Has a decade of diversity come to an end?

‘For Colored girls’ (and other Folks) Who continue to Feel Invisible When Searching For Onscreen Reflections

By T. T. Stern-Enzi

Hill Harper and Kerry Washington in 'For Colored Girls.'

There have always been urban films, from the black exploitation films of the 1970s to the comic movies that capitalized on stand-up performers transitioning to the mainstream to the hood action dramas infused with hip hop sensibilities, but it seemed as if black folks would finally be moving on up out of the Hollywood ghetto.

It all started back in 2002, when Halle Berry and Denzel Washington won Academy Awards for their respective leading performances in “Monster’s Ball” and “Training Day.” After decades of an invisibility, the kind that Ralph Ellison so eloquently defined in “Invisible Man,” suddenly the blinders on the eyes of mainstream audiences and Academy voters had seemingly been removed and black performers were no longer “Hollywood ectoplasms,” but reel characters of actual flesh and blood that could be appreciated beyond the casual and crude stereotypes that had haunted screens for so long.

Jamie Foxx (“Ray”) and Forest Whitaker (“The Last King of Scotland”) came into sharp focus. Morgan Freeman, who along with Washington had attracted passing glances before from the Academy (supporting nominations for “Street Smart” and “Driving Miss Daisy”) finally earned recognition for “Million Dollar Baby” and last year Mo’nique poked audiences in the eye with her searing portrayal of a hellish welfare mother in “Precious.”

To paraphrase the ubiquitous catchphrase from those cell phone commercials, we no longer needed to ask, “Can you see me now?” It seemed as if the resounding answer was, “Yes, we can!”

Of course, that makes 2010 a bit confounding because fresh off the aforementioned wins, a host of nominations, and a steady rise in the presence of African American filmmakers working and finding success behind the cameras (from Tyler Perry to Lee Daniels) to an emergence as studio project shepherds (F. Gary Gray – “The Italian Job” and “Law Abiding Citizen”) and indie storytellers (Barry Jenkins – “Medicine For Melancholy”) has resulted in a year of stagnation that could be either a mere dipping blip on the radar or a return of the fade to invisibility.

The Tyler Perry brand, with its roots on the stage that have extended to film and television, is a cash cow for Lionsgate, but his reach certainly failed to exceed his grasp with “For Colored Girls,” his adaptation of the award-winning choreopoem by Ntozake Shange (“For colored girls who have considered suicide when the rainbow is enuf”).  Attempting to stake out a claim beyond the stereotypical urban drama that has been his staple, Perry slammed into a glass ceiling that caused far more harm to the wings of several talented performers in his cast than to his own dreams of flight.

Kerry Washington, one of the colorful ladies of “For Colored Girls,” spent 2010 chipping away at that invisible barrier. She burned brightly among the fine ensemble cast of Rodrigo Garcia’s “Mother and Child,” alongside a noteworthy performance from Annette Bening. This multi-faceted gem was one of the few truly diverse offerings from either the studio or independent world mixing the flavorful spices of class and race into a hearty stew about the universal nature of motherhood.  Washington was able to fully embody a strongly driven black female in the world without having to explicitly signify her status as such. And she ended the year with “Night Catches Us,” the Sundance-supported feature debut of writer-director Tanya Hamilton, about former Black Panthers struggling to re-settle in Philadelphia in the mid-70s.

It is films like these and performers like Washington and “Night” co-star Anthony Mackie (“The Hurt Locker”) that keep hope alive for the continued visibility of black folks onscreen. For both performers and audience, it is vital that an open awareness exists, a recognition of the necessity for stories from our cultural perspective, but also those that speak to our presence in the greater socio-cultural frame, so that we all can see and appreciate how black folks help to define what it means to be visibly human participants in the ever-evolving modern American narrative.

Reach DCP freelance writer T.T. Stern-Enzi at T.T.Stern-Enzi@daytoncitypaper.com.

T.T. Stern-Enzi
Reach DCP Film Critic T.T. Stern-Enzi at Film@DaytonCityPaper.com and visit his blog for additional film reviews at TerrenceTodd.com. You can also follow him on Twitter at @ttsternenzi.

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