(REAL TIMES MEDIA)—Several weeks ago a group of friends and I drove two hours just to see a movie. We joined a surprisingly multi-cultural crowd to see the premiere of the movie “Black Dynamite” a hilarious spoof of blaxploitation films of the 1970s. I will admit upfront that I’m no expert on the blaxploitation film era. Outside of reading Martha Southgate’s “Third Girl from the Left” and seeing Mario Van Peeble’s “Badass,” I can’t give you an intimate break-down of the social, sexual and political implications of the films at the time. I’ve never even gotten through all of the original “Shaft,” I thought it was boring. Despite this lack of in-depth knowledge I actually just enjoyed a Black movie, something that I think the large Black community forgets how to do every once in awhile.
I must confess, I’m recovering from N.M.E., Negro Movie Elitism. We all know the symptoms—whether on television, radio or at your dinner party, victims of N.M.E. feel compelled to rail against the Wayans Brothers, Tyler Perry or any other movie they feel brings down the race. They’re convinced that the depiction of Black people in every movie is going to have some lasting indelible impact on how our community is viewed. If the film doesn’t meet their unique and complex standards of Blackness and integrity it is nothing less than an apocalypse for all of Black culture and life. It’s a hard addiction to kick. This is not to say that there aren’t bad or racist films coming out of Hollywood every year. It’s just that when a bad movie becomes successful it doesn’t spell doom for the race.
For example, I thought “Monster’s Ball” was one of the worst films I’ve ever seen in my life. It was nothing but bad acting, poor writing and a disgustingly shallow analysis of race relations. Director Lee Daniels ham-fisted analysis of sexuality and race in “‘Ball” is one of the reasons I won’t be seeing “Precious”—I’m fairly confident he’ll ruin that too. But “Monster’s Ball” didn’t lead to an explosion of films about Black women becoming concubines for racist White cops, and I realized that one Black movie doesn’t mean it’s the last one we’ll see for years.
It used to be that way. Wide release majority Black cast movies were so rare until the late 1990s that we criticized every movie if it didn’t entertain, enlighten, transform and uplift Blacks, Whites and anyone else who came across it. However, there is such a wide array of films for African-Americans now, from independent films to Nollywood (Nigerian) movies that Negro Movie Elitism should be a thing of the past. We can learn as much about ourselves from low brow and poorly made movies as we can from big studio releases. For the first time in our history we have real cinematic choice and it should be embraced not corralled.
I believe that Spike Lee is still recovering from Negro Movie Elite illness given the recent tit for tat between him and fellow filmmaker Tyler Perry over the last few months. Lee is the self-appointed arbiter of good Black films and makes it a point to call out any film, director or actor he sees as denigrating the race. His recent comments suggest that he feels Tyler Perry movies are buffoonery and coonish and don’t do our community any good. On one level I agree, I don’t like most Tyler Perry movies, the theme in every one of his films is that educated, successful Black women would find happiness if they’d only marry a working class Black man. Mind you I have similar complaints about Spike Lee films where every woman is a whore, a monster or merely a vessel to facilitate some man working out his issues.
At the end of “Black Dynamite,” the hero manages to save the ’hood from smack, and a dangerous brand of malt liquor that has frightening side effects for Black men (you have to see the movie to get the joke.) The movie probably reinforces as many stereotypes as it sends up, but again it was only one film. Ultimately, “Black Dynamite,” like movies by Singleton, Lee, Perry or even the Hughes Brothers are mostly for fun, and as a people we should give ourselves the chance to just sit back and enjoy them every once in awhile without self reflection and debate.
(Dr. Jason Johnson is an associate professor at Hiram College in Ohio.)