A more suitable title for author Sheril D. Antonio’s book “Contemporary Black Cinema” would have been “The Contemporary Black Gangster Film.” Far from an all-encompassing survey of modern African-American cinema, the book is a rather narrow, albeit occasionally engaging study of a mere six films — “Boyz N the Hood,” “New Jack City,” “Juice,” “Just Another Girl on the I.R.T.,” “Menace II Society” and “Clockers.” Barbara Tepa Lupack, for her part, explores less-traveled territory in “Literary Adaptations in Black American Cinema.” But she makes no distinction between literature written by African-Americans and non-African Americans, a decision that overwhelms the book with often-tangential material.
Lupack makes the unfortunate assumption: that her readers have no prior exposure to black film. She therefore goes into needlessly prolonged accounts of its history.
Antonio gives her book confining parameters, picking films whose directors used media as a key element in the narrative. Had she chosen instead to explore these films’ sociopolitical significance and impact, her book would have carried considerable narrative weight instead of seeming thin and overly structured.
Interestingly, both Antonio and Lupack acknowledge the contribution to black film scholarship by pioneering historians Thomas Cripps and Donald Bogle. Neither seems to possess the unrestrained passion these writers have exuded in their works.
Antonio does not immediately delve into her subject. Instead, she offers essential insight into the racial politics prevalent in the film industry of the early 1990s.
In 1991, with Spike Lee having asphalted the way five years before, dozens of black directors were able to achieve mainstream success via so-called “‘hood” films. Antonio is not concerned with the issues raised by these films — their violence, treatment of black women or depiction of black-on-black crime — chalking that up to an auteur’s juxtaposition of media myths and reality.
The author finds that “Clockers” most adeptly addressed the media’s manipulation and distortion of the images of African-Americans via print and visual advertising. It does so thanks to three memorable sequences: a dreamy train scene, a gangster video and satirical liquor ad.
“Menace II Society,” “Juice” and “New Jack City” are connected for their characters’ admiration and emulation of classic gangster films. Antonio sharply observes that the films convey “how media affects the lives of vulnerable black youth already living a heartbeat away from a life of criminal activities.”
Oscar Micheaux rightfully gets top billing in Lupack’s book. He was among the first African-American filmmakers who saw the possibility of using the adaptation of black literary works to counter the derogatory images of blacks in such notorious films as “The Birth of a Nation.”
Micheaux not only brought his own novels to the screen but those of other black writers as Charles W. Chestnutt and H.F. Dowing. Up until then, Lupack contends, blacks seethed as they were treated to demeaning versions of “Uncle Tom’s Cabin.”
Lupack’s book is full of engrossing behind-the-scene details. For instance, she details the philosophical struggle between playwright Lorraine Hansberry and Columbia Pictures executives over her stage play “A Raisin in the Sun.” Columbia wanted to retain the mild version that appeared on Broadway, while Hansberry wanted to make additions to the play that would emphasize the black struggle.
Equally intriguing are revelations about films that were never made, notably an adaptation of Booker T. Washington’s “Up From Slavery” and a literary collaboration by a coterie of Harlem Renaissance giants including Langston Hughes, Countee Cullen and Dorothy West.
The problem with screen adaptations of black literature, Lupack asserts, is the same as with film adaptations of other literary genre, mainly the elimination of important material for the sake of the so-called Hollywood ending. She cites the excision of vital sequences in the 1950 film version of “Native Son,” the toning down of strong black female protagonists in the 1947 film based on Frank Yerby’s novel “The Foxes of Harrow,” and Steven Spielberg’s softening of bisexual themes and Danny Glover’s character in “The Color Purple.”
Lupack spotlights the success of many adaptations — particularly the works of Chester Himes, Terry McMillan, Walter Mosley and Gloria Naylor. Those breakthroughs, notwithstanding the film flop of Toni Morrison’s “Beloved,” means black cinema will likely continue to travel a literary path.