The Trouble With Assessing 'Black Films'

This year was lauded by many news outlets as an incredible year for black films. CNN heralded "Hollywood's African-American Renaissance;" The New York Times called 2013 a "a breakout year for black films." Shani Hilton, deputy editor-in-chief of BuzzFeed, talks to NPR's Arun Rath about why she think those assertions are overstated.

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ARUN RATH, HOST:

It's ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR West.

(SOUNDBITE OF MOVIE, "THE BUTLER")

OPRAH WINFREY: (as Gloria Gaines) What was the name of that movie, honey?

FOREST WHITAKER: (as Cecil Gaines) "In the Heat of the Night."

WINFREY: (as Gloria Gaines) "In the Heat of the Night" with Sidney Poitier. Sidney..

WHITAKER: (as Cecil Gaines) Sidney Poitier is a white man's fantasy of what he wants us to be.

RATH: That's from the Lee Daniels' film "The Butler," one of a long list of movies that led some to call 2013 a breakout year for black films. Not so fast, says Shani Hilton of buzzfeed.com. I asked her why she thinks we all might want to calm down a little. So I'm going to set this up, you knock it down. 2013 was an amazing year, a watershed moment for black directors and stars - "12 Years a Slave," "The Butler," "Fruitvale Station," "Best Man Holiday," "Black Nativity" - the list goes on.

SHANI HILTON: Was it?

(LAUGHTER)

HILTON: It was a great year for many filmmakers, some of whom were black and some of whom were not black.

RATH: But watershed moment?

HILTON: No, absolutely not. It wasn't a watershed moment. It's kind of an understandable notion to want to talk about that. But some people would argue that by comparing all of these films with each other, as opposed to their actual peers in the genres, you're doing them a disservice.

RATH: Right. And you actually raise the point what is a black movie?

HILTON: Yeah, absolutely. You know, you end up seeing these pieces that are written, and they say words like race-themed or ethnically diverse films, which doesn't actually tell you anything about the film.

RATH: You know, one of the weird things about this discussion that really hit me when I was reading your piece is this feeling of deja vu, right? Like, we had the same discussion when the original "Best Man" came out in 1999. Before that, there was "Boyz n the Hood," "Do the Right Thing," and going back to the '80s with films like "Glory" and "A Soldier's Story."

HILTON: Right. When you've talked to people who've been in the business for a really long time, they'll tell you, you know, we saw these already 10 years ago. We saw these 20 years ago. We've had all these fascinating, weird, funny black films and yet 2013 we're still saying, hey, it's our year. John Ridley, who wrote "12 Years a Slave," he also kind of echoed that when you start to talk about black films, then you end up in a space where you're comparing black films to other black films as opposed to their mates in the same genre.

RATH: Right. Say, like, you know, "The Best Man" does really well, and instead of Hollywood thinking that, well, we like romantic comedies that are kind of more from a male point of view, they think, we need more black movies.

(SOUNDBITE OF MOVIE, "THE BEST MAN")

TERRENCE HOWARD: (as Quentin) Yo, slim, is Jordan your first safari into the enchanted jungle?

MORRIS CHESTNUT: (as Lance) He's just messing with you, man.

HILTON: "Best Man Holiday" did so well at the box office. It made 30 million in its first weekend. You had Variety saying this sends a clear message to Hollywood: make more black movies. And that's kind of exactly the problem is once you make a black movie without thinking about all the things that went into making that film successful, you end up oftentimes with a few flops, and then it becomes harder for people of color - black people or black actors or black directors - to get their own films made.

RATH: Well, is there something that really sets 2013 apart for you, or is this kind of a made-up conversation?

HILTON: I think if something sets 2013 apart, it's kind of the way that distribution models have made it possible for a really wide variety of films, and that includes films that are not by black writers and directors. And so you have places like Affirm, which release black films - and they released three in the last few years - you have Kickstarter or any go-go crowdfunding ways, and then a lot of times you have - for example, with "12 Years a Slave," that film was developed and produced outside of the studio system with Brad Pitt's Plan B company and then was picked up for distribution by Fox Searchlight.

(SOUNDBITE OF MOVIE, "12 YEARS A SLAVE")

CHIWETEL EJIOFOR: (as Solomon Northup) I will not fall into despair. I will offer up my talents to Master Ford. I will keep myself hearty till freedom is opportune.

RATH: I'm curious: it's been a few weeks since you first wrote this piece. Are people tending to align with your argument?

HILTON: I found that most people at least understand the point that I'm making. I have seen a few people insist that it's good to celebrate black film as a unit that kind of comes out of old-fashioned take on black achievement, which is that we need to celebrate it in any way that we can because nobody else will. And now, I think we're at the point where we can say, hey, we should be comparing "12 Years a Slave" to other films of its kind, not to "Best Man Holiday."

RATH: So we're going to be having this conversation again in a few years?

HILTON: I hope not.

RATH: Shani Hilton is the deputy editor-in-chief of buzzfeed.com. Shani, thank you.

HILTON: Thank you so much.

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