In the wake of the racial uprising sparked by George Floyd’s murder, the global entertainment business has been scrambling to address its institutional-racism problem. In June, the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences announced new inclusion standards for Oscar eligibility and, closer to home, more than 5,000 British actors, producers, writers and directors signed an open letter demanding an end to the industry’s systemic racism. Slowly but surely, things seem to be changing, this time on a large, top-level scale. But what can you do as an individual to promote Black cinema? Here are five easily achievable goals to get you started.
1 Question the voices behind Black movies
Just because a film stars a Black actor doesn’t mean it’s anti-racist. White directors especially have been known to propagate damaging stereotypes in movies that appear to foreground a Black character, but actually just use them as a narrative device to prop up another (often white) lead. These oversimplified, fundamentally flawed films, such as The Blind Side, pander to white guilt with their broad-brush depictions of race relations that don’t demand any introspection from audiences.
Let’s take last year’s Best Picture winner Green Book as a case study. Inspired by true events, this 1960s-set movie centres on a road trip in which the intolerant nightclub bouncer Tony Vallelonga (Viggo Mortensen) drives around the well-to-do jazz pianist Don Shirley (Mahershala Ali) on a concert tour of the Jim Crow South, mollifying his racism in the process. Green Book was written by Nick Vallelonga – son of Tony – and the Shirley family was not consulted at all prior to its production, and have since called the film “a symphony of lies”. Tony is portrayed as the hero, a white saviour who learns the error of his bigoted ways, while Don is a blank slate, a passive observer of his own journey who needs Tony to teach him about Black culture and how to eat fried chicken (eye roll). When watching films with Black leads, always be an engaged viewer and ask yourself:
Who made it and why?
Do the Black characters have agency?
Does it shed any light on the Black experience?
Engage your critical faculties when watching the many, many movies where Black people are reduced to caricatures (of servants, maids, felons, slaves etc.); such films reinforce negative stereotypes, which in turn unconsciously colour your own outlook.
2 Seek out Black film critics
It’s no secret that the majority of movie reviewers are middle-aged white men from similar backgrounds – quite literally in the case of The Guardian critics Mark Kermode and Peter Bradshaw, both of whom went to the same private boys’ school in Hertfordshire. A 2018 study by USC Annenberg found that 82 per cent of the reviews collated on Rotten Tomatoes’ were by white people, meaning that only 18 per cent of critics were from other races (the report does not break the numbers down into specific ethnic groups). These figures simply do not represent the diverse world we live in. Cinema, in whatever genre or style, comments on the human condition; it therefore needs to be appraised by the widest possible cross-section of the population. If the only movie opinions you value are from one subset of society, you are narrowing your worldview.
Reviewers draw on personal frames of reference when writing, meaning those who are white often fail to pick up on the problematic portrayals of race onscreen. The 2019 drama Waves, for example, has a strong critics’ score of 84 per cent, and yet Black writers (myself included) took issue with its reductive identity politics. Sarah-Tai Black wrote for The Globe and Mail at the time: “I’m tired of watching movies by white directors that are sold to Black audiences as if our lived experience is as culturally transmittable as making a mix-tape […] Waves understands Black life as Black culture, and Black culture as pure aesthetic material.” It is crucial to read criticism from the demographics actually shown onscreen, as these people are likely to have a more profound and authentic understanding of a movie’s subject matter. In the same breath, Black journalists should not solely be expected to comment on films related to race, so be sure to support our work regardless of what we’re writing about.
3 Educate yourself on Black cinema
Yes, you’ve probably seen Black Panther by now, but there is a whole wide world of Black movies out there waiting to be discovered. How about Cheryl Dunye’s laid-back lesbian autofiction The Watermelon Woman on BFI Player? Or Dee Rees’ stirring gentrification drama Colonial Gods on YouTube? A good starting point is Netflix’s new Black Stories channel, which separates all its relevant programming – running the gamut from documentaries to dramas – under one helpful banner (personal favourites include Boyz n the Hood, BlacKkKlansman, The Incredible Jessica James and Beyoncé’s Homecoming). Be aware, though, that just because a film appears there doesn’t necessarily signify that it is pro-Black.
Netflix’s leadership team is 94 per cent white and, in the wake of George Floyd’s death, the number-one trending film on its US platform was The Help, a movie that whitewashes the civil-rights movement and whose star Viola Davis continues to express regret over. Go figure. Ensure that your viewing does not present the Black experience as monolithic, and instead shows our full humanity. Black stories are not all about Black pain: we don’t really need to see more gratuitous violence and racial persecution in cinema. As Roxane Gay wrote of 12 Years a Slave in 2013: “I am worn out by broken Black bodies and the broken Black spirit somehow persevering in the face of overwhelming and impossible circumstance. It is not that slavery and struggle narratives shouldn’t be shared but these narratives are not enough any more.” Amen to that.
4 Pay to see Black movies
At the end of the day, money really is the only thing that talks in entertainment and when Black movies are box-offices successes, more soon follow. Consider Jordan Peele’s satirical horror Get Out, which grossed more than $255 million on a $4.5 million budget. The director’s follow-up, Us, was granted five times more financing and performed just as well as his debut. It may feel too soon to rush out to cinemas, but you can still support Black films from home by renting them on digital-streaming platforms. Among the new offerings are the prison-warden character study Clemency (out now) and the beauty-pageant drama Miss Juneteenth (out in September). To quote the writer Beandrea July: “Maybe [bigger audiences watching Black movies] will finally encourage the studios to put their money where their 2020 Black Lives Matter press releases are.”
5 Challenge industry racism
Speak up against injustice. If your local cinema, in an act of institutional racism, bans a Black movie (like Blue Story last year), send a complaint to tell them that’s not acceptable. If you hear someone whinging that Halle Bailey shouldn’t have been cast in the upcoming Little Mermaid remake because she doesn’t look like Ariel (a fictional fish), call them out. It’s only by actively committing to being our ally that you will move the needle towards anti-racism.
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