Families Play Bigger Roles Onscreen among Asian and African-American Filmmakers, the Way That Households Interact Is a Topic of Growing Interest

By David Sterritt, writer of The Christian Science Monitor | The Christian Science Monitor, September 1, 1994 | Go to article overview

Families Play Bigger Roles Onscreen among Asian and African-American Filmmakers, the Way That Households Interact Is a Topic of Growing Interest


David Sterritt, writer of The Christian Science Monitor, The Christian Science Monitor


ONE of the brighter signs at this year's Cannes International Film Festival was a strong indication that family issues are being actively explored by moviemakers around the world. This is a particularly welcome development during the United Nations International Year of the Family, given cinema's importance as an influential medium with a global reach.

The interest in films about families holds true not only in the major cinematic centers of North America and Western Europe, but also in places not readily associated with commercial moviemaking. One is India, which produced Shaji N. Karun's quiet "Swaham," about the difficulties of single parenthood. Another is Southeast Asia, which provided the inspiration for Cambodian-born director Rithy Panh's picturesque "People of the Ricefield," about a family of nine living in delicate balance with the forces of nature that sustain their existence.

Within the United States, both Hollywood studios and independent producers are keeping families in mind. Examples seen at Cannes ranged from "Picture Bride," a Hawaiian filmmaker's look at mail-order marriage in the World War I era, to "Clean, Shaven," a New York director's corrosive study of a mentally disturbed man's search for his estranged young daughter. There was also much praise for the bittersweet "Eat Drink Man Woman," made in Taiwan by Manhattan-based filmmaker Ang Lee, who also focused on parents and children in "The Wedding Banquet," his previous film.

One of the most exciting trends represented at Cannes was a continuing wave of sensitive movies about African-American families. Cannes had no monopoly on these, of course: Spike Lee's endearing "Crooklyn" bypassed the festival, opening directly in US theaters. But few American pictures generated more interest at the filmfest than the spunky "I Like It Like That" and the provocative "Fresh," both by promising new directors and both expected on local screens soon.

Film treatment of African-American families has gone through many ups and downs over the past three decades. Family issues received hardly a nod during the period of violent "blaxploitation" pictures that captured large audiences in the late 1960s and early '70s.

But a more recent wave of black-oriented filmmaking has evolved a different set of priorities. Family matters take on increasing importance in Mr. Lee's influential "Do the Right Thing" and "Jungle Fever," and they're the center of interest in Charles Burnett's insightful "To Sleep With Anger," a 1990 drama featuring Danny Glover as a somewhat sinister acquaintance who barges into a middle-class household that's troubled by generation-gap pressures.

Lee's current "Crooklyn" also places family issues in the spotlight, focusing on a little girl's adventures as she grows up in a crowded New York home burdened with financial and emotional problems. Written by Lee with his sister and brother, Joie and Cinque Lee, the movie has been faulted by some reviewers for having a shapeless and wandering structure.

More perceptive critics have praised it, however, for having the boldness to seem meandering while actually reflecting the unpredictable, improvisational quality that typifies coming-of-age experiences in the real world. …

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