John, with his exuberant confidence, gave us jobs and invited us to be bold in our blackness.
One Friday night in Los Angeles, we wrapped uncharacteristically early and a bunch of us headed to a club. It was packed, but there was John in the middle of the dance floor, bouncing like a pogo stick to “The Choice Is Yours” by Black Sheep. The lyrics became something of an anthem to any of us trying to make things in a world full of pushback:
“Don’t know who I am, or when I’m coming, so you sleep
Wasn’t in my room, wasn’t in my sphere
Knew not who I was, but listen here …
You can get with this, or you can get with that.
I think you’ll get with this, for this is where it’s at.”
It took a while for some of us to reach the heights we were aiming for 20 years ago, and I smiled when I heard the Black Sheep song in “Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse.” Our friend Peter Ramsey, who was a storyboard artist on “Poetic” made history when he won the Oscar for “Spider-Verse” this year, becoming the first black Oscar winner for Best Animated Film.
Those of us who worked in and around black films in the ’90s took away something vital that would not have meant as much on any other platform: the lesson that, from a purely creative point of view, we could do anything. If you could make a movie, what couldn’t you do? Film was, and remains, an expensive, elite medium that is nearly impossible to break into (ask Ava DuVernay). To make even one feature film is a triumph.
Black filmmakers of the ’90s also taught us that our lives were bigger than a laugh track. On TV, there was “The Cosby Show” and “A Different World” and “The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air.” Networks being networks, however, those shows were constructed with the broadest audiences in mind.
The black films of the ’90s were different. There was no need for lengthy, joke-laden explainers. In these films, we began to approach the complexity that we had long achieved in literature. There was a reason that the parallels were so sharply drawn between what was then called “the new black renaissance” in film and the Harlem Renaissance of the 1930s.