Independents. They're films financed by somebody other than the major studios.
Independence. That's what a filmmaker hopes to get when he shoots an independent.
Spike Lee and Robert Townsend are two directors who decided to put their money where their mouths—and cameras—were. The results, in She's Gotta Have It (1986) and Hollywood Shuffle (1987), represent a measure of cinematic autonomy usually absent in the homogeneous mediocrity churned out by Hollywood's boardroom method of moviemaking. Though neither film is an auteurist masterpiece, both exhibit an indelible individuality, a personal investment by their creators. Literally.
Lee and Townsend scraped together the necessary funds for their respective projects by tapping family, friends, and personal savings. Townsend's financial ingenuity and nerve is particularly exciting, the stuff of capitalist lore: He subsidized a large portion of Shuffle's budget through liberal use of his credit cards, gambling that his film would be successful enough to retire the huge debts he was accruing. It worked.
But more important than the nontraditional capitalization, meager budgets (both around $300,000), and requisite spirit it took to get She's Gotta Have It and Hollywood Shuffle into American theaters, is that these films are about blacks, by blacks. In two consecutive years, independent, black directors have had the desire, the audacity, the sheer will to ensure that their visions made it to the screen. And though it would be presumptuous to call these movies the precursors of "The Black School" of filmmaking, each has an undeniably black sensibility, a wisdom about black life in this country that few films made by whites (A Soldier's Story, perhaps) come close to capturing. Sure, "Beverly Hills Slop" and others of its ilk featured a black lead—exploiting his supposed "street smarts" to outwit the dimwitted and generally uncool Caucasians; The Color Purple tried to tell a black woman's moving story but was undermined by Steven Spielberg's "white bread" perspective; and, of course, black actors have been seen frequently in American films—as pimps, muggers, and informants. What's revolutionary, then, about She's Gotta Have It and Hollywood Shuffle isn't their cinematic flourishes or anything so artsy; it's that both films elevate blacks from supporting players, stereotypical caricatures, and fast talking liars to people, people who are interesting and challenging enough to earn our attention, sympathy, and enthusiasm.
Lee and Townsend take largely different, yet not antithetical, approaches in their quests for cinematic dignity. She's Gotta Have It could very well be about whites, except it's not. The atmosphere is decidedly middle-class Brooklyn. "She" is Nola Darling, "it" is sex. Nola has three boyfriends; none want to share her, all must. The narrative traces Nola's sex-loving, free-spirited relationships with her ardent admirers, a trio of types. Two of the characters' personalities are derived not from race but from larger generalities: one's a stuffy intellectual, the other a narcissistic stud; we could recognize these guys in any color. The third suitor, however, is unmistakably Black. Speaking in the rhythm and vernacular of rap music, sporting oversized, lensless glasses and enormous gold necklace/nameplate, Mars Blackmon (Lee gives him an overtly symbolic name) is a cartoon enlargement of every urban "flyboy" you've seen toting a suitcase-sized boom-box.
As played by Lee himself, Mars is a deadly accurate parody of a black stereotype. The director's method of satire is familiar yet effective: take easily recognizable elements of character and inflate them to absurd proportions for sublimely comic effect. And it's the comedy that we remember about Mars, not his racial significance. Thus the focus of Lee's work remains blacks on film instead of "Film on Blacks: Their Condition in Modern America." She's Gotta Have It is far more concerned with eroticism and feminism than racism. That the entire east is black is political enough.
Townsend is more direct in his assault on establishment (read: white) values, especially Hollywood's attitude toward blacks. Dissatisfied with the mire of humiliating roles open to black actors, Townsend wrote Hollywood Shuffle as a vehicle for his considerable comic talents. In it he plays the autobiographical Bobby Taylor, an earnest young actor looking for a worthwhile forum for his talents who, nevertheless, is relegated to pimpdom. Though Bobby's staunchly middle-class family disapproves of his moral compromise—his grandmother reminds him that there's honest work to be had at the post office—Bobby settles for what's apparently the only game in town for a black actor. Confronted with the bleak reality of crotch-grabbing and solecisms, Bobby/Townsend takes refuge in a fantasy world where blacks are the stars of the show.
Although Townsend's acting goals seem confused—he dreams of playing "Rambro: First Young Blood" and "Superman," hardly the ultimate tests of a thespian's craft—his sense of satire is brutally acute. His uproarious parodies include a school for black actors trained by white teachers in the compulsory skills of servantry and thievery and "Sneakin' in the Movies," a recasting of Siskel and Ebert with two "brothers" who dismiss Amadeus as highfalutin "bullshit" with a nonchalant flick of the wrist. Townsend also has short sketches about television sit-coms and fast-food employment, a devastating Eddie Murphy imitation, and a send-up of private-eye movies with black detectives, black ingenues, and black bad guys that gives film noir a new meaning. These vignettes are priceless.
Townsend's sermons are less successful. When the author/director gives his characters preachy monologues that promote integrity, self-assurance, and dedication, Hollywood Shuffle loses its comic momentum and dissolves into a morality play. Townsend's parodies are powerful enough on their own merits; they don't need to be underscored by a somber explanation of "what happens to a dream deferred." The movie actually closes with a rap song that begins: "And the moral of the story is…"
Momentary lapses of self-restraint aside, Townsend's film is a finely gauged blast of rage. It's subversive; while we are laughing at Townsend's exquisite sense of the absurd, black myths systematically explode; The director draws us into a make-believe world where blacks find gainful employment in a movie called Attack of the Killer Pimps, and then we realize it's not so make believe after all.
The screening I attended was packed. The nearly all-white audience laughed from start to finish. But as Townsend has pointed out in many interviews, we were also witnessing the first—and probably last—time a black man would kiss a black woman on-screen this year. Last year that momentous occasion occurred in, of course, She's Gotta Have It.
What's admirable about Lee and Townsend is that instead of merely bemoaning the dearth of black films, these mavericks acted on their convictions and made two brave, irreverent movies. If nothing else, they've succeeded in creating positive, better images of black Americans. Images of a beautiful black woman being pursued by infatuated suitors rather than a violent pimp; images of a black actor playing Rambo instead of Sambo.
Now it's Nola Darling and Bobby Taylor instead of Al Jolson and Stepin Fetchit. There's nothing like a little independence.
A 1987 Chemical Bank Scholar in the Arts, Michael Konik lives in New York City, where he writes about theater for the Village Voice.
This article originally appeared in print under the headline "Life & Liberty: The Soul of Independence".