When Steve Martin uttered "I was born a poor black child" in the movie "The Jerk", he was sending up a subgenre of American film a friend of mine dubbed the Why We Be Black movie. Such films explore the sorrows of being a Negro in America with a cornball earnestness that could make you snicker at a lynching or at the sight of yet another black mama in curlers, running out into the street to cradle her bullet-riddled son: "Oh no lawd! NOT MY BAYBEEE!"

"The Color Purple," arguably the greatest WWBB flick ever made, contains a gorgeous rendition of "Maybe God is Trying to Tell You Something" that sends a church congregation and choir out into the countryside to harmonize with juke joint sinners and sharecroppers. It was a fantasy of restoration: The preacher's wayward daughter reunites with her father; black folk stop fighting and fearing one another, gathering into something like a family (if not a force, which would be anathema to Hollywood's unwritten production code).

"Lee Daniel's The Butler" is a WWBB movie about the centuries-old split between House Negroes (the middle class) and Field Negroes (the working class/underclass), and about the clarifying shocks and upheavals required to heal the rift. Right up front, the filmmakers present a visual metaphor for black grief as horrific and eerily beautiful as the drowned wife in "