“I was taught in American history books that Africa had no history, and neither did I. That I was a savage about whom the less said, the better.”
At the 78th Whitney Biennale, American artist Dana Schutz’s painting Open Casket conjured up controversy within the art world. The piece abstractly depicted the mangled body of fourteen year old Emmit Till after he had been tortured and lynched by two white men. Black non-binary activist and artist Parker Bright served as the catalyst for some of the important commentary in response to the work. Adorning a shirt with the words “BLACK DEATH SPECTACLE” scrawled across its back, they stood in front of Schutz’s painting blocking it from view. This act of protest sent waves across the art world and forced onlookers to evaluate what it meant for a white artist to be rewarded for co-opting Black trauma in the name of art and consequently, profit.
While flicking through recent film releases—Nigerian Prince, Queen and Slim, Bad Hair, The Hate U Give, King of Boys, Chi-raq, American Skin, Antebellum, Brotherhood—by Black directors, Bright’s defiant actions came to mind. I realized the majority of mainstream movies and TV programs produced by Black directors today relied heavily on the mining of our pain while offering very little critical analysis of the systems that have and continue to perpetuate this anguish. I do not subscribe to the idea that film must be a canon for critical political analysis or that Black artists must tackle social issues in their art. However, this particular form of storytelling, steeped in deeply political subject matter, being almost void of critical analysis, raises several questions, including: “what happens when Black artists themselves begin to exploit Black trauma for the sake of profit?”
Unlike music, a field in which we can see the fingerprints of Black aesthetics scattered far and wide, Black film is still arguably in its infancy. This can in part be attributed to the capital intensity of the medium. The high price of entry, along with good old fashioned racism, ensured the exclusion of most Black artists from filmmaking for the majority of its history. The filmmakers who forced their way to the table were often creatively constrained by the white-owned studios they partnered with; a dynamic which positioned the narratives Black artists wanted to actualize as secondary.
I think it is important to clarify what I mean when I refer to “Mainstream Black Cinema,” to separate and ensure the cadre of Black filmmakers such as Oscar Micheaux, Ousmane Sembene, Fanta Régina Nacro and the fervent members of the LA Rebellion movement, whose works would fall into what could be described as the “Core stream” —less readily available art house films that often display a more authentic desire to explore Black life—are acknowledged. Mainstream Black Cinema as we know it today can be attributed to the blaxploitation era of the 1970s. A time when Hollywood realized the potential of the Black dollar and began investing in films aimed at Black audiences. This period birthed films like Blacula, Shaft and Dolemite—pictures that parodied Black life in the Americas. Shortly after, African Film industries like South Africa's Sollywood followed suit and applied the same formula. Soon, white directed films that caricatured Black life on the continent like Umbango, Fishy Stones and Joe Bullet began to be produced in droves.
Though the majority of blaxploitation films were made by non-Black filmmakers, there was the occasional film by a Black director that would slip through the cracks and appear on the big screen. Bill Gunn’s Ganja and Hess is a stand out from this period. Following the release of Blacula, studios were looking to create another Black vampire movie to piggyback off its success. Gunn was approached for the job and despite not wanting to make a Black vampire film, he took it, deciding to adopt as avant-garde an approach as he could aesthetically and ideologically. The resulting film is a melancholic exploration of theology, addiction, power and alienation. Films like these laid the groundwork for Black film behemoths like Spike Lee whose works took the world by storm in the ‘90s.
The retelling of raw unfiltered realities, “the real,” creating snapshots of what slavery, Jim Crow, South Central in the ’90s or colonial Africa felt like is often used to explain our inclination towards producing these images. But what are their purposes? What audience are they aimed at? What do we hope to achieve through these depictions and reproductions of pain and struggle? In Susan Sontag's book Regarding the Pain of Others, she surmised the drive of the image-making industry as the creation of dramatic images, positioning shock as “a leading stimulus of consumption and source of value.” In her analysis of Virginia Woolf's Three Guineas—a letter to a member of the king’s council that argues that photographs of war hold the power to make “real” or “more real” experiences that the privileged might prefer to ignore—Sontag argues against images’ ability to unbiasedly capture and successfully communicate suffering:
“These dead are supremely uninterested in the living: in those who took their lives, in witnesses - and in us. Why should they seek our gaze? What would they have to say to us? ‘We; - this ‘we’ is everyone who has never experienced anything like what they went through - don’t understand. We don’t get it. We truly can’t imagine what it was like. We can’t imagine how dreadful, how terrifying war is; and how normal it becomes. Can’t understand, can’t imagine. That’s what every soldier, and every journalist and aid worker and independent observer who has put in time under fire, and had the luck to elude the death that struck down others nearby, stubbornly feels. And they are right.”
