Independent black cinema might finally be coming into its own and it’s worth focusing strictly on this moment. As a longstanding member of the Black Reel Awards, one of several entities that recognize the best in black cinema each year, I find myself in the enviable position of having access to a number of films that rarely reach theaters in our area.
The Black Reel Awards team works tirelessly to provide participating critics with links to all films released throughout the calendar year, but as I have bemoaned in past features, usually there are relatively few titles, especially in comparison to the mainstream and independent titles that earn coveted slots in theaters. I usually spend about a week of concentrated time viewing the handful of features and documentaries before the early stages of the nominating process begins.
Surprisingly, this year’s screening process arrived much sooner than before. Emails with links started pouring in the first week of September, just as I was set to head off to the Toronto International Film Festival. So, I set up a folder to store all of the links in one spot for future consumption. As the collection grew, I realized I would be in for some serious binge viewing.
In addition to the quantity, which was becoming daunting, real bright spots emerged. Included in the mix were titles like Andrew Dosunmu’s Mother of George, a 2013 Sundance Film Festival award winner (cinematography) and nominee for a Dramatic Grand Jury Prize; the Roger Ross Williams documentary God Loves Uganda, which investigates the American Christian right’s evangelization efforts to proselytize about sexual immorality and their drive to coerce Ugandans to adhere to biblical law; and, most fortuitously for regional audiences, The Happy Sad, from director Rodney Evans, which found its way into the line-up of this year’s Dayton LGBT Film Festival a few weeks ago.
Further spurring this sense of hopefulness was a rollout in theaters of films dedicated to various facets of the black experience.
From a more traditional Civil Rights-era narrative like Lee Daniels’ The Butler to Fruitvale Station, an Obama-age next generation biopic detailing the current (and still complex) state of black male identity and racial profiling, to the soon-to-be released Steve McQueen examination of slavery in 12 Years a Slave, American cinema and its adoring audiences will possibly shatter historic black lockouts in key categories this awards season.
But we would be wise to pay attention to the growing trend of smaller films landing on screens under the radar that deserve (and are demanding) our consideration. Director George Tillman Jr. made a name for himself back in 1997, writing and helming Soul Food, a family drama about the impact of the loss of a strong-willed old school matriarch on the extended clan. Soul Food offered a teasing glimpse of the present revolution. It was a departure from the bleak urban crime stories that the studios assumed niche audiences wanted.
More than 15 years later, Tillman returns to broken family dynamics, except The Inevitable Defeat of Mister & Pete doesn’t shy away from the darkness of today’s urban landscape. One of the true differences, though, is the more artful and dramatic depiction of this world. We have seen the escapist music video dreams of Precious and the stark portrayal of sacrifice in Ava DuVernay’s Middle of Nowhere, and while Tillman’s tale of two youngsters (Skylan Brooks and Ethan Dizon) left to take care of themselves over the course of a summer after their mothers (Jennifer Hudson and Martha Millan, respectively) get arrested embraces a sad inevitability, it does so with quiet conviction usually assumed from the traditional indie world. And with the industry stacking the decks with blockbuster productions at the expense of mid-range to smaller fare, even the exhibition model for indies has had to shift and adapt to stave off further decline.
Yet, The Inevitable Defeat of Mister & Pete serves as a unique example of the system bucking the trend to correct course a bit. It is the kind of story that never would have appeared in theaters a few years ago; it would have instead found its way into my Black Reel Awards queue, where it would have languished unseen beyond its microscopically limited release in New York and Los Angeles.
It has taken a mighty long time, but I truly believe that there is real change coming, and it has less to do with the actual state of black cinema. The real revolution is one of heightened visibility. Let’s keep our eyes open and on the prize, people! (tt stern-enzi)