Black Realism in Film

Italian Neo-Realism paved the way for what would later be termed ‘realist’ directorial approaches to making films. Leaders of the movement, such as Vitorrio di Sica, Luchino Visconti and Roberto Rossellini carved out the traits of realist depictions with films such as Bicycle Theives (1948), La Terra Trema (1948) and Rome, Open City (1945). Visual authenticity is a big deal in these works; in scenery, setting, storyline and staging. In order to ensure the final results were more genuine, directors often shot on location exactly where they intended their story to take place.
Non-professional actors were employed as film characters, many of whom resided in the vicinity of a filming spot. Perhaps most important to the genre are portrayals of unfiltered human existence, which entailed hardships like illness, poverty, exploitation and dealings with well-established hierarchical systems designed to preserve the status quo and prohibit social mobility.

Bicycle Thieves, Film still, 1948

Rome, Open City, Film still, 1945

Resistance starts early, and so Italian Neo-Realism also tended to champion and focus on youth, as was the case with Chinese Sixth Generation film. The foundations of Italian Neo-Realism provided the stepping-stone characteristics that have now come to define other film genres, especially Black realist films.
Although a film may possess the right qualities, which allow it to fall under the classification of realism, one must be cautious in instances where what is considered ‘realism’ creates a hegemonic standard in the film genre. Unfortunately, this may be the case with many black realist films today. The traits which consensus has stated constitutes a black realist film have resulted in a rigid depiction of characters, themes and scenes.
Some of the concepts played out do accurately portray black reality, but in a way which at times either excludes or places no significant emphasis on equally relevant themes which may counter established vistas of black realist films, and black life.
Such vistas are particularly clear in films which attempt to portray urban, or inner-city middle and lower class lifestyles. 
John Singleton’s film Boyz n the Hood  (1991) takes place during the early 90s in Crenshaw, part of South Central Los Angeles, California. The plot of the film centers on protagonist Tre’ Styles, a young man who is sent to live with his father at the age of ten after constant disobedience at school whilst living with his mother.
After moving in with his father Tre’ is surrounded by a ‘rough’ environment that includes constant break-ins and robberies, helicopters, police sirens and gang violence. The film fast forwards six years into the future when Tre’ is attending a welcome home function for one of his several childhood friends, Darrin ‘Doughboy’ Baker, who was recently released from prison. 
Boyz n the Hood, Film still, 1991

Throughout the film Tre’ and several friends from his youth — Doughboy, Ricky (Doughboy’s half brother) and Chris, who is in a wheelchair seemingly from a gunshot wound, are shown experiencing life in the hostile South Central neighbourhood. Tre’ is portrayed as the most intellectual of the bunch with aspirations to go to University. Ricky also plans on attending college on a football scholarship merited by his stellar high school career.
The real dangers of their society are displayed during a scene in which the group is hanging around at a late night street race. A member of the Blood gang shoulders Ricky and a verbal altercation ensues. Of a rival gang, Doughboy immediately steps in, revealing and cocking his pistol in defense. After they both step away a semi-automatic weapon is fired into the air as everyone present scatters in fear.
On the drive home Tre’ and Ricky are pulled over and harassed by police officers. Whilst in the process of running an errand with Tre’, Ricky is later shot on the way home by one of the gang members from the aforementioned altercation. Doughboy and his crew search for those responsible for Ricky’s death later that night with Tre’ present. Having snuck out of the house against his father’s wishes, Tre’ changes his mind and at the last second asks Doughboy to let him out of the car. Doughboy complies, and Tre’ returns home, as the others find and gun down three of the rival gang members.
Boyz n the Hood, Film still, 1991

The film’s realism stems from its depiction of a young black male (Tre’) and his rite of passage in American society. It’s gritty, violent and very much of its era. But it begins with a morbid yet factual statistic, that “one out of every twenty-one black American males will be murdered in their lifetime, most at the hands of another black male.”
The audience is primed with information that preemptively allows for the construction of a negative idea of the black male in American society. The living environment of the individuals in the film is often filled with wailing sirens and whirling chopper blades. This gives the impression that most, if not all, black families live in communities where this is the norm. With the exception of Tre’, each of the protagonists lacks a father figure. Characters with patience and intelligence within communities of low socio-economic standing appear to either not exist or be in the minority in the depictions made in black realist films.
For inside aspirations and outside perceptions to broaden to fit truth’s scope, it’s key that home-cooked depictions blossom richly first. For what is seen, is really all an audience will ever get.
Sean Steadman
Source: Willis, S., High Contrast: Race and Gender in Contemporary Hollywood Film, London: Duke University Press, 1997

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