The Legacy of Gen-X Black Filmmakers | Black Writers Week


That moment of reappraisal and reckoning has arrived for my generation, which has been known by the unusually durable moniker of Generation X. Months ago I was asked by Melissa Tamminga, the program director for the venerable Bellingham, Washington community arthouse theater the Pickford Film Center, if I wanted to guest program a monthly series. The first thing I thought about was the work of African-American Gen-X filmmakers. And since then, talk about Gen-X has exploded. Just weeks ago, the Los Angeles Philharmonic announced a program of all Gen-X orchestral composers. 

The timing makes sense. The term “Generation X,” as applied to the people born between the mid-1960s and late 1970s (later, generational creep would move the demarcation line to 1982), emerged in 1991 when Canadian author Douglas Coupland published the novel Generation X: Tales of an Accelerated Culture about the young people coming of age in the wake of the Go-Go Eighties and the Me Decade before that. 

And just as the term was taking root (after mercifully usurping the previous generational sobriquet that was “The MTV Generation”) African-American Generation-X filmmakers were making their debut. It all started with John Singleton and his landmark debut “Boyz N the Hood,” which was released in July of 1991 to great acclaim and made Singleton the youngest person to be nominated for the Academy Award for Best Director at the age of 24. 

Just before Singleton, Matty Rich (b. 1971) appeared with his debut feature “Straight Out of Brooklyn,” made with grit, determination, $450,000, and one month of film school. One film was independent, the other was a studio film, but they both signaled the same thing: the Gen-X African-American auteur had arrived.

Of course, these films were forged by many social forces and the reverberations of historic shifts. First, Generation X itself was famously summed up as the children of Watergate, Vietnam, the aftermath of the Civil Rights/Black Liberation Movements, the dawn of the Gay Rights Movement, Second Wave Feminism, and divorce. We were a significantly smaller generation than the Baby Boomers who had come before us. And in many ways we had to fend for ourselves. We were the Latchkey Kids who usually came home to an empty house and let the television babysit us until a parent arrived. In time we would find ourselves dwarfed on both sides as the Millennials came to outnumber us by significant margins. The ‘60s Boomer experience had a dual impact on us: it provided an near-unattainable standard for social activism, and it also gave us a post-’60s cynicism that defines us to this day. Utopianism, we were taught in ways both tacit and explicit, was a fool’s preoccupation. This is as good as it gets and if you don’t accept that and get with the program you’re a bigger fool than the aging hippy burnouts held up for derision in so much of pop culture. 

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