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Towards Defining the Black Film: The Genuine, the Compromised, and the Token

Towards Defining the Black Film: The Genuine, the Compromised, and the Token

To put forth a definition about any kind of a film outside of its dramatic genre might strike one as both pedantic and unnecessary, particularly the notion of defining something so visually self-evident as a Black film. But the ideological complexity of our times, as well as, the increasingly socially acceptable cognitive dissonance that often requires us to hold on to two or more contradictory perspectives depending on the social context or the people with whom one is interacting, makes such a definition of a Black film necessary.

Since the color of one’s skin is in no way indicative of one’s ability to empathize, support, protect, respect and/or love another Black person or any person of color as a whole, it could be productive to define what is a Black film for the benefit of both the spectators who watch Black films and for those who make or intend to make Black films.  

The definition of a Black film that I will put forth here has two interdependent parts. Although I will for the sake of analysis discuss these two parts separately, it should be maintained that the two parts are always at work in tandem during our viewing of films that the American Entertainment Complex defines as Black films and even those films that can be defined as White.  The ultimate goal of the definition of a Black film is so that critics, theorists, causal viewers and most importantly filmmakers can better discern when Black actors are merely being used as tokens to feign racial inclusiveness as opposed to when certain filmmakers are using Black actors to be critical of the status quo, encourage racial empathy, tolerance, diversity and/or attack the general power imbalance that exists along the lines of race and class within a highly stratified society.  

Of course by defining a Black film I will be, ipso facto, defining a White film and any other kind of film that is not Black.  I believe that the subsequent conclusions drawn from the definition of a Black film can aid us on the path to true racial inclusivity through the multiple perspectives upon a single film or a genre of films that such definitions will provide.  These multiple perspectives can only enrich our discussion of film as an art form that can be seen through many different opposing and parallel perspectives.

The first part of the definition of a Black film can be expressed as: a Black film is a film with a majority Black cast that situates Whites, if any, in peripheral or non-influential roles where the narrative resolves itself by giving more dramatic attention to the emotions and circumstances of the Black character(s).   The second part of the definition of a Black film is a consequence of the first part in that the concept of dramatic agency (the ability of the character(s) to directly influence and change the circumstances within a story and survive the outcome of those circumstances) is explicitly exercised by the Black characters who are integral to the film’s plot and theme.  By contrast a White film is a film with a majority White cast or co-leads that situates Blacks and other minorities, if any, in peripheral or non-influential roles where the narrative resolves itself by giving more dramatic attention to the emotions and circumstances of the White character(s).  Dramatic agency is explicitly exercised by Whites in the White film.  

One of the immediate benefits of this definition of a Black film is that by judging a Black film by the degree of agency that is exercised by the Black characters within it, we no longer have to rely upon the rigid moral dichotomy of positive Black characters verses negative Black characters.  Such a Manichean perspective between judging Black characters as negative or positive can perhaps be traced back to the ideological debates between W.E.B. Dubois and Booker T. Washington where radical action and protest appears negative vis-à-vis tactics of accommodation and compromise which appear positive.

The simplified binary of negative or positive Black characters often short circuits the nebulous moral conflicts shared among all the principal characters that are necessary to propel a dramatic narrative.

We, as Black people, are not either/or but all the shades and hues in-between.

Concomitantly, such a simplified moral perspective of negative vs. positive Black representation plays directly into the insidious respectability politics where Black characters and Black people are often viewed as negative and lose their value as humans if they don’t behave, dress, and talk like Middle to Upper class Blacks and/or respect the formal and informal rules of the dominant White society. (1)    

This definition of a Black film that I am putting forth also dismisses the racial requirement that the director of a Black film must also him or herself be Black.  The racially chauvinistic notion of skin color as the sole indication of allegiance to the value and sanctity of Black humanity in the cinema is superseded by the degree of agency exercised by the Black characters within a particular film.  The dismissal of the race of the filmmaker as a determining factor in defining a Black film has two important consequences: 1) it allows us to reclaim and canonize previous Black films that were made by Whites or other ethnicities of the past and present; 2) it allows us to place Black films and Black characters within White films into three distinct categories for analysis and discussion:

a) The Compromised Black Film (e.g. White Savior trope and/or Black characters do not survive the circumstances within the story)

b) The Genuine Black Film (e.g. Black characters exercise full dramatic agency and survive the circumstances within the story)

c) The Pseudo-Inclusive White Film (e.g. Black Tokenism within White Films)

