I watched 12 Years a Slave, I saw the Color Purple, I watched The Butler but I couldn’t bring myself to watch The Help and I didn’t want to read the book, either.
We’ve just had the #OscarsSoWhite controversy and my fear is that the call for “more diversity” will mean more movies like those listed above. These stories absolutely need to be told and many of them, particularly 12 Years, are beautifully done. But if we want to use motion picture as a way to normalize Blackness, the problem needs to go beyond simple “diversity” and into solving the problem of “identity.”
These films haven’t helped race relations much lately, and one reason is because no one is required to identify with us in those films without attaching that identity to our race. (In fact, the only time we win Oscars is when we’re playing somebody’s #sassyblackfriend, criminals, “magical Negroes” or singers & dancers.) While they once represented a major step forward, they are not revolutionary. Mainstream America already knows us as slaves; they already know we can clean floors, they already know the surface notes of our sad and sordid oppressed history. And if I see one more romanticized lynching scene I might just run from the theater screaming.
When I get up in the morning, I don’t wake up, look at myself in the mirror, and break into a chorus of “We Shall Overcome” while speaking softly and sadly of how difficult my life is because I’m black. I get up, I take a shower, and take my dog for a walk. In other words, I’m a person; I’m not permanently downtrodden and I’m not someone’s sassy sidekick, although I have had people treat me that way.
I’m not talking about completely race-blind casting, where the heritage of the lead actor disappears. There are ways to incorporate a nod or two to the person’s culture without it being the subject of the entire movie, especially if the heritage of the person is not the central aspect of the story. Because guess what, I’m proud to be black! but it’s not the only thing I am. I’m a person.
And in case it wasn’t completely clear, I am not talking about abandoning all-Black or mostly-Black films — they are important stories that need to be told (even when they’re not directly about social justice, like The Best Man series or Love Jones). They just can’t be the only story anybody pays attention to, and it’s painful to me when the “best movie in years” is another story about downtrodden, oppressed-yet-heroic Black people. We are more than our suffering.
What would be revolutionary would be major, Blockbuster films where the principal identifying character is black. Where the generic “person” happens to be black. Can you imagine if The Martian had a lead actor who was black? What if films like The Revenant, Room, hell even 50 Shades of Gray had stars — main stars, not sidekick-stars — who were black? And if you can’t imagine re-watching your favorite blockbuster with a black star, well then… that’s exactly why we need them.
*Just as I was finishing this article the trailer for the new Ghostbusters was released, and my immediate reaction was to say, “Well, so much for extinguishing the sassy sidekick!” Because there is a sassy sidekick. And she is *sassy.* Via Twitter I also found this heartbreaking article about original Ghost Buster Ernie Hudson. The only thing keeping me from being even more pessimistic than I was when I began writing this is that I am not the only one upset about this disappointing return to the status quo:
— gregory (@brothascomics) March 4, 2016
@hosienation they've got Leslie playing the "streetwise Ghostbuster who gets added later" from the looks of the trailer. So…same.
— Ken Webb (@kenwebb1313) March 4, 2016
Ah yes, Kristen Wiig the white physicist ghostbuster and Leslie Jones the black 'street smart' ghostbuster. How progressive.
— Shade Guevara (@sxmmo) March 3, 2016