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What the Success of “Precious” Means for Black Indie Cinema

What the Success of “Precious” Means for Black Indie Cinema (photo)

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Serious African-American cinema scarcely exists. It arrives in fits and sputters, in the occasional legends (Melvin Van Peebles, Gordon Parks), outliers (Charles Burnett, Julie Dash) or mavericks (Spike Lee). But demanding cinema based around the black experience are largely absent from American screens, displaced by gangstas, guns and masquerading comedians in drag or fat suits (Tyler Perry, Eddie Murphy). The film industry has always loathed challenging movies, no matter the race, ethnicity or gender of their subject matter, but for black creators, making artistic cinema and getting it seen is a near insurmountable task. Can Lee Daniels’ “Precious” change all that?

The Sundance-winning, Oprah-backed and Tyler Perry-supported “Precious” broke all box office records for a limited release last weekend, grossing $1.8 million on just 18 screens. The film will expand nationally in subsequent weekends. According to distributor Lionsgate, “Precious” drew an equal share of both black and white audiences — a testament to its broad appeal. However, despite its enormous sales, “Precious” is, so far, the exception, not the rule, and while African-American filmmakers are excited by the movie’s early success, they also retain a mix of skepticism and hope for the future.

Some filmmakers remain cautious, because despite “Precious'” dark subject matter — rape, child abuse, poverty, HIV — its very content also conforms to many black cinema stereotypes. As New York Press critic Armond White so viciously penned, “Full of brazenly racist clichés (Precious steals and eats an entire bucket of fried chicken), it is a sociological horror show.” Ultimately, the film is also inspirational, with a traditional upward arc and a resolution that leaves viewers feeling good about themselves — hardly the tenets of challenging cinema.

“‘Precious’ is the sort of black film we’ve gotten used to seeing,” says Barry Jenkins, the San Francisco-based director of “Medicine for Melancholy.” “A gritty story of urban struggle and strife — there’s nothing wrong with that, but why aren’t there other films filling out this portrait of what it’s like to be black in America today? Whatever backlash there is against ‘Precious,’ it’s not about the film itself — it’s about the dearth of films to complement it.”

For Jenkins, it was in February 1997 when the industry got the proof it needed to give up on alternative black cinema. “I always cite ‘Rosewood’ as the example,” he says. “John Singleton wanted to make a serious film about a serious event in American history” — a racially motivated massacre that took place in 1923 — “and not enough people went to see it. And the very next weekend, ‘Booty Call’ came out, which was made for a fraction of the money, and it did amazing business. It’s simply all about dollars and cents.”

But Jenkins says the early 2009 release of his no-budget identity-politics rom-com “Melancholy” showed that audiences are hungry for different perspectives on African-American life. Though the movie only played in a handful of cities and the theatrical gross was a tiny $112,000, the film’s run was held-over in New York and had strong per-screen averages in San Francisco for 16 weeks.

11112009_MedicineforMelancholy.jpg“There just isn’t a precedent for how you release even a quirky [black] film,” says Jenkins, who has a new project set up at Focus Features. “Medicine” wasn’t even released in urban centers like Atlanta, Philadelphia or Chicago, “because we’ve gotten to this point where there’s the sense that black people aren’t interested in movies about black people unless they fit into a specific type of black film,” he says. “But what would have happened if the ‘Medicine’ trailer ran before [Tyler Perry’s] ‘Madea Goes to Jail’?”

“Mississippi Damned” producer and editor Morgan Stiff also blames the industry for a lack of imagination. From the time that Stiff pitched the project — the story of a down-and-out family in a rural southern town — at the American Film Market in 2007 to the conversations she’s had with distributors this year, she’s consistently come up against the same resistance: without a star on the order of Beyoncé Knowles, the film is dead in the marketplace’s uncharted waters. “The issue is that studios and distributors don’t know how to market a black film and are not open to new models to reaching audiences, in general,” she says.

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New Nasty

Whips, Chains and Hand Sanitizer

Turn On The Full Season Of Neurotica At IFC's Comedy Crib

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Jenny Jaffe has a lot going on: She’s writing for Disney’s upcoming Big Hero 6: The Series, developing comedy projects with pals at Devastator Press, and she’s straddling the line between S&M and OCD as the creator and star of the sexyish new series Neurotica, which has just made its debut on IFC’s Comedy Crib. Jenny gave us some extremely intimate insight into what makes Neurotica (safely) sizzle…

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IFC: How would you describe Neurotica to a fancy network executive you met in an elevator?

Jenny: Neurotica is about a plucky Dominatrix with OCD trying to save her small-town dungeon.

IFC: How would you describe Neurotica to a drunk friend of a friend you met in a bar?

Jenny: Neurotica is about a plucky Dominatrix with OCD trying to save her small-town dungeon. You’re great. We should get coffee sometime. I’m not just saying that. I know other people just say that sometimes but I really feel like we’re going to be friends, you know? Here, what’s your number, I’ll call you so you can have my number!

