White America got a pretty good glimpse at so-called “chitlin’ plays” (gospel music-based morality tales that play almost exclusively to black audiences in smaller theatrical venues) once Tyler Perry and the film adaptations of his sledgehammer-subtle Medea stage productions starting making a whole lot of money for Lionsgate. But he’s not the only hack around who can employ washed-up black entertainers, then turnaround and make a quick buck. The phenomenon has been around for some time, and Perry’s only the most notable.
David E. Talbert is the more prolific, yet no more talented creator of chitlin’ plays like He Say, She Say But What Does God Say, Lawd Ha’ Mercy, and The Fabric of a Man, and predictably, he’s now being courted for big screen glory as well. His debut flick, First Sunday, will star Ice Cube (who’s also co-producing) in the story of two bungling robbers who take a church hostage while trying to rob it, but are eventually defeated by incessant sermons and fevered caterwauling that “convert” them into seeing the light. Sony’s smaller Lionsgate-esque shingle Screen Gems will be putting this out – in what I’m sure is an uncanny coincidence – on Martin Luther King Jr. weekend.
I’m embarrassed enough that chitlin’ plays are the most prominent representation of modern black playwrights, but seeing Ice Cube co-sign this absurdity stings all the more. It’s obvious that he and Screen Gems see easy money to be made here, and sure enough there is. Even when these films underperform, like Perry’s recent Daddy’s Little Girls, they’re so cheap that they become profitable by the second weekend out in theaters, to say nothing of DVD sales and the like.
But it’s one thing for the likes of Clifton Powell, N’Bushe Wright, and Malik Yoba to do these, as unemployment is likely their only other option. When somebody who has the ability to write, produce, and get films made like Ice Cube decides to jump in, it’s quite another. It’s not like the audience for this material is underserved. Screen Gems was going to make this crap with or without Cube, and it will make a lot of money with or without him. There will be more Tyler Perry movies. There are countless other plays hitting "the circuit" all across America. As for Cube, he’s already got the wretched Are We There/Done Yet series of films as guaranteed moneymakers. He’s attached to several other films. He’s worked with David O. Russell on the superlative Three Kings. Why this baffling step backward, both for his career and for black filmmakers?
It’s a common complaint that there aren’t enough black people behind the scenes in Hollywood writing shows, greenlighting movies, and directing films. And if this is the best foot we’re going to put forward when given the opportunities to breakthrough, maybe that is how it should be. Sure, the church is an integral part of our culture, and there’s no reason to hide or be ashamed of it as we present ourselves. But there is so much more to black culture than failed relationships, wayward criminals, and gospel music. And you’d never be able to tell that if you looked at black