Much like war photography, most of these films never successfully capture the actual essence of Black life; not in its intimate moments nor when it finds itself face to face with white supremacy. The white gaze plays a central role in mainstream cinema’s inability to truly capture this nuance. It is not interested in portraying Black life as it is or in displaying our common humanity, but rather in continuing the colonial myths established by European poets and writers of the 1500s whose works tackled Africa in judgemental and pejorative manners. These artists created the novels and essays that laid the groundwork for a social landscape that would be accepting of the colonization of Africa by Europe. Though this mode of writing served its purpose and is largely defunct, an ideological hangover remains, affecting the way Africa and its diaspora are conceptualized within the white psyche. Furthermore, the white gaze positions the camera, even when handled by Black hands, as a tool for surveillance. Black directors, writers and actors are perpetually aware their footage will be viewed by white audiences, critics and executives—who often have “final cut.” This is a looming reality which not only affects the sort of stories some choose to tell, but also the ways in which they tell them.
As the seeds of the Black pictorial tradition in both Africa and the west began to bud in these restrictive conditions, the flowers that followed often never fully bloomed. The repercussions of these conditions are evident in mainstream films, sentimental tales tailored to white audiences, which depict racism and white supremacy as heinous acts distanced from the audience by space, time and their newly found “liberal values”. Though they provide a glimpse into the history of racial power relations, their repeated depiction of Black trauma does little to liberate Black people. In Franz Fanon’s The Wretched of the Earth he states: “Imperialism leaves behind germs of rot which we must clinically detect and remove from our land but our minds as well.” In film, the germs remain. Several Black directors seem to have internalized the racialized representations of Black people in Hollywood, which date as far back as the first blockbuster The Birth of a Nation (1915), and are now arguably reproducing these demeaning images. A testament to the psychological prowess of white supremacy.
Black artist and filmmaker Arthur Jafa’s theory of “The Black Visual Continuum” suggests that “at all times the advancement of Black creative expression is continuous,” meaning the past, present and future of Black art are always in conversation with one another. This sentiment is echoed in the work of Black feminist theorist Tina Campt in her 2017 book Listening to Images in which she examines Black futurity as “that which will have had to happen” the things that we in the present know must happen for us to overcome the tribulations of the past and get to the future we long for. As Black artists, it is crucial we remain aware of the role our works play in this continuum and how past works have affected not only the public's view of Black people, but also how we as Black people create.
I do not write this hoping that one day all Black films will be anti-white supremacy manifestos nor do I hope for a world in which a record of colonial atrocities does not exist. The crux of this exploration is to discover what exactly Black artists can hope to accomplish through the medium of film and whether the current iteration of the film industry actually has the mechanics to metabolise this vision. Black filmmakers attempting to compete on the international stage are constantly grappling with the effects of whiteness, its economic systems and its gaze on our work. If Black capitalism and the lining of our individual pockets with the hopes of eventually owning the means of production and creating films in our image is the goal, then I believe a simple look at Tyler Perry’s empire should be enough of a cautionary tale. For his callous portrayal of us did not end once he held the keys to the golden gates. To this day Perry continues to perpetuate colorist ideals in his films, through his consistent creation of narratives that position fairer skin men as protagonists who rise above and overcome their dark skin antagonists.
As we creep closer to the year and a half mark since the COVID measures were introduced in London, I find it harder to pretend I have any real grasp of what the future holds. I have no immediate answers for how exactly we can break from these psychological and material bonds. All I will say is that I hope a recalcitrant tradition which does not eschew stories of Black communion, love and life emerges within the mainstream. One that deconstructs how white supremacy, the erasure of history and subjugation of Black bodies, affects the power relations between individuals in the Black community. For I fear this obsession with Black anguish is not merely psychologically traumatic, but also constitutes a self-fulfilling prophecy which desensitizes us to these heinous acts and in turn almost encourages them. Like our fore-parents once imagined and then thrust themselves on the path to independence and out of colonial rule, we too must imagine and actualize a Black cinematic tradition which does not bend to the wants and needs of white audiences, that is not rooted in sentimentality but is wholly and truly ours.