ARTICLE: Five films that shaped young black America in the ’90’s

This article kindly contributed by Dax-Devlon Ross.

Growing up we were latch-key kids. When we got home from school we had free reign to do whatever we pleased. We threw our backpacks into the closet, opened the fridge, turned on the television and let the day unravel. We flipped between BET €™s Rap City, Yo!MTV Raps and Video Jukebox. We called girls and nuked popcorn. Played Mike Tyson €™s Punchout, Double Dribble and Tecmo Bowl. And then Come Fly With Me came into our lives.

Come Fly With Me

As far as we were concerned Come Fly With Me set a new standard for cinema. By €˜89, €˜90 Michael Jordan was the undisputed HNIC (Head Nigga In Charge). He hadn €™t won a ring yet, but he €™d captured the imagination of every kid, in every playground, in every corner of the world. We didn €™t know or care then that he was quickly becoming the most prolific exporter of the new global capitalism. We just knew he could fly, and we couldn €™t get enough of seeing him do it. He blended Dr. J €™s sweeping grace with Magic €™s improvisational artistry to create something entirely new, something that has yet to be surpassed. We studied Come Fly With Me in each other €™s basements like it was homework. We €™d stop the tape, rewind it, fast forward it, pause it in the middle of the famous foul line dunk and just go crazy. €œDo you see this? This is insane! The man is flying through the air! And it €™s so pretty. So pretty. €

What really made Come Fly With Me so special and put it outside of a simple highlight reel or sports video was that it had a story, an arc. Michael Jordan had experienced adversity. He €™d been cut from his high school basketball team in tenth grade. No one had expected him to be a star at North Carolina. He €™d broken his leg his second year in the league. There were still many who doubted he €™d ever win a championship. It was a story straight out of Joseph Campbell €™s Hero With a Thousand Faces via Luke Skywalker. That, I believe, is what we were all relating to beneath the surface of our collective awe. The greatest player to ever lace up a pair of basketball shoes (as far as we knew or cared to know at least) wasn €™t the product of mere divine ordination. He was born poor in Brooklyn, arisen from a modest background in North Carolina, played on a dusty backyard hoop as a teenager and experienced life €™s struggles as we all have. What we didn €™t realize, or even care about, was that as dark as he was, as definitively black as he was, MJ belonged to America first and foremost. Being that exceptional made him part of America €™s Master Narrative, the canon of greatness usually reserved for white men. We naively thought we could be him if we just practiced really hard… and had a growth spurt!!! It never crossed our minds that we were being sold a false bill of goods until we were introduced to Arthur Agee and William Gates four years later in Hoop Dreams. Watching their dreams fade faster than MJ €™s hairline made us realize how dangerous all of those hours of dreaming we could one day fly like Mike would be if we didn €™t pack a parachute

Malcolm X

None of us ever owned Malcolm X on video, but when it came out in 1992 it shaped our ideas of masculinity just as deeply as Come Fly Me had two years earlier. If Jordan was our introduction to aesthetics, then Malcolm X was our introduction consciousness. Spike had given us a taste of black consciousness back in €˜88 with School Daze via Righteous Brother Dap (Lawrence, then Larry, Fishburne) and I can firmly say my reason for not joining a fraternity in college was that film. But Denzel €™s Malcolm took us to a place we €™d never been on the big screen before (and maybe even since). He €™d given us that lone gut-wrenching tear in Glory that eventually won him an Oscar for Best Supporting Actor. But watching the precision with which he carried out each movement, pronounced every syllable gave us all an idea of what excellence means. Denzel did more than channel Malcolm €™s movements or mimic his diction €” he channeled the Zeitgeist, the spirit of a man.

Malcolm X wasn €™t just a movie back in €˜92; it was a movement. From the merchandising of Malcolm; to Spike €™s behind-the-scenes maneuvering to wrestle the movie from a white director, and later rallying black celebrities (including Michael Jordan) to pony-up the dough to get it done; from the still rather rank stench of the Rodney King inspired Los Angeles riots a year earlier; to the sheer epic grandeur of Ernest Dickerson €™s cinematography, and Terrance Blanchard €™s emotive compositions, Malcolm X would have been a movie that was made for its times even without Fight the Power €™s in your face message and TR-808 reverberations. It was nostalgic and yet prescient; commoditized but still civilized. We sat in the front rows of theaters across the country staring up at the man who had for so long been a pariah, and we discovered that we hadn €™t really known or understood him, his story, or ourselves. We discovered the remnants of shame passed down from slavery and uncovered our propensity to apologize for our rage, even when it was warranted. For a brief moment, we were proud of ourselves; indignantly so. We wore our red, black and green medallions, our X hats and put up €œBy Any Means Necessary € posters on our walls. When Spike showed up at the Oscars wearing his kinte cloth we sat in front of our televisions rooting him on like he was Joe Louis stepping into the ring with Rocky Marciano. Then Denzel got shafted and we were all stunned, deflated, confused, ashamed and embarrassed that we €™d once again allowed ourselves to be €œhoodwinked and bamboozled € into believing the system would treat us fairly if we played ball.

