Category Archives: African American Movies and Documentary

Here you will find reviews and commentary on African American films and documentaries

Push for African American cinema bears fruit


Annette John-Hall, Inquirer Columnist

Email Annette John-Hall

Before Philadelphia’s invited movers and shakers even arrived at the red-carpet premiere of Changing the Game, Rel Dowdell’s urban tale of corruption and redemption, moviegoers were instructed to leave their smartphones in their cars or turn them over to security before entering the Van Pelt Auditorium at the Philadelphia Museum of Art.

After all, it took Dowdell seven long years to birth his baby, and to miraculously land a nationwide distribution deal. He wasn’t about to risk some lowlife in a tux recording his movie and turning it into a bootleg before it even hit cineplex screens. Wasn’t going to happen.

Illegal film-jackers are just one of many obstacles that an African American independent filmmaker like Dowdell must hurdle just for his project to have a chance at success. When it comes to African American cinema, it seems as if the number of offerings has decreased, not increased. Twenty years ago, about 15 black movies made it to the big screen; in 2010, the number had decreased by half. And black indie films? All but disappeared.

But Changing the Game beat the odds. The suspense drama, which stars veteran actress Irma P. Hall (Soul Food), will open in five major markets — Philly, New York, Atlanta, Washington, and Chicago — on Friday before a nationwide rollout on more screens by the end of the month.

What Dowdell has been able to pull off with nothing more than passion and perseverance has been nothing short of extraordinary.

“It’s pivotal that Changing the Game gets support,” he says. “Because then it will open the door for other films.”

Hard-knock filmmaking

Dowdell, 39, thinks in scenes. You can tell by the way he expresses himself — staccato sentences with only relevant information and a bit of descriptive detail.

He grew up in Germantown, the son of two teachers. “On the same block as Bernard Hopkins,” the Central High graduate says. Shifting scenes, he explains, “I didn’t even know that you could make films, that you actually could learn the craft of doing it, until one of my professors at Fisk [University in Nashville] gave me an article about Spike Lee and John Singleton.”

The aspiring director was hooked. After Fisk, Dowdell’s parents took out a second mortgage on their home so Rel could afford film school at Boston University. After graduation, he wrote and directed his first feature, Train Ride, a college date-rape drama starring Wood Harris and MC Lyte, and filmed on a shoestring entirely at Cheyney University. The movie turned out to be the last project for the veteran actress Esther Rolle (perhaps best known as Florida Evans on the TV sitcom Good Times) before her death at 78.

Though Dowdell filmed Train Ride in 1998, production problems stalled its release until 2005. The movie received positive reviews, but the young filmmaker learned some lessons about hard-knock movie making.

It takes planning, perseverance, and sustaining local connections — much as protagonist Darrell Barnes (played by newcomer Sean Riggs) does in Changing the Game.

For Dowdell, that important local connection is businessman Thomas L. Webster, 59, one of the founding members of Mastery Charter Schools and the film’s executive producer.

Four years ago, Webster asked Dowdell to be the commencement speaker at Mastery, and the next thing Webster knew, “Rel shows up in my office, asking me to produce his film,” Webster recalls, chuckling. “I told him no, thank you, I don’t know anything about the entertainment business. I stay in my lane.”

But Dowdell is nothing if not persistent. He showed up at Webster’s office the next day, and the next — that time with lunch.

Webster, admiring his young benefactor’s chutzpah, got on board and assembled a team and $1 million for the project. The two also secured a major deal with AMC Independence, AMC’s indie-film distribution arm. And in a stroke of sheer luck, Changing the Game was placed as the lead trailer for the urban romantic comedy Think Like a Man, which topped the box office for two consecutive weeks and has pulled in almost $70 million.

Webster, also a Philly guy, says he hopes to see a return on his investment, but doesn’t expect one. He’s just grateful he was able to utilize his business connections on behalf of Dowdell, who deserves it. “I’ve been blessed with opportunity, but I had no one to be a mentor. I had to figure it out by trial and error,” he says. “Now I gladly turn around and do for anybody else who wants to pursue a small business or profession.”

Which, if you ask Dowdell, is the way he imagined it.