Our discussion and debate surrounding the three categories should not inherently be value judgments because a Compromised Black Film can be just as critical of the status quo as a Genuine Black Film depending upon the historical/political context and the themes pursued within the respective stories.  Under these categories a groundbreaking and highly critical film like George Romero’s NIGHT OF THE LIVING DEAD (1968) would be considered a Compromised Black Film since the principal Black character does not survive the circumstances of the story.  But the grand thematic metaphor within the original NOTLD film, that of the zombification of White America and its representation of a microcosm of fear and racial turmoil within America in 1968 as a house divided within itself, reveals to us that a Compromised Black Film can often times be equal, if not more, critical of the status quo than a Genuine Black Film.

On the other hand a Genuine Black Film, where Black characters exercise full dramatic agency to change, control and survive the circumstances within the story by its very nature stands in opposition to the dominant ideology and dominant racial authority.  Of course not every Black character in the cast must survive, that would be a requirement that would ultimately limit our creative possibilities.  The point is that at least one Black character must survive the outcome of the circumstances by the exercise of their own dramatic agency for the film to be considered a Genuine Black Film.  

A film like Arthur Marks’ BUCKTOWN USA (1975) where Black characters exercise full dramatic agency against Whites and then amongst themselves reveals that a Genuine Black film is by the nature of its very existence against the dominant ideology.  It is the dominant ideology of White supremacy that negates Black dramatic agency by maintaining a White character’s dramatic agency throughout a narrative and ensuring that the White hero of the tale or the White controlled cause that he or she is fighting for is attained, protected, or propagated; this is otherwise known as a Genuine White film.

BUCKTOWN USA with its doubled story of the Black overthrow of White power and the inner negotiations between the hierarchies of Black power pushes the representation of Blacks beyond a simple valorization of Black heroism and into a more nuanced inter-factional dramatic exploration.  This film allows its Black characters to exercise dramatic agency without the approval or the permission of White characters or White representations of power and authority.

Of course this is not to suggest that only Whites have made Genuine Black Films or Compromised Black films.  For example, Black filmmaker Steve McQueen’s 12 YEARS A SLAVE (2013) is a Compromised Black Film because the film, adapted from a 19th century memoir, highlights a White Savior character, the Canadian carpenter named Bass (Brad Pitt), who exercises an unseen dramatic agency which ultimately leads to the return to freedom for Solomon Northup (Chiwetel Ejiofor) the kidnapped Black freedman upon whose memoir the film was based.  And yet it is within Compromised Black Films and Pseudo-Inclusive White Films that we are best able to discern how White agency remains hidden in plain sight within the narrative of a Genuine White film and spectators are encouraged to take White dramatic agency for granted.

For example, in Clint Eastwood’s highly problematic and yet highly profitable bio-pic AMERICAN SNIPER (2014), we have a scene that reveals how seductive White dramatic agency can be in encouraging spectators to accept implausible actions as being under the control of White moral, physical and intellectual superiority. The scene concerns the socio-pathic and simplistic principal character Chris Kyle (Bradley Cooper) and other American soldiers while they are bivouacked in an Iraqi man’s home as they pursue their mission to kill a deadly Iraqi war lord.  During a shared meal with the Iraqi man and his family, Chris Kyle notices a bruise upon elbow of their Iraqi host and he decides all on his own to search the man’s bedroom and subsequently discovers a cache of weapons.

One of the common parlor tricks of White dramatic agency is that a White character is able to directly change, solve a mystery, or take control of a circumstance in ways beyond normal physicality, intellect and even individual or collective power: this could be known as the uncanny power of hero of the tale.  But the process of heroification of a character based on a real person is often a process of mystification in that the real contradictions, weakness and lies that make up a real person are elided to create an ideal hero upon whom any spectator can empathize without recrimination.

