Covering Cinema From All Across The African Diaspora

What Is A "Black Film?"

"Black film." "Black cinema." We've attached both labels to several different works of cinema since the dawn of the medium. But on closer inspection of many of those titles, one will discover that several of them are not deserving of the marker. So, what is a "black film?" Are there any specific characteristics that a film must adhere to for it to be considered "black cinema?" Is this something that can be readily defined?

Here are 3 characteristics that I believe every "black film" should contain:

1. The core team behind the production is dominated by people of African decent. By “core team” I mean, the writer, the director and the producer must be of African decent; or, at the very least, the writer and the director must be of African decent.

2. The core team in front of the camera is also dominated by people of African decent. And once again, by “core team” in this case, I’m referring to the actors and/or actresses in the film. Essentially, the film must primarily tell a story (or stories) of a person (or people) of African descent.

3. This is a tough one, for obvious reasons. The film must be financed either fully or partly by a person of African decent. This poses an obvious problem, notably that it eliminates the vast majority of Hollywood movies, because Hollywood movies are funded almost entirely by studio money - white-owned and operated studio money - with very few exceptions, like when Spike Lee funded Get on the Bus entirely with the financial assistance of capable black people, as well as Malcolm X, which was partly funded by a few of the black elite.

Those are my 3 criteria for any film to be labeled a "black film." Or, it should at least meet 2 of the 3. Actually, in thinking about it a little more, the first two criteria are the most crucial. The last one isn’t as crucial, although one could make a strong case for the influence that the financier might have on the production of the film; meaning that, for example, a script might be altered for one reason or another because the financial backer of the film might oppose a specific plotline or theme, and might push for the removal of what he/she/they oppose, whether aggressively or passively, putting the filmmaker into a situation where they are forced to choose between maintaining the integrity of the original story they wanted to tell, versus just getting the film made, by any means necessary, regardless of how much sacrificing must be done to do so. Obviously, this hypothetical setup could involve either a white financial backer or a black financial backer; we shouldn’t take certain things for granted simply because the person sitting across from us at the contract table is the same skin color as we are!

But, I’ll say, for now, every film must meet at a minimum, the first 2 criteria; and if they meet the 3rd one, then that's even better.

What says you? How do you identify a "black film?"

While you're thinking about it, be sure to check out Mark A Reid's book above, Redefining Black Film. It's definitely a worthwhile read!


  1. Qadree said...

    As you've mentioned before, to define black cinema we first would have to define what is black.

    I use racial terminology because it's familiar to most people and to have certain discussions you have to use it because people believe in it, but I don't believe in color based divisions or categories for human beings. It's an arbitrary system to begin with and was created more as a system to control rather than describe culture, but people believe in it, and act on it, so it exists.

    We now have to either accept it, and in essence perpetuate and validate race based ideologies, or use our current position as a starting point to deconstruct race based ideologies and create what I would consider a more truthful way to describe our existence.

    What would you do if you made films that meet your criteria for black cinema and your audience turned out to be 90% white? Would you say your films aren't black enough? Would having all those white people spending money on your films be considered white financing, would you turn down that money so that your films could stay black?

    As long as I have creative control over what I create, my ideas are going to be sincere and I'm not going to concern myself with how black it is. Control of distribution is important so I understand your concerns, but I know who I am and I don't feel the need to meet a certain criteria so that what I do can be labeled officially black.

  2. The Obenson Report said...

    How I wish everyone thought like you did Qadree! Maybe not even everyone... I'd settle for 50% of the population. Your points are all valid and certainly echo my thoughts as well, as you may already know. However, not everyone thinks as some of us do, as we do live in a world that essentially forces us to categorize ourselves. It's unavoidable but unfortunate. When I made my first feature film, I carried with me that same kind of idealism (and still do to some extent); but then I spent years running up and fighting against the kind of limited way of thinking you mentioned, that reduces human beings to nothing much more than packages from an assembly line. Ideally, color wouldn't define a person's entire existence... even on the surface, the concept should sound ridiculous to any logical, thinking mind... none of these labels would mean anything. But the fact is that they do! And sooner or later, you will be put in a position in which you'll have to categorize yourself and/or your work based on some specific criteria - whether mine or someone else's. It's inevitable.

