Sunday at the Movies: Soul Food

When I worked for Columbia TriStar Home Video in the late 1990s, one of my many assignments was to find movies with black casts and black directors for potential acquisitions. That brought me in to confrontation with the riff in black cultural expression that has widened since then. I didn’t know then and don’t know now: what cultural expression is specifically black? What makes up authentic ‘blackness?’ Is there such a thing? If it exists, what is its nature? If there is authentic blackness, is there an authentic whiteness? Is there a red and yellow nature and natural expression? Is it racist to believe that any of this is so? If so, why all the constant discussion about it?

Columbia TriStar Home Video (CTHV) was in the business of buying the rights to movies and then marketing those movies to the public all over the world. In the pre-streaming era, the primary way Americans watched movies at home was to rent them from Blockbuster Video, and the home video business was highly developed in other countries as well.

CTHV had research indicating that black people bought movie tickets at a higher percentage than their share of the population as a whole. In other words, black Americans were an avid and loyal customer base. We knew movies with black cast, a black director and a black screen writer would appeal to a black audience and we wanted to serve them. Those movies would, by extension, be a ‘black film,’ and exhibit ‘black themes’ or ‘black culture’ if you like.

The reason movie studios didn’t simply make more of these films to serve this market was lack of appeal to international audiences. American movies with all-black casts didn’t sell in Europe or Asia and so if a movie costs $10 million to make and market but only sold in the US, the risks of losing money were higher in an industry where losing money was already common. There were always ‘martial arts movies’ with strong box office potential in Europe and Asia available to buy or make instead. Jackie Chan and Jet Li became stars in this era because of the strong Asian marketplace for those films and only the biggest black stars like Denzel Washington could translate overseas.

Africa at that time, incidentally, wasn’t a viable marketplace due to the limited number of screens there, a limited number of homes with TV, and few home video distributors.

Given CTHVs desire to serve a black audience and dilemma regarding producing these movies, it was my job to find and screen the low budget movies that black indie filmmakers were making and determine if they would be a credible alternative to making black movies. If we weren’t going to make those movies, could we buy them? That was the question I was to answer.

I began to attend screenings of available films, called ‘urban action’ movies, or ‘rap movies’ since they were all about young black men in poor neighborhoods who’s lives revolved around violence, drugs, sex, and rap music. The rights to these movies were for sale. Emerging black rap artists like DMX were the stars of many of these movies. They screened at various places around Los Angeles, and the screenings were, by and large, well run affairs. I wasn’t the only acquisitions person there; Warner Bros, Paramount… my competitors were there because they all had the same data and dilemma.

I can’t remember the titles of most of the movies I saw. The majority of them were never distributed widely enough to become hits; they would be available in small video stores in predominantly black neighborhoods across the country and then disappear. These movies varied in production values but not in content; they were universally violent, had a high foul language content, plenty of on-screen drug use, and the women in them received very poor treatment. In one particularly memorable scene, a man shot a woman in the back of the head while having sex with her. This was good thing according to the logic of the film because she had betrayed him.

I remember thinking at the time that it was comical for me to be in charge of finding these movies to buy; I was not in the position to know what young black audiences might want. However, I did know what the ratings board might give these movies; they would receive a deal killing NC-17 rating which meant Blockbuster wouldn’t take them. I also knew what my (Jewish and gay) bosses at CTHV would think about them; they would balk in horror at the content. Based on these facts alone, I was not going to recommend CTHV make offers for these films and consequently, based on my reports, no offers were made.

It is worth noting that many American films are violent, have foul language, show drug use, and show the murder of women. Every Coppola, Scorsese, or Quentin Tarantino movie meets those qualifications to a degree. But there was something different about these movies. The leading characters were two dimensionally criminal and violent without any other characteristics that made for great gangster movies. If there was depth there, I could not perceive it. In the ‘Godfather’ films, the story is about a criminal family with a code of honor outside of the mainstream. Tarantino films are twisted comedies with cartoonish stylized violence. Scorsese films have complex themes and characters. None of the films I recall rose to that level; the leading characters did drugs, did murders, did women, and then repeated it. ‘Boyz In The ‘Hood’ and ‘Poetic Justice’ had similar themes, but the movies I saw weren’t that well put together. Many low-budget movies are poorly made but it was the content that was the no-go, not the production values.

