Monday, January 21, 2008

The Great American Debater/Gangster

Denzel Washington has talent that draws you to whatever he does. I recently saw The Great Debaters, which he directed as well. I declined an invitation to see American Gangster, for similar reasons. I still remember the haunting feeling that lingered with me for days after I watch him as a corrupt cop in Training Day, for which he won an Oscar. He is too good sometimes.

I was surprised, but not really, to see that Gangster was a box office hit, as was Training Day, while Debaters, has been a financial disappointment, some would say flop. Its financial woes follows similar historically significant films about blacks, like Rosewood and Ali, whose big name stars still delivered empty seats. I am left to wonder why blacks, as disproportionate moviegoers, fail to patronize uplifting films about themselves.

With the continuing complaints in the black community about Hollywood’s negative depiction of blacks, you would think that the group would turn out in droves to support Mr. Washington and Oprah Winfrey, one of the Debaters producers. But no such luck. Even movies like Akeelah and the Bee, about a black spelling bee champion, become financial successes largely on their crossover appeal to white audiences.

The question for blacks to mull over is why movies like these have to be philanthropic adventures, instead of solid draws to blacks. Black audiences need these sorts of stories in the worst way, yet they fail to support them. How easy or difficult will it now be for Washington to direct another film, minus foul language, bullet-ridden bodies, and booty-calls up the ying-yang.

I have nothing against American Gangster and its ilk, but blacks really need to step up and support black film makers who fight to make films that depict the group accurately and positively. Lacking this support, the group has no one to blame when our young people choose to emulate criminals and bottom-feeders. My kids can see Debaters as many times as they want and I will buy it on video as well, because for every big name star who has to beg the patronage of their own people, hundreds of unknown black filmmakers, with inspiring stories to tell, never get heard at all.

James C. Collier


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Anonymous said...

I agree to some extent, but as usual with topics like these, you over simplify.

These types of sappy, "inspirational" films are rarely box office hits, no matter what the ethnicity of the cast. A movie about a debate team isn't going to start a stampede to the box office. And not all "gangsta" flicks are hits either.

Sometimes movies (like Ali) simply aren't that good. Will Smith was great in that movie, but the movie itself was boring and overly long.

And you conveniently overlook Tyler Perry's recent hits with movies with a more positive (if cartoonish) stories about blacks.

I believe you're trying to superimpose your view of too many blacks loving the "thug" image onto the movie-going habits of people and woefully missed the mark. You can't judge a person's entire personality by what movies they do or don't attend.

I disagree with supporting black filmmakers (or blacks in any field) "just because". I agree with supporting blacks that produce excellence. Thank God that some of our directors have moved away from the "hood" and "hood comdey" genres. But that doesn't mean that every movie made by a black director should automatically be appealing to a black audience. Movies about spelling bees and debate clubs were never MEANT to be huge hits and are lucky to be made at all.

But again, I dig what you're trying to say. There are lots of black films that made no money that I love like Eve's Bayou, The Brother, The Best Man, Love Jones, etc. But I also want to see black directors that don't feel obligated to make "black" films. I a director doesn't show that they can make ANY kind of movie, how can they make any headway in the industry? Where would Spielberg be if every movie he made was about the Jewish community.

F. Gary Gray, Antoine Fuqua and even Spike Lee has started to figure this out. When Spike started, there was an overbearing NEED to have move movies with black casts and stories. But now, why can't a black director make a historical drama? A sci-fi epic? A muder mystery? A Romantic comedy? Why does his or her race confine them to just "black" movies?

Eh, I could go on and on with this topic.

James C. Collier said...

I appreciate your comments and agree that (my) blogs are often too simple, either because of blogger or space limitations. I am no critic, and tend to look at movies through the eyes of my teenagers. They loved both Debaters and Gangster. I just hope more (and better) uplifting films for them get made, and for that to happen they need to make money, against whatever benchmark applies. Thanks.

Anonymous said...

I agree. More uplifting films ARE needed. But creating a box office hit is a rare thing and unfortunately, people like certain types of movies. Action, comedy, dramas with big stars in lead roles (like American Gangster, a really good movie).

Movies like the great debaters rarely are hits and that has nothing to do with it being a black movie.

I think a well-made movie about the life Martin Luther King Jr. will be a big hit. Hell, Malcolm X made pretty good money at the box office with pretty much ZERO television advertising.

Remember, movies are for ENTERTAINMENT and they have to appeal to a broad audience. One demographic alone (like Afro-Americans) won't push a movie to hit status (there are very rare cases of this like Waiting to Exhale and Madea's Family Reunion), but if a movie doesn't have widespread appeal, box office dollars will be light.

But I hope good movies like The Great Debaters and Akeelah the Bee continue to get made.

Anonymous said...

I was a debater in high school. It was fun, I got to travel a lot. I loved it. I would not dream of seeing a movie about debating.

So the black kids overcome odds. Nice. It's still debating.

The Godfather glorified a caucasian subculture. Very poplular. I saw it while I was in the army. The theater was racially mixed and everyone was cheering the good guys (the Coreleones) as they murdered the bad guys. I was a little disturbed by that.

