2012 in black cinema can be best described as “For Us By Us.”  No longer depending on the Hollywood machine to greenlight their stories, a group of bold and visionary filmmakers took the lead in financing and producing their passion projects. Ava DuVernay’s historic win as Best Director for Middle of Nowhere at Sundance sent a clear and direct message: Black indie is here to stay.  While Denzel Washington and Jamie Foxx held it down in the mainstream area with Flight and Django Unchained, black independent film is filling the gap for audiences who want to see themselves and their experiences reflected on the big screen.

The Urban Daily has rounded up some of the best and worst in black film for 2012.  Which was your favorite and/or least favorite Black film this year? Share your thoughts in the comments section below.

Sparkle (Tri-Star Pictures)

Starring: Jordin Sparks, Whitney Houston, Carmen Ejogo, Tika Sumpter, Mike Epps, Omari Hardwick

Dir: Salim Akil

Opening Weekend Position: #5

Total Domestic Gross: $24.3 million

The Urban Daily Rating: B

A remake of the 1976 classic, Salim and Mara Brock Akil  took some creative liberties with the popular musical.  The setting has been changed from the slums of Harlem in 1958 to middle class Detroit Michigan, 1968–four years after the Civil Rights act has passed and the same year as the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr. Whereas the original focused on the title character and the beautiful yet self-destructive Sister (then played by Irene Cara and Lonette McKee), this savvy remake puts the Anderson women front and center. Middle sister Dolores is the brainy pre-med student who doesn’t suffer fools lightly and Tika Sumpter plays the character with a dry and sassy wit. In her final role, Whitney Houston gives a surprisingly touching performance as the steel willed matriarch determined to protect her daughters from the dark side of the music industry at any cost.  Carmen Ejogo is mesmerizing as Sister; she’s edgy, calculating yet vulnerable, all while bringing a sexy, vintage glamour reminiscent of Dorothy Dandridge.  Mike Epps almost steals the movie as Satin who is suave, comical but always two seconds away from serving a serious pimp slap. While America’s obsession for “the good old days”  period dramas have restricted black characters as slaves or maids, Sparkle is a fun and fashionable counterbalance to Hollywood’s tired stereotypes.

Alex Cross (Summit Entertainment)

Starring: Tyler Perry, Ed Burns, Matthew Fox, Carmen Ejogo, Jean Reno

Dir.: Rob Cohen

Opening Weekend Position: #5

Total Domestic Gross: $25.7 million

The Urban Daily Rating: D

It would be easy to lay the failure of Alex Cross solely on Tyler Perry’s shoulders, but there’s just too much blame to go around.  Starting from a terribly clichéd and uninspired script by Marc Moss and Kerry Williamson, to the lazy and careless direction of Rob Cohen, Alex Cross was a serious downgrade from the original franchise with Morgan Freeman.  While I’m sure Perry was sincere in his effort to bring the iconic FBI profiler to life, he was totally unbelievable as an action star.  Partly due to his limited acting range, and mostly because of the physical clumsiness he bought to the role, Perry’s interpretation of Alex Cross was awkward and quite frankly, painful to watch. The final product was especially disappointing in light of the fact that Hollywood could have had a lucrative franchise featuring an actor of color, not seen since Wesley Snipes in Blade.  In this round of bad ass detectives, Idris Elba’s “Luther” is the clear winner.

A Thousand Words (Paramount) 

Starring: Eddie Murphy, Kerry Washington, Cliff Curtis, Ruby Dee

Dir.: Brian Robbins

Opening Weekend Position:  #6

Total Domestic Gross: $18.4 millin

The Urban Daily Rating:  C-

Eddie Murphy’s career seems to be going into a dangerous free-fall over the last decade.  With the exception of his Oscar nominated role in Dreamgirls, Murphy’s talent has been squandered on mediocre projects (Norbit, Dave, Daddy Day Care).  The premise of A Thousand Words was gimmicky at best, and Murphy’s performance seemed more frantic than comical, as if he’d missed a couple of doses of Ritalin.  An actress of Kerry Washington’s caliber deserved more than the role of the long suffering wife, and the legendary Ruby Dee ended up with nothing more than a glorified cameo.  It might be around that time for Eddie to shop for new management.

Beasts of The Southern Wild (Fox Searchlight)

Starring:  Quvenzhane Wallis, Dwight Henry

Dir: Benh Zeitlin

The Urban Daily Rating: B+

This small budget art house film has taken Hollywood by storm, made all the more remarkable since the lead is a 9 year-old little Black girl.  Beasts is an intoxicating brew of magical and gritty realism, a cautionary tale on the consequences of environmental abuse.  Quvenzhane Wallis is an absolute marvel as Hushpuppy, who brings a calming serenity throughout every frame of the movie. Dwight Henry gives a heartbreaking performance as a father with severely limited financial means, but sees the value of his little girl.  You willingly take the journey with Hushpuppy as she transitions from a wide-eyed innocent to a courageous young woman who finds her purpose in a post-apocalyptic New World order.