These closest I came to finding the right movie was a film called ‘3 Strikes’. Here is a synopsis:

“Rob has 2 strikes and 3 strikes now mean 25 years to life. Leaving prison, he’s picked up in a stolen car later stopped by the police. Can he prove his innocence before he is caught?”

This movie was a comedy and it had a cast of black comics, many who went on to further stardom. It had no scenes of outright brutal murder and I thought it would garner an R rating (which it later did when MGM Video bought it). I set up the screening for my boss, who passed on it. It was OK, but not great.

So, what did the leadership at CTHV want? Well, they all wanted a Fox movie called ‘Soul Food.’ Here is the summary from Wikipedia:

‘Soul Food’ is a 1997 American comedy-drama film produced by Kenneth “Babyface” Edmonds, Tracey Edmonds and Robert Teitel and released by Fox 2000 Pictures. Featuring an ensemble cast, the film stars Vanessa Williams, Vivica A. Fox, Nia Long, Michael Beach, Jeffrey D. Sams, Irma P. Hall, Gina Ravera… Written and directed by George Tillman Jr. in his major studio debut, the film centers on the trials of an extended African-American family, held together by longstanding family traditions which begin to fade as serious problems take center stage. Tillman based the family in the film on his own and ‘Soul Food’ was widely acclaimed for presenting a more positive image of African-Americans than is typically seen in Hollywood films.

Note that last part: ‘widely acclaimed for presenting a more positive image of African-Americans…’

But, ‘3 Strikes’ and ‘Soul Food’ were written and produced by black screenwriters and had black actors and directors; they are both ‘black movies’ from that perspective. Who ‘widely acclaimed’ them in such a manner as to be noteworthy? And ‘typically seen in Hollywood films?’ The movies I was sent to screen were outside of the ‘Hollywood’ system, and they did not present a ‘positive image of African-Americans’ at all.

The problem I faced at that time was at there weren’t any movies like ‘Soul Food’ for sale. ‘Soul Food’ had a real star powered cast and studio backing. It was pre-sold by Fox and never for sale. The black film making community at that time was producing ‘3 Strikes’ and more movies about black life not covered in ‘Soul Food.’

My boss, Clint Culpepper, eventually was able to get Columbia TriStar to revive the old Screen Gems releasing brand and under Screen Gems they made many films with all black casts that were main stream in content and tone. ‘About Last Night’ was a 2014 remake with Kevin Hart of a film by the same name with Demi Moore and Rob Lowe from the 1980s which was a film adaptation of a play by David Mamet from the 1970s. Screen Gems made many similar movies. I played a small part in getting more films with black casts made by searching for films that CTHV could have bought and I proved that they didn’t exist. It was Clint who drove the company to take advantage of the market opening. Clint is a persistent person with real vision and drive and he had the executives over him on his side. He wanted these films made and they got made. He deserves wide credit for these and other accomplishments.

While the success of the Screen Gems films is worthy of celebration, the question remains about the black cultural experience that I witnessed in those films we didn’t buy, and it doesn’t resolve the larger question about ‘blackness’ in the United States. Is the black experience the same as the white one, but with different color skin? That is the experience Screen Gems was trying to create with remakes of films that had previously been made with all white casts. Or, were the movies I saw, like ‘3 Strikes’ and others, more an expression of authentic black culture, and not the black culture that white people would support? Do these cultural expressions have imitators in real life, and do these imitations have real life consequences?

The rap music/hip-hop culture that I know about leaves little doubt about this; the black experience is about criminal activity in many instances and expresses attitudes towards women much more like what I saw in those unreleased ‘urbane action’ films. It’s still there and I know this; I listen to that music. I like that music. Here are the lyrics for a song I like called ‘Money Trees’ by Kendrick Lamar:

It go Halle Berry or hallelujah

Pick your poison tell me what you do

Everybody gon’ respect the shooter

But the one in front of the gun lives forever (the one in front of the gun forever)

And I been hustlin’ all day, this a way, that a way

Through canals and alleyways, just to say

Money trees is the perfect place for shade and that’s just how I feel (now, now)

A dollar might, just fuck your main bitch that’s just how I feel (now)

A dollar might, say fuck them niggas that you came with that’s just how I feel (now, now)

A dollar might, just make that lane switch that’s just how I feel (now) A dollar might, turn to a million and we all rich that’s just how I feel

Is this authentic black culture? If it is, is authentic black culture irredeemably violent and criminal, and if so, is it racist to depict it in film or even try to interdict it in real life with police? Do films like ‘Soul Food’ and ‘About Last Night’ reflect white preferences for black people?

