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Shaping the Future of African American Film

Color-Coded Economics and the Story Behind the Numbers

by Monica Ndounou

Publication Year: 2014

In Hollywood, we hear, it’s all about the money. It’s a ready explanation for why so few black films get made—no crossover appeal, no promise of a big payoff. But what if the money itself is color-coded? What if the economics that governs film production is so skewed that no film by, about, or for people of color will ever look like a worthy investment unless it follows specific racial or gender patterns? This, Monica Ndounou shows us, is precisely the case. In a work as revealing about the culture of filmmaking as it is about the distorted economics of African American film, Ndounou clearly traces the insidious connections between history, content, and cash in black films.How does history come into it? Hollywood’s reliance on past performance as a measure of potential success virtually guarantees that historically underrepresented, underfunded, and undersold African American films devalue the future prospects of black films. So the cycle continues as it has for nearly a century. Behind the scenes, the numbers are far from neutral. Analyzing the onscreen narratives and off-screen circumstances behind nearly two thousand films featuring African Americans in leading and supporting roles, including such recent productions as Bamboozled, Beloved, and Tyler Perry’s Diary of a Mad Black Woman, Ndounou exposes the cultural and racial constraints that limit not just the production but also the expression and creative freedom of black films. Her wide-ranging analysis reaches into questions of literature, language, speech and dialect, film images and narrative, acting, theater and film business practices, production history and financing, and organizational history.By uncovering the ideology behind profit-driven industry practices that reshape narratives by, about, and for people of color, this provocative work brings to light existing limitations—and possibilities for reworking stories and business practices in theater, literature, and film.

Published by: Rutgers University Press

Title Page, Copyright Page, Dedication

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pp. vii-viii

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pp. ix-x

As a scholar and as an artist with experience in directing, acting, and writing, as well as an avid film viewer who also happens to be an African American woman, I set out to determine if the above statement is true. What I discovered in the process has altered my approach to every aspect of my work. ...

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Introduction. The Color of Hollywood—Black, White, or Green?

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pp. 1-26

On April 20, 2012, director Tim Story’s Think Like a Man, a cinematic adaptation of comedian Steve Harvey’s self-help book, Act Like a Lady, Think Like a Man, debuted on over two thousand screens across the United States. Produced on a $12 million budget,1 Think Like a Man earned $34 million in its opening weekend, holding the number-one spot for top-grossing movies for two consecutive weeks. ...

Part One: Finding Freedom on Stage and Screen

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1. The Plantation Lives!

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pp. 29-56

Academy Award–nominated actress Alfre Woodard’s suggestion to look beyond screenplays as a source for good material offers a useful although precarious intervention in the future development of African American film due to the critical interrelation between theatrical and cinematic production. ...

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2. Insurrection! African American Film’s Revolutionary Potential through Black Theater

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pp. 57-92

Plays with predominantly black casts are less likely to be adapted into films. This is in part because adaptations of plays with predominantly white casts have been more lucrative. Those plays with predominantly black casts that have been adapted to film tend to receive comparatively lower budgets and less distribution than their white-cast counterparts, ...

Part Two: Black Pathology Sells [Books and Films]?

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3. Playing with Fire: Black Women’s Literature/White Box Office

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pp. 95-130

Given the racial dynamics of the entertainment industry, films by and about black women are poised to fail. Yet since 1980, there have been three cinematic adaptations of books by black women, all with black female protagonists, that are among the highest-grossing of all African American film dramas. ...

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4. Breaking the Chains of History and Genre

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pp. 131-166

Considering the influence of early novels on historical films such as The Birth of a Nation and the various film versions of Uncle Tom’s Cabin, translating written language for private consumption into a publicly consumed visual language historically limits black representation. It also inspires intertextual discourse between African American novelists and filmmakers. ...

Part Three: It’s Not Just Business: Color-Coded Economics and Original Films

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5. The Paradox of Branding, Black Star Power, and Box Office Politics

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pp. 169-200

The Ulmer Scale, developed by James Ulmer, a film analyst, journalist, and contributing writer to the New York Times, in 1997, tracks and scores star bankability, which refers to “the degree to which an actor’s name alone can raise full or majority financing up front for a motion picture.”1 ...

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6. Big Business: Hip-Hop Gangsta Films and Black Comedies

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pp. 201-238

From 1995 to 2012, there have been more films produced from original screenplays than any other source material. Novels run a close second, while stage plays are far less frequently adapted, even among African American films.1 ...

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Conclusion: The Story Behind the Numbers

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pp. 239-250

Black cultural producers continue to occupy a precarious position in Hollywood, but there are promising indicators that suggest change is afoot. On July 1, 2012, Beasts of the Southern Wild,, Benh Zeitlin’s cinematic adaptation of southerner Lucy Alibar’s play, opened on four screens in the United States. ...

Appendix: Ulmer Ratings of Selected Actors

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pp. 251-254


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pp. 255-278

Selected Filmography

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pp. 279-282


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pp. 283-304

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About the Author

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Monica White Ndounou is an assistant professor of drama, American studies, and film studies at Tufts University. She directs plays and teaches interdisciplinary courses in theater, film, media, and cultural studies. ...

E-ISBN-13: 9780813562575
E-ISBN-10: 0813562570
Print-ISBN-13: 9780813562568
Print-ISBN-10: 0813562562

Page Count: 296
Illustrations: 10 photos, 5 figures, 6 tables
Publication Year: 2014

OCLC Number: 879576313
MUSE Marc Record: Download for Shaping the Future of African American Film

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Subject Headings

  • African American motion picture producers and directors.
  • Motion picture industry -- Finance -- United States.
  • Motion pictures -- Economic aspects -- United States.
  • African Americans in the motion picture industry.
  • African Americans in motion pictures.
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