Black Cinema: The Importance of Representation by Kelechi Ehenulo

 © Netflix

© Netflix

Warning: This piece contains spoilers.

Some would call it a renaissance. Some would call it a cultural movement. I just call it ‘about time’!

When you look around and see the encouraging signs of the new cinematic era we are in, it is a period of excitement. In the past eight years, we have seen an impactful growth of Black Cinema. From 12 Years a Slave (2013), Selma (2014), Straight Outta Compton (2015), Hidden Figures (2016), Moonlight (2016), Get Out (2017), Girls Trip (2017), Mudbound (2017) and Black Panther (2018), to the latest additions of BlacKkKlansman (2018), If Beale Street Could Talk (2018), Sorry to Bother You (2018) and Widows (2018). These are just a myriad of films adding to the wealth of talent and stories; challenging the cultural mindsets of a mainstream audience.

It is important to understand and acknowledge that this was not always the case, and that what we are encountering now is not a ‘new phenomenon’. It has been a seventy-year journey in the making. Dictated along the divided lines of social consciousness, prejudice and racism.

 © Universal

© Universal

Identity is an essential factor when it comes to cinema. No matter the story, craft or invention, they present personalised constructs that help us emotionally connect or empathise, forming as part of our cultural upbringing and understanding. It is why we repeatedly gravitate towards films that resoundingly provide comforts, or, depending on our mood, indulge in epic tales of adventure. The Star Wars series or any thrilling Steven Spielberg film will always answer that ubiquitous call.

But in regards to representations of black culture, a troubled history rears its ugly head. Similar to depictions of Native Americans in Western films, negative connotations have framed the black community on screen. Black people were caricatures for entertainment (Dumbo - 1940), criminalised as brutal and aggressive savages (D. W. Griffith’s Birth of a Nation - 1915), painted in false realities (Songs of the South - 1946), and played the Mammy figure - including in instances where slavery was shown as a happy time (Gone with the Wind - 1939). Uncomfortable products of the past, yes, but although the nature of cinema has evolved, the remnants of these stereotypical and formulaic structures unfortunately still exist today.

We are depicted as generic warlords (X-Men Origins: Wolverine - 2009), natives carrying spears, as if that is the only recognisable image of what Africa looks like (Independence Day - 1996), as gangsters and hustlers, or in constant need of saving - as seen in The Blind Side (2009) and The Help (2011). This falsely implies an idea where history and culture are absent, airbrushed or sanitised. 

Black superhero, or heroic protagonist roles were rarely on the cinematic table. Instead, just silent voices confined to repetitive tropes, blank canvases, or regulated environmental figures to insert where the story was necessary. Robert Townsend’s Hollywood Shuffle (1987) brilliantly parodies this convention, but to any young cinephile, whether subconsciously or consciously, it is a damaging reflection; both as a psychological mechanism and physical disconnection from society.

 © Disney/Lucasfilm

© Disney/Lucasfilm

There have been pockets of success. Hattie McDaniel becoming the first black actress to win an Oscar. Sidney Poitier and Harry Belafonte presenting alternatives to societal misconceptions as on-screen leading men. The introduction of Blaxploitation in the 70s, making celebrities of Richard Roundtree in Shaft (1971) and Pam Grier in Foxy Brown (1974). Some endeavours were short-lived; their representations were imperfect, and they faced the uphill challenges the one-note narratives regularly reinforced. However, they were pioneers, breaking barriers and creating opportunities for the trailblazers we are seeing today.

It is the ownership that matters. Standing up for voices with relatable realities which spoke volumes. Despite numerous oppositions and narrow-minded thoughts from studios suggesting ‘black films do not sell’, they granted themselves permission to tell these encompassing stories.

The emergence of Spike Lee and John Singleton with Do the Right Thing (1989) and Boyz n the Hood (1991) tapped into a social-economic reality of the everyday struggle of racial attitudes, and war-zone neighbourhoods. Their contemporary counterparts in Ryan Coogler and Ava DuVernay show that heroes exist on a higher and commercial spectrum with Creed (2015) and A Wrinkle in Time (2018) respectively. 

It is imagery that goes against the grain that reverses clichéd ideas; specifically shown through the representations of royalty in Coming to America (1988) or Disney’s Princess and the Frog (2009). And even though his films may divide opinion, Tyler Perry’s career has forged a respectful enterprise outside the conventional hub of Hollywood. Not only an established writer, director and leading actor, Perry also makes changes behind the camera as well as in front of it, in his own production studio too.

