By Mike Jordan 

African-American aspirations and resilience are at the heart of a spate of recent films and streaming series that feature characters whose challenges are framed through their entrepreneurship and pursuit of the American dream.

In "Uncorked," a movie that debuted on Netflix in March, an African-American man strives to move beyond the family barbecue business and become a master sommelier. The Netflix series, "Self Made," recounts the life of Madam C.J. Walker (Octavia Spencer), the first self-made female millionaire in the U.S., who sells hair-care products to black women. The series "#blackAF," from "blackish" creator Kenya Barris, is a satirical take on the underside of success that draws on Mr. Barris's experiences as a Hollywood writer. "The Banker," a movie on Apple TV+, is based on the true story of two African-American men who built a real-estate business by employing white acquaintances as front men.

"These stories are ones of personal industry, strategic thinking and planning," said Marshall Mitchell, a consultant for "The Banker." "This is not just for black men. This is an American story, a Horatio Alger story."

Black success stories have particular resonance amid demonstrations across the country sparked by the killing of George Floyd. The protests have renewed calls for a deeper understanding of black life in America, including how it is depicted on screen. Hollywood has long been criticized for portraying stereotypical stories of black violence, poverty and slavery. That is changing in part thanks to streaming services, which have expanded entertainment outlets and employed diverse filmmakers and producers, all in an effort to meet audience demand for culturally specific stories.

The aspirational narratives are a departure from familiar film and TV story lines, said Darnell Hunt, a professor of sociology and dean of the division of social sciences at the University of California, Los Angeles. "All too often, throughout our history, we've either gotten no redeeming images of ourselves or only one type of image: the slave film, " he said.

In recent years, a number of films cast a new lens on the African-American experience. "Hidden Figures" told the story of Katherine Johnson and other African-American women mathematicians who calculated spaceflight trajectories for NASA. "Dolemite Is My Name," released in 2019 on Netflix, dramatized the life of comedic performer and producer Rudy Ray Moore. In 2017, a documentary, "Tell Them We Are Rising: The Story of Historically Black Colleges and Universities," was released on Amazon Prime. "Watchmen," out last year on HBO, dramatized the 1921 massacre on "Black Wall Street" in Tulsa, Okla. "To 'Watchmen's credit, they were able to integrate that story of a successful black neighborhood and repercussions of that," says Ella Johnson, co-showrunner of "Self Made."

Yet to come is a reboot of "The Proud Family," an animated comedy series about an African-American family that ran on the Disney Channel between 2001 and 2005. Disney announced the effort in December.

Prentice Penny, who wrote, produced and directed "Uncorked," and is a showrunner on Issa Rae's hit HBO series "Insecure," said his goal is creating well-rounded characters. In "Uncorked," "there's the human part of this movie that has nothing to do with culture and race, and there are other things that deal with culture and race, specifically," he said. "To me, that was kind of the point -- to see three-dimensionalized black men."

Past decades have offered up portraits of African-Americans in the professional class, notably the 1980s sitcom, "The Cosby Show." But the surge in streaming services, and their efforts to draw new audiences, have renewed the push. The services are vying to build audiences with distinctive content. Their shift to new narratives about the black experience, Dr. Hunt said, has "nothing to do with altruism; it has everything to do with profit and the bottom line."

"The Netflixes of the world, the Amazons, Hulus, Apple TV+, etc., are selling subscriptions to viewers around the world," Dr. Hunt said. "It's in their interest to have as broad a portfolio as possible of potential products because you want to have something that might be appealing to someone you're trying to sign up as a subscriber." Dr. Hunt said his research shows black audiences are particularly loyal to shows with major African-American characters.

According to a 2019 Nielsen report, black Americans watch an average of 50 hours and 38 minutes of television a week -- or 11 hours more weekly than viewers in the total population.

"You're not seeing these films or projects for any other reason than we feel they have robust audiences," said Tendo Nagenda, Netflix's vice president of film. "Those audiences respond in kind, and that translates into good business."

Streaming services -- where offerings don't have to draw TV ads or run up box-office numbers -- have created an opportunity, Mr. Penny said. He also cited the pressure that blacks feel to fill cinemas on a film's opening weekend, to boost box-office results and help other black films get made. "We always feel if we don't show up the first week, they may not make this again," he said.

The American story can't be told without discussing blackness, Ms. Johnson said. She wants to work on more projects that transcend slavery and black trauma and recognize achievement. "We have other stories to tell," she said. "Not that that period isn't important, but it's not the only period in time."

Nia Long, who stars in "The Banker" with Anthony Mackie and Samuel L. Jackson, is happy to see black TV and film creators being valued, but wants more. "We generate a lot of money, but how do we build economic wealth within the community, and economic literacy, so we can actually use our assets to our own advantage and for our own communities?" she said. "How can we create a system for the next generation behind us, so that it's not all in vain? What's the next step?"

 

(END) Dow Jones Newswires

June 03, 2020 15:27 ET (19:27 GMT)

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