African American Films: The Importance of the Right Imagery and the Message
By Meta J. Mereday
The quote “a picture is worth a thousand words” is especially true in African American films and their importance in the development of African Americans, males in particular. The imagery portrayed in films today has significantly influenced how African Americans perceive themselves and how they are viewed by the world around them.
“African American films have always had a major impact on how we as Black people see ourselves, our conditions, struggles and survival,” comments Marquis Smalls, an award-winning screenwriter and director. “Films throughout history have portrayed us in ways that have been in a variety of scenarios ranging from ‘real’ to stereotypical, enlightening to progressive, and, in many respects, has made us see ourselves in many different ways – both positive and negative.”
Unfortunately, those in Hollywood’s decision making positions rarely see the economic potential of urban films that showcase the positive and progressive aspects of African American life, which are often viewed as unsalable attributes and “not what people will buy tickets to see.”
African Americans are often cast as side kicks or the comic fall guys to mainstream actors who are cast to “carry the film.” The roles of African American males, despite Oscars won by Sidney Poitier, Louis Gossett Jr. Denzel Washington and Jamie Foxx are still mostly stereotypical and/or one dimensional.
“This is why African American films produced and directed by us are still relevant today and into the future. With improved and cheaper technology, more filmmakers can create visual representations of African American culture that only a few were able to create in the past,” adds Smalls, who is an independent producer and CEO of New York based HomeGrown Productions. “Although the quality of most ‘new’ films is more experimental than professional, the use of the Internet and abundance of film festivals throughout the world will allow films and filmmakers who would have never seen the light of day in the past, now gain recognition, awards, accolades, and in many cases, financial compensation for their work.”
How will this transformation occur in an industry that still maintains an “old boy network” that continues to shun the development and expansion of positive and uplifting African American films that can stand on their own merits?
“The impact of these movies released by independents or established studios will stay the same as it always has been unless some African American filmmakers choose to push the envelope in new, substantial, innovative and creative ways following in the footsteps of pioneers and trendsetters such as Oscar Micheaux, Melvin Van Peebles, Gordon Parks, Spike Lee, John Singleton, Gina Prince-Bythewood, Neema Barnette, Tyler Perry and many others that have burst on the scene and created movements behind their films,” notes Smalls. “The impact that films have had on me as an African American male is that it made me want to take ownership of my own image, to write, direct and produce films. I’m inspired by the accomplishments of the aforementioned filmmakers, but also by the opportunity to create new and fresh representations of ‘us’ while inspiring others to reflect, imagine, and change the misinformed views of our people globally. That is my mission. To be the next game changer and visionary to make a difference in not only African American films, but to also enhance American film history and bring light to all of our greatness throughout the world.”
Mereday is a contributing writer for Regal Black Men’s Magazine.