Menace II Society

Then, on the disappointing heels of the neo-black consciousness movement Malcolm X had briefly kindled and Public Enemy managed to keep aflame all summer, Menace II Society hit theaters like a Gin and Juice hangover. By 1993, due in part to the social unrest unveiled by the riots, we €™d become obsessed with black ghetto culture in Los Angeles. Ice Cube, NWA and Ice T had exposed us to black L.A. first. Then came Boyz n the Hood, which while important for breaking ground, lacked the stylishness of Menace. On the surface, the movies were very much alike. Both were about a young black man trying to escape the €˜hood for a better life while struggling to affirm his loyalties within his community; a trope we still see being employed in hip-hop culture today. It may be hard to remember, but in the early €˜90s this was still new. NWA wasn €™t rhyming about getting out of the ghetto, it made up their identity and added to their legend. Dr. Dre €™s Chronic and Snoop €™s Doggystyle were virtual blueprints of ghetto glorification. They championed a Machiavellian ethics long before 2pac popularized the 16th century philosopher €™s vision on his first posthumous Killuminati album. Menace differed from its genre predecessors Juice, South Central, and New Jack City who took the ghetto romanticism and amorality presented in rap music and videos put them to task. These films were steeped in moral conundrums that were ultimately resolved conventionally and without challenging the status quo. Everyone got what they deserved in these movies. Sympathetic characters died to set an example or prove a point, the bad guys were either killed or continued to live in hell and the male lead always lived to tell the story.

There are a couple of explanations for this. One is that screenwriters and directors, even black ones, typically come from a different class-background than your average hip-hop artist. Although screenwriters and directors might associate themselves with the cultural experience that typically produces hip-hop (poor and working class urban black culture), they are not, generally speaking, from that experience, which isn €™t in any way to question their €œblackness. € Both Ernest Dickerson and Mario Van Peebles, the directors of Juice and New Jack City respectively, were at least a generation older than the characters their stories focused on and neither was from the same socio-economic background. A clearer example is John Singleton, a distinguished film student at USC when he wrote Boyz, a film that focused on black teenagers living in a South Central ghetto. That detachment from the realities they were depicting affected the way they told their stories as well as the moral message their stories ultimately imparted. In the case of the Hughes Brothers, the directors of Menace, that disconnect ultimately led to a real life confrontation with an angry Tupac, who €™d been dropped from the film €™s lead role allegedly because the Hughes Brothers couldn €™t €œcontrol € him. Allegedly, Tupac assaulted one of the brothers while the other went to call the police. The brothers ultimately pressed charges—an absolute desecration of the code of the streets. Pac wound up spending fifteen days in jail, but the brothers €™ ended up paying a heavier price: their street credibility was all but revoked.

The second reason, not entirely separate, is that while film, like music, is a for-profit industry people typically go to movies with a different set of expectations including an audience €™s need for catharsis. So, at the end of New Jack City Nino Brown (Wesley Snipes) dies because the audience needs him to die, so they go home feeling better about the situation. At the conclusion of Juice, Bishop (Tupac) is killed because he is a mad dog that must be put down. Boyz N The Hood came the closest to depicting a real life situation but even after the audience is put through the ringer with the tragic loss of Ricky (Morris Chestnut) they are given an eye for an eye revenge sequence and the solace in knowing that Tre (Cuba Gooding, Jr.) will get away from the €˜hood leaving Doughboy (Ice Cube) behind.

What separated Menace from these others, besides being an aesthetically sharper film, was its subtraction of moral judgment and focus on realism. Its predecessors hinted at reality but only Menace presented the story in such a way that we could be sympathetic towards an antagonist like O Dog who murders a Korean grocer at point blank range in the opening scene. Menace was the first film that didn €™t decide for us who to like, who to root for, what was right and wrong. There was no Furious Styles (Larry Fishburne) to guide Caine. He didn €™t even have a mother he could rely on. He was on his own and in the end he died while O Dog lived. You didn €™t have to live in LA or be able to write an essay on realism in cinema to know that Menace was the Truth. As despairing and as dangerously nihilistic as it was, we watched the movie over and over and over again because we were in search of the real, and Menace was the closest we €™d come to it. Caine may have thought he found a way out and we had been conditioned to believe him. So imagine the audience €™s surprise when Caine is the one bleeding to death on the front lawn while O Dog would be the one to live on. Menace killed the escape hatch happy ending and unknowingly gave us a primer for comprehending the senseless and unsolved assassinations of 2Pac and BIG later that decade.

