Stop Asking Black Talent These Questions About Their Work

Filmmakers like Barry Jenkins are getting tired of being asked narrow-minded questions about Blackness. Here's an avoidance guide.
The Underground Railroad Barry Jenkins James Laxton
Barry Jenkins and James Laxton on the set of "The Underground Railroad"
Kyle Kaplan/Amazon Studios

Hollywood history is littered with awkward moments from interviews with Black talent. When race and gender divisions are introduced, some truly uncomfortable scenarios result. Consider Dick Cavett asking an unwitting Eddie Murphy, during a TV interview, if he was offended by the word “nigger” in Mark Twain’s “Adventures of Huckleberry Finn.” Or when a news anchor confused Samuel L. Jackson with Laurence Fishburne. The “all Black people look alike” motif has, sadly, been a recurring one in Hollywood and beyond.

Black artists are starting to react to the questions coming their way. Assuming that there will be a proliferation of film and television work from Black talent in the years ahead, here are a few handy assists for those who will be covering it, a guide to questions you should not ask and some thoughts about what you should.

“The White Gaze”

Last week, in anticipation of the release of “The Underground Railroad” on Amazon, Barry Jenkins released a 52-minute visual essay, “The Gaze,” shot during the production. The video was Jenkins’ attempt to inspire conversation about the simple act of looking, from a Black person’s perspective. It was also a repudiation of recurring questions from journalists about “the white gaze,” and not his own.

“Never, in all my years of working or questioning, had I been set upon about the Black gaze; or the gaze distilled,” Jenkins wrote.

The non-narrative video captures multi-generational background actors, in full costume, with props, carefully posed against appropriate scenery, motionless and silent except for Nicholas Britell’s haunting score. These snapshots embody the souls of America’s enslaved ancestors. They are structured like a series of tableaux vivants, while speaking to themes of time, memory, and the loss within them.

Jenkins’ visual requiem is reminiscent of a sequence in episode one of Terence Nance’s refreshingly unclassifiable “Random Acts of Flyness (Season 1, 2018), during which a video montage of Black faces, of all ages, shapes, shades and sizes, are matched with a voiceover repeating the term “Blackface.” The critically acclaimed series was an effort to shift mainstream observations about Black life, which have typically been in relation to white supremacy, by addressing whiteness less, and affirming Blackness (in parallel, the Black gaze) more.

In describing his own work, Jenkins references African American artist Kerry James Marshall’s series of paintings of ancestors “for whom there is no visual record, but for whom he has supplied [an imagined] visual representation of their person.”

Cheryl Dunye’s 1996 debut feature, “The Watermelon Woman,” does something similar. It follows a young Black lesbian’s struggles to produce a documentary about a forgotten, though fictional 1930s, Black lesbian actress and blues singer named Fae Richards. For authenticity, Dunye incorporated fake archival footage and a fake photographic archive of Richards, itself also a kind of tableaux. Dunye had to create a fictional character and story, because there were no records of real-life analogs.

Journalists willing to identify and elucidate interrelations like these in “The Underground Railroad” would likely find themselves having more robust, progressive and rewarding conversations with Jenkins about his visual elegy. These areas of discourse allow Black people to define themselves in ways that acknowledge their forebears, and the distance between them.

When Will You Start Telling Stories That Have Nothing to Do With Race or Blackness?

Constructive dialogue about race in American society doesn’t happen often enough, largely because discussing racism is always so difficult. These avenues of discussion require the confrontation of ugly truths about the nation’s history, and their own (as well as their ancestral) culpability.

What is unavoidable, however, is that “Blackness” — Black skin (and its many shades), Black hair, intelligence, culture, sexuality, femininity, and masculinity — has been politicized since the first Black people were kidnapped from the shores of Africa and brought to the Americas.

Centuries later, Blackness remains politically charged. This is a question that would seem incomprehensible to anyone even remotely familiar with the foundation upon which the country was built, and the legacy that followed.

Given that historical backdrop, it should come as no surprise that many Black filmmakers choose to incorporate racial themes into their storytelling. Still, journalists always want to dig into that rather obvious point. Pulitzer and Nobel Prize-winning author Toni Morrison was asked by Charlie Rose, during a 1998 episode of his PBS talk show, whether she could “imagine writing a novel that’s not centered about race.” In response, she noted that Bill Moyers recently asked her the same thing, and her elaboration is all you need to know about why it’s best to avoid this question.