The Gangster and the Godfather, your countrymen of whatever hue like those plots.

I am surprised Ali did not do well. Pity he never got to fight Max Baer.

Anonymous said...

I personally don't see black films that often because they're too often about black men. And black men have either been pounding black women into the ground cinematically, musically, and on television; or simply ignoring them. The African American male voice screams and demands, and yet does more harm to the image of black women and girls, than a lot of contemporary white filmmakers. Spike Lee raped a woman in 'She's Gotta Have It', and hasn't ever stopped stomping women down. He's shameless.

Conversely, Charles Burnett is a wonderful African American filmmaker, with great story-telling game to go with it. Ousmane Sembene was another great black filmmaker, whose work I'd see in a heartbeat-- he's Senegalese. I'd see anything either did. But they are grievously in a very minute minority.

With that in mind, I don't see why you would categorize 'black people' as being unsupportive of African American cinema, when it's actually positive that we don't see a lot of it. I will see The Great debaters. But it's not because a black male filmmaker did it. It's because Oprah and Denzel did it, and Melvin B. Tolson is one of my favorite poets. It's not on the basis of some mythical racial solidarity, that is so one-sided that it only considers one half of that very complicated world.

Sleeperwithheavyeyes said...

I agree completely. Unless you're Oprah most movie producers cannot afford to make a movie that won't make money. All to often African American's complain about the lack of positive images and then don't support them financially. This extends to television, music, and literature as well. If artist like Mos Def sold like 50 Cent, there would be more positive artist. I hope that the next time someone wants to rant about negative images in Hollywood, they remember The Debaters and its lack of African American support.

Anonymous said...

Here's another angle:

Black folks are a diverse group. There are Black people who enjoy and support movies like The Great Debaters. However, they represent a small niche within the larger Black community.

For these movies to be financially profitable they must market themselves beyond that small, core Black audience.

Anonymous said...

Exactly. I can't stand this "we must all think alike" mentality.

And I love Mos Def. And I agree the 50 Cent's music isn't as good. But white kids love the thug image right now. And 50 Cent has way more marketing behind it than Mos Def.

Again, this is all over-simplification and using The Great Debaters as an example is just off. I don't care if the movie starred Will Smith, Tom Cruise and Julia Roberts. A movie about a debate team has long odds agains being a hit.

But more movies that show us in a good light need to be made. I went to a movie with a white friend when the trailer for "Who's Your Caddy" came on and I sunk down deep into my chair.

Anonymous said...

I saw Debaters, Akeelah and the Bee, Training Day and the first Denzel directed film, Antwoine Fisher and many other "Black" inspired or character based films. Some are good. Some are bad. I liked all the films I mentioned above. It comes down to what are your personal tastes.

I didn't go see American Gangsters because I decided to wait until it comes on the movie channel. I made the decision that I didn't need to spend money at the theatre to support another film where a Black man is portrayed as a drug dealer and a killer.

the poet Shazza said...

You look at the following factors:

1.The movie was on the Internet before it was release so there a lot of Bootleg copies floating around out there. Take it up with China and Korea.
2. NOT EVERYONE IS BIG ON OPRAH and they will not flock to an OPRAH produced film no matter who is in it. She's great television, she is out of her league when it comes to doing film.
3. The way it was promoted was TOO PREACHY. No one wants to pay money to be PREACHED TO. ESPECIALLY around Christmas. Inspired YES, Preached, No. No matter how many Oprah shows he pulled off to promote the film, it wasn't going to fly from the start.
4. Debating (and I use to Debate in High-School) isn't something I'd want to go see. And if I don't want to see it (and I love a good formal debate even the dry dull ones on CSpan) what makes you think you'll l get a mass number of Black Folk who think debating = Arguing.
5. Timing was BAD. Actually it was poor. My Opinion .. someone was gaming on getting it released so it can make a best picture nomination rather than waiting for a Spring release when people have more money and interest.
5. As for American Gangsters? Didn't see it. Didn't want to see it. And if I had a choice to see that or a picture with NO BLACK people in it at all ... based on the subject matter of American Gangsters ... I would and did pass on it for something more entertaining. (My Opinion).

Anonymous said...

Black folks are a diverse group. There are Black people who enjoy and support movies like The Great Debaters. However, they represent a small niche within the larger Black community.

And even those who talk about wanting something like The Great Debaters don't go see it.

There is some talking out of both sides of the mouth.

SLDC said...

"I am left to wonder why blacks, as disproportionate moviegoers, fail to patronize uplifting films about themselves."

My response: Because blacks have collective lowe self-esteem and self-hate issues.

I saw Debaters and thoroughly enjoyed it and will get the DVD when it comes out as well. Denzel and the 3 young stars promoted the movie a lot - he was on Letterman and they were all on Oprah and the 3 young stars were on Tavis Smiley so people couldn't say that they didn't know about it.

Here in Toronto, Canada, the movie opened only at 1 theatre. Then after about 2-3 weeks it opened in 2 more theatres where more blacks lived. When I saw it, the movie theatre was packed. I don't understand why it didn't open in wide release here in this urban city. American Gangster did.