Black Art and Film

I want to preface this by saying this is a topic I know very little about. In fact, that’s why I’m writing about it. I can’t strictly call myself a film buff; I enjoy movies, and have a reasonable collection of digital films in my library, but I didn’t study film history in school, I don’t go out to the movies every Friday (or didn’t, prior to COVID-19), and honestly, as I age, find myself less and less inclined to watch something I haven’t seen before.

That being said, I enjoy the art of cinema, and enjoy the emotions, thrills, scares and joys that come with it. But with current events, it didn’t feel right to go on about another favorite film of mine tonight, not because film is any less important, but because cinema, Hollywood and society’s perception of film is possibly one of the largest bastions of industry-wide white privilege I can think of.

This doesn’t mean there isn’t black cinema, or that it isn’t good; nor does it mean that there aren’t famous black actors and actresses – of course there are. But in a space where tokenism remains dominant and white film is the norm, there is, I believe a lot of room for improvement. And it starts with me, and you, and all of us.

Take the following numbers as an example. I currently own 267 movies digitally, and I’m not going to start on the movies I’ve owned previously on DVD and VHS. Of those 267 films, the following contain black primary protagonists:

  • Black Panther
  • Blade 1-3
  • Independence Day (co-protagonist)
  • Lethal Weapon 1-4 (co-protagonist)
  • Men In Black 1-3
  • Rush Hour
  • The Shawshank Redemption (narrator, but not necessarily primary protagonist)
  • Suicide Squad (sorry)
  • 48 Hours

That’s 16 out of 267, or roughly 6%. Ninety-four percent of my movies are either entirely white, or the black characters feature as a minor, secondary, or token role. And arguably, the movies above are a) exceptions to the Hollywood rule, b) written, directed and produced by white people, and c) major blockbusters that everyone went to see anyway.

I can do better. There’s no reason I can’t expose myself to black cinema more, immerse myself in a world of stories that are every bit as engaging, fantastical, and human-centric. There are incredible movies out there written by black people, directed by black people, starring black people, that I can and should seek out.

Except … actually, there is a reason why I can’t expose myself to this realm of art more: it’s harder to find. As someone who primarily watches Hollywood films over independent cinema because it’s easier to access, I end up limited in my choices because those kinds of films don’t usually include an awful lot of diversity. Let’s look at the top ten films from a domestic box office revenue perspective in 2019:

  1. Avengers: Endgame
  2. The Lion King
  3. Toy Story 4
  4. Frozen II
  5. Captain Marvel
  6. Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker
  7. Spider-Man: Far from Home
  8. Aladdin
  9. Joker
  10. It Chapter Two

Of these films, five have black actors within the first four credited actors (two are the same actor, however), but only two have a first-billed black actor – The Lion King and Aladdin (in neither of which do we actually see the actors themselves). Of these same 10 films, none were directed by black directors, and none were written by black writers.

Oscars are great, and critical reception is wonderful, but if people don’t pay to see a more diverse ensemble of cinematic talent, those films will never achieve the recognition they might otherwise deserve. And it’s a difficult thing to tackle; Hollywood loves old stories that it can repurpose again and again, and the old stories aren’t black stories. The adaptations, the rewrites and the re-imaginings of everything from Jane Austen to Philip K Dick, those enduring stories of humanity were, nonetheless, written by white people.

It’s difficult to ask Hollywood to take a risk on a new story, naturally; a lot of money goes into these films, and no one wants to risk millions of dollars on something no one might want to see. And the only old stories that feature black people are, naturally, ones about slavery – and no white person wants to be reminded of that, even though they should.

I think, perhaps, this is what it means to support black artists. Their stories should be told, and they should be heard. But they won’t be, and can’t be, unless everyone chooses to hear them. They might be uncomfortable; they might be hard to see. But change can’t come through comfort. And if the only language Hollywood understands is that of money, then we need to put our money where our mouths are.

