Essays

Black American Cinema of the ’90s Was Filled with Promise

Revisiting the movies made by Black American filmmakers, which could only really be fully appreciated decades later.

Down in the Delta (1998), directed by Maya Angelou, shown: Wesley Snipes, Alfre Woodard (credit Miramax Films / Photofest, © Miramax Films)

The 1990s marked a particularly prosperous period for Black auteurship, which could only really be fully appreciated decades later, with so much of its promise left unfulfilled.

Over the weekend, BAM Film kicked off the series Black 90s: A Turning Point in American Cinema, featuring a host of beloved classics including House Party (1990), Boomerang (1992), Waiting to Exhale (1995), Love Jones (1997), and a 25th anniversary screening of Spike Lee’s Crooklyn (1994).

Lee, of course, was the reigning king of the decade. His output amounted to roughly one reliably controversial film a year, among them Mo’ Better Blues (1990), Jungle Fever (1991), Malcolm X (1992), and Clockers (1995). Often shot on minimal, scraped-together budgets, Lee joined Black filmmakers Oscar Micheaux and Noble Johnson in articulating, with visceral acuity, what troubled the Black men of his age.

While the latter part of the ’90s proved more critically inconsistent for the director, he had defined the moment before the decade even began, in 1989, with the eerily prescient Do the Right Thing. It was his film that would herald the flood: In the fall of 1990, 23-year-old John Singleton — who died just a few days ago, at just 51 years old — took to the streets of his native South Central Los Angeles to film Boyz N the Hood (1991), a sentient portrait of Black masculinity and fatherhood. The next year, he became the youngest ever (and first African American) best director Oscar nominee. Matty Rich was just 19 when, the same year, he released the award-winning Straight Out of Brooklyn.

For all these strides, it was largely a boys’ club and tales from the hood dominated. Mario Van Peebles tackled the gangster genre in the endlessly quotable New Jack City (1991). Meanwhile, Ernest Dickerson, formerly Lee’s cinematographer, made a sophisticated directorial debut with Juice (1992), a Harlem tragedy of machismo gone wrong. The prevalent aesthetic realism descended as much from cinematic as literary forefathers Ralph Ellison and Richard Wright, and in the ’90s — the age of stars like Will Smith, Denzel Washington, and Eddie Murphy — Tupac and Ice Cube lent the films they starred in fascinating layers and brought a startlingly grim authenticity to their performances.

Julie Dash’s Daughters of the Dust (1991)

Women rarely escaped these dramas unscathed. Singleton, for instance, came under fire for his shallow portrayal of Black women in Boyz N the Hood, and responded with Poetic Justice (1993), starring Janet Jackson. Lee has been plagued by the same criticisms throughout his career. In general, romances tended to offer actresses more room to express their range. Waiting to Exhale foretold the Sex in the City generation (the real love story is between the four friends). Meanwhile, Love Jones was praised for its complex, unconventional approach to love and relationships.

But plenty of Black women were making films of their own, and they had entirely different questions on their mind. They, too, concerned themselves with the problems of the metropolis, as evidenced by Leslie Harris’s Just Another Girl on the I. R. T. (1993), but far more of them retreated to bucolic, matrilineal havens, and nearly all of these tales are fascinated with the past or the archive. Julie Dash’s Daughters of the Dust (1991), the first feature by a Black woman to be distributed theatrically in the US, is a sweeping, lush paean to the Gullah and the triumph of their cultural preservation, through folklore and traditions. Dash’s imagery would inspire an entire generation of women filmmakers, including her contemporary Zeinabu irene Davis, whose film Compensation (1999) is in the style of early 20th-century pictures, complete with title cards and ragtime piano accompaniment.

Cheryl Dunye’s The Watermelon Woman (1996)

Watermelon Woman (1996), the first feature directed by a Black lesbian, follows director Cheryl Dunye as a video store clerk tracing the history of an uncredited Old Hollywood Black actress. The film ends with a quote by Dunye, “Sometimes you have to make your own history.” And so, an unspoken collective project continued.

Kasi Lemmons made her name as horror’s resident “Black Best Friend,” first in Silence of the Lambs (1991) and then Candyman (1992). In 1997 she made her directorial debut with Eve’s Bayou, a Southern Gothic family saga in Louisiana circa 1963, the summer our young protagonist Eve (Jurnee Smollett) killed her father, or so she announces in the early moments of the film. Eve’s Bayou isn’t really about the death of Louis Batiste (played by Samuel L. Jackson) at all; it’s about memory and in quieter ways, Black women telling stories, preserving their histories.

Eve’s Bayou (1997), directed by Kasi Lemmons, shown: Debbi Morgan (credit Trimark/Photofest, © Trimark)

But already the luster of the moment had begun to wane. Many of these filmmakers — including Lemmons and Singleton — would work intermittently over the next 20 years. Several features on showcase at the BAM series share a common thread: for all their critical acclaim, they were box office failures and the directors had trouble securing financing after that. But the filmmakers knew that no one else would tell these stories. It was up to them to fill the void, to tend to their histories. And what we have at the end of it all is a legacy.

Black 90s: A Turning Point in American Cinema is running at BAM Film (30 Lafayette Ave, Fort Greene, Brooklyn) May 3–22. 

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