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Consider: Do you watch movies produced and directed by predominantly Black filmmakers? If you watch a film created by a white filmmaker, consider the intentions behind their portrayal of Black characters.
In 1955, 14-year-old Emmett Till was abducted and brutally murdered by relatives of a white woman he was wrongly accused of harassing. A movie by Nigerian-American film director Chinonye Chukwu will depict Emmett’s mother, Mamie Till Mobley’s decision to hold an open-casket funeral (Deadline). By showing the public the brutality of white terror in the South, Mobley’s decision helped fuel the Civil Rights movement.
The political context of Emmett’s murder would be completely different had it not been Mamie who organized the funeral or directed the release of Emmett Till’s funeral photos. For instance, if a white journalist leaked the funeral photos, it would have been exploitative instead of a political act. Similarly, the unreleased film could quickly become another misrepresentation of a fallen civil rights icon. Having Black film executives behind its production decreases the likelihood of Till’s story being flattened into a set of harmful tropes.
The misrepresentation of Blackness in the media began with minstrel shows, “an American theatrical form, popular from the early 19th to the early 20th century, that was founded on the comic enactment of racial stereotypes” (Britannica). White performers painted their faces black and caricatured the singing and dancing of Black people. Mocking or misrepresenting Blackness for the sake of entertaining white audiences continues in modern media.
After minstrelsy lost popularity, white media transformed from mocking Blackness to erasing it. Portrayals of Blackness did not re-enter mainstream mass media in earnest until the release of Blaxploitation movies, “[a] group of films made mainly in the early to mid-1970s that featured Black actors in a transparent effort to appeal to Black urban audiences” (Britannica). Intended to provide Black audiences with relatable depictions of the Black experience, they instead perpetuated negative stereotypes regarding the Black community’s supposed violent tendencies, uncontrollable sex drive, and drug dealing. When the Black community responded negatively to Blaxploitation, filmmakers and studios claimed they were merely fulfilling their audience’s demand and providing Black actors with leading roles.
Minstrelsy, intended to entertain white audiences, and Blaxploitation films, intended to entertain Black audiences, reduced the Black experience to a set of negative stereotypes. There is one truth that lies at the root of both entertainment forms: Blackness is not accurately represented in the media when white creators and performers are controlling the narrative.
The effects of minstrelsy and Blaxploitation can still be seen today. Black characters often fall somewhere on the spectrum of two opposing tropes. There’s a conservative stereotype of Black deviance that depicts Black characters as criminals. The main character of Super Fly, a highly successful 1972 Blaxploitation film, lived a lavish lifestyle through his role as a drug kingpin.
In contrast, the liberal stereotype of Black victimhood depicts Black characters as helpless and needing a white savior to rescue them. 2019’s Harriet was scrutinized for reducing Harriet Tubman’s story to one centered around victimhood: “many criticized the fact that a black bounty hunter in the movie was the antagonist and that the story failed to focus enough on the horrific wrongdoings of the slave owners” (The Undefeated). This victimhood narrative perpetuates the notion that Black people lack agency and are incapable of helping themselves, whereas the deviance stereotype perpetuates the equally problematic notion that Black people use their autonomy in a negative way— often related to participation in illegal activities.
Supporting Black filmmakers ensures that they have the resources to continue telling Black stories void of harmful deviance and victimhood narratives. Till, the film following Mamie Till Mobley’s fight for justice, could very easily fall into a story about victimhood. The executive team is composed of three Black people, which makes it less likely that Emmett’s story will be misconstrued.
Supporting Black autonomy in the media extends beyond watching films produced and directed by Black filmmakers. It also asks the audience to consider white filmmakers’ motives and incentives behind their portrayal of Blackness. Are they perpetuating negative stereotypes? Are they centering a Black story around a white savior?
The National Black Film Association (NBFA) and the Black Film Allegiance (BFA) are two organizations focused on supporting Black talent in the film industry. The NBFA is currently promoting National Black Movie Day, a day dedicated to supporting Black movies, and is offering a $5,000 scholarship for Black short filmmakers. The BFA is developing an industry mentorship program and free content that offers discussion questions related to Black representation in film.
The NBFA and the BFA are doing the work that Hollywood is not: ensuring that Black stories are told by Black people.
Minstrelsy and Blaxploitation are drastically different forms of entertainment, but they both confirm that blackness will not be accurately represented if white filmmakers and performers are controlling the narrative.
The conservative stereotype of Black deviance and the liberal stereotype of Back victimhood are equally problematic and reduce the Black experience to negative stereotypes.
Supporting Black autonomy in the media is the only way to ensure that the Black experience is accurately represented in film.