By the mid-90s we were hungry for escapism. We €™d been tugged to the extremes of neo-black nationalism by a string of Spike Lee movies and Self-Destruction era hip-hop on one end, and to the margins of self-annihilation and existential ambivalence by a new wave of blaxploitation gangster flicks and gang banging records on the left coast. With the release of muddled pap like Poetic Justice, the insufferable predictability of movies like Above the Rim, and the sudden turn from ghetto drama to ghetto comedy (see Friday), we started digging in the video store crates for films from decades earlier like Black Caesar, Superfly, and Shaft. Just as OutKast €™s first single, Playa €™s Ball, was hitting the airwaves and rappers like the GZA were making direct references to the blaxploitation era ( €œLike the Mack and Dolomite who both did bids €), a new generation of kids found themselves memorizing entire scenes from The Mack, our own, undisputed, unabridged blaxploitation bible.

The Mack

The Mack stood head and shoulders above its contemporaries. The film was extremely quotable. €œYou know the name game, yo bitch chose me € and, €œGet me my money € were two of many lines we began spontaneously slinging at one another between sips of St. Ides and tokes of chronic. More significant perhaps, in terms of what made an impact, was a certain reluctance we sensed in the main character, Goldie. Goldie is a man who is principally driven by something within rather than by the desire for power. He is of course as vulnerable as anyone else to power €™s corrupting influence, but he doesn €™t get into the pimping game in order to dominate others. He gets into it because that €™s what €™s available to him, as a way to get out and change his life for the better. People are drawn to him because they sense his heroic potential beneath his tortured soul. What made Goldie ours was, in fact, his contradictory behavior, which to an extent reflected hip-hop as a culture and rap artists as individuals and partly explained Snoop €™s fascination with him. Because he had this charisma, this charm, he was more or less thrust into the limelight. He was forced to learn how to lead on the job even while he wasn €™t sure if he was right for the job or if the job was right for him. Shaft lacked this complicated interior life as did Superfly and Black Caeser. They were essentially two-dimensional archetypes. For better or worse, these characters were at peace with themselves and were clear about their mission and enemies. People admired them as symbols of black rage because of their uncompromising masculinity. Superfly might €™ve wanted to get out of the drug game but only because he was concerned about his own fate, not because he was ambivalent. Goldie, on the other hand, is the People €™s Pimp rolling around town doling out money to little kids precisely because he €™s ambivalent about his role in the community. Another way to think about it is this: While the other heroes merely want to get even, Goldie, by the end of The Mack wants to get right and that made him human enough for us to see part of ourselves in him.

Love Jones

Love Jones signaled a transformation for all of us into a new stage of our maturity. The movie €™s stars, Nia Long and Larenz Tate, were at that point solely identified with the ghetto dramas of the early nineties, and for them as actors Love Jones was a turning point as well. Able to stretch out past hood tales of guns and drugs, we got to see actors playing people we actually knew and while we may not have talked about it or quoted from it ad nauseum, we were nevertheless drawn to it and quietly proud of it. Here, finally, was a movie about black people that wasn €™t self-consciously concerned with being about black people; a movie about upwardly mobile young black folks that wasn €™t fraught with all of the pretentious bourgeois B.S. (color complexes, excessive careerism and obsequiousness) that made us cringe at the thought of being associated with the Black middle-class. Here, at last, was a film that grappled with the matters of the heart tastefully and honestly. By €˜97 we had all fallen in love at least once and had experienced our share of heartbreak. Love Jones, through its understated score (which set a new standard for movie soundtracks), blues-inspired cinematography (shot mostly at night, on the street, in dimly lit clubs or in the rain), and attractive, talented cast showed us what black love really looked like. Soul Food, which came out that same year, was structured around all of the archetypal social and familial issues facing the pre-millennial African-American family and while it was a good movie, because it dealt with so many principal characters and tried to deal with too many issues, it was forced to follow a predictable and relatively shallow plotline that left too many questions unanswered or falsely resolved. Love Jones was something altogether different, even risky. Darius (Tate) was a writer and not as is usually typical in films involving upwardly mobile blacks, an up-and-coming enterpriser, jock or advertising exec. By the same token Nina (Long) wasn €™t a super-busy corporate sensation running off to €œwork € in a mini-skirt. She €™s a photographer, and a talented one. The film was set firmly in Chicago rather than New York (or Toronto I should say), L.A. or some characterless urban setting and used the location to its advantage. The film didn €™t cheapen itself for corny laughs or add unnecessary drama, even the love scenes were done tastefully. At a time when most people outside of a few major cities were still resistant to or unaware of the bourgeoning spoken word scene, Love Jones gambled hard by putting café poetry and it €™s equally unpopular musical counterpart, jazz, at the forefront of the film. In the end the risk paid off. We were so ready for a fresh, unadulterated reflection of ourselves that didn €™t involve hate, death, drugs, and despair that we didn €™t even mind Menace €™s O Dog playing a poet.

