When Star Wars director George Lucas tried to get funding for his film Red Tails, about the Tuskegee Airmen, “they said no,” he said. Because the movie had an all-black cast, executives told Lucas, “we don’t know how to market a movie like this.”
Of the more than 600 major Hollywood films released since 2007, less than 7 percent had black directors. Around 10 percent of speaking roles went to nonwhite actors, but for films with a black director, 40 percent of characters with speaking roles were minorities, according to a study released this week by the Annenberg School for Communication & Journalism at the University of Southern California.
The racial makeup of the United States is rapidly changing. White people could be a minority within three decades. “If popular films were the only way to gauge diversity, viewers would be completely unaware of this. Individuals from this group are almost invisible on-screen,” said Marc Choueiti, one of the study’s authors.
Even when minorities and their lives are the subject of a film, representations of race can be disappointing. Many people have criticized director Cynthia Mort for casting Zoe Saldana in the upcoming Nina Simone biopic because Saldana, whose parents are from the Dominican Republic and Puerto Rico, has much lighter skin than Simone did.
Whether or not it’s true that casting a black or Latino lead will make a film less successful, it’s certainly the case that not casting minorities will ensure that they continue to seem out of place in leading roles.
The real loss here is that diversity improves quality. Those people who go to the movies to encounter different lives and experiences, to hear stories that are both surprising and real, are cheated when every big-budget movie represents the same narrow swath of the population.
Here are some insightful, moving, and yes, successful films made by black directors—blockbusters and cult classics—that deliver social critique through engaging stories and compelling characters.
John Singleton, Boyz n the Hood
Almost 25 years after its release, the movie is a heartbreaking flashback to the early 1990s. When Tre Styles has trouble at school, his mother, played by Angela Bassett, sends him to live with his dad in South Central L.A. The film offers a nuanced depiction of gang violence and life in South Central that’s gut-wrenching without being gratuitous.
The youngest director ever nominated for an Academy Award, Singleton has been a harsh critic of racism in Hollywood. This March, at Loyola Marymount University in L.A., he railed against the industry for not hiring black directors to tell black stories.
“They want black people [to be] what they want them to be. And nobody is man enough to go and say that,” he said. “The black films now—so-called black films now—they’re great. They’re great films. But they’re just product.”
Steve McQueen, 12 Years a Slave
The film that made pretty much everyone cry in the theater is the reason many people argued black film had a pretty good year in 2013. It didn’t—only seven of the 107 films of 2013 in the USC study were made by black directors, and in Italy promotional material for 12 Years a Slave emphasized Brad Pitt’s role though he doesn’t show up until the final 20 minutes. Still, the success of this gripping, brutal movie was remarkable and deserved.
McQueen, who is the son of West Indian immigrants and grew up in London, has pushed audiences to face the painful, brutal history of slavery. “We can deal with the Second World War and the Holocaust and so forth and what not, but this side of history, maybe because it was so hideous, people just do not want to see. People do not want to engage,” he said during an interview with The Guardian.
Cheryl Dunye, Watermelon Woman
In the 1996 movie Watermelon Woman, Dunye is a video store clerk and aspiring filmmaker who has become obsessed with an actor in black-and-white plantation films credited only as “the watermelon woman.” With her camera and her best friend she goes on a quest to uncover the woman’s story.
Part mockumentary, part film history, Watermelon Woman delves into the rich, exciting lives of gay and lesbian African Americans in the middle of the 20th century. The film’s structure is imaginative, and Dunye’s depiction of interracial relationships is unapologetically complicated.
Spike Lee, Do the Right Thing
The most high-profile black filmmaker in America is also one of the most prolific and controversial. Do the Right Thing was released in the summer of 1989, the same year that Driving Miss Daisy—a film about an elderly white woman’s friendship with her black driver, played by Morgan Freeman—won the Academy Award for best picture.
In 2008, Lee told New York magazine that when Driving Miss Daisy won, “that hurt,” but in the end, Lee’s film was the one with staying power. “No one’s talking about Driving Miss Daisy now.”