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An indie take on African-American films

New distributor Codeblack aims to go beyond ‘comedy or gangsta’
/ Source: Reuters

Pimps, prostitutes and thugs often have big parts in Hollywood movies set in black America, but if Jeff Clanagan succeeds, audiences may soon see a greater number of smart, independent films about mainstream African-American life.

Clanagan formed Codeblack Entertainment this year to distribute films like “Preaching to the Choir,” a drama that played at festivals in 2005 and debuts in 150 commercial theaters Friday.

“Preaching to the Choir” stars Tichina Arnold from TV’s ”Everybody Hates Chris” and tells of a rap singer with a big hit who goes home, rediscovers his roots and finds romance.

Industry players said Clanagan has a hard road ahead to build a company that acquires or produces low-budget films in the hope of making a breakout hit like recent Oscar-winner ”Crash.”

But Clanagan, 45, is determined to deliver true-to-life black American stories to fans who often see stereotypical characters in comedies like “Big Momma’s House 2” or gangland dramas such as “Get Rich or Die Tryin’.”

“The studios are stuck in the mode of comedy or gangsta. There other types of stories, and my objective is to find those movies and give those independent filmmakers an outlet and a voice.”

Clanagan started in show business promoting rap and hip hop concerts for acts like LL Cool J and Ice Cube. Eventually he moved into film and television production, then became president of video and DVD distributor UrbanWorks.

‘A very counterproductive picture’Industry experts said quality dramas about black Americans are rarely seen commercially because Hollywood focuses on films that must attract enough ticket sales to justify production budgets of $40 million or $50 million. Typically those movies are broad comedies and crime thrillers that, if accurate at all, represent a very small part of African-American life.

“The embrace of these heavy urban scenarios and of them being the only viewpoint of black life, I find very disturbing and it paints a very counterproductive picture,” said Gil Robertson, a syndicated columnist and president of the African American Film Critics Association.

Independent films with mainstream portrayals of urban life most often play at festivals. If lucky, they might be shown in art houses or on a small screen at a megaplex. But for the most part, even independent film backers and distributors have shunned middle-road movies about black America.

One exception is Lionsgate Entertainment, which released  “Diary of a Mad Black Woman” and “Madea’s Family Reunion” and made $50 million and $63 million respectively. On April 28, it plans to release “Akeelah and the Bee,” about a black girl vying for a spot at the National Spelling Bee.

Like Lionsgate, Clanagan sees an underserved market and he said his business background and ties to black America should help sell tickets to his movies.

“We’re in the community. We employ people in the community and we have a certain type of access,” he said. “We can reach our audience more effectively than studios can.”

Already, he has secured a co-distribution and marketing deal with Radio One, an urban-oriented network that reaches 13 million people from 69 broadcast stations in 22 U.S. cities.