Total Recall

Total Recall: Directors Who Paved the Way for Tyler Perry

In praise of Killer of Sheep, She's Gotta Have It, and Soul Food.

by | March 19, 2008 | Comments

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.

Tyler Perry on the set of Madea’s Family Reunion

He’s not the first black director to attempt to fill that space. As early as the 1910s, African American filmmakers were working to document their experience — or, at the very least, to recast traditional genres with black faces. In 1915, George and Noble Johnson founded the Lincoln Motion Picture Co. in order to cater to the “race” market; later, such pioneers as Oscar Micheaux and Spencer Williams made films in a variety of genres that played to enthusiastic black audiences — and were virtually ignored by whites. (Many race films were screened at “midnight rambles” — so called because segregated cinemas would show movies for blacks at midnight.) In the 1970s, the blaxploitation era ushered in a cast of larger-than-life black action heroes, as well as a sharp crop of black directors.

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.”

Of course, the black experience is not confined to the ghetto. It may be an obvious point, but as more African Americans picked up cameras, they began to document life from a number of different perspectives. Case in point: Spike Lee‘s debut feature She’s Gotta Have It, a witty tale of romance set in a more middle class milieu. Shot on a bare-bones budget, Gotta is the story of fiercely independent Nola Darling (Tracy Camilla Johns), who finds herself courted by three very different men: Greer (John Canada Terrell), a narcissistic model; Mars Blackman (Lee), a wacky, childish bike messenger; and Jamie (Tommy Redmond Hicks), a decent, well-meaning guy who also has some control issues. Nola has little problem remaining unattached to these guys, until they become embittered with each other — and demand that she make a choice.

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.

The 1990s saw an influx of African American filmmaking talent gain commercial and critical success in Hollywood. Some, like John Singleton (Boyz N the Hood, 98 percent) and the Hughes Brothers (Menace II Society, 86 percent), sought to bring a clear eye to the struggles of inner city African Americans, investing their films with incendiary power and bleak grandeur. If those films feel like a gut-punch, George Tillman, Jr‘s Soul Food (Certified Fresh at 80 percent) is more like a comforting hug. But it’s no less significant, in that it proved (if proof was needed) that African American-themed films could follow their own rules — and become huge hits in the process. Soul Food is the story of a family that gathers at the home of Mama Joe (Irma P. Hall) every Sunday for tasty food and honest talk. But when Joe takes ill, the family bonds are ruptured; Joe’s three daughters, workaholic Teri (Vanessa Williams), stay-at-home Mom Maxine (Vivica A. Fox), and sweet newlywed Bird (Nia Long) find themselves in the midst of personal crises that sometimes spill over into the family’s affairs. Maxine and Teri have always been rivals, and Teri and her husband are drifting apart; meanwhile, Bird worries that her new husband Lem (Mekhi Phifer), newly released from the joint, won’t be able to find a job (or fully connect with her tight-knit clan). The story is narrated by Maxine’s young son Ahmad (a wonderful Brandon Hammond), who takes it upon himself to bring everyone together, just like his grandma used to.

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.”

In addition, check out the Tinseltown-skewering Hollywood Shuffle (87 percent) the teenage antics of House Party (95 percent), the period intrigue of Eve’s Bayou (79 percent) and the ribald talk of Barbershop (84 percent) for more fine work from talented African American directors.

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