In the manifesto “‘They Set Us Up to Fail’: Black Directors of the ’90s Speak Out,” the New York Times’ art section revealed a strategy to agitate black political unease by relating cultural ambition to social grievance. The article, by Reggie Ugwu, was built around a teleconference about Hollywood racism — a gripe session featuring six directors who shared the media limelight 18 years ago and who are brought out of the shadows now to seek new attention and pity from woke Millennials.
Ugwu’s headline quotes Darnell Martin, whose good reason to be bitter starts with film culture’s neglect of her astute film Cadillac Records, which she wrote and directed in 2007. It is an incisive, superbly acted account of personal and commercial conflicts at the fabled R & B music label Chess Records. But Ugwu’s agenda emphasizes Martin’s subsequent regrets — alongside complaints from Ernest Dickerson (Tales from the Hood), Theodore Witcher (Love Jones), Leslie Harris (Just Another Girl on the I.R.T.), Matty Rich (Straight Out of Brooklyn), and Julie Dash (Daughters of the Dust). Martin’s account of film-industry injustice fits the current fashion of political protest and restitution through media. This form of rebellion journalism makes Martin seem an accusatory ingrate rather than an artist with a personal vision whose endeavors are worthy of respect. It sets us up for chaos.
Putting protest above art shows Ugwu’s naïveté about each of these filmmakers. His limited knowledge of their individual histories does a disservice to their cultural backgrounds. Assorted independent movements and personal goals converged to occasion the arrival of young black filmmakers outside the Hollywood system, but Ugwu’s advocacy journalism caters to a generational ignorance that is superficial and uninformed.
Here’s history Ugwu should know: I first met Martin when I was 1994 chairman of the New York Film Critics Circle. She had won the group’s Best New Director Award for I Like It Like That (a more authentic Harlem-based drama than the recent If Beale Street Could Talk). When I inquired about her background and mentors, she spoke of starting out as assistant to Ernest Dickerson. Perfect. Dickerson had won the Circle’s 1989 Best Cinematography Award for Do the Right Thing and gone on to direct seminal hip-hop features Juice and Tales from the Hood. I had interviewed him during a color-correction session for the Public Enemy music video Fight the Power, so I requested that he present the prize to Martin. This reunion of sorts would confirm recognition of both artists’ career progress. And it happened — a significant moment now lost to ahistorical journalism.
Martin and I met a second time in 2010 when I was chairman for the New York Film Critics Circle’s 75th-anniversary ceremony. This time, I wanted the event to honor the Circle’s legacy by highlighting presenters who were past winners — creating a continuity that affirmed their historical achievement and connected to film culture’s ongoing heritage. Martin was my immediate choice to pass on the Best New Director Award — this was also my way of acknowledging her recent achievement with Cadillac Records — and I was thrilled that she agreed to do the presentation.
Now it seems that Ugwu and the Times would rewrite the history of distinguished black filmmakers in terms of activist antagonism. Ugwu’s teleconference with former media darlings who eventually encountered a hostile Hollywood industry neglects their early success: the real triumph of getting a film finished and released, unlike dozens of luckless hopefuls.
The Times’ perspective emphasizes “injustice” as if the film industry was a meritocracy — one more American institution that needed to be transformed toward the improbable goal of total racial and gender parity. Despite the affronts and disadvantages that Martin and her peers discussed, their interlocutor never confronted the ironic reality of Hollywood’s black journeymen, those hustlers who avoided what Matty Rich called “director’s jail.” They successfully played the industry game: personal appeasement, commercialism, guilt-intimidation, and sheer hackwork.
Ava DuVernay is Hollywood’s current reigning accommodationist. Her career calculations follow the compromises in quality made by Spike Lee, Antoine Fuqua, F. Gary Gray, Reginald Hudlin, the Hughes brothers, though not the complicated virtues of the late John Singleton. Yet Ugwu’s conversation conveniently overlooks DuVernay’s conciliation and the non-compromises of Wendell B. Harris Jr., Charles Burnett, Haile Gerima, and Billy Woodberry. The latter trio, once-renowned as the “L.A. Rebellion” wing of UCLA film school, made a credo of defying Hollywood acceptance.
It is disingenuous for the Times to suggest that Hollywood was the primary goal of ’90s black filmmakers. Their idea of true independence is now replaced by envy and blame. The article’s offense lies in the deceptive aim (characteristic of liberal media) to control black people and exploit race consciousness by influencing their dissatisfaction and their self-infatuated, Obama-era sense of entitlement.
But history says otherwise: Outside the Hollywood mainstream, extraordinary films such as Cadillac Records, Next Day Air, Pride, Hustle and Flow, Akeelah and the Bee, Love and Basketball, Biker Boys, and South Central provide an honorable legacy. Despite Martin’s rightful complaints about unprofessional practices, which also abound in other industries, her good work defies industry stereotypes and sets up American cinema’s artistic potential.