One of the speakers at the MMI Film Critic Institute was Esther Iverem, whose thoughtful and incisive new book is We Gotta Have It: Twenty Years of Seeing Black at the Movies, 1986-2006.
Ms. Iverem answered some questions about the book in an email interview:
The title of your book refers to a movie that you call a major turning point in the portrayals of black characters in film, Spike Lee's She's Gotta Have It. When you were growing up, were there any moments in film or television that felt memorably valid for you?
My favorite childhood film and TV moments probably come from the TV show Julia and the movie Claudine. I remember thinking that they actually showed something vaguely resembling Black life as I knew it—families, people with jobs, children with a life of imagination or mischief.
I also grew up during the so-called Blaxploitation era in film and, even though I shouldn’t have seen those films at that age, I did see a lot of them. I don’t even know if the current ratings standards existed then. Like, I wonder now, how exactly did I get in to see a “Dolemite” movie? I don’t know if, at the time, I thought of any of these movies as valid beyond the fact that it was exciting to actually see Black people on the big screen. There weren’t a lot of Black movies before this time and I thought that most of the media, including television and the newspapers in my native Philadelphia , depicted Black people in a very negative light. Even though the drug dealers, pimps and assorted criminal characters of the Blaxploitation era were not “positive,” I was so starved and fascinated to see Blacks on the screen that these characters, sadly, became Black screen “heroes” because they were usually depicted with some backbone and moxey.
"She's Gotta Have It" was a breakthrough not just in its portrayal of black characters but in its portrayal of a central female character who was strong, independent, and unabashedly sexual. Yet your book suggests that even the limited and conflicted successes in the broader and more authentic portrayal of black characters has too often overlooked the reality of women's stories. Why do you think that is?
That reality is overlooked because most of the filmmakers are men, most of the main characters are men and most of the stories revolve around male themes and a male point of view. I absolutely love the work of Ousmane Sembene for subverting this “dominant paradigm” and appreciate Tyler Perry for the same reason. To a lesser extent, the same problem exists outside the “Black” community of films but I think that a hyper machismo exists in Black film because of the influence of hip hop, a seemingly insatiable need to counter the historic image of the servile darkie and because I think hyper machismo or clowning is all the studios want to see from Black men. Also, Black films are still considered “Black” films as opposed to just films, and I think Black men are still considered the proper representatives of the race, as opposed to Black women.
Why is it so important to "return the gaze?" What does that mean?
The “gaze” is an idea I picked up while studying critical theory on an arts journalism fellowship in the 90’s. Part of our post-colonial existence means that the former colonizers (Whites) give themselves the power to gaze at, depict and frame the former colonized, in this case, people of African descent. By returning that gaze, we empower ourselves to recognize that gaze, as well as name and critique how we are depicted and framed. I feel I take on this task with most films from Hollywood , even those that might star a Black actor, or include a Black producer, etc.
You cover a stunning array of films in the book. Are there two or three neglected gems that you wish everyone could see?
The epilogue of the book includes a sampling of films that you describe: Sidewalk Stories, Rosewood, One Week, The Visit, Simeon, Unprecedented, Meteor Man, Paid in Full, La Tropical and Beah: A Black Woman Speaks.
How do you feel about Ice Cube, who began as an insistent voice of protest and now makes films like Friday After Next and Are We Done Yet?
Wow, that’s a complex question that I’ll try to simplify. First of all, I disagree that Ice Cube began as an insistent voice of protest. I think he began as a voice of anger and, with the important exception of hating the police, seldom was that anger directed at the larger economic, government and social structures that create inequality, racism and ghetto conditions. His album, Death Certificate, was a departure from West Coast thuggery. Rappers of his era that did raise that protest voice, such as Chuck D and Arrested Development, were actually squashed in favor the West Coast “gangsta rap” rap style, personified by Cube, which, by the way, first heavily pushed calling Black women bitches and hos.
I think his image, his mad face, was commoditized and conveniently used by Hollywood, in the beginning, to insert the energy of a nouveau angry Black man and, now, is used now to show that the young, angry Black man can be tamed and made fuzzy for seemingly family-friendly comedies (that depict Black children acting like no Black children I know. )
Of all Cube’s movies, I liked All About the Benjamins best. And even though it was dissed by most White critics, I liked XXX: State of the Union for its willingness to be skeptical and critical of the U.S. government. But I think Cube is mainly about getting paid, first with rap and now with movies. I haven’t seen anything from him that makes me want to take him seriously as an artist, visionary or thinker.
Who in Hollywood is doing the most interesting work now?
I don’t watch the entire industry closely enough to offer an overview. Of the films I have watched and reviewed, I am still most interested in what is coming from the independent film community, though some studio productions have been impressive. I am drawn to movies that have something important to say about the world and that, in this time of illusion and doublespeak, tell is like it is. These were my favorite films from 2006, which are also listed in the book’s epilogue: When the Levees Broke: A Requiem in Four Acts, Catch a Fire, The Pursuit of Happyness, Apocalypto, Bobby, CSA: The Confederate States of America, Glory Road, Akeelah and the Bee, Yesterday, Waist Deep and An Inconvenient Truth. In addition to being in We Gotta Have It, these reviews are also posted at www.SeeingBlack.com.
She will be appearing this Saturday at a book signing.
Host: SeeingBlack.com and Busboys and Poets
Location: Busboys and Poets, The Langston Room
2021 14th St, NW, at V Street, Washington, DC
When: Saturday, May 12, 4:00pm
Phone: 202-285-1841 info. 202-387-7638 Busboys