From Boyz n the Hood to Malcolm X: The legacy of New Black Cinema

1992 was a peak year for the New Black Cinema, a (mostly) independent film movement that stretched from the late-1980s until the mid-1990s and revolutionized the way that African Americans were represented on-screen. Important films of the movement like Malcolm X, ‘Mo Money, Juice, Deep Cover, Mississippi Masala, Daughters of the Dust, One False Move, and South Central all came out in 1992.

Films of the New Black Cinema, including Boyz n the Hood and Menace II Society, often painted a dire picture of Black life in the U.S. during an era of crisis for African Americans who faced the failed promises of the Civil Rights movement, worsening inner city conditions, a hostile media that trafficked in harmful stereotypes, a crack cocaine epidemic, and a political climate that insisted that all Americans pull themselves up by their bootstraps, regardless of how unequal their socio-economic status. But the movies weren’t all doom and gloom. These films also celebrated African American love and joy and introduced white audiences to the cultural diversity of Blackness, which had often been represented one-dimensionally. We celebrate the 30th anniversary of this red-letter year for Black cinema and examine its legacy within the history of African Americans in film.

Early and Classical-era Black film The Defiant Ones (1958) with Sidney PoitierSidney Poitier and Tony Curtis in The Defiant Ones (1958) United Artists

African Americans have long struggled against the practices of Hollywood studios to articulate their own stories and to wield more control over their representation. As early as 1910, Black filmmakers made independent movies like The Realization of a Negro’s Ambition (1916) and The Trooper of Company K (1916) as an alternative to the racist comedies made by white producers like Thomas Edison’s Ten Pickaninnies (1904) and Sigmund Lubin’s “Sambo and Rastus” series (1909-1911), which featured degrading Black stereotypes.

Oscar Micheaux, a well-known black novelist, made the first feature-length film to employ African American actors (as opposed to whites in blackface) in a story about African Americans, The Homesteader (1919), and followed that with many others including Within Our Gates and The Brute (both 1920). Unfortunately, despite Micheaux’s initial success (and his now legendary status) the Depression and other factors ended the era of Black independent film and most Black control over representation.

The Gunsaulus Mystery (1921)Public domain

Rising liberalism led late-1940s Hollywood to begin producing “social problem films” that examined the social inequality of American race relations among other issues. Movies such as Stanley Kramer’s Home of the Brave, Alfred Werker’s Lost Boundaries, and Elia Kazan’s Pinky tackled themes like racial passing and racial self-loathing and were huge successes with critics and audiences alike. After the wish-fulfilment fantasies of the Classical Hollywood era that sustained Americans through the Depression, the American public clearly now demonstrated an appetite for films that grittily explored real issues.

This trend of realistic dramas led to the emergence of Sidney Poitier — the first star whose popularity crossed over to white audiences — in such popular films as Edge of the City (1957) and The Defiant Ones (1958), for which he became the first African American actor nominated for the Best Actor Oscar. Poitier’s characters were departures from typical black roles in that his characters were competent, dignified, intelligent, and articulate. Still, like other black actors of the era, Poitier tended to play asexual characters and he was often featured saving white characters or playing by the rules of white society.

Black representation evolves then devolves – 1960s to 1980s Mel Gibson and Danny Glover in Lethal Weapon (1987)Mel Gibson and Danny Glover in Lethal Weapon (1987)

African American moviegoers had mixed feelings about Poitier. Many were glad that a Black actor had achieved power and prominence in Hollywood, but as Ed Guerrero writes, “Poitier’s ‘ebony saint’ image was increasingly wearing thin for African Americans. It did not speak to the aspirations or anger of the new Black social consciousness that was emerging.”

As such, Black audiences began to seek out new films by Black directors, such as Gordon Parks’ The Learning Tree (1969), Ossie Davis’ Cotton Comes to Harlem, and Melvin Van Peebles’ Watermelon Man (both 1970) and Sweet Sweetback’s Baadasssss Song (1971). Because Hollywood was mired in catastrophic economic conditions and desperate for hit films that would reach younger audiences moved by the social changes of the ’60s, Black filmmakers gained marginally more power and exposure in the film industry for a few years.

Richard Roundtree as Shaft (1971)Richard Roundtree as Shaft (1971)

But it was genre conventions, not social ideas, which Hollywood recycled into the new “Blaxploitation” movies that featured Black actors in action-adventure stories mostly set in poor urban areas. Blaxploitation films such as Shaft (1971) Superfly (1972), Cleopatra Jones (1973), Foxy Brown (1974), and Blacula (1972) featured angry, urban, highly sexualized Black protagonists engaged in what Mark Reid called the “symbolic destruction of white institutions that formerly oppressed the hero.”

Flush again from box-office success, partially due to the highly profitable Blaxploitation films, Hollywood returned to its historical, stereotypical modes of representation. For the next fifteen years, African Americans appeared mostly in comedies and interracial “buddy films” like Stir Crazy (1980), 48 Hours (1982), Trading Places (1983), Burglar, and Lethal Weapon (both 1987). These high-profile films made it look as if African Americans were well represented in Hollywood, when in fact representation was more limited than it had been in the early ‘70s.

The New Black Cinema begins Nola Darling (Tracy Camilla Johns) in She's Gotta Have ItTracy Camilla Johns as Nola Darling in She’s Gotta Have It (1986)

Spike Lee is often credited with launching the New Black Cinema in 1986 with his independent feature, She’s Gotta Have It. As Van Peebles had been with Sweet Sweetback’s Baadasssss Song, Lee was moved to make She’s Gotta Have it to humanize African Americans in film and to reflect recognizable black issues not “limited to comedies and hip-hop, drug, gangsta, shoot ’em up films.” After She’s Gotta Have it, Lee (who famously studied film at NYU) further explored issues of the African American middle class in a college setting in his next feature, School Daze (1988).

School Daze and Lee’s next film, the seminal Do the Right Thing (1989), also did well at the box office, as did a few other pictures made during the same time by Black directors including Robert Townsend’s Hollywood Shuffle (1987), Keenen Ivory Wayans’ I’m Gonna Git You, Sucka (1988), and Eddie Murphy’s Harlem Nights (1989). Following their success, 1990 saw an increase in Black-themed films as well as seven films by Black directors, including Lee’s Mo’ Better Blues, Charles Burnett’s To Sleep with Anger, and Julie Dash’s Daughters in the Dust. 1991 produced fifteen films directed by African-Americans and 20 others that starred or had major roles for Black actors, including Bill Duke’s A Rage in Harlem, Townsend’s The Five Heartbeats, and John Singleton’s Boyz n the Hood. Production in 1990 and 1991 alone easily surpassed the total production of all Black-focused films released since Blaxploitation.

The new Black-themed films of the ’90s also diversified African-American representation by being in multiple genres. These included the teen film, House Party (1990), the romances Mississippi Masala (1991) and Boomerang (1992), and Lee’s epic Malcolm X (1992). Despite this diversity, the most visible films from the sudden increase — in terms of both media coverage and usually also box office — were what Paula Massood termed “Hood films.” Hood films detailed the difficult coming-of-age of a young Black male protagonist in an economically depressed, socially contained, often violent inner city setting, or “Hood” (as with the parallel indie film renaissance of the ’90s, few of these male-directed films were about women). They were also born, as their 70s’ urban-themed counterparts had been, of a Hollywood economic depression and studio decisions to produce inexpensive films targeted at niche

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