And this, perhaps, could be the most difficult thing for us to do. Because of my environment, my upbringing, my exposure to art as I grew up, I’ve only ever associated art with white artists. I love western classical music, composed by white men. I adore European heavy metal – created by white artists. I love classic stories of hope and failure, written by white authors. I love these things because I grew up with them.

By nature, it means I end up associating non-white art with difference; with ‘otherness’, with change. I’m not a fan of hip-hop, or rap; I don’t know anything about black authors. And change is scary; it closes the mind to new experiences. It makes me say, “I don’t like this”, when in reality I haven’t even given it a chance. It turns me into a kid again, refusing to eat his broccoli.

But my starting point is this: I acknowledge this failing in me, and I acknowledge that change starts from within. It starts by giving others a chance.

So if that means that I look a little deeper into myself, and ask where I can find black art, then perhaps more people the world over can, too. And of course, art is interpretive – you don’t have to like it, just because it’s black! But don’t dismiss it for the same reason.

Support black artists. They deserve to have their stories heard.

Music I Love: “Blackwater Park”, Opeth (2001)

Blackwater Park is the fifth album by Swedish band Opeth, and represents in many ways the pinnacle of their early career. Musically, their style began to vary and diversify greatly after this album, but in many ways, it still represents the perfect place to learn their music, for it forms a bridge – both the culmination of everything they had ever done to that point, and the starting point for every album since.

Opeth began their career as a death metal band in the early 1990’s, releasing their first album, Orchid in 1995. Even here, there was evidence of their trans-genre styles; at a time when death metal was reveling in sonic brutality, Opeth presented a refreshing balance between heavy guitars and beautiful, lullaby-like jazz-inspired acoustic soundscapes. Their second album, Morningrise (1996) pushed further against the genre, including extended sections of jazz improvisation, and finishing with the beautifully sad To Bid You Farewell, a 10-minute ballad with no growls in sight.

While they continued to refine their style over the following two albums (My Arms, Your Hearse and Still Life), it was in 2001, with the release of Blackwater Park, that Opeth genuinely defined their sound. While most bands would have considered this the stopping point, for Opeth it proved merely the jumping-off point – each subsequent album has pushed the boundaries of what defines death metal (and metal in general), with their most recent album, Heritage, shedding all vestiges of their roots, and providing a stunning tribute to the bands of the seventies that had inspired them in the first place.

Blackwater Park opens with a ten-minute track, The Leper Affinity, kicking off the musical journey in a terrifying and exciting manner. Fading in from silence, a massive discord of sound builds to a swell, ever increasing until, with no warning, a shocking and harsh rhythm bursts in, thick chords and fast drumming. Over the top of this, Mikael Åkerfeldt’s guttural and devasting growls push the musical tension forwards until, if possible, the rhythm doubles in speed and moves into the secondary theme. Throughout the exposition, we are treated to a dizzying variety of rapid themes, each building organically from the previous. Then, quite suddenly, the song moves onwards into the development section, taking on the melodies and rhythm of a veritable waltz before, impossibly, giving way to a gorgeous acoustic section, and for the first time we are treated to Åkerfeldt’s stunning singing. Eventually, this leads us further into the development, the heavy guitars kick in again, building to an off-rhythm climax which culminates with a solitary scream leading back into the original opening theme. Just to push the contrast as far as possible, at the tail end of such intensity, the song finishes by petering out into a beautiful, slow jazz piano solo.

This one, single song represents in ten minutes everything there is to know about Opeth. The album progresses on beautifully from there, through a simple and serene ballad in Harvest, a stunning ballad in Dirge for November, and ending finally with the title track, a twelve-minute mammoth which, though starting and ending with heaviness, includes a six-minute acoustic jam right in the middle.

Opeth are an utterly unique band, and their music transcends genres, from metal to jazz to prog rock, and taking into consideration a hefty dose of western classical tradition. Though their subsequent albums have, in musical terms, bested even the mastery of Blackwater Park, this album remains their golden masterpiece – the defining moment in their career when everything that had led to this point was justified, and providing the foundation for everything to come.