Underground, a fictional television series based on Harriet Tubman and the famous railroad resistance, was recently cancelled. Despite the star power of actress Jurnee Smollett and executive producer John Legend, both vocal activists against injustice in various ways, the show only enjoyed two seasons.
Whether it was a question of lack of ratings or opposition by higher-ups due to the significance of a series portraying black people reclaiming their own freedom, this great creative and cultural loss must be assessed. Particularly the idea of lack of support from black audiences, who should have supported in droves, but alas, some might be sick of slavery on screen.
Slavery movies abound, most recently there has been “Django”, “12 years a slave”, and “The Butler”. There have been TV shows such as the “Roots” remake of the classic film.
Yet many black people feel that the constant portrayal of slavery on screen is tiresome, negative, and simply unappealing. They hate being reminded of these historical atrocities, of the pain and shame it evokes, the discomfort and discouragement it can arouse.Instead, they prefer to see black people portrayed in a positive light, not merely as the heroes and protagonists, but as heroes and protagonists in “regular” stories.The representation that they desire is positive, varied representation, not constant representation in the context of slavery and racial issues.The problem is however, quite complex.
On one hand, these forward-thinking blacks are quite right. Our blackness is not all of who we are. It is the backdrop of who we are. From within our black skins, we experience the world as human beings, as souls who care about love and dreams and art and life itself, who care about issues apart from the lens of race. We yearn for films and TV shows that treat our blackness as merely “normal”, not at all the focus of the show or the reason for our inclusion, as some sort of token diverse character who can then joke about their own diversity.
In white television shows and movies, whiteness is rarely ever the central focus, or the main selling point. The stories are of adventure, of Katniss Everdeen battling the evil ruling elite to save the world in “The Hunger Games”. The stories are of relationships and careers, like the popular “Friends” and “Sex and the City” franchises. Whiteness is never the central focus because it is simply accepted as the norm. Of course the main character is white, the love interest is white, the villain is white, the vast majority of supporting characters are white, because it is a white world, and a primarily white audience that is being targeted.
There is even an argument that white people are less likely to support a movie or show in which there is too much diversity, or not enough of themselves. They have become so used to seeing themselves paraded in HD, that they have little to no interest in supporting a person of color in a starring role. As a result of white people having the most buying power, the average white family having 12 times the net worth of a black family, they have more disposable income to spend on entertainment, so their preferences naturally take center stage. Then, since business is business, writers, directors, producers and their corporations are only interested in funding the movies and shows that rake in the most revenue. If that means an all white cast, then so be it.
These entities are not interested in breaking the mould, appealing to wider audiences, or any of our humanitarian, globalised 21st century ideals. They want to make profit by maintaining the status quo.Amidst intensifying demands for proper racial representation on screen, casting directors continue to spit in the face of the masses by ignoring them completely. Scarlett Johansson starred in Ghost in the Shell, despite the film being based on an Asian character, despite the internet’s suggestions of equally talented, equally beautiful asian actresses who could have been considered.
In 2015, Gods of Egypt caused outrage and flopped at the box office due to an all-white cast yet again portraying symbolic African characters. There was even much discontentment with the selection of Zoe Saldana for the Nina Simone biopic, the problem of representation expanding from racism to it’s half-sister colorism.Many lamented that caramel-colored Saldana had to be darkened to portray the ebony-skinned blues singer known for her vocality against racism and her significant journey to self-acceptance in a society where dark skin was disdained.Technically, both Zoe and Nina are black, but the issue was further narrowed to the preference for lighter-skinned black women whenever the few roles for black women did arise.It was an opportunity to stay as physically true to character as possible, providing a major role for a darker skinned actress and upholding a positive portrayal for darker-toned women and girls everywhere, and it was deliberately missed.