Django Unchained (Weinstein Films)

Starring: Jamie Foxx, Kerry Washington, Samuel L. Jackson, Christopher Waltz, Leonardo DiCaprio

Dir: Quentin Tarantino

The Urban Daily Rating: B

Every year without fail, there’s one big budget studio film which polarizes the African-American community, and this year the honor falls to Django Unchained.  Combining the sensitive subject of slavery with a controversial director such as Tarantino can prove to be as combustible as nitro-glycerin and dynamite.  What might get lost in all the heated (but legitimate) debates is that Jamie Foxx has emerged as a bona fide  action star.  The role of Django artfully uses three of Foxx’s strengths; his dramatic acting skills, his comedic timing and his real life affinity for riding horses.  Foxx brings an authentic cowboy swagger to the character, and his easy chemistry with Kerry Washington makes the audience root for Django’s mission to rescue his damsel in distress.  In his best role to date, Leonardo DiCaprio goes for broke as evil plantation owner Calvin Candie and never sanitizes his character’s despicable motivations.  If you’re looking for a lesson in African-American history, Django Unchained  is NOT that movie.  But if you want a highly stylized, shoot ’em up western with a high body count, saddle up when it opens in theaters December 25th.

Gang of Roses 2: Next Generation

Starring: Rocsi Diaz, Charli Baltimore, Claudia Jordan, Teyana Taylor, Kellita Smith, Amber Rose, Wiz Khalifa, Gabriel Cassesus

Dir: Jean-Claude LaMarre

The Urban Daily Rating: F

If Django Unchained can be defined as a Black western done right, Gang of Roses 2 is its ugly and idiotic stepsister.  From the craptastic acting to the equally abysmal script, there is not one redeeming quality to this absolute waste of celluloid.  Will Wiz Khalifa and Amber Rose show this down the road to their future spawn? Inquiring minds want to know.

The Last Fall (Image Entertainment)

Starring: Lance Gross, Nichole Beharie, Harry Lennix Jr., Keith David, Vanessa Bell Calloway

Dir: Matthew A. Cherry

The Urban Daily Rating: B

Lance Gross plays Kyle Bishop, an out of work NFL player who finds himself penniless and is forced to move back in with his mother (Vanessa Bell Calloway).  Kyle reconnects with his old high school sweetheart Faith (Nicole Beharie) and is soon forced to choose between a new career opportunity or the chance to commit to Faith and her young son.  Gross puts in a solid performance and never coasts on his good looks. Beharie grounds Faith with common sense and an independent spirit; her child is her first priority, and doesn’t let her romantic feelings for Kyle cloud her judgment. An impressive debut by Matthew A. Cherry, The Last Fall is a welcome alternative to black male narratives  that tend to go the route of hyper-masculinity or glorified criminal behavior.

Red Hook Summer (Variance Films/40 Acres And A Mule)

Starring: Jules Brown, Nate Parker, Clarke Peters, Toni Lysaith

Dir: Spike Lee

Urban Daily Rating: C

Spike Lee turns his gaze to the Black American church in his latest offering of  the “Brooklyn Chronicle” series.  Jules Brown is Flik, a young boy from Atlanta, sent by his mother to spend the summer with his deeply religious grandfather (Clarke Peters)at the Red Hook housing projects in Brooklyn.  The movie proves to be a mixed bag of deeply engrossing performances that rise above an unfocused script.  Clarke Peters brings a nuanced complexity in the role of the seemingly saintly pastor, and Nate Parker is scarily good as the former church kid turned thug who refuses to drink the Jesus Kool-Aid.  Unfortunately the ensemble cast is weakened by the the two  younger leads Jules Brown and Toni Lysaith–there’s a lack of commitment in the emotions they try to bring to the screen.  That being said, there’s some good stuff in Red Hook Summer; Lee makes astute observations on the black community’s blind devotion to their religious leaders, and how parents tend to use the church as a crutch in raising their children as a substitute  to pro-active child rearing.

ELZA (Autonomous Entertainment)

Starring: Stana Roumillac, Vincent Byrd Le Sage, Christophe Sherki, Sophie Berger

Dr: Mariette Monpierre

The Urban Daily Rating: B

When it comes to Caribbean characters in the U.S., they’re  usually reduced to violent drug traffickers (Bad Boys 2) or spell casting, voodoo worshippers (Serpent and The Rainbow).  First time director Mariette Monpierre instead delivers an intense family psychodrama that tackles class, colorism, and family secrets. A young Parisian woman, Elza (Stana Roumillac), goes against her mother’s wishes and travels back to their native island of Guadeloupe to seek out the father she barely knows.  Elza tricks her way into becoming the family nanny and soon realizes that the father she’s worshiped from afar could use tips from  Cliff Huxtable’s playbook.  Elza is beautifully gothic in its approach and will speak to many young women who understand the pain and rejection of an absentee parent.