How Chris Kyle was able to discern from a bruise on a man’s elbow that a cache of weapons would be in a bedroom under several rugs and a metal plate is never explained nor is it plausibly understood within the context of the film.  To believe that Chris Kyle could connect a physical bruise to an arsenal of weapons hidden in a bedroom floor stretches the limits of dramatic credulity for all but the most engaged spectator.  And the notion of plausibility has special significance in this film given the fact that the memoir upon which it was based has already been successfully litigated against in court and contested by other veterans of the Iraqi war.(2)   

The point here is that White dramatic agency is rarely called into question by the White filmmakers who make such films and the racially diverse spectators who have paid a price to be entertained and who must accept the various implausibilities of concealed White dramatic agency to fully enjoy the narrative.  The financial success of Eastwood’s AMERICAN SNIPER is perhaps indicative of the need for many spectators, veterans and non-veterans alike, to believe in the superior prowess of the American Military Industrial Complex, a White hero’s innate superhuman abilities, and Might makes Right national policies; that is, to believe in the imperviousness of White dramatic agency to control, change and be victorious over the circumstances within a story.               

If we turn our attention to Pseudo-Inclusive White Films we can see the addition of a Black character or characters within a film which has White lead or co-lead characters does little to redistribute dramatic agency in a way that it can be shared equally among the participants.  That is to say, that more often than not the White characters control, change and survive the circumstances within the story than do the Black characters.

In David Fincher’s engrossing psychological thriller GONE GIRL (2014), Nick Dunn (Ben Affleck) the White husband who is under suspicion for having murdered his White wife, Amy Elliot-Dunne (Rosamund Pike), he hires a well known criminal attorney, Tanner Bolt, who is performed by Black filmmaker/actor Tyler Perry.  While the film itself is exceptionally well written and Mr. Perry delivers an adequate acting performance in the film, his character lacks any substantive dramatic agency.  In short, Perry’s character of Tanner Bolt has little to do except listen to Dunn and his female twin, Margot (Carrie Coon) as they unravel the mystery and solve the intricate plot of his hate filled wife.  

True, the film is not about the lawyer character, but it is hard to believe that any comparably recognizable White actor would have taken such a role wherein which they contribute so little to the investigation and the resolution of the circumstances.  For example, in the film it is Nick Dunn who conducts his own investigation into his wife’s ex-lovers; He tracks them down and questions them about their relationships with his wife before they were married.  Although these scenes give Nick firsthand knowledge of his wife’s psychotic abilities and lies- these were scenes that would have given the Tanner Bolt character more independent dramatic agency within the film and lessened (but not eliminated) the degree of Black tokenism in the representation of a Black character within this particular White film.  

One of the tests of the degree of dramatic agency distributed to Black characters within a White film is similar to the Bechdel Test of gender bias in film.(3)  We could ask two simple questions: Does the Black character in a White film appear in any scenes without the principal White character(s)?  Does that Black character take control or directly change and survive the circumstances within the story?  These questions can help us determine whether or not the Black character is a token of pseudo-inclusivity, a representation used to be critical of the status quo, or an active participant who can change and survive the circumstances within the story.

One could contrast the weak dramatic agency of Tyler Perry’s criminal attorney character in GONE GIRL with the Don Cheadle’s performance of Colonel James Rhodes in IRON MAN 2 (2010) where Colonel Rhodes decides on his own authority to commandeer one of Iron Man’s suits and fight Tony Starks (Robert Downy Jr.).  The token status of Perry’s character in GONE GIRL is based upon the weak dramatic agency exercised by the character within the overall circumstances within the story of the film.  By contrast, the strong dramatic agency exercised by Cheadle’s character in IRON MAN 2 is determined by the character’s direct ability to change and control certain relevant and integral circumstances within the story and survive the outcome.

By far, the Pseudo-Inclusive White Film is the most dangerous kind of film in that White filmmakers feign racial tolerance and inclusion by placing Black or minority actors in a high profile film, but the characters themselves lack any substantive dramatic agency and therefore are mere tokens supporting the illusion of White supremacy in cinematic narration.  For example, Ridley Scott’s use of Black actors as servants in the biblical epic, EXODUS: Of Gods & Kings (2014)is a recent example of pseudo-inclusiveness which uses Black characters without any dramatic agency as background set dressing to White characters who exercise full dramatic agency within the narrative.

