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Kayinde Harris

Reel Revolutionaries:  The cultural phenomena of African American cinema in the 1990s

Kayinde Harris


Often labeled the “golden age” of black cinema, the 1990s produced the largest volume of African-American film within an entire century.  This new renaissance was not only relegated to the big screen, but was reflected in mainstream television programming in shows like New York Undercover, Living Single, In Living Color, and the series remake of the 1997 film Soul Food. Furthermore, black cinema in the 1990s was not contained within the hyper-realistic urban “hood” narrative, but extended its roots into the genres of comedy, action, and romance, including multidimensional narratives that represented the wide spectrum of black lifestyle and community. While following in the footsteps of its predecessor, blaxploitation cinema, something was significantly different about the machine that fueled the success and the upsurge of African-Americans involved in black film in the 1990s.  The 1990s proved once again that black films were viable economic resources with notable film companies including Columbia Pictures, 20th Century Fox, Miramax, and Universal Pictures vying to get a piece of the action by creating film subdivisions to produce black films.  

The purpose of this thesis is to explore the formula that led to the new renaissance of black cinema in the 1990s, examining early forms of what we now call transmedia, and the effort to create a film’s sustainability through efforts beyond the big screen.  As part of the above, this paper will examine how black audience and spectatorship contributes to the marketing components connected to the success of black films in the 1990s. With attention paid to innovative, entrepreneurial ventures like Spike Lee’s retail company, Spike’s Joint, I will examine how the culture of fashion was used as a method for promoting a film, as well as the inclusion of the music video.  Additionally, this thesis will examine how the cultural connection between an audience and the success of black cinema reveals how the black spending dollar in the 1990s contributed to a film’s box office success.   I will examine films that represent different components of the marketing and promotion of 1990s black cinema including Soul Food (1997) and Waiting to Exhale (1995) as an exploration into the relationship between the urban musical atmosphere of the 1990s, and how it is relative to the diegetic and non-diegetic components of black cinema. Exploring the innovations of black filmmakers in the 1990s, and the reframing of the black image, I will examine F. Gary Gray’s all-female-lead film Set it Off (1996), the merger of hip-hop and popular culture in John Singleton’s Higher Learning (1995), and provide a brief look into the directorial debut of two African-American female directors, Leslie Harris (Just Another Girl on the I.R.T) and Kasi Lemmons (Eve’s Bayou).  Finally, to explore the alternative genres that shared the space of black cinema in the 1990s, I will discuss the success of the black romance story by analyzing Malcolm Lee’s blockbuster film The Best Man (1999) with a brief mention of Theodore Witcher’s classic love story, Love Jones (1997).