Think Like A Man (Sony Screen Gems)

Starring: Gabrielle Union, Michael Ealy, Taraji P. Henson, Meagan Good, Romany Malco, Kevin Hart, Regina Hall, Terrence J., Jerry Ferrara

Dir.:  Tim Story

Opening Weekend Position: #1

Total Domestic Gross: $91.5 million

The Urban Daily Rating: B

With Hollywood’s recent losing streak in the rom-com ensemble department, Think Like A Man proves you should always bet on black.  Producer Will Packer was strategic his casting choices and  in hiring screenwriters David Newman and Keith Merryman which made Think Like A Man that rare hybrid of an all black cast with mainstream appeal.  By toning down some of Steve Harvey’s archaic views on women in the script, female characters were free to bypass the “90 Day Rule” without being portrayed as salacious hussies.  Taraji P. Henson and Michael Ealy kept it grown and sexy with their steamy love scenes and Kevin Hart’s hilarious trash talking kept audiences in stitches.

Middle of Nowhere (AFFRM/Participant Media)

Starring: Emayatzy Corinealdi, Omari Hardwick, David Oyelowo, Edwina Findley Lorraine Touissant

Dir: Ava DuVernay

The Urban Daily Rating: A

The second feature film from director Ava DuVernay,  Middle of Nowhere has solidified DuVernay amongst the new school of dynamic black filmmakers.  The movie is an intimate and powerful study of black women whose lives are hanging in the balance.  Ruby (Emayatzy Corinealdi) has put her dreams of medical school on hold to play dutiful wife to Derek (Hardwick), who’s serving an eight year sentence.  Ruby’s sister, Rosie (Edwina Findley) struggles to make ends meet while raise her young son on her own.  Their mother (Touissant) while supportive, harbors a quiet resentment towards both of her daughters because of the sad and lonely paths their lives have taken.  As witnessed in her feature debut I Will Follow, DuVernay has a deep empathy for all  her female characters and never exploits their shortcomings into exercises of Black female pathology.  Corinealdi gives a moving performance as a young woman who decides to reclaim her power and stand in her own truth. Hardwick brings a wistful soulfulness as Derek, humanizing the plight of men behind bars and Touissant is pitch perfect  as an exasperated mother who just can’t break through the emotional barriers built up by her children.

FLIGHT (Paramount Pictures)

Starring: Denzel Washington, Don Cheadle, John Goodman, Nadine Velasquez, Tamara Tunie, Kelly Reilly

Dir: Robert Zemeckis

Opening Weekend Position: #2

Total Domestic Gross: $89.9 million

The Urban Daily Rating: B

Denzel may be the king of black biopics ( The Hurricane, Malcolm X, Cry Freedom), but it’s always fun to see him step away from his dignified roles and cut loose to play morally ambiguous characters. Denzel plays Whip Whitaker, a seemingly charming and handsome airline pilot with a very dark secret–he’s a raging alcoholic and drug addict.  While most pilots pore over maps and flight plans with a strong cup of coffee, Whip would rather get his mind right with a line of cocaine, followed by a vodka chaser.  When a plane malfunction forces Whip to make a death defying emergency landing, he becomes a hero overnight.  Denzel expertly flips through Whip’s kaleidoscope of emotions of self-loathing, loneliness arrogance and denial. The Academy may already have The Best Actor statue engraved for Daniel Day-Lewis (“Lincoln”), but Flight reminds us why Denzel is still at the top of his game.

Chico & Rita (GKids)

Starring: Limara Meneses, Eman Xor Ona, Mario Guerra, Jon Adams

Dir: Tono Errando and Javier Mariscal 

Total Domestic and Foreign Box Office Gross: $2.2 million

The Urban Daily Rating: A

Black love blossoms under the Cuban sun in this Oscar nominated feature.  Fernando Trueba and Javier Mariscal, the creative geniuses behind the film, bring a more authentic representation of Cuba by featuring Latinos of African descent in the lead roles. Bebo Valdes provides an intoxicating soundtrack chock full of Afro-Cubano rhythms, which helps Chico & Rita bridge the divide between the African-American and Latinos.

Red Tails (20th Century Fox)

Starring: Terence Howard, David Oyelowo, Tristan Wilds, Nate Parker, Michael B. Jordan, Ne-Yo, Method Man, Cuba Gooding Jr.

Dir: Anthony Hemingway

Opening Weekend Position: #2

Total Domestic Gross: $49.8 million

The Urban Daily Rating: C

There was so much to admire about Red Tails. Finally a slice of black history helmed by Hollywood juggernaut George Lucas.  The aerial dog fight sequences were breathtaking thanks to Industrial Light and Magic, but the dramatic parts of Red Tails fell flat.  While I admire Lucas’ passion in bringing together an impressive group of young Black talent, the script lacked a certain panache and at times felt like a pedantic history lesson.  At best, Red Tails can serve as a great talking point for parents looking to educate their children on America’s ugly legacy of racism.

ReBecca Theodore-Vachon is a Film/TV columnist for The Urban Daily.  You can find her on Twitter: @FilmFatale_NYC

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