I have elsewhere discussed the lack of dramatic agency and the egregious tokenism of the Black astronaut character of Romilly (David Gyasi) in Christopher Nolen’s film, INTERSTELLAR (2014) in my essay The Black Character in White (Interstellar) Cinematic Space, as well as the diminishing of dramatic agency of the Morpheus (Lawrence Fishburne) character in the third installment of Wachowski’s MATRIX series on pages 64-67 of SLAVE CINEMA: The Crisis of the African-American in Film 2nd Edition. (4)

But we are most familiar with the Pseudo-Inclusive White Film through the Kill-the-Black-Man trope of Horror and Science-Fiction films and we have become so inured of this trope that we are often dissatisfied if it is not fulfilled or biding our time until it is fulfilled in a film and in a television series.  The Pseudo-Inclusive White Film makes the death of a token Black character palatable in fiction to the point that we believe any and all rationalizations used to support the notion that the Black character had to be killed. In fact, we often unquestioningly support the dramatic agency of White characters at the expense of the fictional murder of a Black character in exchange for our continued entertainment by the Pseudo-Inclusive White Film.  

So although our long complaint against the White controlled American Entertainment Complex and White films in general has appeared to be about racial inclusion and diversity, if we define a Genuine Black film as a film with Black characters in the principal roles who exercise full dramatic agency to change and survive the circumstance within a story, our new definition gives us the ability to make films that can exceed the boundaries of racial conformity, prejudices and stereotypes because we must always creatively find a way to make our Black heroes and heroines survive the circumstances that they themselves have changed.

We could say that the exclusion of Genuine Black Films from global and domestic movie and television screens and the fact that a Genuine Black Film is often excluded from winning the awards of prestige means that making a Genuine Black Film is much more difficult than making a Compromised Black Film.  A Compromised Black Film often gives more dramatic agency to the White characters as a means of appeasing the substantial numbers of the White audience who won’t go see a film if the characters that represent them are not able to take control, change and survive the circumstances.  The result of the difficulty for Genuine Black Films is that Black actors find it more profitable to appear in Pseudo-Inclusive White Films as tokens rather than sacrifice their careers and their livelihoods appearing in Genuine Black Films that are intentionally diminished in the marketplace because the Whites who control access to the marketplace lack the empathy necessary to surrender to the narrative of a Black film.              

But if there is anything that should be taken away from this essay it is that it is important for White or Black filmmakers to make Genuine Black Films because such works give us another valid perspective on History, contemporary events or fictional events in such a way that the dominant perspective (read: White perspective) is not the last and final point of view of the world.  If history is told by the victors it is also told in a manner that makes it easier to believe that the non-victors simply gave up and didn’t continue to resist after they were so-called conquered.

The required practice of revealing and maintaining the integrity of the dramatic agency of Blacks and other people of color without resorting to a White Savior trope is but one of the means through which all film artists can rectify and/or contest White supremacist illusions as they are manifested in narrative cinema.    


(1) I want to be clear here that I am not suggesting that Black film is a genre unto itself, but instead that Black film is a racialized construct that presents a high degree of dramatic agency exercised by the Black characters.  As a consequence, what I am suggesting is that the Black film itself can exist in any genre of film and that the representations of Blacks within these films can exceed the limitations, stereotypes and prejudices that many Blacks cannot in real life.  

(2) See the article regarding the lawsuit of Jessie Ventura against the estate of Chris Kyle:

There Are No War Heroes: A Veteran’s Review of American Sniper by Adrian Bonenberger:

And see the articles that contest the veracity of Chris Kyle’s memoir:

7 Big Lies American Sniper is Telling America by Zaid Jilani

Truth , Justice and the Curious Case of Chris Kyle by Michael McCaffery

(3) The Bechdel test of gender bias in movies, developed by a cartoonist Alison Bechdel from a literary idea by Virginia Woolf, asks if a fiction film features two or more women who talk to each other about something other than a man as a means of determining the degree and depth of gender bias in feature films.  

(4) See the article: The Black Character in White (Interstellar) Cinematic Space in the book (DISMANTLING) The Greatest Lie Ever Told to The Black Filmmaker (Collected Essays on Film) by Andre Seewood.

Andre Seewood is author of  “(Dismantling) The Greatest Lie Ever Told To The Black Filmmaker.” Pick up a copy here

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