African American directors make their mark
African American directors make their mark -- With ''Panther,'' ''Tales From the Hood,'' ''Friday,'' and ''Out of Sync,'' four filmmakers build something new on old movie terrain
Make black film…by any means necessary” read one of the T-shirts marketed by director Spike Lee when he opened Spike’s Joint clothing stores in 1990. And in recent years the means, happily, have been increasing. More black filmmakers are making it into the mainstream and infusing it with new energy. This month sees the video release of four movies directed by African-Americans that run the gamut of genres and attitudes, from gleefully unruly comedy to impassioned historical drama: Mario Van Peebles’ controversial chronicle of the Black Panther party, Panther (1995); Rusty Cundieff’s hip-hopping horror anthology, Tales From the Hood (1995); F. Gary Gray’s farcical day-in-the-life Friday (1995); and Debbie Allen’s streetwise crime drama, Out of Sync (1995). One thing they have in common is an élan that’s too often missing from the work of white directors for whom the word genre is all too often a synonym for formula.
Van Peebles’ movie doesn’t entirely sidestep Hollywood cliché-mongering. Both conservatives and liberals went ballistic over Panther‘s historical inaccuracies, but those aren’t nearly as bothersome as its errors in tone. The Panthers were a lot of things — incendiary, sometimes brutal, sometimes brilliant, sometimes fatally wrongheaded — but they were never cornball. Panther doesn’t so much romanticize the party as sentimentalize it. The movie often fails to meet the challenge of its subject, falling back on historical-epic commonplaces — a ’60s-a-matic soundtrack, stock characterizations, too obviously expository dialogue. There are too many moments when it stays afloat by dint of its fierce conviction and nothing more.
Tales From the Hood is equally fierce, and not just in its conviction. It’s an in-your-face hoot. By turns a genre homage, a genre parody, a felt polemic, and a nasty goof, the film has an anthology structure that does double duty, enabling Cundieff to salute the multistory horror movies his generation grew up watching (1972’s Tales From the Crypt and Asylum) and go nuts stylistically. The framing device concerns three young drug dealers who go to a funeral parlor to make a pickup but are instead treated to the tale-telling of a giddy mortician (Clarence Williams III). The stories meld comic-book mayhem with potent parables of race and class as opposed to old-fashioned, cautionary horror tales. Cundieff’s just updating the agenda. In the meantime, he has distasteful fun — Hood is as gory, and as scary, as any of its forebears. Not to mention funnier and more resonant.
Friday hits home in ways that are more peculiar and more problematic. Rapper-actor Ice Cube, who usually portrays tough guys, here plays Craig, an amiable ne’er-do-well. The comedy mainly consists of Craig sitting on his porch with his reefer-loving pal Smokey (Chris Tucker), commenting on life in South Central — Clerks in the Hood, you could say — only Craig’s lost his job and Smokey’s heading for trouble. Despite its mostly relaxed vibe, Friday doesn’t turn a blind eye to the darker side of urban life; in fact, it builds gags around it. A drive-by shooting as slapstick may seem disturbing, but cowriters Cube and DJ Pooh and director F. Gary Gray (who directed TLC’s ”Waterfalls” video) are employing the same license white artists have enjoyed for decades. Besides, much of what they come up with is genuinely hilarious.
Out of Sync, which, unlike the other movies here, received only a tiny theatrical release, gives a grittier view of street life, but despite its being directed by perky polymath Allen and starring ”positive” rapper L.L. Cool J, it’s a message movie second. It’s first and foremost a crime story with little room for preachiness. Blending a vintage noir plotline (semi-lost soul goes undercover, falls for drug kingpin’s squeeze) with hip-hop trappings, Sync doesn’t go about its business briskly, but it lays out compelling characterizations — L.L. Cool J’s troubled DJ and Howard Hesseman’s jazz-loving cop — and maintains a knowing sense of place as it moves from underground party to disco to police interrogation rooms. Although a minor effort, Sync, and all the other movies here, prove that once the means are there, black film can, and should, go anywhere it pleases. Panther: C+ Hood: A- Friday: B+ Sync: B-