‘They Set Us Up to Fail’: Black Directors of the ’90s Speak Out

For the first time in a long time, things seemed to be changing in Hollywood. Black filmmakers were making inroads where their white counterparts had long been parked, bringing with them an array of perspectives and experiences seldom recognized by mainstream American production companies. The bad old days — of blackface and white saviors, of “colorblind” studio executives and all-white Oscar nominees — grew, for a while, hazy and remote, suddenly incongruous with the diverse new landscape.

“Just about every studio in town has a project in development with a black director … or wants to,” read an article in this newspaper, headlined “In Hollywood, Black Is In.”

It wasn’t 2019, but 1990, more than two decades before #OscarsSoWhite and the industry’s continuing reckoning over the representation of African-Americans in front of and behind the camera. Then as now, a string of hit movies by black directors — Spike Lee’s “Do the Right Thing,” the Hudlin brothers’ “House Party,” John Singleton’s “Boyz N the Hood” and Mario Van Peebles’s “New Jack City” — inspired optimism that Hollywood, despite overwhelmingly white executive leadership, had awakened to the moral and financial benefits of empowering minority artists.

Speaking for a 1991 story titled “They’ve Gotta Have Us” — from a New York Times Magazine issue that featured the aforementioned black filmmakers on its cover — the director Charles Lane was one of many who foresaw permanent change: “The Berlin Wall, having been pulled down, will not be re-erected.”

But as the decade wore on, a wall was re-erected, black filmmakers now say, and many of the same people who had been held up as the faces of a changing industry watched as their careers ground slowly to a halt.

“I was told that I was in director’s jail,” said Matty Rich, whose emotionally incendiary 1991 debut film, “Straight Out of Brooklyn,” won a special jury prize at the Sundance Film Festival that year. Major film studios hailed him as a prodigy. But he’s made only one other film since — in 1994.

Darnell Martin, whose vibrant 1994 romantic comedy “I Like It Like That” was the first studio-produced film to be directed by an African-American woman (it won the New York Film Critics Circle award for best first feature), said she was later blacklisted in the industry for speaking out against racism and misogyny.

“You think, ‘It’s O.K. — you’re like every other filmmaker,’ but then you realize, ‘No,’” she said. “It’s like they set us up to fail — all they wanted was to be able to pat themselves on the back like they did something.”

The New York Times recently convened a discussion with six directors who were part of a wave of young black talent that surged 30 years ago this month — beginning with the success of “Do the Right Thing” in July 1989 — only to come crashing down, as Hollywood in the 1990s and 2000s reconstituted itself around films with white directors and white casts.

Along with Rich and Martin, taking part in the teleconference were Julie Dash, director of “Daughters of the Dust” (1991); Leslie Harris, director of “Just Another Girl on the I.R.T.” (1993); Ernest Dickerson, director of “Juice” (1992); and Theodore Witcher, director of “Love Jones” (1997).

Many of the participants had never before talked to one another, reflecting a commonly reported feeling of isolation. But the experiences they shared — of barely disguised prejudice, of being marginalized by executives who feigned interest in their work, of lacking a safety net that seemed to buoy their white peers — fit into a kind of mosaic. It depicts a system that failed to sustain a generation of its minority talent, and stands as a challenge to those who would seek reform.

These are edited excerpts from the conversation.

Sentenced to ‘Director’s Jail’

When did you first feel alienated in Hollywood?

LESLIE HARRIS (“Just Another Girl on the I.R.T.”) Right after [my debut], I had a script about a female record executive. What I heard was that it was just hard to get a black actress in a movie, with me being a black woman director, producer and writer.

What would they say to you?

HARRIS Just that. “We can’t get financing.” This is from my agent.

JULIE DASH (“Daughters of the Dust”) I was told that, too. Also, when I would indicate that I’m here as a director to make films about black women, executives would say to me, “Why are you limiting yourself?” [Her film, the story of three generations of Gullah women facing the Great Migration, made Dash the first African-American woman to direct a movie in wide release.] I was like, “I’m not. I want to see our stories on the screen that haven’t been shown before. I’m bringing forth something new. Take a look at it.”

DARNELL MARTIN (“I Like It Like That”) As an African-American woman who speaks up and fights against things that are racist or misogynistic, I felt a very big backlash. If I had a penny for every time I was blacklisted and somebody told me, “You will never work again,” I’d be super, super wealthy. [Though Martin has worked regularly in television, she has made only one theatrical film since her 1994 debut, “Cadillac Records” in 2008.]

