Home > Michael Ashton > Movies Aimed at African American Men and Women

Movies Aimed at African American Men and Women

In today’s culturally diverse, politically correct society, it is hard to believe that at one time racism was not only accepted as the norm, but enjoyed for its entertainment value. African American characters have long appeared in Hollywood films, both directly and indirectly, for as long as motion pictures have been produced. In the beginning, the hiring of African Americans for inclusion in a film was something of a rarity. When feature roles required a black character, producers would instead hire a white actor to portray that character in blackface. At the close of the 1960s, African American performers began making some headway by merging into Hollywood’s mainstream.

After the momentum of the Civil Rights movement had died down in the early 1970s, producers and film directors began developing movies aimed to appeal to the African American audience. Through the decade, there were a number of low-budget produced films named “Blaxploitation” movies. These movies were the first to release soundtracks featuring soul, funk and rhythm and blues music as well as a predominantly black cast, hereby breaking the traditional mold . Blaxploitation contributed a lot to black entertainment by leading the way for actors and actresses in today’s entertainment business. The Blaxploitation genre showed the world that it was time for something different. It significantly changed the way people perceived the black experience in the United States. Although violence is highlighted and there is a general lack of character depth and development, this genre nonetheless contributed a great deal toward redefining the perception of African American Actresses, breaking traditional African American male and female stereotypes. This laid the groundwork for black figures, who would later appear on film in the future.

According to America on Film, a “woman’s film” is a Hollywood film formula that focuses on alleged “women’s issues”. These issues include, romance, courtship and parenthood. In typical Hollywood films, the woman’s film carries these that involve moral dilemmas and conflicts that are associated with the issue of sexuality and home and family life. Women’s films tend to take place in a middle-class setting, carrying stories of the fates of the individuals who play crucial roles in the storyline. Within the setting of the family, issues that may be seen as of a particular concern to women are explored. At the same time, a typical plotline of the woman’s film carries the story from a woman’s desire, though her stepping outside of the “appropriate” codes of female behavior and the subsequent temporary happiness, through her retribution for her transgression and her renunciation of desire and the final capitulation to dominant moral codes.

A great example of a woman’s film can be found in 1995’s Waiting to Exhale, directed by acclaimed director Forest Whitaker and adapted from the 1992 novel written by Terry McMillan. Recommended by America on Film under the “Further Screening” suggestion section, the film revolves around four successful female friends in Phoenix Arizona, in the midst of unsuccessful or less than ideal positions with their spouses or boyfriend. They are essentially “holding their breath” until they can feel a sense of relief, commitment and reassurance from their significant others. The film is notable for having an all black female cast, featuring luminaries such as Angela Bassett and singer Whitney Houston. The film relates to the definition that America on Film states. Waiting to Exhale exemplifies demonstrates the definition of a woman’s film because of the perceived notion of “women’s issues” was present through the duration of the film. All of the major characters experienced the pitfalls of romance in varying aspects: the difficulties of life after a bitter divorce, being the other woman in a love triangle with a married man, and being a single parent raising a rowdy and sexually active teenager with the absence of a father or father figure.

Waiting to Exhale was helped by critics who gave it credibility, as well as by a sense of urgency in the African American audience” says Tom Sherak, the senior vice president of Fox. WeNews correspondent Carla Thompson points that also points to the film’s “refreshing departure from Hollywood’s struggling depictions of black women, the central character played by Angela Bassett is upper middle class. When her husband leaves her for his white secretary, she drowns her sorrows in champagne, not cheap wine.” The film garnered great success, prompting one to believe that scores of women who have watched the film can immediately identify with one or more of the characters and correlate them to their own life experiences.

In contrast to Waiting to Exhale, which was geared toward a female audience, 1991’s Boyz N the Hood offered a realistically complex representation of black males and masculinity the early 1990s. Directed by acclaimed director and producer John Singleton, the film portrays the rampant social problems in South Central Los Angeles. The film centers around three male friends growing up together in trying times as well as their personalities in the face of their harsh life experiences. While fictionalized, the film explores the black experience in an honest, gripping and fascinating way, summarizing some of the most important problems plaguing America in the mid-to-late 1980s to the early 1990s – racism, poverty, drug abuse and violence. Boyz N the Hood singlehandedly takes the viewer into its story of growing up in a surrounding that is rife with trouble at every angle – where everyone’s lives are struggling to get through the day and where survival is an everyday task. The film also showcases the presence of the “black buck” – the stereotype of a hypersexual and hyper-masculine black male. The most important and arguably the most interesting aspect of Boyz N the Hood is the difference that the presence of a strong father figure and how it can influence the life of a young black male significantly. Of the three main characters, the father of Tre (played by Cuba Gooding, Jr.) plays a great role in the difference between his life and his two close friends, Ricky and Doughboy (played by rapper Ice Cube and Morris Chestnut, respectively). His decision not to participate in avenging the death of Ricky through retaliation illustrates the strength of moral standing instilled in a man through strong parental guidance. In a review released shortly after the film’s premiere, critic Roger Ebert analyzes this aspect:

“Furious Styles (Tre’s father) also knows the dangers for his son – of gangs, of drugs, of the wrong friends. He lays down strict rules, but he cannot be everywhere and see everything. Meanwhile, Singleton paints the individual characters of the neighborhood with the same attention to detail that Spike Lee used in Do the Right Thing. He’s particularly perceptive about the Baker family – about the mother and her two sons by different fathers, Doughboy and Ricky. Both live at home, where it is no secret in the family that the mother prefers Ricky.”

Both Waiting to Exhale and Boyz N the Hood are just two of the many examples of cinematic images geared to appeal to African American men and women. They attempt to show African American males and females in a different light and in varying aspects. There is a significant level of progress from the struggle of equal representation of both male and female African Americans.

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