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Our best black filmmakers are finding fresh opportunities on TV

In April 2000, New Line Cinema released Love & Basketball, the debut film of writer-director Gina Prince-Bythewood. It’s a refreshingly nuanced and original screen romance, a love story spanning more than a decade in the lives of two black basketball players, while encompassing details about gender, race, class, and culture that are clearly drawn from Prince-Bythewood’s personal experiences and observations. Two months later, in June, director John Singleton capped off a decade as one of the most successful black directors in Hollywood by watching his punchy remake of the blaxploitation classic Shaft become a solid box office hit. Those two movies arriving so closely together on the calendar represented a rare encouraging sign from an industry that had often made it unduly hard for people of color to succeed behind the camera.

Coincidentally, those same two directors are taking major simultaneous steps again — this time, on television. Last week, Prince-Bythewood unveiled her latest project: the 10-part Fox TV miniseries Shots Fired, co-created with her husband Reggie Rock Bythewood, another accomplished film director. And tonight, Singleton debuts his new BET detective series, Rebel. Both shows begin with scenes that are painfully familiar from today’s news, depicting police-involved shootings in poor black neighborhoods. But aside from their contemporary relevance, what’s even more remarkable is what Shots Fired and Rebel say about where show business is today. Two decades ago, if filmmakers with resumes like Prince-Bythewood’s and Singleton’s moved to the small screen, it might’ve meant that their careers were on the skids, perhaps because of institutional racism and sexism. Today, it means they’re part of a club that seemingly every talented writer, producer, and director is rushing to join — regardless of race or gender.

And the Bythewoods and Singleton aren’t the only black filmmakers who’ve been invited to the club:

  • On April 28th, Netflix will launch Dear White People, Justin Simien’s TV version of his 2014 indie film.
  • Selma director Ava DuVernay has been prepping her big-budget movie adaptation of A Wrinkle in Time, but she’s also found time to make the Oscar-nominated documentary The 13th for Netflix, and to create and executive-produce Queen Sugar for Oprah Winfrey’s OWN.
  • Oscar-winning 12 Years a Slave screenwriter John Ridley currently has his drama American Crime in its third season on ABC, and on April 16th, Showtime will begin airing his miniseries Guerrilla.
  • Actor Donald Glover is working on three potential blockbuster films — Spider Man: Homecoming, the live-action The Lion King, and the as-yet-untitled Han Solo Star Wars spinoff — but right now, he’s probably best-known for his Golden Globe-winning FX series Atlanta.

Then there’s the likes of Empire, Scandal, Greenleaf, Black-ish, and Survivor’s Remorse, all of which center on black characters, and have called on black writers and directors to help tell their stories. Spike Lee, the godfather of modern African-American cinema, has found a productive creative outlet on television for much of his career, making acclaimed documentaries and filmed theater. He’s currently working on a Netflix series based on his 1986 breakthrough She’s Gotta Have It. And on April 28th (the same day Dear White People debuts), Netflix will release Lee’s film of Roger Guenveur Smith’s one-man show about Rodney King.

Will there be a ripple effect? For the past few years, Variety TV critic Maureen Ryan has tracked the industry’s woeful efforts to diversify its talent base beyond white men. That kind of close scrutiny, along with a healthy dose of shaming, may be having some influence. Apart from Singleton and the Bythewoods’ involvement in Rebel and Shots Fired, what’s promising about their shows are the black directors they’ve lined up for the episodes ahead, including Sheldon Candis (who made the 2012 Sundance favorite LUV), Malcolm D. Lee (the man behind the hit The Best Man movies), and Kasi Lemmons (who wrote and directed the magnificent 1997 drama Eve’s Bayou).

The difference those kinds of hiring practices makes is evident in the opening minutes of both Rebel and Shots Fired. Overall, the two shows are different in tone and intent. Rebel is more of a slam-bang private-eye action series, with Danielle Moné Truitt playing an ex-soldier named Rebel who leaves the Oakland police force and becomes a detective after a fellow cop kills her brother. Shots Fired flips the details of a familiar scenario by dealing with the aftermath of a black cop racially profiling and then shooting a white suspect, all as a way into an intricate story about a black Justice Department investigator’s difficult private life. Rebel and Shots Fired vary in their degrees of gritty realism, but each has a you-are-there quality when it comes to their inciting incidents, capturing the confusion and presumptions behind a moment of racially motivated violence.

