Black History, As Told By White Cinema

I was thirteen when I was taken, with my school class, to see a preview screening of Amistad. I was probably a little too young, and a little too sheltered, to really understand what I was watching, because I mostly remember the murder scenes more than anything. But I’m glad I was given that opportunity, because it opened my eyes to a brutal history that is often glossed over.

Of course, if you’ve seen Amistad, then you know that, like with almost every other film Stephen Spielberg has ever made, it has a feel-good ending that makes you forget about the atrocities you witnessed up until that point. And as satisfying as it is to have a well-rounded, happy conclusion, I think it does a disservice to the reality that Africans were subjected to as they were kidnapped, brutalized, and enslaved.

I think we have a deep propensity to sanitize horror and tragedy in history, whether it be through schoolbook facts or Hollywood entertainment. We glorify the martyrs, shy away from morally gray characters, and conveniently skip over anything that might make us – the majority – feel uncomfortable about our past. Think about what we learn in history about Hiroshima and Nagasaki, and how the murder of 200 thousand civilians is defended as necessary to have ended World War II. Think about movies like Braveheart, which idolizes a man who was in every way as violent, brutal and vile as the supposedly ‘evil’ English.

History is, of course, written by the victors, and is often less than truthful. It’s hard for me to even come to terms with the fact that idolizing Christopher Columbus – a staple of my elementary school history lessons – is glorifying a man who instigated the systematic extermination of millions of Native Americans. I was taught, from a very young age, that I belonged here more than those whose ancestry stems back to the dawn of humanity. That this country was my country, and I should hold in the highest regard those who made it possible for me to live here. Even Ridley Scott made me believe this with his 1992 film 1492: Conquest of Paradise.

Film has, since its inception, been predominantly white, written for by white people, directed by white people, and acted in by white people. Even movies that try to tackle racism and historical horrors such as slavery are often thought of by white people (think back to Amistad – directed by Stephen Spielberg, written by David Franzoni, and produced by a host of people – only one of whom was black). This means that, if we rely on film to educate us about the past – especially older films, like Gone with Wind (more in a moment) – we’re relying on a white narrative of black history.

There isn’t, of course, anything inherently wrong with a white writer or director wanting to shed light on the racial horrors of the United States’ exceptionally bloody history – these sorts of stories should be told – but to do so without perspective from the people who still today live in the fallout is at best ignorant, and at worst deliberately misleading.

There are people who are outraged that movies like Gone with the Wind are being taken to task for their portrayal of slavery, particularly when they depict slaves as content with their lot, and their white masters as overall caring and benevolent. This is a nice narrative; it makes us feel better, because we can say hey, look – not all slave owners were bad people!

The problem with this is that the focus is shifted from how those slaves were obtained, and the utter lack of basic freedoms they experienced, to the kindness and benevolence of white people toward those less ‘fortunate’. To paraphrase, we frankly shouldn’t give a damn – it doesn’t matter how nice they seem, or are portrayed – they owned people like … horses, or bicycles. Human beings, capable of thought, reason, emotion and love, living generation after generation in captivity like rats.

Now of course, there’s always the ‘period’ argument – we shouldn’t judge things in the past because things were ‘different’ then. What seems wrong today was considered normal back then.

Well no shit – otherwise we wouldn’t be trying to change things! And whilst it’s certainly true that standards have changed over the years, there were plenty of people going back centuries who never owned slaves – even when they could have.

The difficulty is, of course, to find a line between historical context and censorship. Pulling Gone with the Wind from HBO Max can feel like a slap in the face to artistic history, and a disservice to the original novelist and a film that has been considered one of the best movies ever made. Let’s not forget, it allowed Hattie McDaniel to become the first African American to win an Oscar.

But the idea that it needs historical context is relevant. The movie is over 80 years old – it’s not just a classic, but quite literally a piece of history. And like all history, it should be studied within the context of its time. Without that context – and a deeper understanding of the truths of slave-owner dynamics during the Civil War and beyond – it becomes a dangerous piece of propaganda, in which we’re led to believe that black people are nothing more than servants to their white masters.