“When I was in college, I envisioned a world where African American filmmakers would bring each other up, like during the Harlem Renaissance,” he says. “Whether I need help with my project or someone else needs help, we can lend our expertise. That’s what we need in African American cinema.”

Contact Annette John-Hall at 215-854-4986, or follow on Twitter @Annettejh.



PBS premiers the inspiring story of Jesse Owens

by heard

There are some names in Black history that will always be remembered for paving the way for today’s talented athletes: Joe Louis, Arthur Ashe, Althea Gibson are just a few examples. But no star shined brighter than Jesse Owen [1913-1980], the 22-year-old son of a sharecropper who gained international acclaim and shocked the world at the 1936 Olympic Games in Berlin. German Chancellor Adolf Hitler believed the Games were the perfect opportunity to prove the superiority of Aryan athletes. Owens spoiled the party.

He would win four gold medals — the first Black to ever accomplish that feat —but not without first overcoming great adversity. Born in poverty in Oakville, Alabama and raised in segregated Cleveland, Ohio, where he first gained national attention, he chose to attend Ohio State University. Ironically, while he set three world records in the 1935 Big Ten track championship, he was not allowed to live on campus because he was Black.

This week, PBS brings his story of stunning triumph and tragedy to television in the latest contribution of their American Experience series (it is also on DVD). The show is produced and directed by Laurens Grant and produced and written by Stanley Nelson —the team that took the Emmy Award for “Freedom Riders.”

Owens faces tough times after Olympics wins 

Owens was stripped of his amateur athletic standing shortly after his Olympics victory because he chose to return home to be with his wife rather than to follow orders and participate in a European fundraising tour for the Amateur Athletic Union. When he arrived in New York, he was unable to find lodging — no one would allow a Black man to stay in their hotel. Finally, he persuaded one owner to let him and his wife stay, but they had to use the service entrance.

Owens showed that he could beat any man when on the field. But once he removed his track shoes, he forever reminded that the only thing America cared about was the color of his skin. Sadly, Owens turned to everything from running against horses to operating a dry cleaning business in order to provide for his family.

“Jesse Owens was able to carve out his own path and sustain himself, his family and his legacy during very troubling and limited times for Black men,” Grant said. “There were no endorsement deals for Black athlete. It’s incredible that he was able to achieve, survive and remain positive through it all.”

What does it feel like to be a Black man in America? Owens’s tale will answer that question. On one day he is accepting the Gold Medal to the roar of the crowd. The next, he is pushed to the margins as a nation plagued by prejudice turns its back on him.

That is his story —it is our story to remember.

By D. Kevin McNeir


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‘Think Like a Man’ Captures $33 Mil at Box Office, Knocks Out ‘Hunger Games’

by Newsone Staff

In recent months, there have been many debates, conversations and arguments over the highly anticipated film ‘Think Like A Man,’ an adaptation of comedian and self-anointed self-help guru Steve Harvey‘s best-selling book, “Think Like A Man, Act Like A Lady.”

There were women who called for an outright boycott of the film because of the portrayal of women as calculating, man-thirsty and incapable of finding and maintaining healthy relationships that was evident throughout the book, refusing to put a dime in Steve Harvey’s pocket.

Some critics — like Newsone Contributing Editor Kirsten West Savali in a nuanced commentary entitled, “Think Like A Man: Is Our Economic Growth Worth the Price of Admission?” — suggested that the film was not about Harvey’s arrogant, misguided presumptions of Black women and that movie-goers should consider supporting the predominately Black cast simply for the economic power it may yield in Hollywood. Not only does she write that Harvey’s opinion — no matter how deeply she disagrees — should not be stifled, but that Black America contains a multi-faceted culture that can not be ignored. The purpose of this chess-like tactic being to make room for more complex portrayals of African-American love and life on film.

Then there is the crowd who just “love them some Steve Harvey,” who were going to be there come rain, sleet or snow with their “Hi, Haters” signs held high.

Well the suspense is over.

‘Think Like A Man’ shattered Box Office expectations.

The Los Angeles Times reports:

 The relationship comedy “Think Like a Man” wooed moviegoers away from “The Hunger Games” at the box office this weekend, marking the first time in four weeks the teen blockbuster hasn’t come in at No. 1.