Many of the same people who have a problem with slavery movies, don’t particularly like stereotypically “black movies” either. We’re talking practically every Tyler Perry movie,save for his latest TV offering which features a considerable amount of whites. We’re talking the Barbershops and Soul Planesand Fridays ,whose similar brand of comedy plays on black stereotypes and hood life and culture. All important and hilarious films, but which are marketed and categorised in keeping with their “blackness”.
It seems we want more than just the same old “Black Comedy” and “Black Drama.” The film “Get Out” by Jordan Peele, while still centering blackness, diverted from the typical slapstick comedy of black films, and even ventured successfully into another genre, Horror. It was widely well-received by mixed audiences, signifying a desperate hunger for something fresh from black people, for black people. Similarly, the trailer for the film “Black Panther”, set for release in 2018, raised much excitement on social media, marking a significant milestone in not only film, but our collective psyche. Here is a superhero movie, starring a black superhero, an all-black cast, and highlighting African prowess, culture and civilisation as never before seen in Western entertainment.
Yet, while this new, much needed representation is exciting, we must not allow ourselves to be sedated by fantasy. The reality is that 90% of movies and 95% of TV shows feature little to no non-white characters. This has to change, and although we cannot expect it to change overnight, we have been asking for long enough. Movie after movie comes out, remake after remake, with the same hot blonde and quirky brunette, the same charming white guy and his clumsy white sidekick, the same token black or asian or latino character thrown in for the stamp of diversity.
Do we experience life as a “person”, or as a “person of color”? White people can go through life as a “person”, not a “white person”, because they have been made the default standard of humanity, so characters in movies are seen as characters, rather than “white characters.” For example, in the Big Bang Theory, Sheldon can be seen as the neurotic one, Penny would be the hot blonde one, Leonard would be the rational one, and Raj might be seen as “the indian one.” While white characters are defined by their traits, characters of color tend to be foreshadowed by their ethnicity, their “otherness.”
This is exactly the problem. We do not want to be seen as “Other”, a sideline character or exotic addition to a white world. Life is not a game of SIMS, where we are actually colored but can pretend to be white for a while. Currently, this is exactly what the media and entertainment force us to do. To associate with the character, we must dissociate from ourselves. To watch movies and shows and read magazines your entire life, from childhood to adulthood, where very few of the figures remotely resemble you, takes a psychological toll. We are people too, and we deserve the benefits of diversity on screen reflecting the diversity in the real world. And it shouldn’t be a bother, or a chore. It shouldn’t be rare for a blockbuster film to star a black person, a white person, an asian, a latino, and a native american at the same damn time.
The problem then, with slavery movies, is that when we are starring, or when we are prevalent, we are starring in our oppression.People seek entertainment for the purpose of escaping their reality, not being sunk further into the worst parts of it. It is understandable that for a couple hours, we may want to forget about our blackness, and the related and unrelated problems we face.Slavery movies force us to retrace the steps of our history, to relive the pain our ancestors faced, to reignite the dormant anger and sadness at the fact that so much of the scars and symptoms are still visible in our present-day lives.
It may be annoying, but it might also be necessary. We cannot truly appreciate the legacy of our revered freedom fighters if we do not view shows like “Selma” or “The Birth of a Nation.” We cannot respect the agency and bravery of our unnamed ancestors if we cannot watch their struggle for freedom in “Underground” or “Amistad.” Perhaps we need to face the hurt and the pain of the times when colorblindness was segregation and politically correct jargon was Jim Crow laws. Perhaps the emotion is what we need to wake us from our dormancy, to realise that we are merely on a more sophisticated plantation with a handful more rights. Perhaps the brutality of a lynching would remind us of the countless police officers acquitted for slaughtering our innocents. Perhaps seeing ourselves in rags at the beck and call of comfortable, well dressed white people would remind us that for every dollar of wealth the average white family has, we have 6 cents.
But alas. It’s much easier to live our lives pretending that the Civil Rights movement of the 60s liberated us completely while murdering our leaders in their prime, that the election of President Obama erased centuries of institutionalised racism, and that slavery shows are unnecessary emblems of a distant, painful past.