Morris Chestnut never met any actors from the 1970s films about street-wise cops, flashy hustlers, pimps and prostitutes that defined African-American culture on the big screen then - a genre that came to be known as "blaxploitation." But he and other young African-American actors were still dealing with that imagery years later, when films about black teen life in the 'hood were a hit in Hollywood in the 1990s.
They frequented auditions for gangster roles, suppressing mixed emotions about playing such parts and sometimes getting rejected with words that resonate to this day.
"Sorry, not black enough."
Not long ago, narrow images of African-American life were so etched in mainstream cinema that in the minds of many, there was just one way to be black and proud on screen. Nothing else made sense.
But some say that's changing. Now, Chestnut delights in talking about his role as a struggling songwriter who finds love in the newly released Christmas film, The Perfect Holiday.
Starring a mostly black cast that includes Queen Latifah and Gabrielle Union, the film is indicative of the changing face of African-American movies, which now offer windows into black middle-class life with multidimensional characters and story lines that resonate with people of all backgrounds.
The Perfect Holiday comes on the heels of other 2007 films that feature mostly African-American casts, including Why Did I Get Married?, This Christmas, I Think I Love My Wife and Are We Done Yet? - as well as the recent biopics Ray and Ali. They are shifting the motion-picture landscape in ways that 1970s films such as Shaft, Dolemite and Superfly defined the blaxploitation era.
While hip-hop music has garnered criticism for fostering violent and misogynistic themes, today's films have adopted story lines that reflect a growing, more visible black middle class - and African-American filmmakers have more creative control.
"Hollywood follows trends," said Chestnut, who is best known as playing the do-good son in the 1991 film Boyz n the Hood. "We did Boyz n the Hood and then there was Juice, South Central, Menace II Society. Because Boyz n the Hood was so successful, they chased the dollar."
To be sure, they're still doing so. Today's predominantly black films frequently debut among the top-grossing, prompting production companies to invest more in production and marketing. This Christmas, a movie about a family's first holiday together in years, made for an estimated $13 million, has taken in $43 million after three weeks, according to the Web site Box Office Mojo.
"I think what is most obvious these days in movies is that we're getting what I hope is a more rounded view of black life," said Paul Seydor, who edited This Christmas, as well as Guess Who, a 2005 film that's a reversal of the 1967 film Guess Who's Coming to Dinner.
"This is true of television and movies, though there are shows such as Law & Order, where they still have a ghettoized criminal life element," he added. "But Guess Who and This Christmas, those movies are middle-class black life and I just don't remember that about the '70s."
Some say that the industry has always offered alternatives to blaxploitation films. Even during the 1970s, dramas such as Sounder and Lady Sings the Blues offered a more multidimensional look at black life, although middle-class family life was rarely depicted.
But much of Hollywood's offerings back then came down to who was calling the shots. Though some films did have black writers or directors (Gordon Parks directed Shaft), many did not.
Many had titles with the word, "black" in them, some suggesting they were black versions of successful white films (Black Godfather, Black Shampoo, Blacula). Their movie posters often featured guns, luxury cars, gold jewelry and scantily clad women. Their trailers featured violence, sexual undertones and smooth, pulsating music from the soundtrack.
"At the end of that period there were the 'no-plot films,' where people thought that all you had to do was have black people in them and blacks would come out to see them," says Dr. Bishetta D. Merritt, an associate professor of African-American cinema at Howard University in Washington.
In the 1980s, a breakthrough of black directors, writers and producers, most prominently Spike Lee, offered portrayals of black life rarely seen on film. Lee's first film, She's Gotta Have It, was set in an upscale Brooklyn neighborhood and was one of the first few that dealt with relationships, with a woman as its lead character.
The 1990s saw popular film adaptations of popular novels by African-American authors, such as Terry McMillan'sWaiting to Exhale and How Stella Got Her Groove Back and Walter Mosley's Devil in a Blue Dress.
"Audiences were starting to listen to a new voice, and it created opportunities for success," said Kevin Rodney Sullivan, who directed How Stella Got Her Groove Back and Guess Who. "I think people have realized that there is a strong market for stories that represent an African-American perspective that are not as pigeonholed in the past."
That is not to say that films that glorify street crime and culture are gone. One of the most successful films of the year, American Gangster, stars Denzel Washington as a Harlem drug kingpin.
American Gangster is merely "the new Superfly," said Faizon Love, who portrays a friend of the lead male character in The Perfect Holiday. But unlike a generation ago, films with gangster themes are being outnumbered by family and romance films.
"Today, there are several African-American screenwriters and directors of prominence. That's where it's changed," said Sullivan, adding that the current crop of films is being driven by the success of films by Tyler Perry, the Atlanta-based writer/director who developed a nationwide fan base with stage plays. Perry then turned those plays into motion pictures, drawing millions of fans.
Two years ago, his Diary of a Mad Black Woman, made $21.9 million its opening week and topped $50 million overall, according to Box Office Mojo. His second film, Madea's Family Reunion, debuted in February 2006 as the top film in the nation, grossing $30 million in its first week and $63 million overall. His fourth film, Why Did I Get Married, also debuted as the top film in the U.S., grossing $21 million in its first week this fall. It has grossed $55 million so far.
Perry's films are a mix of hardscrabble life seen in some black films in the past, only from a black middle- and working-class perspective. Moreover, his films weave religious themes into such issues as disciplining children and spousal abuse. His first two films feature his signature character from his stage plays, Madea - a feisty, pistol-toting, outspoken matriarch who holds her family together with tough love and common-sense counsel.
Merritt said some of her students at Howard take exception to the portly Madea. "Some think it's a throwback to the old 'mammy' character,'" she said.
But actor and director Bill Duke said Madea connects not only with African-Americans, but reflects a shift in attitudes among moviegoers of all backgrounds, who want to see characters whose morals resonate with them. Similar films include Woman Thou Art Loosed, the 2004 movie written by minister T.D. Jakes.
"Right now, African-American films can be divided into two categories, the secular and the faith-based," Duke said. "How the market plays out will be determined within the next 5 to 10 years, but I believe ultimately, you're going to see a market for both."
Changing focus of black films
Shaft (1971): The Gordon Parks-directed film starred Richard Roundtree as a police detective who scours Harlem to rescue the kidnapped daughter of a gangster. The groundbreaking film was arguably the most memorable from the so-called "blaxploitation" era. It was also one of the first to showcase a soul music soundtrack: Isaac Hayes' song, "Theme From Shaft," won the Academy Award for Best Original Song.
She's Gotta Have It (1986): Spike Lee's first full-length feature was among the first African-American films that dealt with relationships, and it had a black woman as the lead character. The independent film was not only one of the first to show middle-class black life as seen by a black filmmaker, but it inspired scores of struggling black filmmakers to pursue projects with or without major studio backing.
Boyz n the Hood (1991): Written and directed by John Singleton, the film starred hip-hop artist Ice Cube and Lawrence Fishburne. It gave a teen's perspective of the pitfalls of life in crime-infested South Central Los Angeles, and ushered in scores of similar films. It was also one of the first to star a hip-hop artist, a movie trend that continues.
Diary of a Mad Black Woman (2005): Tyler Perry's first film about no-nonsense matriarch Madea was adapted from his successful stage play of the same name. It offered a glimpse of the upscale black South rarely seen on film, and illustrated how African-Americans of different classes share common bonds and issues.