A Bad Omen For Black Movies?..Mr.-

This was supposed to be the year black filmmakers finally basked in triumph. Five years after the groundbreaking efforts of Spike Lee, 19 movies by black directors are scheduled for release in 1991, more than in the entire last decade. "New Jack City" has been a big hit; "Jungle Fever" and now "Boyz N the Hood," John Singleton's coming-of-age film set in the Los Angeles ghetto, have won over the critics. As Charles Lane, director of Disney's forthcoming "True Identity," said of the boom, "I equate this with the breaking down of the Berlin wall; there is no going back."

But when "Boyz N the Hood" opened to episodes of audience violence on July 12--just four months after the similarly bloody opening of "New Jack City"-it left the boom's future up in the air. No one can blame either movie for the acts of its audience; Singleton's film has a strong anti-violence message. But the trouble now suggests a disturbing pattern: films that address the violent element of urban America-from "The Warriors" and "Colors" (both made by white directors) to "New Jack City" and "Boyz N the Hood"-risk bringing that element out. For young filmmakers determined to show the breadth of African-American life on the screen, that's a problem. According to Bill Duke, whose "A Rage in Harlem" opened uneventfully in May, "You won't find a black filmmaker in this country today who could honestly say he's confident this violence won't have any impact on the future of black filmmaking."

The signs so far are mixed. After opening-night violence left two moviegoers dead and more than 30 injured, 21 theaters dropped "Boyz N the Hood." But the film is a big hit, grossing more than $10 million its first weekend, with a box-office average per screen even higher than "Terminator 2." Two theaters that had dropped the film reinstated it, and 102 more signed on for the second weekend. Warrington Hudlin, president of the Black Filmmaker Foundation and producer of the teen comedy "House Party," reads the film's strong showing as "a good statement about a genuine interest in America's multicultural character. If this movie had violence and not made money, maybe I'd be worried. But the profit motive is too strong."

The bottom line can be threatened. Most movies in America are shown at multiplex theaters. If exhibitors fear that a film playing on one screen will scare audiences away from an additional five or six, they could pass, even on a potential hit. Films that don't address gangs probably won't be affected. Between "New Jack City" and "Boyz N the Hood," five black films opened without problems. "But if someone comes [to a studio] with a film that's like that," says Hudlin, "that's what I worry about."

Columbia Pictures has given "Boyz N the Hood" what Hudlin calls "admirable support," offering to compensate theaters for extra security. Universal and Disney both have Latin gang films in production; neither has been affected by the incidents at "Boyz N the Hood." Columbia chairman Frank Price doesn't believe the violence will have a "dampening effect" on other films: "I believe we will learn better how to handle these situations. [We're not going] to say, 'Let's not make pictures for a black audience'. "

The worst-case scenario is that black films-particularly action pictures, aimed at a young male audience-will go the way of rap concerts. Despite the music's popularity, many venues no longer book rap acts for fear of violence or because insurance premiums are too high. The news media have intensified concerns about black action movies and rap concerts. Black-on-black crimes typically get little play. In Los Angeles, there were 47 murders the first two weeks of July, but it was the gang fights at theaters-none fatal-that made headlines. Media attention can even help perpetuate the violence. Says Russell Simmons, chairman of Rush Communications, a black entertainment company, "[If] people say, 'There's going to be violence,' kids say, 'Better bring my knife'."

The challenge now is to make theaters safe. At the Baldwin Hills theater in south Los Angeles, which calls itself the only black-owned first-run moviehouse in America, the management did more than beef up security for Singleton's film. "We are part of the community and as close to the gang element as anyone could be," says Lance Drummond, CEO of the Economic Resources Corp., which owns the theater. "We established times so that the movies were not too close to each other. We don't allow hats, gang colors or screaming infants. We also addressed each audience before we showed the film ... We told them to see it and to think about it. There has been absolute silence throughout the showings. That surprised even me." The theater hasn't had trouble. But other moviehouses haven't been as prudent. In Racine, Wis., after gate-crashers filled the Rapids Plaza Cinema beyond capacity, the management set off a near riot when it stopped the film.

"What we need now is research, not opinions," says Hudlin. The receipts for "New Jack City" ($47 million) and "Boyz N the Hood" guarantee that films that touch on gangs will keep coming, and that violence will be a threat. As long as these films have the big profit potential, studios will look for solutions. But the issue is anything but settled. As Steven Valdivia, executive director of Community Youth Gang Services in L.A., says, the violence "isn't going to be a one-night deal." But, he adds, "if we were to continue with nonethnic people making [gang] movies, I'd be even more fearful about gang members. At least this movie understands the problems and knows from where these kids come."

John Singleton, 23, director of "Boyz N the Hood," talked with NEWSWEEK'S Andrew Murr about violence at showings of his movie and about black films in general. His comments:

It wasn't the film [that caused violence]. It was the fact that a whole generation [of black men] doesn't respect themselves, which makes it easier for them to shoot each other. This is a generation of kids who don't have father figures. They're looking for their manhood, and they get a gun. The more of those people that get together, the higher the potential for violence.

[For theaters to pull "Boyz N the Hood"] was artistic racism. If there's a fistfight in front of a theater, why pull the movie? Fights happen all the time' But because my film has a black cast, it gets pulled-just like that.

Some people want black filmmakers to make films about black people sitting up in churches and singing. That's safe to older bourgeois black people, and it's safe to some "liberal minded" white people. But I'm not going to make films like that because that's not what I see my friends doing.

Today people are more able to face [reality in films.] In the '80s they gravitated to films that took them out of the here and now-out of what Reagan was doing. Now there's a resurgence of people saying, we'd better concentrate on what's happening now.

Film can open up new worlds to people ... they learn a little more about the language. It makes them feel cool that they are able to use words and inflections integral to [African-Americans]. We change our language every six months. So I make films primarily for a young open-minded audience who's into our culture. Most of those people happen to be black, but there's a large population of hip, nonblack people who want to see these films. They buy [rap records by] Ice Cube and Public Enemy. And those are the people going to my film.

Now every studio wants to have another profitable film that has black themes. It's about money ... There are some now that will have black people in the cast, but will not be written or directed by black people. Those films are in the tradition of the black-exploitation era. It's no different from our music. Everyone copies our music, right?

I still consider myself a film student. I just finished reading two of [Soviet director Sergei] Eisenstein's books. And I just watched a film by Luis Buhuel called "Los Olvidados," which was the inspiration for a film by Hector Babenco called "Pixote." And "Pixote" was the inspiration for "Boyz N the Hood," along with "Once Upon a Time in America" and "American Graffiti." "Pixote" has the kids who are disenfranchised. "Once Upon a Time in America" starts with the kids. And "American Graffiti" has all of the music.

I wish I could make a whole film about how kids grow up in south-central L.A. and how they are made into what they are. Kids go into the juvenile detention center, and they become hardened. You're put out on the street for a little while and given certain parameters, but by natural order and nature, your fate is predestined.