A question I’ve started to ask myself, particularly when considering historical dramas, is whether the film would have been different if written, directed or produced by a black person. What nuances would be changed? What story elements would be emphasized, or minimized instead? What characters would be given more depth? If the answer is no, it wouldn’t have been any different, then you probably have yourself a pretty solid piece of unbiased cinema. But I challenge you to find one.

There has been a surge, or so it seems, in black-written and black-produced cinema recently (I think that it’s really just been given more spotlight in the past few years, but I don’t have numbers to back that up), and that’s a good thing. But I think that more can be done to listen – and watch – the stories of those whose ancestors suffered – and who to this day continue to suffer – prejudice, racism and oppression.

There’s good news, though. As difficult as it is to see at times, and as slow as the progress might be, I feel that the world is slowly waking up to the idea that history does not equal truth. We all have our own perspectives on current events, but it’s harder to have perspectives on history, simply because we cling so tightly to what we’re taught as children. But for every Robert E. Lee supporter, there are a few others who are willing to open their minds to a possible alternative.

I’ve been thinking a lot recently about the concept of being an ally vs. a rescuer, and how what the black community seems to be asking for – has perhaps always been asking for – is for allies. When a white person makes a movie about a black person, without consultation, permission or involving their experiences, we’re falling into the realm of rescuer. We’re trying to show the world that racism is a bad thing – without even asking those who suffer from it.

I’m not saying that Spielberg should hang up his hat, or that Kevin Feige should step down from Marvel; there are many, many talented white people in Hollywood who are fantastic storytellers. But there are certain stories that aren’t ours to tell, and I think it’s about time we allowed others to make their voices heard.

Reading about dystopias is all fun and games, until you realize you’re living in one.

dys • to • pi • a
/dis’tōpēǝ/

noun

an imagined state or society in which there is great suffering or injustice, typically one that is totalitarian or post-apocalyptic.

Definition from Oxford Languages

The Bible might arguably be the first apocalypse novel out there, but throughout the 20th and 21st centuries, dystopian stories have thrived, encouraged by the trauma inflicted on the human race through events as far back as the French Revolution, the Crimean War, and of course, World Wars One and Two. Every time our existence is threatened we tell stories of it, imaginations of what it could have been like if the ‘bad guys’ had won.

But a common thread through all the stories, from Brave New World (1932) to Nineteen Eighty-Four (1949) or Fahrenheit 451 (1953), is the perspective that this post-apocalyptic, totalitarian regime is nonetheless undesirable, that it should be railed against, fought tooth and nail to the last of our dying breaths, because it represents the total lack of all freedoms we have come to enjoy and expect in our civilization.

We enjoy these sorts of novels – and later, of course, films – because they present a thrilling view into a terrible society from a safe place. At worst, they offer a few hours of escapism from our otherwise mundane lives; at best, they offer insight into why we believe in freedom and justice, and why we should continue to prevail against what we perceive to be evil.

Did George Orwell not predict omnipresent CCTV?

Photo by Scott Webb on Pexels.com

The realms of the disaster novel, the dystopian future, and the post-apocalypse, are of course more then idle entertainment. The very best of those authors carefully analyze visible trends in today’s existing society and extrapolate where they might lead if left unchecked. And in many of those cases, the spirit of the prediction, if not the letter, has come eerily true. Everything from CCTV and media propaganda to a distaste for all things intellectual and scientific was at some point predicted by some of the best science fiction authors the world has ever put forth.

And yet, for decades, we’ve relegated these stories to the file of ‘interesting, but couldn’t really happen’, simply because we like to believe that the real world is more grounded, that society’s checks and balances would kick in to prevent such a disastrous outcome. We like to feel that our privileged lives can’t be touched by the ugly realities that we’ve been warned about for over a century now. And we forget; we forget the true injustices of great wars and holocausts and genocides, because they didn’t happen to us.

So what happens when one day you wake up, and realize that the world you thought you believed in, the one in which you were safe from persecution, is gone? Worse yet, what happens when you come to the realization that for many, it never existed at all?