On both occasions, the question, as Morrison understood it, came from a position of privilege. It implied that not writing about race, ergo writing about white people, was something she should want to do. She rejected the notion that foregrounding stories about Black people is not “real writing,” and that Black writers must engage with white characters in order for their work to be legitimate.

“Yes, I can write about white people, [and] white people can write about Black people,” Morrison said. “In art, there are no boundaries. Having to prove that I can do it is what was embarrassing and insulting.”

Rose prodded, requesting that she help him understand what was insulting about the inquiry.

“What does that question mean?” she said. “It only works if I can go to some major white writer and say, as a journalist, when are you going to write about Black people? Can I say that? I just don’t think it’s a legitimate question. It is as though Black lives have no meaning or depth in the absence of the white gaze. The problem of being free to write the way you wish to, without this other racialized gaze, is a serious one for an African American writer.”

Why Can’t Black Filmmakers Make “X” Kind of Movie?

The question usually turns on those genres in which Black filmmakers do not have a long history (fantasy, science fiction, horror, among others). Bill Gunn’s “Ganja and Hess” was ahead of its time when it was released in 1973 and Rusty Cundieff’s “Tales from the Hood” was a subversive breath of fresh air in 1995. In recent years, the rise of hitmakers like Jordan Peele (“Get Out,” “Us”) and Ryan Coogler (“Black Panther”) have changed the game even further.

Over the years, there has been a bizarre, at time unconscious, assumption that Black filmmakers are incapable of making great movies that aren’t straight dramas or comedies. Even now, when a Black director and cast that goes beyond those limitations and it performs well at the box office, it’s followed by industry shock and awe.

It would seem incongruous that the same race of people responsible for music and dance styles that dominate popular culture — and who come from the tradition of the griot, producing great literary work — would somehow have limited imaginations on the storytelling front.

What should you ask instead? Get specific. Focus on the industrial forces that might be getting in the way of making an inventive space opera with a predominantly Black cast, or why that fantastical, bewitching, Fellini-inspired script with a Black cast and director is collecting dust in some studio executive’s office. Ask why none of the novels of celebrated African American science fiction/fantasy author, Octavia Butler, have ever made it to the the big or small screen. (“Dawn,” “Wild Seed,” and “Kindred” are all in development for TV.) These avenues, when brought up in the right context, will lead to more fruitful and specific conversations.

What Is It Like Being a Black Man/Woman [Insert Production Role] Today?

The “what is it like being…?” question comes up often, and might seem defensible against the backdrop of an industry contending with a racial reckoning. It’s also short-sighted.

In 2019, Ava DuVernay shared on Twitter that, as a filmmaker, she’s rarely asked about her craft, “how the work is made.” Instead, journalist questions tend to linger on her identity as a Black woman creative. DuVernay is certainly not alone. Other Black artists have been vocal about wanting to be seen as artists first, with their skill and talent given the opportunity to speak for them, not the color of their skin nor their gender.

Idris Elba didn’t particularly appreciate being asked questions about becoming the “first Black James Bond,” when it was rumored, a few years ago, that he might replace Daniel Craig. The actor wanted to play James Bond because he is “a hugely coveted, iconic, beloved character, that takes audiences on this massive escapism journey,” without any racial implications that might come with the color of his skin.

With writers and directors, consider this: Would you ask these questions of a white person? If not, what else might you ask instead? Try that.

Black Talent Shouldn’t Answer All the Big Questions

Many entertainment journalists talk to talent under the constraints of press junkets. Writers get 10 to 15 minutes, if they’re lucky, and those precious moments shouldn’t be wasted on questions that are uninspired or make your subject cringe. Try to understand the appropriate avenues of conversation and don’t look at your Black subject as an excuse to parse Black culture in a broader sense.

Issa Rae summed it up earlier this year, during a conversation hosted by LinkedIn, where she said:

Some of us can get frustrated, any minority, when you’re just like, “I feel like I have to learn so much about your culture and you,” and I don’t necessarily ask you questions, I do the research. And so for me, I hope you do the research before you come to me, because I’m exhausted. I don’t want to spend time going down the line of everything that’s wrong, I think you have to do the reading and the research on your own. I’m gonna be an open vessel, I’m gonna be patient, but just know that up front.

On Vimeo, where Jenkins’ 52-minute elegy to his ancestors lives, the video is tagged under two categories: “Experimental” and “Fresh ideas.” Journalists should consider both, as they prepare for forthcoming interviews with Black creatives, or, truly, any person of color.

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