Ever since "Birth of a Nation," the silent classic that defamed blacks and glorified the Ku Klux Klan, African-Americans have waited for the day black filmmakers would enrich the screen with authentic depictions of black life. So far, it has not turned out quite the way I had hoped.
In the last year, a new generation of black filmmakers, who find themselves to be sought-after talents thanks to Spike Lee's success, released more than a dozen major motion pictures. One of them, "Boyz N the Hood," recently earned a best-director Oscar nomination for its creator, John Singleton.
But while they have brought a striking new realism to the screen, they also have brought a pernicious new stereotype: upwardly mobile black professionals ("buppies," in modern vernacular) caught up in a lifestyle they must struggle to justify in light of the street-wise homeboy life they may have struggled to escape back in the 'hood.
It is not a totally false type, but one black filmmaker after another is presenting it as if it were our only type, which has turned it into a stereotype and a cliche.
In Mr. Singleton's otherwise excellent "Boyz," for example, a divorced father struggles to raise his teen-age son on the right dTC path in violence-torn South Central Los Angeles after the boy's otherwise striving and self-sufficient professional mother curiously turns over custody because, as she puts it, she "can't teach him what he needs to know."
The device of an inept single black mother conveniently gets the story rolling, even if it robs us of a more interesting reality: the thousands of single black mothers who raise their children successfully.
Buppies take it on the chin again in "Juice," by Ernest Dickerson (Spike Lee's cinematographer), when Yolanda, an upwardly mobile nurse, dumps her buppie ex-lover to take up with Quincy, a street-wise teen who strikes the pompous buppie as little more than a "chain snatcher." Homeboy wins again.
Similarly, in the farce comedy-with-a-message "Livin' Large!" deliveryman Dexter's dream of becoming a television anchor comes true, but, alas, in a modern-day "Prince/Pauper" dichotomy, he is torn between the comforts of the good life and, yes, the authenticity of life with his girlfriend back in the housing projects. In the end he keeps his anchor's suit on, but with an Afrocentric kente-cloth vest, a vest whose label, for all we know, might say "Made in Korea."
Harvard University's Henry Louis Gates Jr., one of the nation's leading black cultural scholars, sounded a bit mystified by it all in a perceptive essay in the March 1 New York Times. He noted that today's black feature films, for all their bold claims of a new realism, persist in presenting "the premise of an inverse relation between class and color, where upward mobility implies a flight from racial identity."
It doesn't have to be so. Shelby Steele described such beliefs as "race holding" in his pro-integration book, "The Content of Our Character." He concludes that we Americans of African descent would be better off if we anguished a little less about our slow but inevitable movement into America's predominantly white success stream.
Perhaps someday we will. So far, anguish is "in" as homeboy struggles to avoid losing his soul to buppiehood in black movies and in new black novels like "Company Man," by a former corporate executive, Brent Wade, and "Crossover," by a former Newsweek writer, Dennis Williams.
It is an image that contrasts sharply with the upwardly mobile blacks who move on up the success ladder without anguish on "The Cosby Show," "A Different World," or even reruns of "The Jeffersons." But even these seemingly content middle-class blacks compete for attention with "The Fresh Prince of Bel Air," a hip-hop ghetto youth whisked into the upper-class world far away from the 'hood, where he can hilariously resist his upper-crust uncle's attempts to polish his street ways and, it is implied, turn him into a bore.
Leonard Jeffries, the controversial City College of New York professor, and many other black critics have accused white Hollywood moguls of conspiring to poison America with negative images of black life. I think the fault lies in institutional biases. Hollywood moguls, far removed from black realities, give a "green light" to film projects that fit their idea of what the public wants to buy, and most of them don't believe the public wants to have its cherished stereotypes challenged. Whites can be complex; blacks must be "street." Anyone who defies the type must feel less genuine for it.
There is a real story to be told about the misgivings and insecurities many blacks still feel over leaving our familiar territory as history's victims to enter a new realm in which we must compete with others for real power in the American mainstream. But it is not our only story. Unfortunately, Hollywood, like Washington, spends considerably more time and attention studying black failure than either spends learning from black success.
8, Clarence Page is a syndicated columnist.