Black Filmmakers From the ’90s Call Out Hollywood Prejudice and Getting Stuck in ‘Director’s Jail’

“It’s like they set us up to fail — all they wanted was to be able to pat themselves on the back like they did something,” Darnell Martin tells The New York Times

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Six black directors who found modest success with early feature films in the 1990s have spoken out about how they felt their careers were stymied by institutional prejudice in Hollywood that offered more opportunities for their white peers — and made more allowances for missteps.

“It’s like they set us up to fail — all they wanted was to be able to pat themselves on the back like they did something,” filmmaker Darnell Martin told the The New York Times in a story published Wednesday with five other African American directors.

Though Martin’s 1994 debut “I Like It Like That” was produced by a major studio, Columbia Pictures, and won the New York Film Critics Circle prize for Best First Feature, she has made only one theatrically released film since, 2008’s “Cadillac Records” — though she has found consistent work on TV projects.

She’s not alone. “I consider myself a filmmaker who’s working in television,” said Ernest Dickerson, who said he had to edit his 1996 film “Bulletproof,” featuring Damon Wayans and Adam Sandler, down from an R-rated feature to something more teen-friendly. Though the film opened at No. 1 at the box office, it was critically panned, and Dickerson said, “Nobody would touch me.”

Other filmmakers said that after the commercial or critical success of their debut films they found themselves in “directors’ jail” or  unable to find additional work or financing for their feature projects. Many complained that the work of black filmmakers of their generation was treated as though it were a genre fad after the emergence of Spike Lee, John Singleton and the Hudlin Brothers.

Leslie Harris who directed the 1992 Sundance winner “Just Another Girl On The I.R.T” but has not directed another feature since 1993, recalled, “I went to an interview and someone said to me: ‘You don’t look like a filmmaker. What are you doing here?’”

Julie Dash, director of the award-winning “Daughters of the Dust,” said she encountered similar obstacles talking to Hollywood executives. “When I would indicate that I’m here as a director to make films about black women, executives would say to me, ‘Why are you limiting yourself,’” she said. “I’m not. I want to see our stories on the screen that haven’t been shown before. I’m bringing forth something new. Take a look at it.”

The filmmakers also said they felt alienated from Hollywood or were looked at differently because of the color of their skin, adding that rather than being seen as individuals, black filmmakers were treated as a token gesture by the studios.

“There used to be a time where you go after an agency, and they would always tell the story, ‘We already got our black filmmakers,’” Dickerson added.

Others said they felt penalized more than their white peers for even one commercial or critical stumble. “White people get more bites of the apple. That’s just true. You can fail three, four times and still have a career,” said Theodore Witcher, whose 1997 rom-com “Love Jones” got a lot of buzz in Sundance but earned only $12 million at the box office. “But if you’re black, you really can only fail once.”

The filmmakers did agree that this latest boom of successful black filmmakers such as Ryan Coogler, Barry Jenkins, Ava DuVernay and Terence Nance, among others, feels like it has more staying power than their generation did because of the rise of social media and the greater prevalence of black executives and financiers in positions of power.

“They’re not only wildly creative, they’re courageous,” Dash said of the new breed of filmmakers. “They are not afraid to cross boundaries to say what they want to say. That’s important.”

Check out the whole feature via The New York Times.