From ‘Menace II Society’ to ‘Poetic Justice’: Was 1993 the Golden Age of Black Movies?

by | March 29, 2013 at 11:36 AM | Black Entertainment

Denzel Washington in ‘The Pelican Brief’, Janet Jackson in ‘Poetic Justice’ (Photos: theGrio.com)

By Adam Howard theGrio.com (Article originally published on theGrio.com.)

Whether you love him or hate him, it seems as though Tyler Perry is the only game in town these days when to comes to movies targeted specifically at black audiences.

His melodrama “Temptation” is set to hit theaters in just a couple weeks and will surely do big business, but will its success be a tribute to Perry’s popularity or largely a reflection of a minority movie-going audience that feels underrepresented and under-served?

Director Spike Lee, who once averaged about one film per year, has become far less prolific in lately. And his colleagues like John Singleton and the Hughes brothers have transitioned from making epic urban films to helming big budget genre pictures with multiracial casts.

What Is a “Black Film”?
Meanwhile the definition of a ‘black film’ has grown more fluid in the age of Obama.

It’s now no longer groundbreaking for an African-American A-lister like Denzel Washington or Halle Berry to anchor a film by themselves. And while the smash hit “Django Unchained“ touched on distinctly black themes with a bevy of African-American stars, it’s appeal was broader because it reflected the vision of its white director Quentin Tarantino.

Just twenty years ago, the multiplexes presented a very different picture of black Hollywood.

There were a variety of choices for black film fans: There were star vehicles (“Sister Act 2,” “Philadelphia,” “The Pelican Brief“), biopics (“What’s Love Got to Do With It“), comedies (“CB4,” “Cool Runnings“), action (“Demolition Man“) and hard hitting dramas (“Poetic Justice,” “Menace II Society“).

In comparison last year there was the romantic comedy “Think Like a Man“, the WWII drama “Red Tails,” and three different Tyler Perry vehicles. Perhaps it’s no wonder that black audiences are frequently nostalgic for the 90s.

Was 1993 the Golden Age of Black Film?
Some black movie buffs are partial to the blaxploitation era, and certainly at no time has Hollywood ever put out more films with black audiences in mind. But those films by-and-large suffered from problematic stereotyping, sexism and in some cases embarrassingly poor craftsmanship.

In that era’s wake only Eddie Murphy and Richard Pryor emerged as consistently bankable African-American superstars. But in the late 80s that began to change. A wave of young black directors including Lee, Singleton, Robert Townsend, Julie Dash, Keenan Ivory Wayans and Carl Franklin (just to name a few), began to take Hollywood by storm.

This so-called “new” black Hollywood also included soon-to-be household name stars like Wesley Snipes, Morgan Freeman and Angela Bassett.

The surprising financial success of urban dramas like “Boyz n the Hood“ and “New Jack City“ (both 1991) seemed to get studio executives to open their eyes to a largely overlooked constituency. What followed was a decade of fairly diverse representations of black life from the “Cosby”-esque affluence of “Soul Food“ to the politically incorrect antics of the hoodlums in “Friday.”

1993 saw not only Will Smith’s film debut (in the otherwise forgettable Whoopi Goldberg comedy “Made in America“) but it also was a year in which Snipes and Washington both landed two films each among the year’s top 20 box office earners, and Laurence Fishburne and Angela Bassett were both nominated for leading actor Oscars for “What’s Love Got to Do With It“ (the first time black actors achieved that feat since 1972).

The Beginning of the End of Mainstream Black Film
Somehow, as the century turned the so-called black film seemed to grow more ghettoized and crossover success (i.e. attendance from white audiences) became scarce.

For every “Barbershop“ success story there were about a dozen “B*A*P*S“ and “Booty Calls,” and while those films have their staunch defenders, they clearly signaled a fragmentation of the movie-going public.

As African-American stars began to land prominent lead and supporting roles in prestigious pictures, the quality of films for us/by us seemed to decline.

It was in this vacuum that Tyler Perry emerged and ultimately capitalized.  He wisely parlayed his success on the black theater circuit into a loyal film fanbase which has continued to line his pockets despite widespread critical derision (and more recently, declining box office performance).

What Made 1993 so Special?
Will we ever see the embarrassment of riches that was black film in 1993 again? Probably not.

Hollywood films are now often marketed based on age and gender instead of race.

Also, there are simply fewer roles and directing gigs being offered to creative people of color. The New York Times declared 2010 one of the “whitest” years in film history.

In 2011, according to Shadow and Act, of the roughly 300 films released in the U.S. only 6 were directed by African-Americans.

And last year, despite the indie success of “Beasts of the Southern Wild“ and its pint-size star Quvenzhané Wallis, blacks went largely empty handed during the awards season.

The Future of Black Film
Many African-American actors and filmmakers have found more opportunities in the increasingly fertile ground of network and cable television.

And there also a handful of very promising talents on the rise. Directors such as Steve McQueen and Ava DuVernay are doing challenging, critically acclaimed work. The success of “Think Like a Man proved that there may be black box office life beyond Tyler Perry. And Will Smith and Denzel Washington remain two of the most valued A-list stars in Hollywood.

Still, a look back on the films of 1993 offers an inspiring slate of fun and diverse entertainment which could provide a blueprint for the future of blacks in the movie business.