“Thugs, skets, and thots” There is no ONE black story

by Shane Thomas 

Around this time last year, a large part of the discussion around the cinema award season focused on 12 Years A Slave, and its possible chances on winning prizes at the Academy Awards.

While there are myriad problems with the Oscars, the reason why it matters is because it remains the closest thing the West has as a seal of film excellence. It’s a flawed system – and may have a limited shelf life – but right now, it’s the best we’ve got.

An Academy Award isn’t just a gold statue. It often helps to propel movies, and their specific subject matters into the wider social consciousness – especially if they’re not part of the summer blockbuster season. For much of last year, Steve McQueen was asked about the wider issue of slavery almost as much as he was asked about making 12 Years A Slave.

Well, for 12 Years A Slave in 2014, read Selma in 2015. For clarity’s sake, this isn’t a piece on the merits of Selma. Not that I have any inside info, but I imagine a review of it will appear on this site soon enough[1]. Also read Montré Aza Missouri‘s assessment ‘Selma’ finally liberates the political legacy of Martin Luther King, Jr.

Nor is my focus on the movie being largely ignored at this year’s Academy Awards. Because despite the lack of nominations, Selma has made a dent in cultural conversations. Talk of systemic racism, civil rights, and centreing black people in their own stories have been the ripple effect of Ava DuVernay’s film. As Stacia L. Brown recently wrote, Oscar or not, Ava’s already succeeded.

But the success of 12 Years A Slave and Selma has a worrisome attendant. There’s nothing wrong with the films, but they may also indicate that wider mainstream inclusion of black stories comes with a caveat.

While 12 Years A Slave was a big success in last year’s award season, there was a lot less recognition for Ryan Coogler’s debut film, Fruitvale Station. Both deal with issues of American racism, but one involved a practice (chattel slavery) that is no longer widespread in America. The other deals with the incessant death ofblack teens at the hands of police[2].

fruitvale-station

Bar some recognition at the Independent Spirit Awards, Fruitvale Station was largely left on the outside looking in during award season. So much so, the comedian W. Kamau Bell instigated the hashtag #WhereIsFruitvale

This year has shown a disconcerting symmetry. While Selma has been largely feted by critics, a lot less attention has been directed towards Gina Prince-Bythewood’s, Beyond The Lights. With a black woman protagonist, it deals with issues such mental health, the downside of fame, patriarchal demands of women, and the simple – but important – act of love between black people.

The topic of showing black love on screen has been a repeated motif of Prince-Bythewood’s work, which for my money, was best exemplified with Love and Basketball. It remains one of the most heartfelt – and underrated – films I’ve ever seen.

Prince-Bythewood expatiated on the intangible, but potent factor engendered by Beyond The Lights. “…a 17-year-old Black boy said, ‘I didn’t really believe in hope and love before but this movie changed me.”

So why are only specific types of black-centred stories gaining mainstream traction?

Through no fault of their own, are 12 Years A Slave and Selma measuring sticks for how the dominant culture understands race? Do many white people get to watch, feel humanity with those who were oppressed in the past, and then leave the cinema thinking, “Well, at least we don’t have that problem anymore”, all the while overlooking how white privilege asserts itself in society right now?

blackfilm

Not a single word of this should be taken as a dismissal of 12 Years A Slave or Selma. They are both magnificent pieces of work, and it’s not their responsibility to fix contemporary racism. The responsibility lies with studios, distributors, and audiences, because we have a problem if some of them need the distance of time to truly understand people’s suffering.

Rachel Shukert brilliantly pointed out these faultlines: “I want to see Lupita Nyong’o as an unlucky-in-love wedding planner in a frothy romantic comedy. I want to see David Oyelowo race against the clock to save his wife and child in a big-budget action thriller; I want Chiwetel Ejiofor to sweep in as the miracle bachelor in a Nancy Myers movie. I want to see Idris Elba as fucking James Bond already, instead of just hearing about how great Idris Elba would be as James Bond.”

This is important because culture acts as society’s mirror image. And when black lives are reflected back, too often the reflection has been one of a distorted funhouse mirror, showing an ugliness that never existed.

Prince-Bythewood said of her struggles in the film industry; “I feel what’s discriminated against are my choices, which is to focus on people of color as real people.”

Real people. Not thugs, skets, or thots. People. There is no one black story. There is no one black anything. Once that becomes fully understood, then maybe a black boy won’t be on the cusp of adulthood before he realises that black love exists.#

[1] – I do have inside info.

[2] – That one’s a bit more widespread.

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All work published on Media Diversified is the intellectual property of its writers. Please do not reproduce, republish or repost any content from this site without express written permission from Media Diversified. For further information, please see our reposting guidelines.

