A Survey Of Recent Films Directed By Black Women, Released By Hollywood Studios After 'Belle's' Strong Opening
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A Survey Of Recent Films Directed By Black Women, Released By Hollywood Studios After 'Belle's' Strong Opening

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A packed theater of people watching and enjoying a film is

any filmmaker’s dream. Days before the official release of Amma Asante’s film Belle, I attended an advance screening

of the film in a packed theater with a mostly female, African American audience. They connected to the film in ways that confirmed it’s potential

theatrical success.

The film came out strong this past weekend, grossing over $104K

playing on only four screens in LA and New York City, for a per screen average

of $26,123. These are solid numbers considering it’s limited release by Fox

Searchlight, and should bode well for its expansion into theaters across the

country in the coming weeks. A smart marketing campaign by the team behind 12 Years A Slave, widespread press

coverage devoted

to its rich source material, and advance screenings targeting African

American audiences, can be attributed to the film’s successful opening. Following

the screening last Wednesday, Asante expressed that she wouldn’t sacrifice the

cultural nuances related to Belle’s race and gender at the request of

higher-ups; she “smuggled” them into the narrative at any cost.

In Belle, Asante

takes a familiar genre and infuses it with a distinct directorial perspective

that resonates not only with black women, but people raised on classical art

and literature who want to see it reinterpreted. It’s a fresh, contemporary script

that capitalizes on its interracial cast by evoking racial discord and romance

at every turn. At the pre-screening, the audience responded heavily to the

powerful performance by Gugu Mbatha-Raw who wields equal parts vulnerability,

class, and passion in the role based on the real-life Dido Elizabeth Belle, biracial daughter of Admiral Sir John Lindsay and an enslaved woman named Maria Belle. Belle was raised by her uncle William Murray, the 1st Earl of Mansfield,

who ruled on seminal cases involving the abolishment of slavery while raising

her. In the film, Belle unpacks her complicated racial identity during this

time, falling for a budding lawyer amidst scorn from the white aristocracy.

It is rare that feature films written and directed by black

women are received and distributed in this way. The last time we saw a film

directed by a black woman, and distributed by a major studio, was Kasi Lemmons’ 2013 film Black Nativity released by Fox Searchlight. Based on a Langston Hughes play, the film had trouble reaching an audience during its Thanksgiving opening weekend. Prior to that, Tina Gordon

Chism’s Peeples was released by

Lionsgate to disappointing box office numbers and critical reception. A

confusing marketing campaign depicting enlarged photos of actor’s faces with

weird facial expressions contributed to this. (Sergio went into depth about

that campaign in a previous post.) Further, many people didn’t know the

film was directed by a black woman, as critics continually referred to it as

Tyler Perry’s “biggest box office disappointment to date.” What a way to

encourage viewers. It is worth pondering- if people had known of Chism’s involvement in the film as writer/director, would they have seen it?

But before Peeples,

there was Dee Rees’ critically acclaimed 2011 film Pariah,

centering on the struggles of a black lesbian teenager played by Adepero Oduye. Released by Focus

Features to key theaters across the country, the film was met with glowing

reviews, and grossed $48,579 in its opening weekend before expanding.  While audience anticipation was high,

especially among black/LGBT viewers, the film didn’t open in many theaters where

these people could see it. 

Ava DuVernay’s 2012 film Middle

of Nowhere, which averaged $67,909 in its opening weekend, and was

distributed by Participant Media and DuVernay’s film distribution company AFFRM,

solved that problem by targeting

non-specialized theaters with large black audiences. Without a mainstream

distributor, it utilized a strong social media presence in the months before

the film’s opening, coupled with AFFRM’s direct- action community building

tactics to attract viewers. Following the unconventional successes of Middle of Nowhere and I Will Follow, DuVernay is set to direct

Selma, the highly anticipated MLK

biopic starring David Oyelowo, produced by Brad Pitt’s Plan B team and

distributed by Paramount.

There doesn’t seem to be a formula or science to the

mainstream attractiveness of films made by black women, and there’s

surely no lack of deserving content by black women and women in general. A

look at the last decade in black women’s contributions to cinema shows a

combination of strategies and models that have helped them navigate widespread,

systemic barriers to resources, opportunities, and funding, with Belle being the latest example.

With each box office success, we hope things change for the

better, but will they?

Shadow and Act is a website dedicated to cinema, television and web content of Africa and its global Diaspora. With daily news, interviews, in-depth investigations into the audiovisual industry, and more, Shadow and Act promotes content created by and about people of African descent throughout the world.

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