An imagined state or society in which there is great suffering or injustice.

Let’s focus on this first part of the definition of the word ‘dystopia’. We don’t need to imagine such a state; our society, here in the United States, exhibits tremendous suffering and injustice. It has for centuries, was founded on the blood of indigenous people who were savagely conquered, and then built by the slaves who were ripped from their home and severed from all nationality, culture and family they ever knew. And despite movements to give these people equal rights dating back as far as the American Civil War, we continue to live in a world that judges men and women all the harsher for the color of their skin.

How blind is justice, really?

Photo by JJ Jordan on Pexels.com

The worst type of society is not one in which discrimination is legal and supported; it’s one in which it’s professed to be abolished, and yet allowed to persist. It’s not one in which black people must sit at the back of the bus; it’s one in which they’re silently judged if they don’t. It’s not one in which a black person knows they’ll be treated worse by police; it’s one in which they fear it.

There is great suffering and injustice in this country, and the world over. The society we live in – the one I grew up in – is run by white men standing on the shoulders of black workers. The worst of it is that when President Obama was elected, people began to feel hope that a change was coming; people began to wonder – could a black person really make a difference to the world? And when his terms were over, the white supremacists retaliated, hard. They made damn sure to elect someone who could undo all the progress made in eight years, to find someone who would speak their language: the language of oppression.

And this brings me to the second part of the definition of a dystopia:

Typically [a society] that is totalitarian or post-apocalyptic.

For those of you who decry, “but we live in a democracy!”, I challenge you to look around you at your government’s reaction to the Black Lives Matter protests that are sweeping the nation. Let’s define totalitarian for a moment:

To • tal • i • tar • i • an
/tōˌtaləˈterēən/

adjective

relating to a system of government that is centralized and dictatorial and requires complete subservience to the state.

Definition from Oxford Languages

Let’s break this down. The United States government is heavily centralized, to the end that Washington is the be-all and end-all of the government itself. Representatives are elected from their states, of course, but all paths eventually lead to DC. It is exceptionally difficult to get a law passed in one state that is considered unlawful in others (look at the effort to legalize marijuana as an example), and federal law triumphs over all local and state laws.

And if you think the United States isn’t an elected dictatorship … a dictatorship is really nothing more than a form of government “characterized by a single leader or group of leaders with little or no toleration for political pluralism or independent programs or media”. Let’s think about the United States for a moment in this context: we have a single leader who has definitively demonstrated his lack of tolerance for any kind of political pluralism and independent media. From phrases such as “fake news” to the glorious “Fox isn’t working for us anymore!“, the president of the United States has never appeared more dictatorial.

And he requires – demands – complete subservience. Look at the violence instigated by the George Floyd protests, in which unarmed protestors have been viciously attacked by heavily militarized police, beaten, bruised and bloodied and left in the streets. Ask yourself, is a government in which police brutality is not only tolerated but outright taught not a totalitarian regime?

And finally, we are undoubtedly post-apocalyptic. From entire continents burning to deadly viruses and violence in the streets, one could be forgiven for thinking the end of the world is definitely upon us. And whilst practically speaking, of course, the world will keep on spinning with or without the human race, perhaps the end of the world is closer than we think – in a different sort of way.

And this is the only place that I feel I can draw any sort of hope. Perhaps the end of the world isn’t the end of all humanity, but rather the end of inhumanity. Perhaps … just perhaps the slew of apocalyptical events that have decimated 2020 can lead to a change, something that could bring people together, allow space for listening, allow for justice, a space where people stop rejecting science and embracing ignorance.

It’s hard to see, especially when you’re in the midst of it. But the very worst thing that could happen to the world, and to this country right now, is for us to simply pretend it isn’t happening, and that our lives can continue unaffected. For some, that may well be true – the wealthy and privileged, naturally, are the exempt in any good dystopian story – but for the rest of us, we need resist the status quo with every ounce of our strength.

Otherwise, to quote an otherwise questionable movie: “So this is how liberty dies … with thunderous applause.”

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.