It seems strange to talk about “black film” in 2010 as though it was somehow separate. But in the earliest days of cinema, it was. Hollywood didn’t cater to black audiences and in some cities, blacks were not allowed in movie theatres.
Pioneering entrepreneurs in Chicago, New Jersey and New York created a niche film industry developing studios, and theatre and distribution chains for appreciative audiences.
Later, stars like Paul Robeson, Hattie McDaniel, Cab Calloway, Lena Horne, Duke Ellington and Count Basie and changing attitudes helped bridge the racial divide. By the time Sidney Poitier arrived in the early ’50s, the curtain was starting to fall on cultural segregation.
Cut to 2010 and the phenomenal success of Lee Daniels’ Precious: Based on the Novel Push by Sapphire, which won six Academy Award nominations last week, including best picture, director, actress (Gabourey Sidibe), supporting actress (Mo’Nique) and 44 previous awards.
Daniels, Toronto-based filmmaker Clement Virgo and Norman Jewison will reflect on this journey tonight at the Isabel Bader Theatre as part of the Canadian Film Centre’s salute to Black History Month, Celebrate the Black Experience in Cinema, followed by a screening of Jewison’s 1967 landmark drama In the Heat of the Night, starring Sidney Poitier.
Virgo says Jewison is an essential figure in the history of black cinema.
“He became one of the most influential filmmakers with In the Heat of the Night with Sidney Poitier, the seminal black actor of his generation. ”
Virgo, who just optioned the film rights to Lawrence Hill’s The Book of Negroes, is excited to be a part of the event.
“It will be an historical focus over the last 45 years since the civil rights movement. We’ll be talking about how black film changed over the years since the civil rights ’60s, the blaxploitation films of the ’70s, the comedy actors of the ’80s … We’ll look at the exploitation of black images and the black hero.”
Daniels, a 20-year Hollywood veteran (Monster’s Ball, The Woodsman, Shadowboxer), will address his new status and impact in Hollywood as the first African American to win both Best Director and Best Picture nominations in the same year.
He remembers advice Canada’s Jason Reitman gave him about his moment in history. “I felt very gratified, very humbled. But I was thinking about the next job and getting ahead of myself. Then, Jason said, ‘You have to embrace this moment, OK? Savour the moment.’”