 © Marvel Studios

© Marvel Studios

Think of the breakthrough success like a constant wave crashing onto a beach. Seeing it as a tangible presence can be moving as well as euphoric. Black Panther became a celebratory event. It was not just about the culture representation on the screen, but the way its positive message about unity and togetherness was overwhelmingly echoed. With the subsequent response being communities rallying around for others less fortunate, including children, to see the film and share in the impact it represents.

I reacted with the same, uncontrollable joy that John Boyega experienced, as he watched himself in the trailer for Star Wars: The Force Awakens (2015); a video which famously went viral online. Yes, the excitement of a new Star Wars movie killed off any sceptical senses, resurrecting dormant feelings of nostalgia not felt since childhood, but it was the feeling of pride from seeing a black actor in a leading role quartet, that would usher in the new generation of fans.

The beauty of the latest incumbent of films and artists is how they have deconstructed formulaic myths, and torn down the old regime. The depth of range in their stories build contextual realities, that purposefully challenge negative perceptions, not often seen on the big screen. But most importantly, in the grand cinematic scheme, artists are finding inventive and creative ways to express their stories. For example, Boots Riley’s phenomenal debut Sorry to Bother You tackles familiar social realities, but for comparison sake, is unlike any film you have seen – trust me.

Returning to the successes of Black Panther, it is evidently clear that director Ryan Coogler did not want Black Panther to look or feel like any other Marvel film in the cinematic universe. Brilliantly challenging the often perceived and generic images of Africa, Wakanda displayed a nation as a thriving metropolis. Free from the darkened reality of slavery, colonisation and historical political. With advanced technology and natural resources, it forges ahead with a prideful and celebratory principle of community and cultural identity. And the momentum does not stop there. 

 © A24

© A24

The Oscar-nominated Hidden Figures showcased the importance and life-changing contributions made by Katherine Johnson (Taraji P. Henson), Dorothy Vaughan (Octavia Spencer) and Mary Jackson (Janelle Monáe) in the NASA space program. An achievement that would have continued to go unnoticed, written out of the historical consciousness, or never explored in detail in a school curriculum. Jordan Peele’s Get Out may be viewed as a psychological horror film, but within its thoughtful, multi-layered structure are identifiable parallels that evoke social conversations about race and cultural appropriation. And last but not least, Barry Jenkins Moonlight and his latest film, If Beale Street Could Talk, which was a major highlight at this year's London Film Festival, show an unfaltering love that stirs the emotional soul with its visual and poetic artistry.

There have been false dawns in the past, but unequivocally, representation is not a trend. It is a rising and rallying voice filling a notable gap that has gone unanswered for too long. One that becomes self-reflective, and has an identifiable quality, through seeing a represented connection. It is inspirational and the interest is there. The box office shows this.

There will come a time where ‘representation’ will transcend into an obsolete language, essentially becoming ‘the new norm’. Our cultural definitions will move pass old institutional and systemic constructs, where media will no longer rely on old formulas to convey these stories. But for now, this bold new wave is a welcomed force to be reckoned with. 

It does not matter what the story is, or how the concept is visualised, everyone’s story and life circumstances are different, and seeing something relatable can make a lasting impact. We learn, educate and grow a diverse community from understanding the underpinnings that have made us who we are. Sometimes the action can be small; forging ahead with a talented determination is enough inspirational motivation to suggest black culture matters, but most importantly, as an individual, you matter.

This is a generation here to stay and long may it continue.


This piece was written by Kelechi Ehenulo - you can find out more about Kelechi via their Twitter and website, Confessions From A Geek Mind.

3 Must-See Films for Black History Month by Susan Akyeampong

 © 20th Century Fox

© 20th Century Fox

Warning: This piece contains spoilers, and includes some discussion of police brutality and violence.

Choosing three must-see films in honour of Black History month was straightforward to some degree as there are a fair few to choose from. Yet, at the same time, it was incredibly frustrating because there are hardly any films exploring black British history. 

The three I have chosen are all American. They all, to a significant extent, speak to the experiences both African-Americans and black British citizens face, and reflect how we all navigate the current socio-political climate. It is important to note that our experiences are not the same though. 