The thing they kept saying to me was, “Aren’t you grateful? How come you’re not grateful?” I’m like, “Do you ask your white filmmakers that? I wrote this film, and there was a bidding war, and I gave it to you, and you keep telling me I need to be grateful?”

What other kinds of things did you hear?

HARRIS I went to an interview and someone said to me: “You don’t look like a filmmaker. What are you doing here?”

MATTY RICH (“Straight Out of Brooklyn”) Wow.

ERNEST DICKERSON (“Juice”) What does a filmmaker look like?

DASH After “Daughters,” I tried to get representation at the Gersh Agency in New York. They told me I didn’t have a future. They saw no future for me as a black woman director. What were they going to do with me?

DICKERSON There used to be a time where you go after an agency, and they would always tell the story, “We already got our black filmmakers.”

MARTIN And you had to do what they wanted you to do, too, because you were their black filmmaker. It was like, “This is the film, you’ve got to do it.” It was like, “I’m not feeling it.” but you had to do it.

When did you sense that the well was drying up?

RICH I was told that I was in director’s jail. Director’s jail is if your film doesn’t make X amount of money, then it’s going to be hard for you to get another movie financed. [Rich’s 1994 follow-up, “The Inkwell,” earned just under its reported budget of $8 million theatrically.]

DICKERSON I’ve been there.

RICH They told me the only way out of director’s jail is that you have to write your way out of it. So I wrote a Tupac Shakur project for HBO, and I came onboard to write “Subway Scholar” at Showtime for Whitney Houston. But I got frustrated because I had a lot of things stuck in development. I met the C.E.O. of Ubisoft, a gaming company in Paris, and they needed some help on a game [“187: Ride or Die”] that they were about to release. I wound up living there for two years as the creative director and art director. That was kind of my new outlet for storytelling without Hollywood. It felt like everyone had wanted me to make another urban drama, instead of a family-oriented, lighthearted story like “The Inkwell.”

DICKERSON I made a movie called “Bulletproof,” with Damon Wayans and Adam Sandler. Working on that film was the only time I ever got mad enough to punch a hole in the editing room wall. It was supposed to be a raunchy, R-rated comedy slanted more for an adult audience. But I could see we had trouble when they were giving out tickets to 15- to 16-year-old kids at the first preview. Afterward, I had to really sanitize the relationships. It meant savaging the movie.

It still opened at No. 1, but I got the worst reviews of my career. I was criticized for not having everything I was told to take out. I had several projects lined up — I had been developing “Blade,” with Wesley Snipes. The whole idea of where “Blade” went was mine. But the producers looked to “Bulletproof” and thought I had completely lost my street cred. After that, nobody would touch me. I think I’m still in jail, in a way, because I’m doing television. [Dickerson — like many of his peers, including Martin and Dash — has found work on the small screen, with credits on “The Wire” and “The Walking Dead.”] I consider myself a filmmaker who’s working in television.

‘If You’re In, Eventually You’ll Be Out’

There are filmmakers of all races and backgrounds who have a spark early on, or cause a sensation at Sundance, and then have difficulty following it up. If that phenomenon is especially common with black filmmakers, what do you think causes the disparity?

DASH Access and opportunity.

MARTIN I think also that if it’s your second film, you tend to want to push more. My second film was “Prison Song.” I wanted to make a film about how kids of color were marginalized and pushed directly into the prison system. And I wanted it to be a hip-hop opera. That was really kind of wild at that period. But you think, “It’s O.K. — you’re like every other filmmaker.’” But then you realize, no. If you stretch and have the art film, they’re not going to catch you and support that.

After “Boyz N the Hood,” which was released the same year as “Jungle Fever” and “New Jack City,” people were talking about this black wave, or this “class of ’91.” But it was almost talked about as a fad, or as if “black” was a hot genre that the studios could cash in on.

MARTIN One hundred percent. With my first film, there was a bidding war with people who hadn’t even read the script — studios — just because they heard I was the female Spike Lee. [Martin began her career as a camera operator on Lee’s “Do the Right Thing,” working under Dickerson.] But they weren’t looking at the work. They didn’t believe that we had anything of merit for ourselves. It’s just that we were the flavor, that’s it.

