Denzel Washington in ‘The Pelican Brief’, Angela Bassett in ‘What’s Love Got to Do With It’, and Janet Jackson in ‘Poetic Justice’. (Photos courtesy of the 1963 fims)
‘Menace II Society’: This melodrama put Allen and Albert Hughes on the map. It was in some ways their response to Boyz n the Hood, which they publicly derided as too tepid for their tastes. This chilling fable of inner-city violence depicting not just the vicious nature of some black youths, it also dramatizes the emptiness of thug culture. Larenz Tate gave one of this best performances as a remorseless killer named O-Dog who not only slaughters a Korean grocer but later relives his crime by re-watching it repeatedly on videocassette.
‘What’s Love Got to Do With It’: Angela Bassett and Laurence Fishburne would both earn Oscar nominations for their unforgettable performances as Ike and Tina Turner in this remarkable biopic. Both performers found the humanity in the characters, two of the most richly developed black characters every portrayed on screen.
‘Demolition Man’: Wesley Snipes channels Dennis Rodman in this better than you might think Sylvester Stallone action vehicle. Although he’s playing the villain, this film, coupled with his role opposite Sean Connery in the hit Rising Sun, cemented Snipes’ status was a bankable action star in his own right (his cult hit ‘Passenger 57′ was released the year before). Set in the distant future, Snipes plays a wildly psychopathic killer who gets unfrozen from hibernation to wreak mayhem. His role was originally conceived for Jackie Chan, but with his wacky one liners it’s hard to imagine anyone the future Blade in the role.
‘Cool Runnings’: This goofball, feel good (loosely based on a true story) comedy about a Jamaican bobsled team may be a bit of a punchline now, but it was a family favorite for years after its successful run in theaters.
‘CB4′: Chris Rock’s satire of the hip-hop industry was in many ways ahead of its time. While the fake rap group in this comedy appears to resemble NWA, it could just as easily be a spoof of the endless number of gangsta rap groups that came in their wake. While the premise is clever, three mild-mannered black youths pose as thugs in order to score a record contract, the film didn’t perform too well with critics or audiences.
‘Poetic Justice’: Singleton’s follow-up to his Oscar nominated film ‘Boyz n the Hood’, appears to be something of a mea culpa for the male-heavy focus of that drama. Here the protagonist is a young poet named Justice living in the inner city. Featuring Janet Jackson in one of her better on-screen roles and original poems by Maya Angelou, this film earnestly attempts to explore black male-female relationships and showcases the budding talent of a young Tupac Shakur. Bonus for getting name-checked in a Kendrick Lamar song.
‘Sister Act 2: Back in the Habit’: Although this sequel to the 1992 Whoopi Goldberg smash did far less business and received more lukewarm critical response than its predecessor, it’s remembered more fondly by black audiences because of its more gospel-tinged music. It will also always be remembered for introducing the world to an up-and-coming Lauryn Hill, right before she defined the decade in pop culture with The Fugees and her own massive solo success ‘The Miseducation of Lauryn Hill’.
‘Philadelphia’ and ‘The Pelican Brief’: With this one-two punch Denzel Washington became the biggest black male dramatic movie star since Sidney Poitier. Already a rising star thanks to his award-winning work in ‘Glory’ (1989) and ‘Malcolm X’ (1992), Denzel scored two of the biggest hits of his career by starring alongside America’s sweethearts Tom Hanks and Julia Roberts in these mainstream crowd-pleasers. In Philadelphia, Hanks has the showier role of a high powered lawyer fired by his firm while he is dying of AIDS. But Washington was also remarkable as his attorney, who must overcome his own homophobic tendencies to better represent his client. And in The Pelician Brief he proved a plausible love interest to Julia Roberts’ lead character in a John Grisham potboiler about a law paper which uncovers a secret government assassination plot.
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Whether you love him or hate him, it seems as though Tyler Perry is the only game in town these days when to comes to movies targeted specifically at black audiences.
His melodrama Temptation is set to hit theaters this weekend and will surely do big business, but will its success be a tribute to Perry’s popularity or largely a reflection of a minority movie-going audience that feels underrepresented and under-served?
Director Spike Lee, who once averaged about one film per year, has become far less prolific in lately. And his colleagues like John Singleton and the Hughes Brothers have transitioned from making epic urban films to helming big budget genre pictures with multiracial casts.
What is a “black film”?
Meanwhile the definition of a ‘black film’ has grown more fluid in the age of Obama.
It’s now no longer groundbreaking for an African-American A-lister like Denzel Washington or Halle Berry to anchor a film by themselves. And while the smash hit Django Unchained touched on distinctly black themes with a bevy of African-American stars, its appeal was broader because it reflected the vision of its white director, Quentin Tarantino.
Just twenty years ago, the multiplexes presented a very different picture of black Hollywood.
There were a variety of choices for black film fans: There were star vehicles (Sister Act 2, Philadelphia, The Pelican Brief), biopics (What’s Love Got to Do With It), comedies (CB4, Cool Runnings), action (Demolition Man) and hard-hitting dramas (Poetic Justice, Menace II Society).
In comparison, last year there was the romantic comedy Think Like a Man, the WWII drama Red Tails, and three different Tyler Perry vehicles. Perhaps it’s no wonder that black audiences are frequently nostalgic for the 90s.