By Sean Yoes
AFRO Baltimore Editor
Recently, Spike Lee, the father of the modern Black Cinema movement in America sat down for a talk at the main branch of the Enoch Pratt Free Library. Unfortunately, I wasn’t able to hear the living legend regale those in attendance about his trailblazing career in film.
But, his presence in our city at this time specifically was an ironic twist of fate for me because he came through as I was in the midst of a Black Film binge.
It started a few weeks ago with the film “Harriet,” the biopic about the prodigious superhero from Maryland’s Eastern Shore. To be honest, although I had planned to see the film anyway, my trip to the Charles Theater was made a bit more urgent because of the faux controversy regarding the casting of the talented British actress Cynthia Erivo as Harriet Tubman. And the alleged interest of Julia Roberts (!) in playing the lead role. The insanity of even discussing Roberts portraying “Lady Moses” withstanding, I think some people (I’m speaking of those outraged over “Harriet” for whatever reason) just don’t feel alive unless they’ve got beef in their life. But, I digress.
Next up for me was the ultra-visceral “Queen and Slim,” which chronicles the tragic first date of “Slim,” portrayed by Daniel Kaluya (“Get Out,” “Panther”) and “Queen,” brought to life by the otherworldly beautiful first time actress, Jodie Turner-Smith (a graduate of Gaithersburg High School in Maryland). The movie is part road trip, part romance, part “F the Police.”
Then last weekend, I saw the movie “Waves,” with an amazing ensemble cast, led by Kelvin Harrison Jr., who also dazzled earlier this year as the lead in “Luce.” “Waves,” with powerhouse performances, kinetic camera work and blood curdling drama, could land Harrison an Academy Award nomination.
I’m not really interested in offering individual reviews of these films, although I enjoyed them all (I will say Waves won “Best Film” of the three for me). What is most exhilarating for me as an aspiring filmmaker and a Black man always seeking inspiration in art is the depth and dynamism of the Black film movement over the last few years. Also exciting is the evolution of one of Hollywood’s worst kept secrets: Black films always make money. In the past, one of the favorite excuses of Hollywood producers for not making movies with Black themes, majority Black casts or Black lead actors was a financial argument. It was allegedly a challenge for Black films to recoup initial investments, which historically has been for the most part patently false. Today, Harriet, Queen and Slim and Waves (to a lesser degree because of a limited release theatrically), are box office winners. Harriet, with a budget of about $17M has grossed more than $40M and Queen and Slim, also with a budget of around $17M, has already grossed about $33M since Thanksgiving weekend.These films have enjoyed mainstream immersion, while other recent releases have been box office juggernauts.
“Black Panther,” released last year has grossed more than $1.3B (that’s billion with a “B”). “Get Out,” (released 2017) and “Us,” (released earlier this year), both directed by the phenom Jordan Peele, have both grossed more than a quarter billion dollars respectively.
I’m no expert on the film industry; all it’s fiscal intricacies, political machinations and blatant racism make for an often toxic milieu. But, it seems clear to me that when Spike Lee first hit the scene with his breakthrough feature, “She’s Gotta Have It,” in 1986, he killed the game. His film, on a budget of $175,000 grossed more than $7M and Hollywood took notice, whether they want to admit it or not.
But, more importantly Lee kicked down a door in 1986 and through the portal rushed a wave of talented young Black independent filmmakers including Damon Wayans, Robert Townsend, Matty Rich, Julie Dash and the late John Singleton. Many others have followed over the years including my friend (and West Baltimore native) Darryl Wharton-Rigby. Wharton-Rigby scored in 1998, with his first full-length feature, “Detention,” shot in Baltimore at Douglass High School, his alma mater. Twenty years later, Wharton-Rigby, who now lives in Japan with his wife and children is garnering critical acclaim for his romantic drama, “Stay.”
Wharton-Rigby and dozens of other men and women are the sons and daughters of the Black American Film movement reimagined and re-energized by Spike Lee. I’m confident he is proud of them.
I know for sure the state of Black Cinema today is what so many of us dreamed of back when Spike first introduced us all to Nola Darling.
Sean Yoes is the AFRO’s Baltimore editor and author of Baltimore After Freddie Gray: Real Stories From One of America’s Great Imperiled Cities.