These questions are not just abstract musings. Art and culture matter because they are reflections of real life. Paintings and books, and their downstream creations, recorded music and movies, reflect the thoughts and values of their creators. What are the ramifications of the thoughts and values reflected in the films I saw and the music I listen to?

Well, it is at this point that we reach a bunch of no-go political problems. For example, does authentic blackness allow for the glorification of people like George Floyd and Michael Brown and many others who died after confrontation with the police and then go on to be saints and martyrs? George Floyd broke into a home and pointed a gun at the belly of a pregnant woman in order to extract cash from her. Were these behaviors the undesirable choices of George Floyd the individual, or was he acting out a cultural preference that is authentic and therefore, should not be judged? It seems that in death, there is an effort to distance men like George Floyd from the actions of their lives and portray them as ‘gentle giants’ who are just like everyone else except they had black skin and that is what led to their demise. The police killed him ‘for nothing.’ George Floyd was ‘3 Strikes’ in life, and ‘Soul Food’ in death.

The living black men who create the cultural expressions of blackness seem to be sending a different message and making a different kind of art from what we wanted at CTHV. What I saw in those movies and the reason I didn’t recommend them for acquisitions is because they portrayed authentic blackness as violent criminality which, as in real life, was mostly directed at other black people. They were all in on it. ‘If you ain’t a killa, you ain’t black,’ was not a cultural expression I wanted any part of promoting. When I saw a black man shoot a black women mid-sex, my heart turned on that film. I can’t even remember the title of that movie but I remember that scene vividly. What I saw was a brutal horrific murder committed by an individual, not authentic black culture, as far as I was concerned. I thought the lives of black women mattered enough to do my part to see that movie was buried.

Refusing to associate blackness with behaviors, however, puts me at odds with the larger culture of the United States. Blackness, as reported by everyone from rap artists to the current President, is a set of behaviors; it’s not skin color. Black people aren’t white people with dark skin; they are behaviors and the sitting President has noted “You  ain’t black’ if you don’t vote for Democrats. In other words, President Biden says black behavior is blackness, not black skin.

But, what behavior constitutes blackness? No one is prepared to answer this vexing question. And yet, I also see most TV commercials now, post George Floyd, show black actors doing things that have nothing to do with anything specifically black, like buying stuff in a store. My personal experience with the many black people I have known and worked with is that they, as individuals, are mostly identical to their white counterparts. They are of the ‘Soul Food’ variety. Two black friends of mine, Lori Grace and James Bullock, were plenty black, and they were good musicians who excelled at R&B music which is a popular genre pioneered by black artists. James and Lori and I had no trouble being friends in the 1980s because they were 90% just like me in most respects and there were no compelling reasons NOT to be friends. We liked the same music, went to the same school, and hung out at the same places, most of the time. None of us put the other at any kind of risk.

But, that was then and this is now. Lori and James are on one side of a political divide and I am on another. The culture has clearly changed.

In the intervening years, Americans were told by political and cultural leaders that we needed to have a ‘national conversation about race’ and now, apparently, that has morphed into ‘raising black voices.’ The ‘national conversation’ was never about black behavior or blackness, since that was forbidden to discuss, and the ‘black voices’ part seems to be of the ‘Soul Food’ voice and not the ‘3 Strikes’ voice. In the TV commercials and shows, ‘Soul Food’ blackness prevails, but in the TV news, the ‘3 Strikes’ blackness shows through.

So, here we are with a never ending conversation about race and race issues and no resolution in sight. Until the issue of ‘blackness’ is resolved, no resolution is possible. That task, like deciding to buy or make black films back in the day, is over my pay grade. I can only watch and observe. In the meantime, I will take black friends where I can find them; mark me down as thinking that blackness really is skin color and behavior is the domain of the individual.