How Hollywood Is Defining the Black Narrative Beyond Trauma and Exceptionalism

·6-min read
KING RICHARD, from left: Will Smith, as Richard Williams, Demi Singleton, as Serena Williams, Saniyya Sidney, as Venus Williams, Mikayla Lashae Bartholomew, Layla Crawford, Aunjanue Ellis as Brandi Williams, 2021.  Warner Bros. / courtesy Everett Collection
KING RICHARD, from left: Will Smith, as Richard Williams, Demi Singleton, as Serena Williams, Saniyya Sidney, as Venus Williams, Mikayla Lashae Bartholomew, Layla Crawford, Aunjanue Ellis as Brandi Williams, 2021. Warner Bros. / courtesy Everett Collection

Who hasn't at some point dreamt of a life in Hollywood? Whether it's the grandiose cinematography of "Bridgerton" or the fantastical storyline of a Marvel classic, we instinctively search for a version of ourselves in the narratives we see on screen. Hollywood has the unique ability to simultaneously defy and define reality. And when we speak of reality, we are really talking about the sum of our individual experiences - the stories we have been told about ourselves, the stories we have experienced firsthand, and the stories we accept as truths. For Black people, Hollywood has long defined our stories by two tropes: trauma and exceptionalism. Narratives that suggest the Black experience can only be depicted as either subhuman or superhuman. This is why an increase in Hollywood's portrayals of average Black people living relatable lives is so necessary for challenging the perception that there is no in between.

When looking at the past 15 years of Academy Awards ceremonies, 80 percent of Black winners were recognised for work that centred on similar themes of racism and abuse or exceptionalism from the angle of the underdog. It sets a precedent. These tropes encourage the idea that trauma is an inevitability of Blackness and exceptionalism is an accomplishment to be had in spite of it. "12 Years a Slave", the trauma and hardship of being put into slavery as a formerly free man. "Green Book", a classical-piano prodigy navigating racism. "Precious", a teenage girl who is pregnant with her second child by her abusive biological father. And the most recent award-winning performance of "King Richard", the exceptional man who raised exceptional tennis players despite being the underdog.

These are words that are most often used in reviews of what are considered successful portrayals of the Black experience . . . "riveting", "visceral", or "heartbreaking".

These are words that are most often used in reviews of what are considered successful portrayals of the Black experience. They suggest that the empathy, understanding, or acceptance that should be extended to Black stories is dependent on how "riveting", "visceral", or "heartbreaking" they are. Although Hollywood films are not authentic depictions of Black lives, the frequent, widespread support of any narrative is eventually accepted as a norm. Cinema that focuses on Black pain or exceptionalism can taint people's reactions to injustices experienced by Black people. Hollywood often sells to the viewer that Black stories only matter when either a Black person is battered by hardship or they wondrously excel to overcome it - at least, that is what the narratives of exceptionalism and trauma would have you think.

For every Black person who has grown up in a country where they exist as a minority, we are told at some point in our lives that "you have to work twice as hard" - the idea that in order to be considered equal, you must be exceptional. And it is probably the very same rinsed-and-repeated mantra that has led to Black women being the most educated group in the US, yet still, they are of the lowest earners. The same principle applies to narratives of success and its proximity to the Black experience. When the success of a people is only portrayed in instances of exceptionalism, it normalises the idea that for a Black person to achieve success, being exceptional is the only access point. There is no room for the concepts of nepotism or luck, the stepping stones of many average people.

It normalises the idea that for a Black person to achieve success, being exceptional is the only access point. There is no room for the concepts of nepotism or luck, the stepping stones of many average people.

For Black people who exist in white spaces, to be equal can mean you must be exceptional. The portrayal of average, ordinary Black people is so necessary for shifting the perception of the Black narrative, because although Hollywood is fictitious, it can affect the lives of real people. Over the past few years, it has been refreshing to see a new era of shows that focus on Black joy and the lives of average people. "Insecure", the hit US TV show by Issa Rae and Larry Wilmore, navigates everyday, relatable experiences. We can all connect with the growing pains of friendships through adulthood, complicated relationships with ex-lovers, or trying to make ends meet. The relatability makes it light. It makes it inviting. But more importantly, it makes it normal. And yes, these characters just so happen to be Black. An adjective that merely describes them, not a verb that justifies hardship in their lives.

These average experiences are liberating for Black people to see and show non-Black people that we can exist on screen in a way that is not characterised by extremes. And yes, racial issues do come to the surface, but they are footnotes to the lives of the people experiencing them, instead of the main theme that defines their journey. The same can be said for Michaela Coel's BAFTA-winning miniseries "I May Destroy You", a UK comedy-drama that expertly traverses the delicate experiences of surviving sexual assault and violence. By positioning a commonly experienced trauma at the forefront of the series, it allows the mainstream to be ushered into the Black experience without guilt or a sense of disconnect. With research showing that 71 percent of women in the UK have been sexually harassed in public and one in 35 women have reported being sexually assaulted, "I May Destroy You" shows how trauma can be a shared experience for ordinary people, regardless of race. Black is just a descriptor of the person who suffered the trauma, not the root cause for why it happened.

There is power in being able to see yourself onscreen in a state of simply being, without the expectation that your version of representation is "riveting", "visceral", or "heartbreaking".

When we consider the extremes of exceptionalism and trauma, it's inevitable that there will be commentary attempting to nullify this debate. In a way, it's true that "slavery and racism are a part of the Black identity", and it's a good thing that "Black people are being portrayed as exceptional on screen", but it is also deeply problematic. In both the UK and the US, slavery and racism form a large part of the taught history by educational boards that are predominantly white. The Black experience is not a monolith. The portrayal of Black history shouldn't be either. It should give room to explore all the facets of lived experiences - the messy and the mundane. Because there is power in being able to see yourself on screen in a state of simply being, without the expectation that your version of representation is "riveting", "visceral", or "heartbreaking".

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