In a recent interview with The Village Voice, Prince-Bythewood talked about the origins of Shots Fired:

Reggie and I both wanted to speak to what’s been going on ever since the [George] Zimmerman trial. That just so rocked us, like it did so many, and it absolutely rocked our older son, who was 12 at the time. Instead of hugging him and telling him it was going to be OK, Reggie actually opened his laptop and showed him a documentary on Emmett Till, and started discussions in our house about how the criminal-justice system works — and, oftentimes, doesn’t work… I was not thinking about going back to television; I already had my next film lined up. I thought about it and came home, and we talked. ‘We, right now, have an opportunity to write a show about anything we want, to talk about what we’ve been talking about, and we can tell it any way we want to tell it.’

 Image: Fred Norris / FOX
Mack Wilds, Sanaa Lathan and Stephan James in Shots Fired.

The first episode of the miniseries feels like it emerged from years of winding family conversations. Aside from its more incendiary moments — including a title logo that replaces the stripes of the American flag with police tape, and a scene where one of the investigators delivers a stirring speech at a press conference about the sad history of Tamir Rice-like police shootings — Shots Fired is notable for its even-handedness. Sanaa Lathan (who also starred in Love & Basketball) gives a rich performance as a black law-enforcement agent who’s spent most of her life, both at home and on the job, weaving between identities. The show is set in one of the poorer sections of North Carolina, and is unusually attuned to the complexities of the modern south when it comes to race, economic status, even religion.

Rebel is much pulpier, and it uses its Oakland setting more for regional flavor, by dropping in references to the Golden State Warriors and the city’s Asian-American community. In the two-hour premiere, Singleton and his team seem heavily focused on character quirks, from the heroine’s hobby of writing and reciting slam poetry to the way her former police department boss (Giancarlo Esposito) challenges rookie officers by ordering them to read classical Greek literature. But the tragedy that pushes Rebel to become a private detective is hardly an afterthought. It complicates her relationship with her father (well-played by Mykelti Williamson), and it changes her feelings about her former colleagues, who’d met her brother multiple times yet apparently didn’t have any qualms about killing him.

Rebel also makes its lead character’s natural hair a plot point. In an interview with Inspirer, Truitt says that’s what sold her on the part: “I am [a] brown-skinned woman with natural hair, from Northern California, so when the description said ‘Rebel: Brown Skinned Woman, from Oakland, CA with Natural Hair.” I was like “Wait, what? That’s me.’”

 Image: Prashant Gupta / BET
Danielle Moné Truitt in Rebel.

“That’s me” is a good way of describing what Shots Fired means to the Bythewoods, Rebel to Singleton, Queen Sugar to DuVernay, and so on. It’s not just that a large number of black writers and directors are getting opportunities to work in television right now, but that Shots Fired feels very much like the work of the woman who made Love & Basketball and the magnificent 2014 romantic drama Beyond the Lights, and Rebel feels like the work of the man who scored an Oscar nomination for his 1991 debut Boyz n the Hood, and parlayed that success into a shot at directing Shaft. These are not work-for-hire jobs. They have their creators’ point of view.

Last year, Singleton directed the American Crime Story: The People v. O.J. Simpson episode “The Race Card,” which looked at one facet of the O.J. Simpson trial through the eyes of two opposing black lawyers: Johnnie Cochran (played by Courtney B. Vance) and Christopher Darden (Sterling K. Brown). The director, the cast, and screenwriter Joe Robert Cole delivered an hour of television as bracingly honest as any has ever been written when it comes to the question of what it’s like to serve the justice system in a society where cops routinely treat citizens differently because of their skin color.

The empathy in that episode isa rebuke to anyone who thinks the movement toward more diversity on TV is all about “virtue-signaling.” Some stories can be told with more insight by people who share the characters’ backgrounds. More importantly, if they don’t tell them, often nobody does.

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