People have many different methods of self-preservation. For me, one who regularly relies not just on the visual but the aural to keep me going, Kendrick Lamar’s To Pimp a Butterfly has been one of these very methods. The album, which deals with resistance, activism in the black community also preaches self-love, something that’s apparent from its opener Wesley’s Theory. Sampling an old Brian Gardiner song of the same name Lamar puts forward the assertion that “Every n—r is a star”.
Epithets aside, the song and the assertion that not only are black people worth it but hell, we’re stars, has motivated me through the latter years of my three-year film studies degree. Because while I’ve been given motivation through Lamar’s music, film academia has seemingly sought to tell me the very opposite. When star studies was taught for a term at my university, black stardom was left, unsurprisingly, off of the curriculum. And that’s without getting into the films that we were shown – while we were lucky enough to fleetingly study Cheryl Dunye and Charles Burnett, attention was drawn to the black auteur, and varying themes in their work, rather than the stars at the centre of these films.
Going off these ellipses, it’s easy to believe that maybe this absence is deliberate. Maybe (aside from a chapter on Paul Robeson in Richard Dyer’s Heavenly Bodies, praised as the text when it comes to star studies) academia is seeking to tell us that black stardom is impossible – that there are no black actors with the bravado of Brando or the magic of Marilyn. However the BFI’s latest season, Black Star, looks to shake up the conversation. The season’s name, naturally, is a talking point – what have black stars done exactly that merits deserving their own season? In a world where people are eager to sanitise with their “All Lives Matter” rhetoric, shouldn’t stardom be a concept that can be applied across the board? And why, exactly is there no White Star season? (Answer: because it’s already got a name – The Academy Awards.)
Another question that will, undoubtedly crop up during the season is – “What is a Black Star?” Much harder to answer. In the same way that there is murkiness when it comes to the definition of a “black film”, (some directors, like Gina Prince-Bythewood have been vocal about their dislike of the term, stating: “Hollywood likes to say that any film with people of colour in it is a “black film”, and it’s just a way to marginalise a film and its audience, and give it less – black film is not a genre.) there is a murkiness when it comes to defining a black star. When it comes to film, there seem to be two pools – there are actors, and there are Stars. An actor is, say, John C Reilly or John Turturro. An actor that is reliable and well-liked, but couldn’t launch a film off their name alone. Stars, in comparison, are selling points themselves – you are not going to see a film with George Clooney in, you are going to see The New George Clooney Film. For a Black Star, on the other hand, it is not this simple.
For a start, how many Black Stars, in the broadest sense of the phrase are there? You might (if, god forbid, you’re willing to take a trip to see Suicide Squad) see The New Will Smith Film, or in coming weeks with the release of The Magnificent Seven, The New Denzel Washington. In the present day, these two men are our two main pillars of black stardom. This, in itself, says a lot about the misogynoir of an industry that can see Viola Davis and Octavia Spencer only just beginning to get their dues after years in the industry, and the one black winner of the Best Actress Academy Award mocked due to her emotional speech and cast off into nondescript bit parts and superhero films. Then there is the fact that with every birth of a new black star – say, Michael B Jordan or John Boyega – there is instantly a rush to see who in the (limited) pantheon of black stardom these newcomers can be compared to. A new Sidney Poitier? Maybe the new Denzel? Black stars, for some reason, can only be like other black stars. For John Boyega to be compared to say, James Dean is an utter impossibility.
With the murkiness of black stardom apparent, it’s miraculous and much appreciated that programmer Ashley Clark has pulled together a rich programme for the season. Clark’s programme seems focused less so on rigid star systems and more on talent and how beloved the stars that he has picked are. The BFI Black Star poll, in which audiences are invited to vote in is wide open and varied – while of course not encompassing every black actor to ever exist, it certainly eschews the usual “high culture” perimeters of the BFI. After all, how often does one see Empire’s Cookie Lyon on a BFI Best Of poll? To Clark, to the season, and (hopefully) to audiences, every performance matters. Every performance makes an actor a star, be it Lupita Nyong’o’s slight filmography or the meatier one of Sidney Poitier. And it’s a delight to see that in the season stardom isn’t exclusively based on star image and box office – actors who have mainly worked in independent and foreign cinema such as Alex Descas are also included on the poll. The poll long-list was derived from initial votes from key influencers (journalists, actors, directors etc) but if your favourite Black Star isn’t included you can still nominate them.
To accompany the films being screened across the country as part of Black Star, Media Diversified will be publishing weekly essays associated with the films, the issues they address and the Stars in the programme. From films in the wider programme, such as a nationwide re-release of Boyz N the Hood to the smaller gems and actors who are finally getting their moment of recognition, our authors will highlight the importance of the season. Will an answer be found to the question – what is a Black Star? This will remain to be seen. But I feel that Black Star as a whole is less of an answer to a question, but more an extension of Lamar and Gardiner’s lyrics – the why, what or how is isn’t important, but what cannot be denied is that everyone highlighted in the season is a Star.
Grace Barber-Plentie is a writer and one-third of Reel Good Film Club, a film club focused on highlighting the contributions of people of colour through inclusive and non-profit screenings and events. Her passions when it comes to both writing and programming include depictions of women of colour, issues of “high” and “low” culture, and the importance of music videos as a pop culture medium.
The Black Star series of articles will coincide with BFI’s Black Star film series. Over ten weeks, we will bring you articles which explore the films in the series, the issues they highlight and the stars who have played such an important role in the history of film. Curated by Grace Barber-Plentie.
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