This week, the prolific Tyler Perry reels off Meet the Browns, his latest examination of African American family life. With that in mind, we thought it would be a good time to take a look at other black directors who’ve followed their own paths to bring personal stories to the screen.
Though critics have yet to fully warm to Perry’s films (his best reviewed effort, Why Did I Get Married?, is at 47 percent on the Tomatometer), there’s no disputing their commercial success. Filling a void that’s been left empty by Hollywood (and much of the overall entertainment targeted at African Americans), Perry’s movies have hit a nerve with black moviegoers. “I know my audience, and they’re not people that the studios know anything about,” Perry has said.
However, there were a number of young black filmmakers who weren’t interested in following Hollywood archetypes. One was Charles Burnett, who, as a student at UCLA, sought to channel the humanism of Europeans like Jean Renoir and the Italian neorealists into a portrait of blue-collar inner-city life. The result was Killer of Sheep (Certified Fresh at 97 percent), a stunningly beautiful, occasionally funny, and at times achingly sad landmark in the history of independent cinema. The film follows the daily lives of some Watts residents, most notably Stan (Henry G. Sanders) and his wife (Kaycee Moore) and children. Stan works in a slaughterhouse, a job that has taken a toll; he’s constantly looking for something more, and his family finds him cold and distant. Burnett shot the film on a shoestring budget over the course of two years, using non-professional actors; the film was briefly released in 1977, but the rich, evocative soundtrack (featuring Paul Robeson, Louis Armstrong, Etta James, and Earth, Wind, and Fire, among others) became a liability when the rights could not be cleared. (In 2007, the legal issues had been straightened out, and the film received a limited theatrical release.)
Killer of Sheep is very thinly plotted, and probably won’t appeal to those who demand a strong narrative structure. But it has no shortage of striking images: scenes of children at play, of domestic joy and longing, of the poetry of faces, of everyday trials and tribulations. (In one memorable moment, Stan and a friend carry a car motor down a steep flight of stairs and put it in the back of a pickup — and watch it fly out the back as they drive away.) In its own quiet way, Killer of Sheep embodies the disillusionment many felt after the heady promise of the civil rights era. (It’s hard not to get a chill at the scenes of sheep being led to slaughter juxtaposed with those of everyday ghetto life.) John Beifuss of the Memphis Commercial Appeal calls it “a time capsule of 1970s style and attitude that remains utterly timeless in its respect for its characters and its recognition of the despair, passion, boredom, playfulness and cruelty nurtured not just by life in the ghetto but by life itself.”
Lee would go on to make greater films (like the nearly perfect Do the Right Thing, 100 percent), as well as movies that delved more deeply into the complexities of the black experience (Get on the Bus [88 percent], for one). But while She’s Gotta Have It may be Lee’s most playful film, it doesn’t shy away from potent, tough questions about identity, class, and the rules of romance. With this early effort, Lee was already on his way to becoming one of American cinema’s most inquisitive, probing filmmakers. “Lee’s first feature posed him as a mid-’80s rival to Woody Allen, nearly equaling him in the psychological authenticity of his characters and perhaps bettering him in grace and virtuosity and sheer creative glee,” wrote Peter Keough of The Chicago Reader.
If Soul Food‘s plot veers into soap opera territory at times, and if the characters are generally archetypal, the actors invest in their characters such weight that we like these people, despite their faults (it should come as little surprise that the movie inspired a TV spinoff). Soul Food has more than a little to say about the importance of maintaining tradition and familial ties, and the shots of sumptuous dishes are savory enough to qualify as a character in their own right. Peter Stack of the San Francisco Chronicle called Soul Food “a warm, funny, touching African American family drama, the kind of bittersweet melodrama that critics tend to relegate as crowd-pleasing corn. We could use more when it’s this well done.”