The New Future of African-American Cinema

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"Moonlight," starring Mahershala Ali, is nominated for several awards at this year's Oscars Ceremony. (ALYANA VERA/THE OBSERVER)

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By ALYANA VERA
Contributing Writer

The past six months have seen a radical change in the way that stories about black people, particularly in film, are being told and how they are being received by the broader public and awards shows. A 2011 study conducted by Andrew J. Weaver, a professor at Indiana University, found that white audiences tend to stay away from stories that feature predominantly black actors because they feel they are “black movies” and that they cannot connect to them. Of course, an exception to this rule seems to be slave narratives, which in the past have been widely received by the public and commended with award after award, such as “12 Years a Slave” and “The Butler.” While these films are important culturally and cinematically, it’s easy to become frustrated with the lack of diversity in terms of stories that are being told about black people.

In a January 2014 roundtable with the Hollywood Reporter, Justin Simien, director of the indie darling “Dear White People,” which is getting a TV counterpart on Netflix, stated, “There is an obsession with black tragedy. If you see a black movie, it’s typically historical, and it tends to deal with our pain.” While the extent to which this statement is true remains to be seen, it is curious that the first African American to ever win an Academy Award for Best Director won for “12 Years a Slave.” There is a way in which awards shows and by extension film studios, prioritize and elevate slave narratives that do not encourage in-depth storytelling. When it comes to stories about the modern lives of black people, Hollywood studios are under the impression that they are too niche to appeal broadly.

For some reason, studios are convinced that movies that feature a predominantly black cast can only be “black movies;” that is, movies that white people cannot relate to on a personal level. Of course, this idea is antiquated and presumes that black people and white people are fundamentally different in a way that does not allow for stories that crossover. In fact, a recent Nielsen report, “FOR US BY US? THE MAINSTREAM APPEAL OF BLACK CONTENT” suggests that shows with predominantly black casts or black leads actually draw in more non-black viewers than black viewers, with the show “Black-ish” having an almost 80% non-black viewership. If the appeal of black stories wasn’t obvious before, now there is evidence that there is great potential for cross over audiences.

Most “black movies” can be categorized into three topics: slave narratives, exemplary black figures and gangs. Not to trivialize the importance of telling stories about important, historical topics, but there is more to the black experience in America than gangs, slavery and Martin Luther King Jr. To simplify the black experience into these categories reinforces the idea that black people are a monolith and that they don’t deserve the stories that reflect their diversity of experience. Movies with black casts aren’t simply black movies, they are human stories. Perhaps the wish to show black characters doing things that white characters have been doing for ages has caused a deeper narrative to be explored about black life in America. Movies such as “Dope” (2015), “Dear White People” (2014) and “For Colored Girls” (2010) have all explored the nuances of black life in America.

The last six months have seen the shattering of the idea of a “black movie—” they have explored a side of the black experience in America that often goes untold. Those whose experiences vary from that of the black cis-heteronormative male are being explored. “Moonlight,” a tale of love and self-discovery, not only speaks to the harsh life of a boy growing up in a poor neighborhood, but also the complexity of his relationships with his abusive mother and his close friend, all while he tries to come to terms with his burgeoning sexuality. “Hidden Figures” tells the story of three women, Katherine G. Johnson, Dorothy Vaughan and Mary Jackson, who played an integral part in the launch of John Glenn into space and overcame several obstacles not just as black folk, but as black women. These movies break out of the cookie-cutter narratives of slavery, household names and tales of gangs and explore the depth and complexity of life. “I Am Not Your Negro,” based on the unfinished manuscripts of James Baldwin, tells the story of race relations in America through the lives of three men: Malcolm X, Martin Luther King Jr. and Medgar Evers. “13th” explores the history of race in America and how overt racism has evolved into a more insidious breed of racism that manifests itself through the prison industrial complex, showing how far we have yet to go in terms of true equality for all.

I would, however, hesitate to call this movement a trend. Calling it a trend would suggest that it will easily ebb and fade after some time, but I believe that we are experiencing a renaissance in all-black art. In the last year we have seen critically acclaimed shows featuring predominately black casts, from “Atlanta” to “Insecure,” as well as older shows that have gained critical recognition such as “Empire,” “Luke Cage,” “Black-ish” and “Chewing Gum.” Not to mention the rise in experimental and provocative music, such as Beyoncé’s “Lemonade,” Solange’s “A Seat at the Table” and Frank Ocean’s “Blond,” among many more. From Ta-Nehisi Coates to Ava Duvernay, black artists are flourishing and providing relevant and necessary social commentary. Not only are they speaking out, but they are also getting recognized for their work; Grammys, Oscars and National Book Awards have been handed out in droves to these artists. This movement could be seen as a response to the increasing public focus on the racial climate in America; police brutality, the prison industrial complex and the rise of white supremacy as a legitimate political opinion has elicited a strong response. Art has always been a means through which the oppressed has made a space for themselves, and is often as reactionary as it is provocative to the dominant culture.

In the same Hollywood Reporter roundtable, Simien explains that portraying the black experience as a monolith is deceiving and degrading, “You know what that says, very subtly? It says that we’re not human. Because human beings are multifaceted.” The effort to humanize black people in the eye of a country that still treats them as second class citizens is ongoing. The need for stories about the daily life of black people, and their experiences, has never been more pressing. Now, thanks to this recent rise in diverse stories, movies are starting to truly reflect the multiplicity of black experience, showing how truly multifaceted black people are.