14 Years of Fatigue – Black Audiences Seek Balanced Representations
We Despair, We Cry, We Hope and We Also Love Someone
By Yvette Brown
It has been a couple of months since the film Premiere of Director Steve McQueen’s “12 Years A Slave”. We had thought to do a review of the film but time slipped away. What I can say is that though we tire of slave narratives, we do feel those stories like others are real and lived and they deserve to be shared. We can not simply turn away from history because it is painful.
Yet, It is the desire to see a full range of life stories that drove crowds to theaters on the opening weekend pushing “The Best Man Holiday” to finish with an unexpected tally of $30.6 million dollars. “Unexpected” by whom??? Hmmmmm. The largely, older black female audience had followed the films’ cast over a 14 year period since the debut of the first “Best Man” film. Since there are truly so few family and relationship themed dramas with largely black casts, the original “Best Man” has an almost cult like following among black audiences.
This box office success of “The Best Man Holiday” shows that black people will support a wide range of films and do enjoy family and relationship themed films as much as other groups. It is such a simple statement, it seems ripe for a comic redux. The Upright Citizens Brigade has satirized the idea that black people somehow desire these over-the-top, violent, aggressive and comical representations. Black is always the “other” and in need of some special handling and re-telling of simple stories of life or love. True “black” films are those which involve despair, oppression, hopelessness, crime and violence. Further to appeal to black audiences you must ALWAYS have singing and dancing even when the plot or story line does not call for it. Definitely, all ads or commercials targeted to blacks must have a blaring hip/hop soundtrack and of course, singing and dancing.
The UCB exposes these memes with humor below:
Why we mostly see slave films and Hollywood Executives were shocked that “The Best Man Holiday” performed well.
At MBL, we cover emerging artists and what is new and happening in art and culture for WOC. There are many, many, many talented artists who could create rich and entertaining expressions of our lives, yet often the key is access and money. See insightful comment below taken from experienced director, writer and producer, Ayoka Chenzira in response to growing number of slave or oppression themed films.
There is a disconnect between the lived experiences of contemporary Black America and the movies. One reason is that there simply aren’t enough films featuring the lived experiences of people of color that are greenlit for production. Not that the stories or screenplays aren’t there — they are not being made.
This period of what is being called “slave films” is discomforting. On the one hand so many people are unfamiliar with that period in American history. Common thought also suggests that so many of us think that slavery was such a long time ago — so we do need films that show that part of the county’s despicable history.
That said, in many ways, the films about slavery are not telling us anything new and in fact continue to highlight the same premise and archetypes — that slavery was terrible not because people were stolen from their homelands, bought and sold and insured (by still surviving U.S. insurance companies) but because the white slave owners were sadistic. Cut to — let me show you how sadistic. The sadistic (often well to do) slave owner and his seemingly powerless wife are finally challenged by the well-meaning white man who will essentially become the turnkey hero through an act of kindness or bravery. This of course disallows for the historical evidence of how many slaves survived, rebelled and escaped. It also closes the door on a deeper visual rhetoric about how slavery was part of a knotty American fabric — common — ubiquitous — often without fanfare. It’s residue still has death grip on modern day America.
You can tell a great deal about a culture through its art and specifically through its national cinema. Not only by what is produced but what is absent. Timing is everything — so the question does remain — why now are “slave films” being produced? We often hear that screenplays by African American filmmakers cannot be found. I have a science fiction film and am adapting the novels of Pearl Cleage to the screen, others that I know have dramas, comedies and historical pieces. What they have in common is a modern day take on African American lives — and points of view that we seldom see expressed in American cinema. The absence of this work on screen is very telling about American culture.