  3. Nicole said...

    I have traditionally defined a "black" film as one where the majority of the cast(lead and supporting) were of African descent.

    However, I've recently grappled with that definition when it comes to films such as 'Hustle & Flow'. It was acted by a mostly black cast, but was written by a white man, Craig Brewer. It was quickly embraced by the white media and mainstream Hollywood. Even though it was produced by John Singleton( a black man), I stopped think of 'H&F' as a "black" film after it was accepted by whites and THoward was nominated for an Oscar.

    Which leads me to ask...does a black film cease to be a "black" film because it is accepted by white/mainstream audiences?

    Does the subject matter determine whether a film can be categorized as "black"? (i.e. Boyz in the Hood vs. I Think I Love My Wife)

    But I also understand that the studios have marketing depts that have draconian-like criteria for how and to whom to market a movie.

  4. Nicole said...

    Oh and keep up the good work, Obenson.

  5. The Obenson Report said...

    @ Nicole - Thanks for your comments! You should check out the article "Manufacturing pimps: Rewarding the violent repression of black women from hip hop to Hollywood." I posted a link to it here:

    It's a lengthy essay within which is a thorough critique of Hustle & Flow.

    But to address your questions... I don't think a film ceases to be "black" simply because it's widely accepted by non-black audiences. Subject matter should also be irrelevant, because to consider content would be to imply that there are experiences that are quintessentially black, or "blacker" than others, which doesn't quite register. As long as the film primarily tells the story of a black person, or black people, regardless of socio-economic standing, religion, education, etc, it's a black film. We are a varied people with varied backgrounds and lives, and certainly shouldn't be defined by some singular "experience."

    It's a rather slippery slope we're strolling down, I think. Ideally, none of this would matter... but I think it's a discussion that we need to have amongst ourselves, regardless of the outcome. We throw around these terms (like "black film," or "black cinema") at will, but we never really take the time to properly deconstruct them.

  6. Nicole said...

    @Obenson: I must admit that I got caught up in the "Hustle & Flow" hype at the beginning. I am a former Memphis resident and I got swept away in the "support the hometown boy made good movement".

    My friend(an aspiring screenwriter) and I were quickly turned off when the movie became "mainstream" and was touted as this deep, psychological take on the black male experience. I know a lot of this was simply clever marketing by the studio, but after a while we were like, "come on now". This isn't 'Citizen Kane'.

  7. Qadree said...

    I'm not against categorization, I'm against racial categorization. Racial identity is a fairly new construct in the history of human beings. Cultural identity is a valid thing that I would never be against, but race is purely arbitrary and has no true way of being measured without contradiction. This is why people trying to solve race based problems with race based solutions only gives birth to more race based problems, as long as you accept it as a valid system to begin with, the problems inherent in it will always exist.

  8. The Obenson Report said...

    I was actually referring to race-based categorization, not just simply 'categorization.' Regardless, we are in agreement. So here's the decillion-dollar question Monsieur: where do you suggest we go from here, and how? What are possible alternatives - realistically?

  9. Qadree said...

    Realistically, I will be dead before we see any significant amount of progress in this area.

    To progress towards doing away with the color codes I think every creative person who believes as I do should find ways to deconstruct racial identity in their creative works. I think the contradictions and inherent flaws in the system should out there for people to see. You have to blend it in with some other subject matter for it to be most effective.

    What is black, what is white, what about all the other people on this earth that are still left over after we run out of colors to describe people. There are people who still believe in the idiotic "one drop" theory where one drop of black blood makes you black. What constitutes a drop? I wouldn't literally pose these questions, but explore the ideas through situations that people can relate to.

    Exploring these contradictions is the biggest step towards at least taking the power out of racial descriptors. I would focus on younger people because they are usually more open to this kind of exploration.

    This would just be the first step in establishing a new way of thinking.

  10. UK Black Chick aka Wendy said...

    An interesting topic and an age-old Obenson one...


    @ Qadree:

    “To progress towards doing away with the color codes I think every creative person who believes as I do should find ways to deconstruct racial identity in their creative works. I think the contradictions and inherent flaws in the system should out there for people to see. You have to blend it in with some other subject matter for it to be most effective.”

