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Is the Classification of a Film as a “Black Film” Erroneous and Limiting?

Is the Classification of a Film as a "Black Film" Erroneous and Limiting?

As I’ve shared on this blog previously, I’ve noticed (and understand) what appears to be a recent effort to emphasize the universality of so-called “black stories,” in part as encouragement for non-black audiences to want to see films that tell those particular stories, eschewing what might be considered their reductive categorization as “black films” by the mainstream press especially (or as USA Today once put it, “Race-Themed” films).

In the 6 years that I’ve been running this blog, I’ve been introduced to black filmmakers who summarily reject the classification, “Black Filmmaker,” seemingly reinforcing the importance of their creativity over their race or ethnicity. As some have and would say, “I’m a filmmaker who happens to be black, instead of a black filmmaker;” or, “I make films that happen to have black people in them; not black films.”

I’ve also had conversations with producers, publicists and marketers who have shared with me (privately, of course), from a strictly business standpoint, their fears of what could result from films they represent being covered almost exclusively by black film blogs like Shadow & Act – essentially, to industry and audiences alike, they’d be considered black films, and thus their potential reach would be restricted to almost entirely black people. And so there have been instances when S&A has very obviously been overlooked for certain kinds of coverage of certain films, and inquiries into why, are met with responses that imply concern for the above – even though this site’s readers are often members of the audience for those films. But the assumption is that non-black audiences will be more of a challenge to court, and so emphasis is placed on feeding non-race-specific mainstream outlets to widen each film’s potential reach.

It can be frustrating, but c’est la vie… “It’s not personal; just business,” as the saying goes.

Discussions about how we define terms like “black cinema” have been had aplenty here on S&A, over the years. Just as we are a diverse and varied people, so are our definitions, which should be expected.

Some have questioned whether we should even use classifications like “black film” or “black filmmaker,” with suggestions that they are, in effect, limiting, and somehow antithetical to the advancement of the American post-racial dream MLK vocalized decades ago, and that suddenly seemed within reach (to some) with the election of Obama as president in 2008.

That black filmmakers (or filmmakers who happen to be black, whichever you prefer) have been, and really still are typically restricted in the kinds of films they are “allowed” to make – especially within the Hollywood studio system – has been well documented. And I fully understand the desire to want to be free of that kind of creative marginalization, especially when one’s white filmmaker contemporaries aren’t so shackled (pun intended), as even what once used to be somewhat sacred ground for the black filmmaker (i.e, black films, or films that tell stories about black people), isn’t quite so anymore.

My colleagues Andre Seewood and Tanya Steele have both addressed these matters in separate posts: see Andre’s Why White People Don’t Like Black Movies, and Race Traitors: White Filmmakers Who Make Black Films; and see Tanya’s Tarantino’s Candy (Slavery In The White Male Imagination), to start.

But here are my questions for your consideration: Are we allowing someone else’s myopic perceptions of us to influence how we navigate these categorizations? I think we all are aware of race as we know it being essentially a social construct, but, is it really possible to undo centuries-old *damage,* and is it even desirous at this point to reject the “black” that precedes nouns like “filmmaker,” and “film,” or are there advantages and even necessities to embrace instead?

And what does all that mean for a site like this that champions “black cinema,” or in the case of personal identity, you and I as “black” men and “black” women? Do you identify yourself as a black man/woman, or a man/woman who happens to be black, and what does the difference signify to you? Or do you reject the classification completely, because you believe, just like the term “black cinema” it’s limiting, and instead prefer to simply be referred to as a man or a woman, without the so-called *burden* as some would consider it?

If you’re a creative (filmmaker, writer, actor, producer, etc), do you loathe being labeled a “black” creative, and whether yes or no, why?

Yes, we are all human beings first and foremost; Underneath the coat (or armor, depending on your POV), there are universalities that all of mankind recognizes and appreciates. But is there indeed a definitive “black experience” that unifies us as a group globally, or, in terms of art (specifically cinema), a “black aesthetic” that is instantly and even innately recognizable by members of the group, that contrasts other experiences and aesthetics? And is there anything wrong in acknowledging that, regardless of what the implications in doing so are to others?

In essence, is “black” limiting, and if so, to whom and why? 

Think about it and dig in… 

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