For the Annual Review we look back at the biggest conversations of 2015 through the lens of entertainment and one of the widest and deepest of these has centered on race in America. Here we look at the movies and TV shows that have buoyed that conversation, including the wildly successful of Straight Outta Compton. We speak with Wesley Snipes and Teyonah Parris about their new Spike Lee film Chi-raq, and Delila Vallot, director of the hopeful documentary, Can You Dig This.
“It is really sad that we’re not talking about, ‘Remember back in the day when N.W.A. blew up back then when cops used to treat us this way,’” Straight Outta Compton director F. Gary Gray said during an interview with Essence days before the US premiere of the film.
He was addressing a question about whether he’d heightened the police violence in film to make a commentary on the heavily reported police murders of three black men and boys during the time the film was in production.
“If we were making any kind of political statement in the movie,” he said, “we were making that well before those headlines: Before Cincinnati. Before Baltimore. Before Ferguson.”
Before Eric Garner in Staten Island.
Before Tamir Rice in Cleveland; John Crawford III in Beavercreek.
Laquan McDonald. Chicago.
And long before the #BlackLivesMatter hashtag spawned a movement inciting a generation of young civil rights activists in collective protest over the deaths of unarmed African Americans by police officers, that same brand of new Jim Crow era racism and police violence had already set the tone for Gray’s rags-to-riches biopic of the rise and fall from the late 1980s to 1996, centered on its core members Ice Cube (played by O’Shea Jackson, Jr.), Dr. Dre (Corey Hawkins) and the late Eazy-E (Jason Mitchell).
Compton, like Ava DuVernay’s 2015 Oscar contender, Selma, chronicling the 1965 voting rights marches “now seem timely even though they’re period pieces,” said Fretts on Film columnist Bruce Fretts, “because they’re addressing issues that people are talking about whether it’s police brutality or racism in general -- it’s like current events.”
Fretts, who is white, took his son to see the film this summer before the 19-year old went off to college.
“He wasn’t even alive back (when the group was together) but grew up listening to old school rap, so to him it’s just pop culture,” Fretts said. “A lot of white teenagers are still listening to N.W.A., and we totally bonded over the experience because I was his age when the music came out and now he’s that age, and it spoke to both of us, so I do think it’s interesting that it’s just crossing over.”
Whether mainstream brand-appeal or social justice art, Gray’s critical-acclaimed cinematic darling has proven to be a game changer in Hollywood, starting with the film’s wildly popular marketing campaign – where fans could put their own pictures into a Straight Outta… memes and add the city they’re from.
“That had never been done before, and it caught on with people who probably didn’t even know the film was coming out,” said editor Cherie Saunders of the black entertainment news site eurweb.com. “It crossed over so many different demographics in terms of who it reached.
The fact that it was well-directed and well-acted, she said, “aside from the controversy of what was left out, or what was left in – the film itself was entertaining and layered and very well executed. So in terms of its social significance and why it caught on, the marketing created the hype and the movie lived up to it.”
And Oscar buzz began almost immediately for the Universal Pictures film which has fetched $200 million in worldwide box-office receipts, and is the highest grossing movie ever from an African American director.
It held the No. 1 slot for three consecutive weekends, with the Christian-themed War Room and The Perfect Guy, a dramatic thriller, rounding out five consecutive weeks of back-to-back black films leading at the box-office.
“People will see a good movie no matter what color the lead character is,” Saunders said, “and if the marketing reaches everyone – because studios oftentimes only market films to certain demographics believing that only black people will see a movie with black people. We’re continuing to see that’s not true. The success of Straight Out of Compton, the Ride Along and Barbershop movies, and the recent success of Creed, all prove that you can have black male protagonists and people will come and see them – and it doesn’t have to be Tyler Perry all the time.”
Given more diverse distribution options – be it Netflix or any of the streaming services – black filmmakers are taking advantage of varied platform options to get their product seen by any means necessary.
“This digital revolution has leveled the playing field in some ways, and affords those voices that were overlooked and unheard the opportunity to be heard but on a huge scale – the industry will demand it,” said Wesley Snipes who co-stars in Spike Lee’s Chi-raq, the director’s first feature release from Amazon Studios. “And if they’re not domestically looking for inclusion and parity, that’s okay. The world is.”
Coming full circle from Lee’s 1989 joint, Do The Right Thing, which explored the racial tensions of New York City, the director’s latest, Chi-raq, takes on inner city gang violence with the satirical spin that follows the progression of a local sex strike by women forcing men to end the black-on-black gun violence in Chicago’s south side.
“Not only are the women participating in a sex strike, but they are outside protesting and making noise,” said the film’s lead Teyonah Parris, drawing parallels to the women charging at the forefront of the Black Lives Matter movement. “Something’s got to happen because we’re fed up. We’re tired of being killed in the streets and it being caught on camera and still no one being prosecuted. We’re tired of babies being shot down in cold blood or from a stray bullet in our communities. It’s not okay, and we’re not going to shut up until something begins to happen on a socioeconomic level – on all levels. We’re not going to shut up.”
For more than 25 years, Lee has used his big screen bully-pulpit rallying audiences to “Wake Up”: first at the end of School Daze; they’re the first two words you hear at the beginning of Do the Right Thing, and the last thing you hear in this one.
“So we’ve had that be a common refrain,” said Lee who, following the premiere of the film, rallied in New York City with Rev. Al Sharpton to protest gun violence. “I think when one is conscious, one is, as they say, woke, and when there’s certain things that are wrong you’ve got to speak out about it. If you’re sleep or, in many cases, especially the young brothers on the south side of Chicago who are really hurt. They’re in pain. So they self-medicate themselves…and then they got a gun. And when you’re hurting like that, you can’t even really understand the value of human life. We got to get around that.”
Understanding these social and economic disparities of America’s urban inner cities led Delila Vallot, director of the documentary, Can You Dig This, into the gardens of South Los Angeles where activism, rather than marches, rallies and die-ins, involves water, soil seeds and sun.
Calling for guns-down, shovels up, the film follows “gangsta gardener” Ron Finley, and four unlikely community gardeners who find their game change when they “plant some shit.”
Growing up bi-racial, with her white mom in Hollywood and a black dad from South L.A., Vallot “definitely noticed the disparity between the two areas,” she said. “What Ron Finley is talking about, planting seeds to change lives, seems so simplistic. But if it is possible, I wanted to explore that and see first-hand. Because how much can I blame my father for certain behavioral patterns? How much can I blame his environment? Where can I look for those things? How does someone change a cycle?”
An actress and dancer, Vallot is a self-taught movie maker who had grown tired of the ages-old stories of the black experience and wanted to explore new territory.
“I don’t know how many other people are tired of seeing the same story about the slavery era, but I kind of am,” she said. “I think our community is multi-faceted and want to see stories about the black experience and who knows what that could create because there are so many voices?”
This article was originally posted in Moviepilot Magazine – Annual Review where we look back at the biggest conversations of 2015 through the lens of entertainment.