    I feel strongly that black writers and directors should work to produce films with well-defined black characters but where the blackness of these characters is not the main issue of their films, but I do realise that in some instances, this might be integral to a story.

    However, by way of clarification, I was wondering if you mean that you feel that we should be making films that concentrate on colour/race/racism?

    If so, then the first movies that sprung to mind when I read your comment were ‘Camp Thiaroye’ and ‘Black Girl’ both by African film-maker Ousmane Sembene.

    The films by non-African filmmakers that sprung to mind next were ‘Shadows’ by John Cassavetes and ‘Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner’ as well as few other Sidney Poitier movies from the 50s and 60s. Not exactly what could be described as ‘black’ films as defined here (i.e. black writer, director, producer, finance).

    With regard to Black American films, I couldn’t think of any at first and then Spike Lee’s ‘Do The Right Thing’ and ‘Jungle Fever’ came to mind, and then from Black Britain, Horace Ove’s ‘Pressure.’

    Like you, I’d like to think that this is a mantle that many young black writers, directors and producers would take up, and agree that “exploring these contradictions is the biggest step towards at least taking the power out of racial descriptors” but I fear the imprint and lure of ‘Hollywood’ are too great. Apart from African film-makers like Sembene and his peers, it would seem that race is an issue that is tackled in the main by white film-makers (with Lars von Trier taking a particularly bold step in ‘Manderlay’) – or maybe we just don’t get the opportunity to see such films by young black film-makers that may already be in existence.

    Going back to something in the main topic, I think that ‘white’ financing would be perfectly acceptable if it were coupled with ‘black’ creative control (writer, director. producer).

    And I’ve always wondered that people quibble over the acceptance of ‘black’ movies by ‘white’ audiences. Surely, the main goal of any film-maker is to get his/her film seen – the more people that see it the better – colour should not really be an issue here. And if a truly ‘black’ film finds a ‘white’ audience, then at least that audience is, hopefully, seeing a more rounded and in-depth portrayal of ‘black’ life than ‘Hollywood’ would normally serve up.

  11. The Obenson Report said...

    @ Qadree and Wendy - one could say that given the dearth of non-white faces (not just black faces, btw) on our TV and movie theater screens (in this country and others where Hollywood dominates), any creations that feature non-white bodies in any prominent roles are very much within the realm of "political activism," and in essence attempts at deconstruction of racial identity, regardless of content, whether done intentionally or not.

  12. Qadree said...

    I don't think just having non=white people in prominent roles changes anything. The content of the film has is where the deconstruction takes place. It can be an all white film and still initiate the process of deconstruction.

    When we talk about whether or not a film concentrates on race or makes race a focus I think it's best to think of it in terms of confrontational vs. non-confrontational.

    If we have a loves story that focuses on a white couple and throughout the film they encounter black people who are all clowns, criminals, or helping the white people when a black person tries to hurt them, I would say that this film does concentrate on race. It's a racial construction that is non-confrontational.

    Films like "Guess Who's Coming to Dinner" are even more indirect because they pretend to be about racial uplift when they are actually creating a cinematic interrogation for the audience that poses biased questions along with the images that ask, should a black person be allowed to do this, do you believe a black person can do that, can a black person do that, are we ready for blacks to do that?

    The average person does not like confrontation, even if your ideas make perfect sense they won't listen because they don't want to be on the losing end of a confrontation. If someone changes their mind about something they like to feel as though they did it of their own free will, instead of feeling like they've been told what to do and are powerless.

  13. The Obenson Report said...

    I was thinking in terms of just how much power an image can have on a viewer... especially if the image is one that challenges the viewers socialized beliefs of what that person, or what people who look like that person are supposedly like. It could happen on a conscious or subconscious level - especially when it comes to fictional narratives. They're often dismissed as strictly entertainment, but they certainly are overwhelmingly influential, which I suppose falls right in line with what you said about confrontation vs non-confrontation as they relate to human beings. A film that deals directly with race in a confrontational manner will likely be seen by a lot fewer people than something rather harmless and safe like Guess Who's Coming To Dinner, a pretty package with limited substance. But that's what the majority wants, and the majority gets what the majority wants, given how important profit is to those with the resources to produce and distribute cinema.

