Originally published on What I am Reading/Phil Lewis
There’s one scene from the 2022 horror film “Tiffany the Doll” that has garnered over 3 million views and hundreds of thousands of likes on TikTok.
In the viral clip, a man holding a gun is seen shooting at a sentient, murderous sex doll chasing after him down the stairs with a knife, and she hilariously dodges the bullets by simply moving side-to-side—with no edits or special effects in sight.
The person filming the TikTok can be heard laughing in the video and wrote in the caption, “Tubi can’t be fr bro.”
If you’re active on social media, chances are you’ve seen this clip or another from Tubi’s seemingly limitless library of Black films. The streaming service, which launched in 2014, has become the go-to platform for fans of “low-budget” Black films, some of which have gained online notoriety for questionable acting, sparse editing, and curious lacefronts.
“In many ways, Tubi has replaced the Blockbuster Video experience of the ’90s,” said Maya Cade, creator of the Black Film Archive and a scholar in residence at the Library of Congress.
“What used to be that Friday night, Saturday night, ‘let’s go see what we’re watching for the weekend,’” Cade said. “Physically going into Blockbuster has been replaced with logging on Tubi and seeing what was formally called a straight-to-DVD film or straight-to-video film.”
If you grew up buying from the DVD man, you know there’s nothing wrong with a good low-budget movie. The reality is that independent Black filmmakers don’t always have access to the same resources as their white counterparts. Sixteen years of research shows that white men have directed a staggering 80.4% of the biggest box office hits, while the number of Black directors has dropped precipitously. Having access to those resources can be a game-changer for independent filmmakers.
“A lot of us ain’t go to school for this. A lot of us ain’t have people to mentor us,” said Dennis Reed II, a Detroit-area director and producer with several films on Tubi. “I mentor a lot of people, but now, if you just pay attention, our movies are really catching up.”
But Tubi isn’t just a streaming service for fans to enjoy—it has become an outlet for independent Black filmmakers to showcase their art.
Demystifying the “low-budget” film
When it comes to Black filmmaking and creative work more broadly, low-budget productions aren’t for lack of talent; often, there’s a distinct lack of resources. Bobby Ashley, an independent director and writer from Brooklyn, said his mother’s house was one of his main spots for shooting both seasons of his crime TV series “The Ave.”
“People lent us offices, we rented Airbnbs, and actors and crew donated their time and energy. Why? Because we all were determined to tell this story and contribute to our craft’s growth,” Ashley explained. Placing “The Ave” on Tubi allowed Ashley to maintain a steady income while still working on other projects. “I’m delighted that Tubi has become an outlet for Black indie filmmakers like myself to monetize our work.”
It’s worth remembering some now classic Black films were once considered low-budget as well. In Dennis Reed’s eyes, low-budget films are projects that are made for under $5 million. Spike Lee’s debut feature, “She’s Gotta Have It,” was shot on a budget of $175,000 over two weeks. The 1995 hit “Friday,” starring Chris Tucker and Ice Cube, cost around $2 million and was shot in 20 days. These films were not big-name blockbusters when they dropped; it was the earnestness of their storytellers that resonated with Black audiences.
“Spike Lee and Ava DuVernay’s first films weren’t million-dollar budgeted projects. Issa Rae shot the first few episodes of her web series ‘The Misadventures of Awkward Black Girl’ on her iPhone with friends,” Ashley continued. “They pooled their resources and made it happen.”
Illustration by Midnight Run Studio