A renaissance of black cinema?

Hollywood has a deplorable record in representing African Americans on screen – but a new wave of films by black directors could mark a change, writes Tom Brook.

Celebrated US movie mogul Harvey Weinstein was working the press a few nights ago at Manhattan’s Museum of Modern Art where his latest film, Fruitvale Station, was being given its New York launch. It’s a picture based on the last 24 hours in the life a young black man fatally shot by a white police officer in California in 2009. The movie is in the vanguard of a new wave of black films arriving in American cinemas.  “It should have happened a long time ago – but it’s finally happening now,” said Weinstein.

And Fruitvale Station has special poignancy being released in US cinemas on the same weekend as a Florida jury found neighbourhood watchman George Zimmerman not guilty in the fatal shooting of black teenager Trayvon Martin last year.

Before the end of 2013 some ten movies made by black filmmakers – telling black stories – will be released by US studios and production companies – a very significant increase over the same period last year. These pictures include a broad range of films from historical dramas to musicals. 

What many find refreshing about this new batch of black films is that they focus on many different aspects of African-American life – not just crime and drug culture which has often provided the backdrop to black stories in US cinema. A musical, Black Nativity, will arrive on screens in November – and filmmaker Neil Drumming is planning to craft a science fiction love story for his next screenplay. (His first film, Big Words, the story of former members of a hip-hop group, is released this Friday in US cinemas.)

The Weinstein Company will also be releasing The Butler in mid-August, in which Forest Whitaker plays a butler who served in the White House from 1952 to 1986. It’s been brought together by Lee Daniels, the award-winning director who made Precious. The star-laden 12 Years a Slave, out in October, is also heavily anticipated. It is directed by British filmmaker and Turner Prize-winning artist, Steve McQueen and stars Michael Fassbender, Benedict Cumberbatch, Brad Pitt and Chiwetel Ejiofor in a historical drama set in pre-Civil War America about a free black man from New York sold into slavery.

Independents day

One major challenge facing African-American filmmakers is a studio system long resistant to telling their stories.  Few would disagree that Hollywood has a pretty deplorable record when it comes to black cinema – in the past it has often resorted to racist stereotypes and hackneyed themes. Black actors who’ve worked in studio films acknowledge Hollywood is changing and becoming more open to embracing diversity in its storytelling and casting. “But it’s not happening at the rate it needs to,” says Academy Award-winning actress Octavia Spencer.

It is therefore not a total surprise to find that several films in this new wave of black pictures has been nurtured more by America’s independent film community than by Hollywood.

In recent years independent film festivals like Sundance have become increasingly important in recognising and promoting the works of black filmmakers. Director Lee Daniels launched Precious, which went on to win two Oscars, at the festival in 2009. Earlier this year Sundance bestowed its Grand Jury Prize and Audience Award on Ryan Coogler’s Fruitvale Station.

The African-American community has begun to look to itself rather than Hollywood when it comes to supporting the distribution of its films. The African-American Film Festival Releasing Movement – a distribution collective which came into being in 2011 - has helped get several black independent films into US cinemas.

Crossover potential

Another hurdle confronting black filmmakers is the difficulty in reaching an audience. It’s not that black films can’t make money – they can. Fruitvale Station, in limited release in the US last weekend, performed strongly in cinemas where it was shown. Kevin Hart’s stand-up comedy movie Kevin Hart: Let Me Explain, which opened earlier this month, also did extremely well. It took in more than $17m in its first five days of business – confidently recouping the $2.5m it cost to make.

But black films very often don’t cross over to a larger audience. Figures show that 80% of the people buying tickets for Kevin Hart: Let Me Explain were black. White audiences tend to stay away from black cinema and that’s a problem – especially for profit-driven Hollywood which wants to back films which reach a broad swath of moviegoers.

African-American actor, Omari Hardwick, who’s had numerous screen roles, thinks white Americans are definitely uneasy watching black stories – particularly in the country’s heartland. “People shy away from that which they don’t know. In the middle of the country there’s more of a resistance definitely,” he says.

Another challenge for black filmmakers is that they have to contend with film industry executives who maintain their films won’t sell overseas. Certainly black stars like Will Smith and Denzel Washington can bring in an international audience but the conventional wisdom is that African-American cinema often doesn’t resonate beyond US shores.

Director Neil Drumming finds this line of thinking frustrating. He maintains he hasn’t seen any hard facts to prove that African-American films can’t find a market outside the US. “There’s really no person that can demonstrate one way or the other – I think you just keep trying to make your film,” he says.

Debra L Lee, Chief Executive Officer of Black Entertainment Television, which shows many African-American films, is optimistic. She thinks directors should focus primarily on delivering strong narratives: “If you tell a good story, everyone’s going to be interested in it, and I think one of the things we really have to work hard against is this feeling that black movies don’t do well internationally.”

The current renaissance in black filmmaking is being likened to other similar propitious moments in African-American film history: the release of She’s Gotta Have It in 1986 which launched celebrated filmmaker Spike Lee’s career and the 1991 urban drama Boyz n the Hood which put director John Singleton on the map.

But there is some anxiety that this new wave of black cinema could peter out. Many black filmmakers know they can’t rely on Hollywood – so they’re preaching self-reliance. “We have to make very good films and then we have to promote them very well – and then the audience has to support them,” says Neil Drumming. But he concedes that none of those things is particularly easy.

There is a hope that this renaissance of black cinema leads to a permanent and growing foothold in the marketplace – and a very firm resolve to ensure that black storytelling on the big screen prevails. “We deserve the same sort of recognition that everyone gets,” says Debra L Lee. “We need to start insisting that our stories are told. It’s important for our children, It’s important for ourselves to see ourselves in cinema and to be celebrated.”

If you would like to comment on this story or anything else you have seen on BBC Culture, head over to our Facebook page or message us on Twitter.