    Or we get hyperbole like Crash.

    I think documentaries are likely more effective tools to deal directly with issues like race. No sugar-coating, or pandering, just reality... unless you're Michael Moore.

    But I'd say that any image or series of images that challenges what you know, or what you thought you knew, or that asks questions of you, or that makes you question something you know or believe, or that generates any dialogue, really can't be a bad thing. So, while I label Guess Who's Coming To Dinner as a "safe" film in its attempts to confront race in America in the 1960s, I'll also give it some credit for the attempt, especially given the era in which it was made. It likely didn't contribute anything to civil rights efforts, but there's a chance that it positively influenced a few minds here and there who happened to see the film.

  14. UK Black Chick aka Wendy said...

    Any decent movie should have within it an element of confrontation/dramatic tention.

    While there is certainly room, and a need, for films by black people that have race as a central issue, as I stated before,

    "I feel strongly that black writers and directors should work to produce films with well-defined black characters but where the blackness of these characters is not the main issue of their films"

    Qadree, as you pointed out, most people do not like direct confrontation so, surely, a slew of films by black film-makers that directly deal with race as an issue would only serve to marginalise these films?

    Even black audiences might get a little weary after a while. I loved 'The Spook Who Sat by the Door' but something like 'Sugarcane Alley' touched me a way that was equally profound but more focused on the realities of life for millions of black people the world over. Bitter pills are always harder to swallow, so why not bring a little sweetness in the stories of black folk?

    As a black woman, other people have made being black a really big part of who I am, but just ocassionally, I'd like to be reminded that it's not all that I am.

    As a black, female writer, I like to think that I can bring this to bear in ways that can't so easily be dismissed as a black woman's rant.

    Hammers have their uses, but hitting people over the head with them is probably not how they're best utilised.

  15. Nicole said...

    @Obenson: Here is a link to a NYTimes article about the "surge" of black actors portraying traditionally "white" roles on Broadway. I know you deal mostly with film, but I wanted to know what you thought of this article.

  16. The Obenson Report said...

    @ Nicole - thanks for the link. Revealing piece. I have a few friends who are stage actors (they're all black) and some of them have echoed a few of the thoughts and ideas discussed in the article. I'd say that this supposed new trend actually is a good thing, especially if audiences of all races are as accepting of it as some of the interviewees suggest. It indicates of a shift in ideology - audiences are starting to realize how insignificant the surface image is, and just how connected and alike we really all are, regardless of skin color. But the article's focus is on black performers assuming roles that were originally written about white people, for white performers to play. I wonder just how accepting we would be if the reverse were the case - white performers assuming roles that were originally written as black characters. Look at how much talk there's been about a white comic/actor portraying Obama on Saturday Night Live... or Angelina Jolie playing Marianne Pearl in A Mighty Heart. So there seems to be somewhat of a double standard at work here. Thinking about it a little deeper, it's almost like affirmative action within the theatre world.

  17. Nicole said...

    @obenson: Thanks for your thoughts on the NYTimes article.

    So, if an "all-white" version of let's say "A Raisin in the Sun" or "Fences" (with certain variations of course), you believe that some blacks would not be so accepting?

    I think that because of the history of disenfranchisment of blacks in this country, when a role meant for a person of color goes to whites,(i.e. Angelina Jolie in A Mighty Heart) blacks feel threatened and slighted. Especially when an equally qualified black(Thandie Newton) could have played the role.

    I think blacks still see their share of the American "pie" as severely limited. So when a black actor is given a role originally meant for a white person, it's seen in a sense as reparations and a form of acceptance into the white world.

    The only exception I took to the article was Debbie Allen's asertion that "race is the last thing she wants people to think about" with this "all-black" prod of 'Cat'. While I understand her line of thinking(she doesn't want the exceptional talent of the cast to be outshined by their skin color), I have to wonder if she's being unrealistic in thinking that the race of the cast hasn't been or won't be a factor in people deciding to buy tickets? And considering that that has been the main marketing point of the production. "The historic ALL-BLACK staging of a Tennessee Williams classic".

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