The following essay was written by a participant in the 2016 New York Film Festival Critics Academy, a workshop for aspiring critics co-produced by IndieWire, the Film Society of Lincoln Center and Film Comment.
We exist in a world of cycles. Perhaps nowhere else in society are these cycles as prevalent as they are in the entertainment industry. When I grew up in the ‘90s, there were a plethora of black faces on the big and small screens. From Will Smith’s “Fresh Prince” to “Living Single” (aka the original “Sex and the City”), I could turn to any network television station to see myself, or the people closest to me, represented in some way on screen.
Though diverse programming was rich and plentiful in that first decade of my life, the second decade ushered in a near complete erasure of brown faces. While megastars like Will Smith and Denzel Washington were able to garner leads in films, other black actors were relegated to sidekick positions or “magical negro” roles. This new age of entertainment extended to the small screen as well. As shows like “Moesha” and “Girlfriends” aired their final episodes, black actors were pushed into the background, appearing only as guest stars or rarely seen at all. In the past few years, the regulation of black bodies to particular spaces has shifted once again. It appears that we have returned to a moment where black lives are more interesting than ever; and from the perspective of an insider looking out, this “sudden shift” comes as no surprise at all.
Depending on the climate of the country, the studios decide if black lives and stories are marketable; if they are worthy of being shown on screen. At a time when Black people are once again on the streets picketing and shouting for our lives, there are also a nearly unprecedented number of black faces in film and on television.
Kerry Washington’s 2011 history-making role in ABC’s “Scandal” seemed to reopen the gates for black actors on screen. Olivia Pope helped usher in a resurgence of the complex black identity and experience on screen. From the massive success of Fox’s “Empire” to Donald Glover’s “Atlanta” and Marvel’s upcoming “Black Panther” helmed by director Ryan Coogler, black people are once again publicly at the forefront of telling our own stories, but the journey has not been without its challenges.
Ava DuVernay’s sensational Netflix documentary “13th” peels back the political and historical layers that have long-since engaged in policing black bodies to certain spaces. The narrative placed upon us has often been one of a monstrous black figure or “superpredator” whose lack of control and humanity encourages him to lash out in his own community and at white people — especially when it comes to sexual violence against white women. In her rapidly-paced film; DuVernay eviscerates that narrative.
“13th” understands this story as one placed upon black people to continue classifying them as second-class citizens. Instead of the shackles that enslaved African-Americans in the 19th century, slavery has evolved into mass incarceration, police brutality and policies that have continually disenfranchised people of color. It’s a never-ending sequence of events, one as old and raw and black pain. It’s the same pain and narrative that visionaries like writer James Baldwin spent their lives writing and lecturing about.
Like our journey here in America, the path for black people in the entertainment industry has been rife with difficulties and barriers. This month, Academy Award nominee and “Empire” star Taraji P. Henson released her memoir “Around the Way Girl.” In the book, Henson recalls her time spent filming the critically acclaimed film, “The Curious Case of Benjamin Button.” Shockingly, the actress remembers footing her own three-month long hotel bill for the role. She was also paid less than two-percent of what leading star Brad Pitt was paid for her work. Like many other black talents, Henson’s decades-long rise to the spotlight has been well-earned and hard won.
Raoul Peck’s “I Am Not Your Negro” masterfully encompasses what it means to break through cycles of isolation and invisibility. In the film, Peck examines James Baldwin’s words and his legacy through the lens of some of the most traumatic moments of his life. Reeling for the assassinations of Martin Luther King Jr., Medgar Evers, and Malcolm X, Baldwin set out to remember these towering men through what became an unfinished final manuscript entitled, “Remember This House.” Baldwin’s experiences and “I Am Not Your Negro” remind us once again that what black people and black entertainers are experiencing now are not new.
Peck uses Baldwin’s words (voiced eloquently by Samuel L. Jackson), to not only outline the writer’s personal journey as a Black man in 20th century America but to also examine the Black image as it has been dispersed throughout the media. At the beginning of cinema history, films like D.W. Griffith’s much acclaimed “The Birth Of A Nation” as well as Stepin Fetchit’s 1930’s performances as “the Laziest Man in the World” were seen as the sole and true depiction of African-American life.
Baldwin sought to shatter that image, while insisting on how harmful those depictions were not just to society as a whole, but particularly to black people in particular. Over the years, there has been a continued battle to hold on to our own narrative, to tell our truths and to strip away the stereotypes that have clung to us since we were first brought to this country. We are now in a period of reclamation.
These films work in conversation with one another. They force us to reassess our own views about blackness and black life while pushing back at the narratives that continually circle us. I do hope that one day soon we will truly break that cycle, because erasure is not just a bitter pill to swallow; it’s inherently damaging and demeaning. After all, representation matters more than anything else.
Aramide A Tinubu has her Master’s in Film Studies from Columbia University. She wrote her thesis on Black Girlhood and Parental Loss in Contemporary Black American Cinema. She’s a cinephile, bookworm, blogger, and NYU + Columbia University alum. You can read her blog here or tweet her @midnightrami