Art imitates life AND life imitates art…its a never-ending circle.
Today we celebrate Juneteenth! A day that many knew negligibly little about (thanks to our white-washed educational system) until this year (2020 is bringing many things…good and bad…to the light, this is our reckoning year)–a day that should be taught in schools and as venerated as any other national holiday.
As I sit and reflect on this day (and watch “Watchmen” which is currently streaming for free on HBO this weekend), I think about how the black experience has been portrayed in films throughout cinematic history. Many stereotypes and misconceptions have been perpetuated throughout the years because of the way we have been depicted in film, books, the media, art, etc. We are not “savages,” “magical negroes,” “overly sexualized,” simple-minded caricatures, “mammies” or “sambos” or any other stereotype that comes to mind…nor do we need a “white savior” to swoop in and save the day by rescuing us from our “tragic existence” (true allies ARE needed though). But we are mothers, fathers, sisters, brothers, doctors, lawyers, scientists, artists, handymen, plumbers, athletes, entrepreneurs, teachers–you name it. We are diverse, complex, intelligent, funny, leaders, independent, beautiful, worthy, loving, nurturing, hopeful, survivors, just like any other person. Being black is not a monolithic experience. But if you looked at our portrayals throughout the early decades of Hollywood (and sometimes even in current day films), you wouldn’t know that.
As someone who came to love classic Hollywood films at a young age (I remember watching TCM back in the 5th grade)…I mean from silents to pre-code on up, I also remember not seeing anyone who looked like me in any of the films I watched. But if I did see someone black, they were maids, housekeepers, butlers or just thrown in to a musical number to show off their effortless tap skills. We were never major characters or really given any meat or backstory. We were just props, there to make the white individuals look good and their lives easier. I’ve watched many films from the 30s, 40s, 50s and 60s in which black people are only fleeting footnotes, non-existent (thanks Hays Code) or just a caricature of person. To me these movies are pure fantasy and should be treated as such.
When I was young, I also remember taking it upon myself to watch things like PBS’s “Eyes On the Prize” series (originally aired 1987 – 1990) and being exposed to the vast, rich history of my people here in America and our plight for equality. And I took it upon myself to read as many books about black history as I could. I learned the things I wasn’t being taught in my Southern public school system. So when I would go back and watch the idyllic and carefree films of Doris Day and Rock Hudson, I knew that right around the block, the fight for our freedoms and the soul of our country was happening right out of view.
As the events of the past few weeks have been unfolding (the murders of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, Rayshard Brooks and the countless others as well as the #BLM movement and the momentum around defunding the police), there have been many discussions about problematic films/media. When HBO decided to remove “Gone With the Wind” from its streaming platform (until they can add a disclaimer), I was here for that move. Even though as a film lover, I love “Gone With the Wind”…my mother loves it too, and I believe that it deserves its place in the annals of cinematic history. The film has transcended generations…good or bad.
But I also know that the movie is beyond problematic…its depictions of blacks during that time was inaccurate and offensive (Prissy got on my damn nerves)…and it was nothing more than just a romanticization of the Civil War and Southern life in general (may films of this era were). (But props to Hattie McDaniel for making history with her performance though…although she is/was a divisive figure in the black community, you gotta give props were props are do and she did what she could to advance her people.) That wasn’t real life and having done my history at a young age, I knew/know that. It is a fictionalized telling of a re-writing of history that many people took/take as fact, real-life…to them it was the memories of the glorious past (that never really existed). But as a friend recently told me, history and memories are two totally different things. I watch the film with the knowledge that this is just a fantasy world…a product of the times…unfortunately, some people see it as something more.
“Gone With the Wind” isn’t the only problematic film, its just one of the most memorable, well-known and glaring examples. I still watch classic films to this day and cringe a little when white stars of the day don blackface for a musical number (from Al Jolson in “The Jazz Singer” to Bing Crosby in several films smh). I’m still confused as to how “Blazing Saddles” became such a pop cultural fixture…I get that it was satire, but it wasn’t funny to me and its use of the “N-word” just seemed a little over-the-top (again, I get that satire is supposed to be like that, but damn, really?!). What is it that y’all like about that film???
Even when films are supposed to be strictly fictional, they are simultaneously historical…snapshots of the moment in time when they were written/filmed. Outside influences and your surrounding world are all up in there. If you live in a highly segregated (even if not intentional) world, of course you aren’t going to have any black or POC characters…or if you do, they are just a reflection of what you assume them to be since you have no personal interactions or connections with them (and we get these assumptions/characteristics from the media and entertainment we consume). I can’t write a medical drama and try to use medical terms if I’ve never been around doctors or elicited the help of those in the medical field to help me do it right…do you see where I’m going with this? When you don’t have black and POC people on your team…in the writers room, etc…we get these missing, inaccurate or white-washed portrayals of the black experience. You can’t write our story…at least not accurately. We have to write our own stories. The rich tapestry of the black experience can only be accurately depicted if we are involved in the telling of that story.
But don’t fret…don’t give up hope! There are accurate, diverse and amazing portrayals of the black experience out there…those movies exist…they just don’t get the “Hollywood” treatment of hundreds of millions of dollars behind it, big studio backing, national theatrical releases and things of that nature (unless its “Black Panther”…again give props were props are due, but lets me honest, if Marvel wasn’t behind it, it wouldn’t have made history like it did…sad, but true).
There are many writers and directors who making sure that our story is being told…and told right…people like Ava DuVernay, Spike Lee, Lena Waithe, Ryan Coogler, Barry Jenkins, Melina Matsoukas, John Singleton, Oscar Mincheaux (look him up if you’re not familiar), Nia DaCosta, Issa Rae, Dee Rees, Jordan Peele, Kasi Lemmons and countless others. And there are brothers and sisters abroad who are telling the black experience in such a compelling and honest ways as well (Ladj Ly “Les Misérables” in and Mati Diop “Atlantics” are just two who pop to mind…and don’t forget that Nollywood is a whole-ass thing)!
So with all of that said, here’s a list of some of my favorite (more recent) films depicting the diversity, history, pain, love, happiness, hope, etc. of black experience. I tried to list those that are currently streaming so you have no excuse not to watch them this weekend (or any other time) for the first time or as a re-watch…they’re all worth it!
There are also many TV shows that accurately portray the diversity of the black experience from “When They See Us” to “Insecure” to “Atlanta” to “The Wire” to “Dear White People.” (but we’ll save that for another day since this is a #FilmFriday post lol). Its out there, you just have to be willing to find it. And always remember, “if you don’t write your own story, someone else will.”
With that said, I’m off to watch “Miss Juneteenth”…from what I hear its amazing!!!
Drop a line in the comments letting me know what movies you think should be on the list and any others that folks should watch.