These days Hollywood seems perfectly content to recycle second-rate movies from the 90’s for a new generation. Freedomwriters is nothing but an updated version of Dangerous Minds just as the trailers for Crossover harkens back to the formula employed to hype Above the Rim a decade ago. There are certainly a number of reasons for this switch-back not the least of which is that as mediocre as those movies were, they made money. Another reason, though, is that after the success of Menace hip-hop artists like Master P, Jay-Z and Three-Six Mafia all came up with the clever idea of making their own movies. Had the objective of these new €œindependent € films been to take cinema to a higher level (ie. make them more authentic) I would €™ve respected them. Sadly, however, they were little more than cheaply made, poorly acted ploys to capitalize on a naive market of hungry kids. Fortunately, that brief moment didn €™t last long. When it was over, however, so too was the era in which both serious black middle-class dramas like Love Jones and serious black ghetto dramas like Menace could exist, let alone co-exist. For all we know, the deaths of Big and Pac might €™ve just been a little too real or maybe the moment simply passed.

As we move further away from our coming-of-age years and put them into perspective, the hope is that we €™ll begin to appreciate the renaissance of black cinema born out of 90’s. It took several decades for Black America to embrace the Harlem Renaissance in its totality in part because the writers of that period didn €™t reflect a version of black life that the black bourgeoisie found acceptable or appropriate. Countee Cullen died of hearbreak at 42. Zora Neal Hurston was buried in an unmarked grave after spending her final years as a maid. Langston Hughes had to beg for forgiveness before the House of UnAmerican Activities Committee and renounce much of what he had written about and believed in passionately. Richard Wright died in wretched despair in Paris. Chester Himes, too, had to exile himself in Paris. An equally bleak fate seems imminent for the directors of the 90’s renaissance. Theodore Witcher, the director of Love Jones, hasn €™t directed a movie since. In recent years John Singleton has found greater success as the producer of Hustle and Flow and Black Snake Moan than as a serious cinema director, Four Brothers notwithstanding (depending on who you ask). Ernest Dickerson most notable credit of late is as a sporadic director on the The Wire. The Hughes brothers are awol. Mario Van Peebles has made a string of low-budget movies that no one has even heard of much less seen. Of that era only Spike has remained a relevant and potent directorial force in mainstream cinema, and even he has to prove himself time and time again.

There is a little doubt that racism persists in Hollywood, but we– my generation — are also responsible. We must find a way to commemorate and support the directors (and actors) of the 90’s era if no other reason than that they played a vital role in our upbringing. It would be too easy to look back at our youth and be nostalgic. It would be too cruel to dismiss the movements and moments that shaped us, however naively it may seem now, into the people we were. We must struggle with what we once believed in and believe that it is always worth struggling for because for better and for worse, it belongs to us €”it is us.

3 Replies to “ARTICLE: Five films that shaped young black America in the ’90’s”

  1. Can this peace be anymore well written? I would say not. This is an excellent peace and I hope people take time to actually read it. This “article” is not wrought with pretentiousness, but rather with insight and true, palpable concern. Big ups, my man, big ups!!

  2. You couldn’t be more right about love jones. I was a teenager at the time that loved poerety and it elevated my consciousness of the artform so much. I grew so much because of this movie. It is still probably my ultime favorite movie of all time. I recently had to re buy the dvd because my first verson starting skipping (that’s how much I still watch it today) Its content was pure and timeless. Even stole a little except from the movie and have a blog called Renaissance Black Woman.

  3. This is awesome. Unfortunately I feel like a few other movies are missing, such as “Poetic Justice”, “Jason’s Lyric” and of course…”Above the Rim”.

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