Shaping the Future of African American Film: Color-Coded Economics and the Story Behind the Numbers
(Rutgers University Press, 2014)
By Monica White Ndounou
In Hollywood, we hear, it’s all about the money. It’s a ready explanation for why so few black films get made—no crossover appeal, no promise of a big payoff. But what if the money itself is color-coded? What if the economics that governs film production is so skewed that no film by, about, or for people of color will ever look like a worthy investment unless it follows specific racial or gender patterns? This, Monica Ndounou shows us, is precisely the case. In a work as revealing about the culture of filmmaking as it is about the distorted economics of African American film, Ndounou clearly traces the insidious connections between history, content, and cash in black films.
How does history come into it? Hollywood’s reliance on past performance as a measure of potential success virtually guarantees that historically underrepresented, underfunded, and undersold African American films devalue the future prospects of black films. So the cycle continues as it has for nearly a century. Behind the scenes, the numbers are far from neutral. Analyzing the onscreen narratives and off-screen circumstances behind nearly two thousand films featuring African Americans in leading and supporting roles, including such recent productions as Bamboozled, Beloved, and Tyler Perry’s Diary of a Mad Black Woman, Ndounou exposes the cultural and racial constraints that limit not just the production but also the expression and creative freedom of black films. Her wide-ranging analysis reaches into questions of literature, language, speech and dialect, film images and narrative, acting, theater and film business practices, production history and financing, and organizational history.
By uncovering the ideology behind profit-driven industry practices that reshape narratives by, about, and for people of color, this provocative work brings to light existing limitations—and possibilities for reworking stories and business practices in theater, literature, and film.