The confounding ways race, class and genre intertwine on American movie screens emerge today in a story set in an affluent enclave on Long Island, where a self-made young man pursues the woman he loves, a seductive beauty of wealth, refinement and impeccable breeding.
No, it’s not “The Great Gatsby.” Instead, that synopsis sums up “Peeples,” a low-middlebrow romantic comedy that playfully skewers the very pretension and lack of self-knowledge that sends “Gatsby” down its tragic spiral. The film stars frequent supporting player Craig Robinson as Wade, who forces his girlfriend, Grace (Kerry Washington), to introduce him to her prosperous, snobby family, whom he laughingly calls “the chocolate Kennedys.”
There’s poetic justice in the fact that “Peeples” is opening alongside “Gatsby,” whose chief malefactor, Tom Buchanan, speaks admiringly of a book called “The Rise of the Colored Empires,” obliquely referring to the 1920s white supremacist author Lothrop Stoddard. But “Peeples” is problematic, too, as an example of the limits mainstream black filmmakers face in the kinds of stories Hollywood allows them to tell.
The poetic justice that “Peeples” acknowledges is that, 90 years after “Gatsby’s” era, it’s not just accepted but also assumed that a black federal judge (David Alan Grier) and his high-achieving family would live not far from Fitzgerald’s fictional East Egg, in a graciously appointed waterfront mansion in the upper-class black enclave of Sag Harbor.
With their Romare Bearden paintings, a dog named after scientist Benjamin Banneker and black fraternity handshakes, the fictional Peeples telegraph messages that screenwriter Tina Gordon Chism — who makes her directorial debut with “Peeples” — strongly wanted to convey about race and class, albeit within the context of a predictable, broad, slightly raunchy comedy.
“I set the movie in Sag Harbor not so much to say they were upper class but to say that they were achievers,” Chism said during a recent visit to Washington. “They were strivers. And that striving had led to sort of a standard that everyone had to aspire to, to the point where no one felt vulnerable around each other anymore.”
With the Obamas regularly repairing to another well-heeled black community — Martha's Vineyard — over the summer, the rarefied world that “Peeples” depicts is by now a familiar one to most Americans. And, after decades when the term “black film” seemed to signal either a crime drama set in the ’hood or a lowbrow comedy, films featuring prosperous, sophisticated black families have been undeniably welcome. Successful, too: “Jumping the Broom,” a rom-com set on the Vineyard, has earned more than $35 million, about six times its budget.
Similarly, “Think Like a Man,” whose main story line centers on a driven corporate executive and the dreamy chef who loves her, has been a box office winner. But along with those successes, a narrative is emerging that threatens to be just as confining as the ghetto movies of the 1990s. The genre du jour features an upper-class family beset by an interloper who, after a series of hijinks and setbacks, brings it down a peg and teaches it how to love. (Tyler Perry is a master of the form, especially when it comes to successful, professional women; as it happens he’s the producer and presenter of “Peeples.”)
Part aspirational, part punitive, the new black bourgeois cinema continues a classic film tradition of screwball comedies predicated on class migration, epitomized by Depression-era romps in which a madcap heiress typically found true love with a dashing, down-market scoundrel. Surely films such as “It Happened One Night” and “My Man Godfrey” were attuned to the class anxieties of their age. But they were often also delicious exercises in good, old-fashioned wish fulfillment: Watching wealthy people wear fashionable clothes in stunning homes crammed with beautiful things, after all, is part of the escapist fun of going to the movies.
But, at a time when black stories are still too rare on-screen, the class-mobility comedy is beginning to take on the trappings of yet another genre trap. With risk-averse Hollywood even less inclined to take risks on African American films, the formula keeps getting repeated, to the exclusion of the vast reality of most people’s experience. “It’s almost as if the black middle class doesn’t exist on-screen,” said Tambay Obenson, editor and chief writer at the Indiewire film blog Shadow & Act. “What you get is the extremes, the poor and ghetto or the wealthy.”
For Chism — who grew up in Virginia, got her start as an intern with “The Cosby Show” and co-wrote the movies “Drumline” and “ATL” — “Peeples” was important, not just as a way to present images of a high-achieving black family, but also as a way to operate within the severely proscribed zone black filmmakers occupy in white Hollywood.
“There was definitely a strategy,” she said. “Comedy is something that the studios are more apt to make. I’m black, and I’m female, and I knew: Could I break out in a thriller? A hundred percent no. It hasn’t been tested in the studio system long enough for them to refer back to numbers to give me that.
“It’s a chess game,” she continued. “You have to push your messaging forward about black imagery but give the studio what their expectations are. [I put] ‘Peeples’ into a format that they felt comfortable with, especially if a black woman was going to have the reins. . . . But the minute I finished it, I wrote a thriller.”
If studios are interested in financing and distributing only narrow slices of black life, where can we find images of working- and middle-class people (or more nuanced images of wealthy ones)? There have been breakouts: In 1964, Ivan Dixon and Abbey Lincoln starred in “Nothing but a Man,” a groundbreaking love story about a millworker and a teacher; more recently, we’ve seen “To Sleep With Anger” (1990) and “Akeelah and the Bee” (2006), both set in solidly middle-class black neighborhoods in Los Angeles.
And equally sensitive, complex portraits of the lives of many African Americans can be found in movies being made today, by directors such as Dee Rees (“Pariah”), Ava DuVernay (“Middle of Nowhere”) and Barry Jenkins (“Medicine for Melancholy”), whose voices deserve to be heard beyond the art houses where their films have mostly played.
Those exciting filmmakers are helping to forge a new wave in black independent filmmaking, dedicated to expanding the ways black lives are represented, celebrated and honestly portrayed on-screen — rich or poor. Meanwhile, Chism’s tactics for navigating the tricky currents of race, class and the studio system have already begun to pay off: She sold her thriller, called “Inheritance,” to Sony. She begins shooting in August.