IFC: What’s your comedy origin story?

Jenny: Since I was a kid I’ve dealt with severe OCD and anxiety. Comedy has always been one of the ways I’ve dealt with that. I honestly just want to help make people feel happy for a few minutes at a time.

IFC: What was the genesis of Neurotica?

Jenny: I’m pretty sure it was a title-first situation. I was coming up with ideas to pitch to a production company a million years ago (this isn’t hyperbole; I am VERY old) and just wrote down “Neurotica”; then it just sort of appeared fully formed. “Neurotica? Oh it’s an over-the-top romantic comedy about a Dominatrix with OCD, of course.” And that just happened to hit the buttons of everything I’m fascinated by.

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IFC: How would you describe Ivy?

Jenny: Ivy is everything I love in a comedy character – she’s tenacious, she’s confident, she’s sweet, she’s a big wonderful weirdo.

IFC: How would Ivy’s clientele describe her?

Jenny:  Open-minded, caring, excellent aim.

IFC: Why don’t more small towns have local dungeons?

Jenny: How do you know they don’t?

IFC: What are the pros and cons of joining a chain mega dungeon?

Jenny: You can use any of their locations but you’ll always forget you have a membership and in a year you’ll be like “jeez why won’t they let me just cancel?”

IFC: Mouths are gross! Why is that?

Jenny: If you had never seen a mouth before and I was like “it’s a wet flesh cave with sharp parts that lives in your face”, it would sound like Cronenberg-ian body horror. All body parts are horrifying. I’m kind of rooting for the singularity, I’d feel way better if I was just a consciousness in a cloud.

See the whole season of Neurotica right now on IFC’s Comedy Crib.

The-Craft

The ’90s Are Back

The '90s live again during IFC's weekend marathon.

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Photo Credit: Everett Digital, Columbia Pictures

We know what you’re thinking: “Why on Earth would anyone want to reanimate the decade that gave us Haddaway, Los Del Rio, and Smash Mouth, not to mention Crystal Pepsi?”

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Thoughts like those are normal. After all, we tend to remember lasting psychological trauma more vividly than fleeting joy. But if you dig deep, you’ll rediscover that the ’90s gave us so much to fondly revisit. Consider the four pillars of true ’90s culture.

Boy Bands

We all pretended to hate them, but watch us come alive at a karaoke bar when “I Want It That Way” comes on. Arguably more influential than Brit Pop and Grunge put together, because hello – Justin Timberlake. He’s a legitimate cultural gem.

Man-Child Movies

Adam Sandler is just behind The Simpsons in terms of his influence on humor. Somehow his man-child schtick didn’t get old until the aughts, and his success in that arena ushered in a wave of other man-child movies from fellow ’90s comedians. RIP Chris Farley (and WTF Rob Schneider).

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Teen Angst

In horror, dramas, comedies, and everything in between: Troubled teens! Getting into trouble! Who couldn’t relate to their First World problems, plaid flannels, and lose grasp of the internet?

Mainstream Nihilism

From the Coen Bros to Fincher to Tarantino, filmmakers on the verge of explosive popularity seemed interested in one thing: mind f*cking their audiences by putting characters in situations (and plot lines) beyond anyone’s control.

Feeling better about that walk down memory lane? Good. Enjoy the revival.

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And revisit some important ’90s classics all this weekend during IFC’s ’90s Marathon. Check out the full schedule here.

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Get Physical

DVDs are the new Vinyl

Portlandia Season 7 Now Available On Disc.

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In this crazy digital age, sometimes all we really want is to reach out and touch something. Maybe that’s why so many of us are still gung-ho about owning stuff on DVD. It’s tangible. It’s real. It’s tech from a bygone era that still feels relevant, yet also kitschy and retro. It’s basically vinyl for people born after 1990.

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Inevitably we all have that friend whose love of the disc is so absolutely repellent that he makes the technology less appealing. “The resolution, man. The colors. You can’t get latitude like that on a download.” Go to hell, Tim.

Yes, Tim sucks, and you don’t want to be like Tim, but maybe he’s onto something and DVD is still the future. Here are some benefits that go beyond touch.

It’s Decor and Decorum

With DVDs and a handsome bookshelf you can show off your great taste in film and television without showing off your search history. Good for first dates, dinner parties, family reunions, etc.

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Forget Public Wifi

Warm up that optical drive. No more awkwardly streaming episodes on shady free wifi!

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Inter-not

Internet service goes down. It happens all the time. It could happen right now. Then what? Without a DVD on hand you’ll be forced to make eye contact with your friends and family. Or worse – conversation.

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Self Defense

You can’t throw a download like a ninja star. Think about it.

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If you’d like to experience the benefits DVD ownership yourself, Portlandia Season 7 is now available on DVD and Blue-Ray.