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.

Why Peter Jackson Is One of the Most Underrated Filmmakers of Our Age

I, like most of the world, was introduced to Peter Jackson through his seminal and utterly game-changing film adaptations of Tolkien’s timeless classic, The Lord of the Rings. For me, those three movies represent perfection on celluloid (so to speak), and remain to this day my favorite movie(s) of all time.

And yet, today, Peter Jackson is more often than not looked upon as a pariah, a dismal failure who could never live up to his former achievements. Films such as King Kong, The Lovely Bones, and even Mortal Engines are looked upon with disdain by the critical population as an outright abuse of style over substance, and an over-reliance on CGI. In fact, it’s hard to think of a film of his since 2003 that anyone has truly loved the way they loved The Lord of the Rings. Even the sequels, the three Hobbit movies, have been thrown away as an abomination to Tolkien’s vision, and, to some, something that should have never been made. Once gold, everything Peter Jackson touches these days turns to crap.

Except … I couldn’t disagree more. After The Lord of the Rings, Peter Jackson has either produced or directed no less than eight feature films: King Kong, District 9, The Lovely Bones, the three Hobbit movies, The Adventures of Tintin, and Mortal Engines. I’ve seen all but one of them (District 9, for some odd reason), and I’ve personally loved every one of them, often for different reasons. I shall, below, attempt to explain why.

Many of Peter Jackson’s movies are adaptations, typically of novels, but sometimes (e.g. King Kong) of previous movies. We all know, of course, what an incredible job he did with The Lord of the Rings, so we’ll skip those and move right on to the first post-Rings film he was involved with: King Kong.

King Kong (2005)

When it was announced that Peter Jackson was going to follow his success with The Lord of the Rings with an adaptation of the original 1933 creature feature, I recall people being uncertain what would be in store. So far removed from the grandiose scenery and epic battles of The Lord of the Rings, it seemed an odd project to take on. And I think that, when it was released, people didn’t know what to make of it. If Peter Jackson is to have a fault, it’s that he doesn’t know how to be succinct, and at over three hours long, it seems simply excessive.

And indeed, it does drag along at times, but no more so than The Lord of the Rings did. The key thing to understand about about Peter Jackson’s King Kong is that it most definitely is not a creature feature; despite featuring numerous fantastical beasts, including the titular great ape, these aren’t the point of this movie. Instead, King Kong is an ode to the art of filmmaking, both through the character of Carl Denham and his obsession with creating the best film possible, and through the actual movie itself. It’s a subtle jab at the Hollywood executives who first rejected him, and then demanded more of him. And, above all, it’s an outreach to the outcast and misunderstood, a way of reflecting the part in all of us that longs for belonging, even in places where it is never to be found.

King Kong is a film about film, a story about love, and an example to Hollywood of what you get when you throw money at a project without truly understanding it. And for this, I love it.

The Lovely Bones (2009)

Since I haven’t seen District 9, we’ll skip over that one for now and move on to Peter Jackson’s next effort, an adaptation of Alice Sebold’s 2002 novel of the same name. Telling the story of a thirteen-year-old girl from her perspective in the afterlife after being tragically murdered, it is a touching and heartbreaking tale of tragedy and hope, loss and renewal. Torn between remaining with her family and passing on into the afterlife, Susie Salmon can’t rest in peace until her family finds their own, and so she helps them in whatever way she can to find closure with her untimely death.

As always, this is a stunning spectacle, with vast dreamscapes filled with giant ships, flowering trees and demons in the shadows, but this is only the backdrop to what is ultimately another story of love and despair. Like King Kong, there can be no happy ending, but the final moments, when they come, are bittersweet nonetheless, and certain to bring tears to your eyes.

At only 2 hours and fifteen minutes, it also showcases that Peter Jackson is able to learn from his previous efforts, and condense a novel adaptation into a movie that can actually be watched in one sitting. And like he did with The Lord of the Rings, his adaptation here is beautiful, moving, and faithful to the source material.

The Hobbit (2012 – 2014)

We come now to perhaps the most contentious of Peter Jackson’s films, the three Hobbit movies (An Unexpected Journey, The Desolation of Smaug, and The Battle of the Five Armies). Panned by critics and audiences alike, these are movies people love to hate.

