*The first movie about the U.S. civil rights movement I ever saw, shown Disney Channel in the early 2000’s*.
When I was seven or eight years old, I discovered something that I had the good sense to be ashamed of even as a child. I “pitied” people who were my color, aka brown. Not just any brown person, brown people of African descent who were raised in the states. My parents raised me to be proud of my ethnicity (half black, half Irish) and I was pretty dang confident, so it was not an identity crisis. More like a feeling stemming from movies about slavery and civil rights, reinforcing the idea that my people were at an inherent disadvantage. I didn’t necessarily understand the difference between historical (non) fiction and the black people of today (which many can argue, are still at a disadvantage). For the most part, I saw when I saw films with black casts, they were always about slaves, the civil rights movement, or “thugs” (all of which, should be talked about but is that all we are?) Black people have been fighting for basic rights in the country since the day they stepped foot on the land of the free and I just felt like my ancestors weren’t worth much, if that makes sense? That’s heavy stuff and to articulate it is difficult. We are told we are not as pretty, smart, that we aren’t worth anything via subliminal messages day in and day out but this is nothing new, it’s just a different form of dominance. You don’t have to believe me, it is happening. Then to think of our family history or lack there of. That takes a toll on a person’s psyche, to carry it with them…. that their people didn’t choose to come here. As a child, I came to recognize an almost heavy cloud that looms over us, invisible chains that serve as a reminder that we were brought to this country to serve. The pity I felt was before I realized that we as a community are not paralyzed by our counterpart’s opinions. Many are fighting the good fight, and work on making a difference every day, the films I watched were indictive of the times in which they took place, I know longer had to believe that this was my future. The media is powerful. even for a child.
Our grandparents were not afforded half of the rights we have, uneducated and beat down (at least in my family’s case), it’s hard to have the history of your family go only so far back as to days that you were fighting for your human rights. Languages lost, identities destroyed, tethers to family lineages, snapped in half. People say to “get over it”, it happened and “other groups have been through similar if not worse”~ )actual comments I saw on a website), like it’s a competition. But somewhere in that incredibly dismissive comment lies something I agree with. How do we move on if all we see of ourselves in the media, is ghosts from our past? We learn from the past, this is true, but are we doomed to relive it over and over again? I find this to be a plight of both Native Americans (even more so, Native Americans) and African Americans. Our representation being only of the past. If it is in the present, we are shown in such a negative light. The lasting effect making us feel as if we are not actually here, as if we went extinct. Or worse, like we aren’t important or good enough to warrant modern stories about us. I am using the royal “we” but I do only speak from myself. There are some great films with black ensembles (I know there are some great ones, not enough) but none of them reach the critical acclaim, unless they are period pieces. I have spoken to a few friends who feel the same way, it seems to me, that the younger generations feel it even more than the older gens in the black community who see it as honoring the past.
The media lacks diversity but when they do have a movie with an African American cast or any people of color, they (Hollywood) are sickeningly proud. I picture their smug faces, rewarding themselves for reliving the same events from different perspectives over and over. Knowing that they (The Academy and others like it) are held to high esteem, and that their word is law. I think history is essential to a growing nation but I don’t want to be doomed to relive it ten times over. I hate how the not so subtle message of these films being “back when black people had a reason for protesting”, is thrown so callously. 12 Years A Slave, The Help, Django Unchained, The Butler, Selma, (just in the last 3 years) etc. With things like police brutality, the incarceration rates, and our education system failing, there are plenty of “issues” we can talk about today. Also, tons of accomplishments! Big awards only going to these films. Black people winning Academy Awards for playing the help or a slave. How many more of these movies (and I’ll admit that I actually loved all of these films) do we have to pretend are oh so innovative or freeing? I liked Selma. For a long time I was refusing to see it ( I heard the title and rolled my eyes and said “oh Lord”) because this was just yet another movie, set to hold me in a mindset of “this is what it used to be, it is no longer and now you must be grateful”. But I caved as I wanted to give it a chance before I fully rebuffed it. I saw it on Dr.Martin Luther King Junior’s birthday, I also heard some freedom fighters speak and it was a really powerful day.
This brings me to my final critique (for the sake of shortening this post, not my final critique of Hollywood,ever) but why for the love of God, are all the leading females of such a fair complexion? It’s not that Coretta Scott King and Diane Nash weren’t fair, and it’s not that they did not have crucial roles, it’s the fact they weren’t the only women to march at the forefront of the movement. Lighter skinned women are only ever shown leading the charge ( always behind the men).
*Carmen Ejogo as Coretta Scott King in Selma*
It’s ridiculous, and I see this in a lot of black ensemble films. Equivalent to putting only blonde, white women in movies. Women are strong, courageous, confident, intelligent, beautiful, and they come from all different backgrounds. We have no problem showing a darker skinned man with a lighter skinned woman or with a white woman but lord forbid we have a dark skinned woman who is a commander, confident, and/or desirable. No…she always has to be a best friend, frighteningly insecure, and/or seen in an almost desperate manner ( Dear White People, for instance). I could write an entire thesis on shadism within the black community. Easily, I could be one of those people that lives in denial about the shadiesm within my community, but I’m not. It exists and as someone who gets more privilege out of the deal (I mean I’m still black, so not that much more), I have an obligation to speak up. The divide is great, a painful reminder of days when your skin tone got you an job inside or outside of the house, working for the master (the invisible chains never quite come off) and now has manifested itself in to a hierarchy within our community and it breaks my heart. I’m not going to pretend that I don’t have privilege as a lighter skinned woman. Nor am I going to pretend that I haven’t had pain inflicted upon me because of my skin tone, I have, but I know that this is bigger than me and whatever isolated incident that occurred. We are all byproducts of our ancestors’s decisions, just as our descendants will be of ours. Things that are said,pain that is inflicted, and things that hurt then,l hurt now. This pain doesn’t dissipate over time, it evolves with us. Hiding behind the defense of political correctness and indignant statements that we live in a “post racial society”. It’s like a cancer that no amount of chemo can cure, and it spreads.
*Actual women of the civil rights movement*
I know this post was all over the place and then some, lots of ideas going on here and many will not agree with them, but I think of it as, I live in the here and now. I’m desperate for more stories about not only non fictionalized real black people but complex characters with flaws and redeeming qualities. Well rounded characters who are living day to day. People of different finical background, religions, and morals. Not so one dimensional. Beyond the Lights for instance, was a severely underrated film (again with the light skinned actress being cast) that really called out the sexualization of “celebrities” in the public eye but got no love from critics because in this film the characters were thriving in every sense of the word. There was an obstacle, climax, and suspense but it wasn’t at the hands of the characters’s freedom. Blackish, a show that is thankfully getting a lot of praise from both critics and audiences, is proof that there are many different kinds of black families out there.
*Anthony Andersen and Tracee Ellis Ross in Blackish*
Majority of people of color, no matter where they live, deal with microaggressive racism every day and to be able to laugh at that is to not feel so alone in this crazy world. Laughter unites people like no other. I do not mean to say no other ethnicity has this dark cloud, I am not saying all African Americans do, and I’m not saying we as people are incapable of succeeding because of it. I am saying that acknowledging is healthy and open dialogue is essential. These are my gut feelings, however wrong they may be. And I’m going to start blogging about them more. For no one but myself 🙂