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Monday, July 13, 2015

Pioneering Black Cinema from the 1980s: HOLLYWOOD SHUFFLE and SHE'S GOTTA HAVE IT

So you know how I'm always saying that older films that featured actors of color explored perspectives we just don't enough of today? Hollywood Shuffle (1987) and She's Gotta Have It (1986) are two great examples that prove that theory. While neither is without its flaws, they both challenge the trope of studio films featuring minorities today that too often stifle their voices.

Prompted by the fact that they are featured in New York City's BAMcinématek's Indie 80s, a new film series that runs from July 17-August 27 and highlights more than 60 films by indie pioneers, I finally sat down to watch these two films and was affirmed by their commentary and approach to socio-political issues. It's funny how something that should be expected of all films is now something that I feel the need to acknowledge because it's a dying breed. Robert Townsend, who helmed Shuffle, had never before directed a film yet had had enough of his own experiences in Hollywood to present a story that pointed out many black stereotypes that still persist today. Whether it's "how to act black" for white Hollywood (strutting, saying "jive turkey" every two minutes, etc), there was and still is a notion that black outside the confines of a trope is inaccessible. Albeit a satire, Shuffle, like its modern descendant Dear White People, doesn't refrain from explicating some of the issues we have unwillingly learned to accept as the norm.

The same can be said for She's Gotta Have It, Spike Lee's drama that examines gender roles in a relationship--a woman's right to sleep with whomever she wants, whenever she wants; her right to have a point of view in a relationship, and even her right to not always have all the answers. It's that authoritative voice that is too often missing particularly in modern romcoms in which the woman is trapped in a fairy tale of her own making, looking for a prince. (It is worth noting that the small screen has given birth to such defiant gems as Jane the Virgin and Being Mary Jane, but the big screen still struggles to catch up). In She's Gotta Have It, the woman is simply a young metropolitan single looking for Mr. Right Now...on the way to maybe, possibly, coming across Mr. Soul Mate. This radical approach to romance is met with disdain from her male counterparts who accuse of being a "freak," someone  who has "daddy issues." In other words, her sexuality has to be studied, diagnosed, and ultimately cured.

There is something refreshing about two "dated" films with which modern, more politically conscious audiences can in some cases connect on a higher level than many films today. It's that's personal connection that differentiates a good film from a great film, one about humanity versus one that is simply a product. Obviously there are some great modern big screen films that defy this sentiment, but they are more the exception and not the rule. That's a problem.

Hollywood Shuffle opens BAMcinématek's Indie 80s on July 17, and She's Gotta Have It will be shown on August 23.

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