And unfairly, I believe. When looking at the outcome of filmmaking, it’s worth taking into account the background and context of the project itself. The Hobbit movies were not originally what Peter Jackson wanted to do; in fact, he intended to be involved only in a production capacity, and leave the direction to Guillermo Del Toro. Del Toro even began work on the film before leaving the project altogether, and faced now with the challenge of directing reshoots, finishing the film, and a deadline that Hollywood refused to budge, Peter Jackson very nearly worked himself into an early grave. Forced to produce a trilogy (he originally only wanted two films), Peter Jackson was forced to dig deep into the lore of Middle Earth, restricted again by the renewed copyright on The Silmarillion, held by the Tolkien estate, who refused to allow its characters or events to be used.

Considering all of this, I think The Hobbit movies came out surprisingly well. Whilst they do decline somewhat in quality as each movie progresses, I firmly believe that Jackson did his best to bring to life such a beloved book, and there are many exquisite scenes, such as the dwarves singing before Bilbo’s fire, or the incredible motion-capture performance of Benedict Cumberbatch as the terrible Smaug. I appreciate the fact that, again, Peter Jackson takes his time with the plot, giving due screen time to small details that could have easily been glossed over, such as the stone giants in the misty mountains, or the detailed set pieces of Laketown. The biggest problem with these movies is simply that there wasn’t enough source material to make three movies – something Peter Jackson understood, but Hollywood didn’t. Are they on the same level of The Lord of the Rings? Of course not. Do they stand well in their own right as a very faithful adaptation of Tolkien’s original book? Of course they do.

Mortal Engines (2018)

I wrote about Peter Jackson’s most recent film, Mortal Engines, a few days ago, so I won’t go into it in too much depth here, but again, we have a young adult novel adapted to film, and spectacularly so. From the tiniest details of the steampunk machinery to the epic landscapes of a ruined earth, this is truly a magnificent film, and the plot is classic YA, involving teenage characters battling against obvious evil to save the world.

The thing I’m getting at, I suppose, is that I think Peter Jackson is deeply misunderstood. To me, it’s abundantly clear that he adores reading, books, and literature in general, and the only thing he’s ever wanted to do is bring those beautiful, imaginative books to life. How many of us have read a book and wondered what it would look like on the big screen? How many times have you finished a final page and thought, this would make a good movie? All Peter Jackson has tried to do is exactly that: make the movies that we wanted all along. His films are works of a dedicated and loyal fan, tributes to the great storytellers of our times.

And this, I think, is what Hollywood doesn’t get. Peter Jackson doesn’t make movies for the box office. He doesn’t make movies to please the critics, or to win Academy Awards. When that happens, it’s nice, but his true love and dedication – the reason he makes his movies – is simply because he wants to bring to life what he always imagined when reading the books.

And for this reason, I think Peter Jackson is criminally underrated. If everyone in Hollywood took a leaf from his book, they might realize that you don’t make great films to make money; you make them for the fans. You make them for the people who love the stories, and want to see them visualized.

Peter Jackson makes movies for us, but first and foremost he makes them for himself. And I deeply, deeply respect him for this.

A Change of Pace

I’ve been struggling to write for nearly a year now. When I released my young adult novel in the autumn of 2017 (under my real name), I had a plan that I would spend 2018 writing the fourth Redemption of Erâth novel, and 2019 could focus on my second attempt at YA.

Sadly, this isn’t how things have turned out. I spent most of 2018 trying to start writing (with very little success), whilst also attempting to market and sell my YA novel. This did not work. I’ve spent most of 2019 trying to get going on the second YA novel … which also didn’t work.

In the midst of all of this, I’ve become increasingly negligent of my blog, and The Redemption of Erâth has dropped off the face of the earth. There have been a lot of ups and downs (mostly downs) over the past two years, but nothing I haven’t been able to weather before. No – this time, I think I’ve really just become complacent, and found it easier to do the things that keep me going day by day, without finding room for the things that make those days worth living.

That thing is writing. The feeling of accomplishment, of success, when writing the final lines of a novel … there is nothing comparable. It’s a deluge of heady satisfaction, and it doesn’t matter if another soul in the world ever reads it. Just knowing that something exists in the world that did not before is a reward worth a thousand kingdoms.

So what can I do? The first thing I know I can’t do is make a promise. Promises lead to broken hearts, and I’d not have that for anything. But I can try. I can continue to try, day by day, and if I write a word or not, I know that the next day will come, and with it new energies and new ideas that might be able to revive me.

So for now, I will put a pause on my YA work, and see what the world of Erâth has to hold for me, for Brandyé, Elven, and all the others. I am going to try diving back in to the fourth book in the Redemption of Erâth series, and see if my mind can fathom the next steps there better than it can in the real world.

I will do my best to post regular updates and thoughts, but as before – no promises. I do look forward, though, to the idea of regaining this community, discovering new people, and writing new worlds.

Here’s to the next 12 months!