DICKERSON That’s the thing we’ve got to make sure of, that we’re not going to be the flavor.

DASH We’re the main ingredient.

MARTIN I love that. You’ve got to write a book. “The Main Ingredient.”

DASH If you’re in, eventually you’ll be out, and someone else will be in. It shouldn’t be binary like that. We are, we exist.

Ted, “Love Jones” came along a little bit later, in 1997. Shortly afterward, black romantic comedies — “The Best Man,” “Brown Sugar” — became kind of a subcategory. Did you feel the shift coming?

WITCHER I was optimistic, because we had done well at Sundance, and I had tried to make the film accessible to as much of a mass audience as it was going to be. But we never quite cracked the marketing of it, and it didn’t really perform at the box office, even though the soundtrack was a hit.

Then I made maybe a mistake, because instead of retrenching and trying to do something similar, I tried to push further. I walk into a room — I don’t feel any sort of inferiority whatsoever. But they look at the numbers and go, “Who is this guy with this attitude with these numbers? Your movie made $12 million. Why are you even in my office today?”

When you say “attitude,” what do you mean?

WITCHER I conducted myself like a Hollywood movie director, which is what I was at that point. But I didn’t understand that it wasn’t necessarily about the creative achievement of the film, or even whether you win any trophies for it. It’s about numbers.

MARTIN But how many white directors have those numbers and get more and more movies thrown at them? I mean, that happens all the time. We don’t get that.

WITCHER White people get more bites of the apple. That’s just true. You can fail three, four times and still have a career. But if you’re black, you really can only fail once.

‘This Feels Different’

If you look at some young black directors today, Barry Jenkins or Terence Nance, for example, some had careers that started out similarly to those of a lot of people on this call. But eventually, “Moonlight” happened for Jenkins, and Nance is directing the “Space Jam” sequel. What’s different now for the black directors who are breaking through?

DASH Social media is a game changer. People can know what you’re doing in real time, without hiring a publicist. Back then, we couldn’t afford a publicist — we had a family. [Dash and the visual artist Arthur Jafa, who was the cinematographer on “Daughters of the Dust,” have a daughter, N’Zinga Dash.]

WITCHER The internet and massive streaming companies. I’m not really optimistic about the movie business in general, but, as black filmmakers, I’m much more optimistic about the disruption that’s been brought to the industry by these massive technology companies.

HARRIS I think it’s also a cultural shift. The culture is changing. The racist statues are coming down. Black Lives Matter. Even #MeToo has changed things a bit. [“Just Another Girl” was distributed by Miramax, co-founded by Harvey Weinstein.] We don’t know if that’s going to last, but I think that’s influenced Hollywood. It’s going to be forced to change by the culture, by young people. Now social media can amplify some of the injustices that are going on.

Will what happened in the ’90s — a boom followed by a bust — happen again?

DICKERSON This feels a little different to me. Feels bigger.

DASH It’s different.


WITCHER It feels a little more permanent to me. Maybe I’m wrong. Maybe I’ll look back on this and eat my words. But it might stick.

DICKERSON We’ve had some black films that have made quite a lot of money. And there was even a breakthrough at Cannes this year.

RICH I would also add that there are a lot of African-Americans who are in power positions right now, even on the financing level. That didn’t really exist in the ’90s. People like Byron Allen — an African-American who is the head of a film distributor and a financier.

DASH I also think what’s different is that filmmakers like Barry Jenkins, Terence Nance and Ava DuVernay — they’re not only wildly creative, they’re courageous. They are not afraid to cross boundaries to say what they want to say. That’s important.

HARRIS I mean look at Ava, the amount of women of color she’s hiring. That is very important and that’s game changing.

How could things improve?

HARRIS More producers and executives of color. Look at the statistics — we need more.

Top art: New Line Cinema, via Alamy (“Love Jones”); Paramount Pictures, via Alamy (“Juice”); Miramax, via Everett Collection (“Just Another Girl on the I.R.T.”); Columbia Pictures, via Alamy (“I Like It Like That”); Kino International (“Daughters of the Dust”); The Samuel Goldwyn Company, via Everett Collection (“Straight out of Brooklyn”)

Reggie Ugwu is a pop culture reporter covering a range of subjects, including film, television, music and internet culture. Before joining The Times in 2017, he was a reporter for BuzzFeed News and Billboard magazine. @uugwuu

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