamented to Forbes Magazine earlier this year that the film didn’t create any spin-offs or sequels. ‘It makes you wonder, you know, 30 years later, was it because we were a mixed cast that nobody wanted to celebrate it, the way that, you know, had it been any other cast that happened to be maybe all white, people might’ve celebrated it?‘
The box office triumph of Ghost was not a flash in the pan and the decade spawned a rush of money-spinning films starring black leads. The Bodyguard defied harsh critical reviews to bank more money than Disney’s Beauty in the Beast in 1992 and established Whitney Houston as a credible actress. Goldberg herself followed-up with smash hits Sister Act I and II, while Bad Boys, Blade, Friday, House Party, and The Nutty Professor also proved that there was money to be made in black franchises.
The gangster movie, a staple of Hollywood cinema typically only featured black characters in the part of the stooge or patsy – think Samuel L Jackson portrayal of Parnell “Stacks” Edwards in Goodfellas – but the ’90s saw the genre subverted by black cinema and the ‘hood’ drama was born. Instead of the mafioso anti-heroes of The Godfather, Donnie Brasco, or Carlito Brigante we had Wesley Snipes’ stone-cold Nino Brown in New Jack City, the Hughes Brothers directed Menace II Society, Tupac-starring Juice; Belly, Dead Presidents, Set it Off, and even Spike Lee’s contribution, Clockers. The Wayan’s spoof, Don’t Be a Menace to South Central While Drinking Your Juice in the Hood brought the sub-genre to a close. But it was 1991’s Boyz n the Hood that began the movement.
Written by freshly-graduated 22-year-old John Singleton, the movie was championed by African American script reader Stephanie Allain at Columbia Pictures (which was soon taken over by Sony). Although offered $100,000 for the script Singleton refused to sell unless he could also direct the movie. He went on to become the first African American and youngest person ever to be nominated for an Academy Award for best director and was also nominated for best screenplay. Allain rose to become Senior Vice President of Production and later produced Hustle & Flow and Dear White People. A critical and commercial success, Boyz earned $69 million on a mere $6 million budget. At the end of the film Ice Cube as the character Doughboy prophetically says, ‘Either they don’t know, don’t show, or don’t care about what’s going on in the hood.’ For the black experience to be shown on screens big or small, black creatives realised they had to take control of their stories.
Born in the East End of London to St Lucian parents, Isaac Julien first came to prominence with his 1989 directional debut Looking for Langston, a tribute to the Harlem Renaissance poet, novelist, and playwright. The Central Saint Martins School of Art graduate’s work combined different artistic disciplines and explored the black, gay experience. The short film was produced by the Sankofa Film and Video Collective in 1980, a group formed by Julian among others, “dedicated to developing an independent black film culture in the areas of production, exhibition and audience”. Julien’s follow-up feature, the coming-of-age drama Young Soul Rebels cemented his reputation as an auteur and was awarded the Semaine de la Critique prize for best film at the Cannes Film Festival in 1991.
In the 1980s Spike Lee blazed a trail for the black filmmakers to follow and continued throughout the next decade to set the pace. The dazzling Malcolm X was based on the 1965 autobiography co-written by Roots author Alex Haley and the activist himself. A film adaptation was in play long before it eventually came to Lee’s hands in 1990. James Baldwin wrote the first draft of the script, and Richard Pryor even in talks to portray the political firebrand. Bringing his vision to the screen was filled with obstacles, and are recounted by Lee in the book, By Any Means Necessary: The Trials and Tribulations of Making Malcolm X. The film was released in 1992 to critical and controversial acclaim and stands among the best biopics ever made.
The fruitful 1990’s also produced the first black female director to have a feature film with a general theatrical release. Daughters of the Dust (1991), written and directed by Julie Dash is widely considered a work of cultural and aesthetic significance whose lush cinematography heavily inspired Beyonce’s visual album Lemonade some 25 years later.
Although the number of women of colour behind the lens in the 1990s could be counted on hand, the decade showcased black women in lead roles within a flush of romantic movies that celebrated black on black love. Hollywood may have had its When Harry Met Sally, Sliding Doors, and Sleepless in Seattle but black cinema matched it with Love Jones, Poetic Justice, and Jason’s Lyric plus with the added bonus of a banging soundtrack. Waiting to Exhale, The Best Man, How Stella Got Her Groove Back; we cheered along with Sanaa Lathan, Nia Long, and Angela Bassett. Their heartaches were our heartaches, their triumphs our triumphs.
As the 1990s closed, the black romance genre and the wider renaissance in black films and television shows seemed to fade. The space that allowed black filmmakers to make and distribute their stories was overtaken by the need for bigger box-office returns. Except for Eddie Murphy voicing Donkey in Shrek and Zoe Saldana unrecognisable in blue paint for Avatar, none of the top 20 films from 2000-2010 featured a black lead actor. After 2010 the studios’ demand for tentpole comic book capers meant that unless your film featured a hero with a cape or a mask it was going to be difficult to get a project to fly. There were however a few chinks of light towards the end of the decade. Barry Jenkins Moonlight in 2016 was the first film with an all-black cast to win the Oscar for Best Picture. The conquering Black Panther defied all expectations and lifted an entire race, Ava DuVernay held a mirror up to America’s racial divisions in 13th, Selma, and When They See Us and Shonda Rhimes gave us Scandal and showed us How to Get Away with Murder.
But as the industry model for distributing content changed and the power of social media allowed creatives direct access to their audience, the paradigm shifted. Tyler Perry’s decision to build his own studio rather than wait for a seat at Hollywood’s table highlights the importance of creatives to keep control of their work. As showrunner, director, star, and writer. Michaela Coel called all the shots on BBC drama I May Destroy You and Idris Elba via his Green Door Pictures production company has signed a first-look deal at Apple. The current political and social climate means that now more than ever before black viewers need to see themselves reflected in the content they watch. What we need is not just a renaissance period of black cinema and TV that lasts for a brief moment, but instead a cultural movement that lasts throughout the ages.
By Sam Ellington – @thisisthelife_x