few weeks ago I got to see Terrence Howard and Anika Noni Rose play Brick and Maggie "the Cat" in Debbie Allen's Broadway production of "Cat on a Hot Tin Roof." I went home depressed. Not because the show was bad, although, in its clanging way, it is. I was depressed because for all its shortcomings, the show was a big entertainment event that doesn't happen much in the movies: It had premium melodrama and black stars being starry. As a moviegoer, I hurt for that kind of glamour.
I felt the same hangover leaving an exhilarating concert by Erykah Badu and the Roots earlier this month, and watching both "The Wire," which just said goodbye to us and HBO, and the staggering acting in that production of "A Raisin in the Sun" ABC aired in February: Why isn't black life this interesting, vibrant, or complex at the movies? How is it that Terrence Howard can play a legendary character on the New York stage but is stuck as the sidekick who's jealous of Robert Downey Jr.'s hardware in "Iron Man"?
When it comes to black America, the movies are stagnating. Well, when it comes to any nonwhite male subject matter at the movies, the pickings are slim. But there's such a wealth of black stars, producers, and directors that the scarcity of movies - big-ticket or small, serious or light - focused on the lives of black people, is surreal. There's a gaping entertainment void. It's not just the lack of quantity. It's the lack of variety. Despite the usual death notices posted for hip-hop, black popular music is alive and well.
At the moment, black movies come in two flavors: uplift dramas and Tyler Perry. The first is represented by all those feel-good movies - "Akeelah and the Bee," "Stomp the Yard," "Pride," "The Great Debaters" - that, bless their hearts, wanted to empower us, but that nobody flocked to see. Message movies are a great notion but tricky as entertainment. The makers of these films have this noble but somewhat misguided idea that the average black moviegoer wants to feel like she's in school.
Perry's megaplex successes suggest that the average black moviegoer wants to feel like she's in church. His movies have sermons. His movies have soap opera. And, increasingly, his movies have stars. In the past, I've said only somewhat jestingly that a Tyler Perry movie is where black actors go to get back in touch with their roots. (The prim, post-Nipplegate Janet Jackson who showed up in "Why Did I Get Married?" wasn't just making a movie, she was asking for forgiveness.) But now a Tyler Perry movie is where a black actor goes to act. Angela Bassett is the star of "Meet the Browns." "Daddy's Little Girls" had Gabrielle Union and Idris Elba. And the movie that Perry, who essentially works without Hollywood's help, is currently filming has Alfre Woodard, Sanaa Lathan, and the loveable Taraji P. Henson, that pregnant, hook-belting hooker from "Hustle & Flow."
It doesn't do any good to discount the value of Tyler Perry, and he certainly can't be - should not be - ignored. Perry knows what an audience wants, and he delivers - with Woody Allen's regularity, too. These things tend to come in waves (remember the Wayans brothers' racial funhouses from a few years ago?). But Perry is more than a ripple. He is black movies right now. His style has inspired studio executives to look, wittingly or not, for movies with either Perry's clumsy farce (see last winter's "The Perfect Holiday" or "First Sunday" - on second thought: don't) or his ensemble comic-melodrama ("This Christmas").
That's a problem. There's no art in these movies. There's no style. And Perry's success, through no fault of his own, limits what chances the studios are willing to take on black movies. Rickety ghetto comedies, prefab movie biographies, and feel-good historical dramas tailor-made for NAACP Image Award contention are one thing. But a serious, thoughtful act of filmmaking or some real Hollywood glamour is rare.
Last year, Denzel Washington found himself at two extremes. He directed and starred in "The Great Debaters," a historical drama that used a feel-good formula to tell the somewhat-true story of a Texas debate team in the 1930s. It was meant to enlighten and inspire the young men and women in the audience. But it was his borderline-flamboyant performance as Harlem heroin lord Frank Lucas in Ridley Scott's "American Gangster" that they turned out for. The greasy fat content of the gangster movie was a lot more appealing to moviegoers than the nutritional value of the period drama. Scott's movie had a whiff of glamour amid the grit.
"Dreamgirls" was blindingly glamorous and was a big fat hit. And we haven't seen anything like it since. The next big part for the movie's Oscar's winner, Jennifer Hudson, is as Sarah Jessica Parker's assistant in the "Sex & the City" movie. "Dreamgirls" had its flaws, but I've almost never had as much fun watching a movie with an audience as I did the two times I watched it in a theater. Suffice it to say that it's a long way down from there to, I don't know, "Welcome Home Roscoe Jenkins."
If we can't have glamour, then what about some appreciable realism? The Frenchman Michel Gondry recently gave us the unmatched civic pride of "Dave Chappelle's Block Party." And Charles Burnett's black-and-white magic-realist snapshot of a Watts family, "Killer of Sheep," was the feel-good distribution story of last year, finally getting a theatrical release three decades after it was made. One of the very few films to approach the budgetless beauty of Burnett's movie was made last year and opens this summer. It's called "Ballast" (the writer-director, Lance Hammer, is white), and it's a three-hankie affair if for no other reason than that Hammer unspools his heartbreaking story with a style and absorbing command of the medium that you rarely see from new American filmmakers, regardless of their skin color.
What a moment for a standstill, since the year's most fascinating black movie is currently playing out on the presidential campaign trail. It has melodrama, suspense, mystery, real characters, and, depending on where you stand, a vision. And yet it seems unthinkable that in 19 years so few directors have come forward to make a film on race in this country as complex as that or as incendiary as Spike Lee's "Do the Right Thing," except Lee himself and arguably Lars von Trier, the troublemaking Dane who in the last couple of years brought us "Dogville" and "Manderlay."
It's equally strange that John Singleton never turned into the poet laureate of South Los Angeles, becoming instead a hacky B-movie director and producer. Success spoiled him. That version of August Wilson's "Fences" Singleton was attached to years ago never happened. Nor did the black filmmaking mini-movement of the early 1990s - the Hudlin brothers, Matty Rich, Ernest Dickerson, and Julie Dash were some of the names atop its crest - bear lasting fruit. It remains mini and operating on the farthest fringes of the movie business. And the moviemaking class structure seems designed to keep them there.
Has complacency set in among the upper echelons of black Hollywood? Is there no more to struggle for? Is Tyler Perry that good a wonder drug? It's worth asking whether the movies in this moment could get angry enough to take on as calamitous an incident as, say, the Sean Bell shooting. Is it too much to expect more filmmakers to reflect the world as it is, to interpret its events the way people actually do? How can my barbershop be a more impassioned house of discourse than the movies? Or why should it be?
Part of what's shocking about the TV version of Lorraine Hansberry's "A Raisin in the Sun" is how resoundingly it confirms the existence of social struggle missing from other movies. It remains set in the 1950s, but the intra-family identity struggles still are amazingly real. Yesterday feels very much like today. (The TV version of "Raisin in the Sun" is being released on video this week. See page N24.)
Erykah Badu's kaleidoscopic latest record "New Amerykah, Part One (4th World War)" is also poised between yesterday and tomorrow. The album is part blaxploitation epic, part transcendent hip-hop self-therapy session. It's a gonzo, affectionate, agitated, paranoid, frequently funny, and possibly deranged portrait of black urbanism in transition, struggling with the space between revolution and relaxed resistance.
Just as I was weeping for the lack of a current cinematic corollary during a first listen, a voice came on after one of the songs and read a version of Peter Finch's monologue from "Network." "I want you to get angry!" the voice says, and it may as well be talking to underserved and subdued movie audiences. It might sound far-fetched, but Badu should consider stepping behind the camera and restoring politics, vision, and cool back to black movies. They need her.
Wesley Morris can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.