I was forced a laugh after being faced with this issue recently: why aren’t there more black directors directing mainstream Hollywood pictures? Is it a rhetorical question? Probably. But it’s also one that we as filmmakers and producers don’t like facing because the answers are always inadequate.
Some facts: among the 200 top-grossing films of 2011 approximately five where helmed by black directors, and only two among those were produced by studios (in fact, these films were the result of the long-tail deals to the niche market arms of studios like Lionsgate, which funds all the Tyler Perry films). Does Hollywood consider black directors a less safe choice?
In 2012 filmmaker Daniel Espinosa was given $85 million to direct “Safe House,” starring Denzel Washington. Ryan Reynolds, who had one feature made in Sweden to his name, got attached to the project. Why would a first-time (by Hollywood standards) director be handed the keys to the sound stage when more experienced directors like John Singleton, F. Gary Gray or the Hughes brothers, all of them African-American directors with more experience and more box office mojo, be passed over for the director job?
The solution is deeply rooted in American culture, not just Hollywood. As a black man, however, addressing the issue without sounding like you’re playing the race card is a tightrope act. But, there it is: race comes into play at every stratum of American society, not just in the movie theatre. Being of British and African descent I cannot stake a claim to the struggles of African-Americans. Every professor I had in film school would incessantly reference Spike Lee or John Singleton, under the assumption that I would no doubt relate, that we’d find some common ground. The irony is that I never cared for Spike Lee’s films; among black filmmakers, Gordon Parks was it for me.
Later, I discovered that the same short-sighted mentality translated to the studio, as well. Most executives are not even aware of black directors, and those who are are expected to make black—otherwise known as “niche”—films, not tentpoles. When a black blockbuster with African-Americans stars and a traditional African-American narrative gets greenlit, black directors aren’t considered for the post.
Case in point: Variety announced last year that a remake of “Uptown Saturday night” (the original which starred Sidney Poitier and Bill Cosby was also directed by Sidney Poitier) starring Denzel Washington and Will Smith was in development and was being championed by Will Smith.
Most people who’ve seen the original know that “Uptown” would qualify as a classic black film. When it comes to the A-list remake, however, the writers who were hired to write are Mark and Rob Cullen (“Cop out”), only to be eventually replaced by Tim Dowling (“This means war”). Adam McKay was tapped for directing.
Anyone who Googles these guys’ dodgy writing and filmographies could in all likelihood raise the question, why hire them to write and direct “Uptown Saturday Night” when there are more accomplished black screenwriters and directors available? For instance, Scott Sanders (featured image; “Thick as thieves,” “Black dynamite”) who has shown a talent for this particular genre, ie., blaxploitation comedy, happens to be black (“Black Dynamite” premiered at the 2009 Sundance Film Festival and was picked up for distribution by Sony Pictures Entertainment for worldwide distribution).
Better-qualified black directors will continue to be shunned for their under-qualified white counterparts by the establishment, with an exception: Tyler Perry. Yes, you could argue that the Tyler Perry brand brings people to the theatres, but it’s a nichey product. Outside of his brand he is not a draw, as was exemplified by the B.O. returns for “Alex Cross.”
Even though it wasn’t directed by Tyler Perry, the film was reliant on the Tyler Perry brand for box office draw, because of his proven audience. And when “Alex Cross” tanked at the box office, all it did was prove that Tyler Perry was a niche product that only makes an impact within his brand’s segment.
So until the big studios concede that black directors with the name recognition as a director to sell tickets they will continue to overlook black directors for mainstream films. The only thing that can change this in my opinion would be a black Michael Mann, a black Michael Bay, a black Ridley Scott in essence someone whose name they feel will put butts in seats at theatres.
Recently Antoine Fuqua directed “Olympus has fallen.” The print ads stated “from the director of ‘training day.’ This is significant: the people in the marketing department must’ve been at a loss because “Training day” was never a film that was known for its directing–it existed on the strength of Denzel Washington’s coming-out performance as vilain. Trying to sell a big-budget action film with the tagline that references a prior film with no stylistic ties shows a serious disconnect. If one wanted to sell “Olympus has fallen” on the merits of its director, what it should have said was, “from the director of ‘The replacement killers.’”
Sean Davis is a New York-based film director.