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TWOWEEKSNOTICE “Two Weeks Notice” is Shane Thomas’s bi-monthly column encompassing. Pop culture to sport, and back again

A mixed-race film graduate, Shane comes from Jamaican and Mauritian parentage. He has been blogging about sport since 2010 at the website for The Greatest Events in Sporting History. He is also a contributor to ‘Simply Read’, the blogging offshoot of the podcasting network, Simply Syndicated. A lover of sport, genre-fiction, and privilege checking, Shane can be found on Twitter, both at @TGEISH and @tokenbg (and yes, the handle does mean what you think it means).

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7 replies

  1. i feel that everyday people like you and i are being mirrespresented and underrepresented in the media. even when we are ‘represented’, we arent really being represented at all. that is the tragedy of the situation. i haven’t ever been able to relate with a black female character in a movie ever before, unless you want to drag me kicking and screaming back to my council estate upbringing. short off sidelining my career in psychology and revolutionising the world of movie script writing, what am i suppossed to do? black people appear to be a homogenous group stuck. But actually we are much more diverse than this. We have very different and individualised journeys of migration and settlement, we also have current stories of tragedy, heartbreak, loss, joy, hopes and dreams to share. The film industry is a very important tool for disseminating ideologies and if utilised cleverly we could manage to show a more approachable side to black culture.

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    • Indeed. That was exactly my point. Not that we often see black women on screen at all, but when we do, it’s a lot more likely that it’ll be one on a council estate, rather than one working in psychology. When we should be able to see both. Or even a BW working in psychology who also lives on an estate.

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  2. I understand the desire for movies where being black has no specific reference. But shouldn’t this happen in life before life-the movie.

    The idea that black actors/actresses should be able to play any role without it being race specific is important, but it contains an unexamined assumption. Namely, that the generic roles (eg. Action heroes, period dramas, romance stories),currently played by whites are not race specific. How true is this? What characterize the whiteness of white privilege is the repression and foreclosure of references to race in a racially structured world. That genre, which cuts across genres, can be problematic for actors who happen to black inserting them into post-racial genres of performance specific to the privileged being of whiteness in the world.

    The problem with with simply desiring stories where are blackness does not appear to be significant is of course paradoxical, because it is the very significance of being marked as black problematically that can compel us to seek freedom from those constrictions in fields of the imagination like movies.

    Perhaps we ought to recognize this paradox and realize that our contribution to art in contemporary racially stratified western societies cannot avoid being influenced by the fact that events which occur with us just happening to be black are always already threatened by events occurring because we are black.

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    • I think you may have slightly misinterpreted what I was saying in the piece. I don’t wish to decouple race from cinema in the slightest. I think maybe my use of the quote from Rachel Shukert’s Buzzfeed article was a possible reason for this misapprehension? Either way, I have to take responsibility if I articulated my argument poorly.

      My assertion was that I’m worried that with ’12 Years A Slave’ and ‘Selma’, we’re getting one specific type of black-centred story, which is to focus on racism in the past. There’s nothing wrong with these tales. The problem occurs if they are the only kind of black stories getting made in the mainstream.

      The key is not just one, but one of many. I want films like ‘Selma’, but I also want something like ‘Beyond The Lights’ to get a fair chance to find a substantive audience. Especially as black stories set in present day can have a beneficial impact on how we are viewed in wider society.

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      • I think if you look at the last 20 years of movies Hollywood has been more comfortable dealing with Black Middle Class Romance stories, Black Urban comedies, Black urban gangsta life and Black universal action heroes than anything resembling a critical look at racism historically. ’12 years a Slave’ and ‘Selma’ are highly unusual films to be made and distributed in that respect. Both these movies required big players to push them. Brad Pitt’s production company was involved in ’12 years’ and both he and Oprah Winfrey were producers on Selma. Traditionally Hollywood doesn’t like Black History topics unless it can white wash them. I understand the importance of looking at contemporary racism and more uplifting images, but the problem with emphasizing that uncritically, is that our contemporary experiences are deeply locked into historical pasts that are traditionally denied and discarded unexamined, as if there could ever be a contemporary racism without a historical impetus. For example, heavy policing of Black communities in western societies like the UK and the US has a continuous urban history over the last 100 years. The past is in the present and the present in the past.

        We definitely need a diverse range of Black filmmaking, but I can assure you there has never been any institution in western societies that has ever been more comfortable facing Black History than the facing the Black contempoary, western societies have always sought to sever the representational link between the two. And on that Hollywood has always done a great job.

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        • I totally agree. The things I lament in the piece aren’t happening by accident. I don’t think it should be an “either or” situation. What I’m hoping for is a milieu where ’12 Years…’ can stand side by side with ‘Fruitvale…’ on an equitable platform, and the discussions instigated by both can be part of national – and global – discussions.

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