The ensemble comedy about five ethnically diverse couples raked in a surprisingly strong $33 million, according to an estimate from distributor Sony Pictures. Heading into the weekend, the PG-13 film was expected to be in a tight race for No. 1 with the romantic tear-jerker “The Lucky One,” which came in around industry projections with $22.8 million. The nature documentary “Chimpanzee” also had a good weekend, scoring the highest debut yet for Walt Disney Studios’ Disneynature label with $10.2 million.

The strong opening for “Think Like a Man,” based on a relationship advice book by Steve Harvey, is good news for Sony’s Screen Gems label, which spent only about $13 million to produce the film. Screen Gems — which makes mostly low-budget horror, action and teen comedies – has had a good year at the box office. “Think Like a Man” marks the studio’s third No. 1 film in 2012, following the romantic drama “The Vow” and the vampire action flick “Underworld: Awakening.”

The movie made nearly as much in its opening weekend as last year’s comedy “Jumping the Broom,” which featured an African American cast and ultimately collected $37 million. Its opening was also higher than a number of Tyler Perry’s recent films, including the comedies “Madea’s Big Happy Family” and “Why Did I Get Married Too?” Both debuted with under $30 million.

“Think Like a Man” drew large crowds, with 62% of excited movie-goers being Black women 30 and older who graded the film an “A,” according to CinemaScore. No research has been done to see how it played in markets outside of the Black demographic.


“Think Like A Man” Producer Will Packer Talks To S&A About The Film’s Strong Opening Weekend + “No Good Deed”


Unless you’ve had your head buried in the sand somewhere, I’m sure that, by now, most of you have heard that the ensemble dramedy Think Like A Man, routed the competition, taking this weekend’s box office crown, raking in around $33 Million, based on industry estimates. I’m hearing that the actual figure could very well be higher once the official count is in, some time tomorrow.

Yesterday afternoon, after I posted the entry alerting you to the film’s strong Friday opening, and projections for the weekend, I had the opportunity to talk briefly with the man behind the film – Mr Will Packer, who produced Think Like A Man via his Atlanta, GA-based Rainforest Films production company – a brand that continues to grow and impress with each outing. But more on that later.

My conversation with Will was obviously centered on the successful opening weekend release of Think Like A Man; as you will see below, I asked him specific questions about what this weekend’s numbers mean in the grand scheme of things, what their marketing strategyy was given the impressive audience turnout across the USA, the film’s crossover reach, expecations for next weekend, how studios determine the number of theaters to open a film in (given that, as previously emphasized, Think Like A Man opened on roughly 2000 screens1000 fewer screens than the film that opened at number 2), and finally, of course I couldn’t let him go without asking about his next project – theIdris ElbaTaraji P. Henson thriller, No Good Deed, which has actually already begun production in Atlanta.

Dig in!

– What does this weekend’s box office win mean in the grander scheme of things? Why should we be excited about this? What does it mean for you and Rainforest films?

It’s huge. I don’t think the significance of opening with the number 1 movie in America can be overstated. This isn’t the number 1 lower-budgeted film, or the number 1 African American Film, or the number 1 film for a particular audience; It’s the number 1 movie in America, period; and if those numbers hold, then we’re going to be in a great position that shows the power of a smart strategic marketing plan that takes advantage of social media, networking, grassroots and a great campaign; because we were up against films that were significantly larger than us. However, the great equalizer is the level of grassroots, social media, TwitterFacebooksupport that we got; and the audience is saying, we want to see more films like this. And I think that when audiences start to realize their power in Hollywood decision making, you will see more films like this made and become more successful.

– Talk about the marketing strategy for the film; I spoke to Jeff Clanagan of CodeBlack Entertainment last week about the strong opening for his film, Woman Thou Art Loosed: On The 7th Day, and the marketing strategy for that film; and he said almost exactly what you said – essentially, a heavy emphasis on a social media-driven, grassroots effort. So is that ultimately where it is for films like this? Because I’m assuming the studio isn’t spending a lot of money on TV ads, billboards and traditional forms of marketing.

