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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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Give Back

Last-Minute Holiday Gift Guide

Hits from the '80s are on repeat all Christmas Eve and Day on IFC.

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GIFs via Giphy, Photos via The Everett Collection

It’s the final countdown to Christmas and thanks to IFC’s movie marathon all Christmas Eve and Christmas Day, you can revel in classic ’80s films AND find inspiration for your last-minute gifts. Here are our recommendations, if you need a head start:

Musical Instrument

Great analog entertainment substitute when you refuse to give your kid the Nintendo Switch they’ve been drooling over.

Breakfast In Bed

Any significant other or child would appreciate these Uncle Buck-approved flapjacks. Just make sure you’re not stuck on clean up duty.

Cocktail Supplies

You’ll need them to get through the holidays.

Dance Lessons

So you can learn to shake-shake-shake (unless you know ghosts willing to lend a hand).

Comfy Clothes

With all the holiday meals, there may be some…embigenning.



Get even more great inspiration all Christmas Eve and Day on IFC, and remember…

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A-O Rewind

Celebrating Portlandia One Sketch at a Time

The final season of Portlandia approaches.

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GIFs via Giphy

Most people measure time in minutes, hours, days, years…At IFC, we measure it in sketches. And nothing takes us way (waaaaaay) back like Portlandia sketches. Yes, there’s a Portlandia milepost from every season that changed the way we think, behave, and pickle things. In honor of Portlandia’s 8th and final season, Subaru presents a few of our favorites.

via GIPHY

Put A Bird On It

Portlandia enters the pop-culture lexicon and inspires us to put birds on literally everything.

Colin the Chicken

Who’s your chicken, really? Behold the emerging locavore trend captured perfectly to the nth degree.

Dream Of The ’90s

This treatise on Portland made it clear that “the dream” was alive and well.

No You Go

We Americans spend most of our lives in cars. Fortunately, there’s a Portlandia sketch for every automotive situation.

A-O River!

We learned all our outdoor survival skills from Kath and Dave.

One More Episode

The true birth of binge watching, pre-Netflix. And what you’ll do once Season 8 premieres.

Catch up on Portlandia’s best moments before the 8th season premieres January 18th on IFC.

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WTF Films

Artfully Off

Celebrity All-Star by Sisters Weekend is available now on IFC's Comedy Crib.

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Sisters Weekend isn’t like other comedy groups. It’s filmmaking collaboration between besties Angelo Balassone, Michael Fails and Kat Tadesco, self-described lace-front addicts with great legs who write, direct, design and produce video sketches and cinematic shorts that are so surreally hilarious that they defy categorization. One such short film, Celebrity All-Star, is the newest addition to IFC’s Comedy Crib. Here’s what they had to say about it in a very personal email interview…

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IFC: How would you describe Celebrity All-Star to a fancy network executive you just met in an elevator?

Celebrity All-Star is a short film about an overworked reality TV coordinator struggling to save her one night off after the cast of C-List celebrities she wrangles gets locked out of their hotel rooms.

IFC: How would you describe Celebrity All-Star to a drunk friend of a friend you met in a bar?

Sisters Weekend: It’s this short we made for IFC where a talent coordinator named Karen babysits a bunch of weird c-list celebs who are stuck in a hotel bar. It’s everyone you hate from reality TV under one roof – and that roof leaks because it’s a 2-star hotel. There’s a magician, sexy cowboys, and a guy wearing a belt that sucks up his farts.

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IFC: What was the genesis of Celebrity All-Star?

Celebrity All-Star was born from our love of embarrassing celebrities. We love a good c-lister in need of a paycheck! We were really interested in the canned politeness people give off when forced to mingle with strangers. The backstory we created is that the cast of this reality show called “Celebrity All-Star” is in the middle of a mandatory round of “get to know each other” drinks in the hotel bar when the room keys stop working. Shows like Celebrity Ghost Hunters and of course The Surreal Life were of inspo, but we thought it
was funny to keep it really vague what kind of show they’re on, and just focus on everyone’s diva antics after the cameras stop rolling.

IFC: Every celebrity in Celebrity All-Star seems familiar. What real-life pop personalities did you look to for inspiration?

Sisters Weekend: Anyone who is trying to plug their branded merch that no one asked for. We love low-rent celebrity. We did, however, directly reference Kylie Jenner’s turd-raison lip color for our fictional teen celebutante Gibby Kyle (played by Mary Houlihan).

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IFC: Celebrity seems disgusting yet desirable. What’s your POV? Do you crave it, hate it, or both?

Sisters Weekend: A lot of people chase fame. If you’re practical, you’ll likely switch to chasing success and if you’re smart, you’ll hopefully switch to chasing happiness. But also, “We need money. We need hits. Hits bring money, money bring power, power bring fame, fame change the game,” Young Thug.

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IFC: Who are your comedy idols?

Sisters Weekend: Mike grew up renting “Monty Python” tapes from the library and staying up late to watch 2000’s SNL, Kat was super into Andy Kaufman and “Kids In The Hall” in high school, and Angelo was heavily influenced by “Strangers With Candy” and Anna Faris in the Scary Movie franchise, so, our comedy heroes mesh from all over. But, also we idolize a lot of the people we work with in NY-  Lorelei Ramirez, Erin Markey, Mary Houlihan, who are all in the film, Amy Zimmer, Ana Fabrega, Patti Harrison, Sam Taggart. Geniuses! All of Em!

IFC: What’s your favorite moment from the film?

Sisters Weekend: I mean…seeing Mary Houlihan scream at an insane Pomeranian on an iPad is pretty great.

See Sisters Weekend right now on IFC’s Comedy Crib

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