For the second weekend in a row, “Boo! A Madea Halloween,” the latest installment in the wildly successful slapstick franchise, and “Moonlight,” a tender, tough coming-of-age story of a young man growing up in Miami, dominated the box office in mainstream and specialty theaters, earning more than $17.5 million between them and, in the process, suggesting that something of a sea change may be afoot when it comes to black film.
In fact, “Moonlight,” which was adapted by filmmaker Barry Jenkins from a play by Tarell Alvin McCraney, embodies just how multivalenced — and maybe no longer useful — the term “black film” has become, as it conveys the emotional tensions experienced by an African American character contending with poverty, drugs, crime and his own burgeoning sense of self as a gay man. In the notes I scribbled during a screening of the film at the Toronto International Film Festival in September, I scrawled, “Is intersectionality finally making ‘black film’ obsolete?’” I was thinking of conversations I’d had over the years with filmmakers and filmgoers alike who have found the term patronizing, limited and, frankly, offensive.
For his part, Jenkins isn’t quite ready to dispense with the term. “This film is inherently intersectional because of the very different aspects of the story we’re telling,” he said during a visit to Washington last week. “Both Tarell and I are black. Both Tarell and I are poor. Both Tarell and I are men. So you get masculinity, you get class, you get gender. And then Tarell is openly gay, so you get sexuality. . . . Yet in all of those things, we’re still black men. We’re still poor black men, we’re still a black gay man. Black is always there. You can’t tease it out.
“Somebody asked me a question,” he continued. “‘How do you feel about being referred to as a black filmmaker, when you’re just a filmmaker?’ I was like, ‘Yeah, but if I was a plumber, I wouldn’t be a filmmaker-plumber, I’d be a black plumber.’ You know? One thing travels to the next location, the other thing doesn’t. . . . No matter how intersectional these stories become — and they should, because at the end of the day we all have multitudes — blackness [has been] too much a defining characteristic, sometimes inwardly and sometimes outwardly projected, that there’s no way you can get to a point where black ceases to be a defining characteristic of a person’s identity, in this country at least.”
Still, coming off a previous year when black underrepresentation on and off the screen was the paramount issue during awards season, 2016 is shaping up to be remarkably encouraging. Not only is “Moonlight” a rare example of a contemporary drama featuring nuanced depictions of African American life, but it’s part of a group of films that vary widely and wonderfully in stories, styles, genres and points of view. Part of what made the hype surrounding “The Birth of a Nation” so troubling was that, coming out of Sundance, it was being positioned as the one film that would rectify the exclusion that this year’s Oscar race — which featured no African American actors or filmmakers — pointed up in sharp relief. In fact, a plethora of films by and about black people have played and will continue to play throughout the year, including “Queen of Katwe” “Southside With You,” “The Fits,” “Loving,” “A United Kingdom,” “Fences” and “Hidden Figures.”
Just as Chiron, the main character in “Moonlight,” struggles against social definitions of what he should be as a black man, the movie itself pushes back against the pigeonholes black film has been put in, whether by way of genre or assumptions about what audiences of color want to see. “I have a lot of black filmmaker friends who are making work right now,” Jenkins said, “and none of us is trying to redefine [black film] on our own. We’re just telling these little pieces of the puzzle.” Pointing to films like “Fences” and “Queen of Katwe,” as well as the documentaries “13th” and “O.J.: Made in America,” he notes that the projects have emerged spontaneously, “without it being a thesis statement like we’re all sitting in a room going, ‘All right here’s the strategy . . .’ It’s not that.”
For one thing, Jenkins believes, the means of production have become accessible to a far broader range of artists. “As someone who grew up super, super poor, the means to make a film have always been outside my reach,” he noted. “And I think that isn’t so much the case anymore. And I think also that the world, and I don’t mean just Hollywood, but the world is responding and realizing the value inherent in some of these voices that haven’t been expressed as much as others.”
What Jenkins doesn’t mention is his own role in what many observers consider the current renaissance in black independent film. In the online film magazine IndieWire recently, the filmmakers Justin Simien (“Dear White People”) and Terence Nance (“An Oversimplification of Her Beauty”) both credited Jenkins’s 2008 film “Medicine for Melancholy” — a lyrical, “Before Sunrise”-esque story of a couple walking the streets of San Francisco — for staking out territory for black film within the art house vernacular. “The black cinema revolution had begun,” Simien recalled thinking, “and I’d be damned if I’d miss the train.”
Jenkins considers the time that has elapsed since “Medicine” with a combination of wryness and optimism. Although most fans of the film agree it never garnered the audience it deserved, there’s no denying that it now stands as some kind of meaningful bookmark, one that overlaps with the first era in American during which a black president and his family occupied the White House.
“I feel like when I made ‘Medicine,’ there was less of a space for black films,” Jenkins noted, adding that films like “Madea” and “Moonlight” both finding success the same weekend “maybe wouldn’t have been the case in 2008. But in these eight years — it hurts to even say it — in the eight years that have past, so much amazing black cinema and television has been created that it’s [almost] like the work has manifested the audience. It’s not so outside the norm to have these narratives that are told by diverse storytellers that don’t fit within a commercial niche. And yet even those things can be commercialized, because there’s a hunger for interesting and distinct content.”
As for the deeper significance of the “Madea”-“Moonlight” phenomenon, Jenkins said, “I don’t know what it means, but I know what it disproves.” The notion that there’s only one type of black film or black story “has been proved false, and that there’s a monolithic black audience, also proved false. And that audiences will only respond to a certain kind of black story: just false, false, false across the board.”
While Jenkins spoke, I was reminded of a beauty salon I used to walk by in New York, called Black Hair Is . . ., its name a sly subversion of cultural stereotypes and blinkered thinking. Whether it’s a revolution or a renaissance, perhaps we’ve entered the era of Black Film Is . . ., when reductive definitions no longer apply, and artists are finally free to fill in the blanks however they please.