We definitely had traditional marketing which was strong; we definitely had a lot of presence; we did a lot of advertising, for instance on the NBA games, and shows like Basketball Wives, for example; I like to call that the “aerial attack;” but you also need to have a “ground attack” to compliment it, and our ground game is really, really strong. Our cast got out there and really, really pushed it; like tonight [Saturday night], I’ve got almost every member from the film’s cast going out to theaters and surprising the fans, thanking them for coming out, and for their support. Those are the types of things that you can’t really quantify, that create genuine buzz and appreciation for a project in a way that traditional advertising just can’t. There’s a ton of traditional advertising out there, but you have to do something more to make your project stand out, and that’s what we try to do.

– One of the questions that was raised in the press before the film’s release was whether it would reach non-black audiences; can you share any figures on whether that happened, from what you’ve seen so far?

All the Hollywood studios do exit polling to determine what the audience was that came out to see a particular film, but those numbers aren’t yet available. What I do know is that a lot of people came out to support the film; it doesn’t matter whether they were white, black, green or brown; what matters is that they came out to support, and I feel really good about that.

– What are your expectations for next weekend? Or are you just not even looking that far ahead, and instead enjoying this moment?

I’d be lying to you if I didn’t say that I was looking forward to next weekend; because as a producer I was looking forward to next weekend, last weekend. That’s just how I operate. You keep focused on the prize, and then you look and ask questions like, ok so it was successful, can we hold, how well can we do, what’s next week’s competition; but it’s not something I want to talk about; yet, strategically, you need to be aware of what you’re going to do opening week, and what you’re going to do to sustain it the following weekends. But for the most part, movies after opening weekend are all about how strong the word of mouth is; advertising is all geared towards opening weekend; but how well the film performs after this weekend, will be about whether people enjoyed the film or not.

– The film opened on some 2,000 screens; can you give us a brief education on how studios determine how many screens to open a film on?

A lot goes into that; they try to figure out what they think the audience for a film is going to be, and where the screens need to be to capture that audience. Studios are very careful to try to do just enough by way of advertising and distribution to capture an audience without over-spending. And yes, I’m involved in those conversations, on how many screens the film needs to have. We ended up having about 2000 screens which was over 1000 less than The Lucky Ones, which also opened up this weekend; but our per screenaverage was so much higher, which is why it looks like we’ll be coming in at number 1.

– And finally, I know that your next project is gearing up in Atlanta, with Idris Elba and Taraji P. Henson – both you’re working with again; anything you can share with us on what to expect from the film, and when we can expect to see it in theaters?

I’m actually calling you from the set of that movie right now; and yes, that’s the next one. As a producer, it don’t stop, as they say. I’ve got one film opening this weekend, and now I’m in production on my next one; it’s a cycle, and I’m blessed to be able to be active as a producer. I don’t have a release date yet; I just want to first get through this current release [Think Like A Man], and then get through this new production [No Good Deed], and then I’ll start looking at when’s the best time to release it; but yes, it’s a thriller with Idris and Taraji; it’s a script that I’m really proud of because it’s a film that wasn’t originally conceived with African American leads in mind; and I like the fact that it’s a universal film; but I wanted to put the best talent in front of the camera for this movie, and those 2 people happened to be idris and Taraji, who happened to be black. This will help us in building as well if, or rather, when it’s successful.

And so there you have it! Some very useful information there I’d say; and I thank Will Packer (and his publicist) for the time.

I should note that, despite the fact that critics were split down the middle on the film, this is the 4th Rainforest Films production to open at the number 1 slot domestically, on the opening weekends of each of those 4 films –  Stomp The Yard opened at $21 million and ended up with a $61 million box office take; Obsessed shocked the world and opened at $28 million, and went onto make close to $70 million; Takers opened at just over $20 million, and grossed almost $60 million; and now Think Like A Man exceeds all expectations and rakes it $33 million; It’s hard to argue with those stats, especially when you consider the age and size of the company.

Keep in mind that the production budget for Think Like A Man was in the $12 to $15 million range.

If the film has legs, as the saying goes – meaning if word of mouth is strong, going into next weekend, producer Packer and company might see it eventually become their highest grossing film to date.

We’ll be watching…

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