The lack of films depicting the history of black Brits is a serious problem. By continuing to speak up about this, my hope is that we create opportunities, and space, for black British filmmakers to document and tell our history. But, for now, here are the three must-see films I would recommend watching to learn more about Black History, as well as the lived experiences of black people, and why…

 © 20th Century Fox

© 20th Century Fox

HIDDEN FIGURES (2016)

In Hidden Figures, Taraji P. Henson, Octavia Spencer and Janelle Monáe star as Katherine Johnson, Dorothy Vaughan and Mary Jackson; NASA mathematicians who played an instrumental role during the Space Race. 

Our protagonist Johnson (P. Henson) has been working as a human computer in a gender and racially segregated division of NASA for years, when she finds herself roped into the Space Task Group. There, she is the first black woman on the team. Jackson (Monáe) is assigned to the space capsule heat shield team, where she works as the only black female engineer, but without the formal qualifications, and Vaughan (Spencer) supervises the black mathematicians - but does not receive a Supervisor’s pay.  

The dynamic between these three trailblazers is uplifting and fun-spirited; elements very much reflected in the style of the film. Yet, their respective journeys are underpinned by the real struggles of balancing family and career, whilst navigating daily micro-aggressions and blatant racism. 

Little has changed since, and in a world where the amount of black women in STEM roles continues to be few and far between. Having these now visible role models, that young women can grow up emulating, has never been more important. 

It is shocking to think that without Hidden Figures, these women may have very well remained hidden figures. This speaks of an even bigger issue in America, and most certainly European history, whereby the contributions and lived experiences of black people are either diminished or, more often, completely erased. On this level, the film implores us to question key moments in history.

 © Weinstein Company

© Weinstein Company

FRUITVALE STATION (2013)

Fruitvale Station stars Michael B. Jordan as Oscar Grant. A 22-year-old black man who was violently pinned down by a police officer, and subsequently shot on New Year’s Day in 2009. We follow Grant during the last 24 hours of his life, which, not only chronicle the events leading up to his death, but more importantly, show us the man he was. From the love he had for his family and community, to the fears and aspirations he held for himself and his young family. 

We unfortunately hear countless stories of black men dying at the hands of police officers. While we may feel saddened during the three minutes the news story runs for, these victims soon become nothing more than a statistic. In contrast, Fruitvale Station harrowingly puts a human face to the police brutality epidemic. An epidemic that is not just an American problem. 

Despite the lack of mainstream news coverage, many black British men find themselves in danger at the hands of police. This concerns us too, and is why Fruitvale Station is so powerful. It unites the roots of the problem: the perception of black men as a threat and the inability to see them as human, through the undeniable humanity of Oscar Grant. 

 © Annapurna Pictures

© Annapurna Pictures

DETROIT (2017)

Detroit chronicles the events surrounding the 1967 Detroit riots and, more specifically, the incident at the Algiers Motel; where three black teenagers were brutally beaten and killed by white policemen.

John Boyega's performance as the well-intentioned security guard Melvin Dismukes, and his trajectory throughout the film, is particularly striking. Dismukes does everything right. He is polite, respectful towards his white colleagues, diligent, and ultimately keeps to himself. He is the poster boy for "The Good Immigrant". And so, when Dismukes finds himself on the wrong side of the Algiers Motel incident, with the police trying to frame him for their actions, we desperately root for him to come out of it unscathed. 

As we realise Dismukes’ safe departure from the scene will not be as straightforward as we had initially hoped, our discomfort in watching the events unfold grows. Detroit fully captures what a systemically racist institution looks like, while Dismukes' predicament embodies how oppressive it feels as a victim of such an institution. The film calls on us to consider the very institutions around us, and reckon with how unravel the privilege that protects some whilst actively working against others.


This piece was written by Susan Akyeampong - you can find out more about Susan via their Twitter and website, Susan, Etc.

5 Tips for Joining in with an A Film Club Chat by Alex Dewing

When it comes to Twitter chats, I like to think of myself as a bit of a Pro. Back when I first started blogging, I participated in the #UKYAChat; a chat all about UK Young Adult literature. I still throw my hand into every now and then, but where I really found my stride was with the #afilmclub chat.

As I have become more active in pursuing my love for film, the A Film Club space has been there for me to talk film, share my work, and make friends. With this in mind, I thought I would share my tips for making the most out of the chat!

SET AN ALARM

Is this tip a little ridiculous? Possibly, but I have a memory like a sieve and have, more often than not, forgotten the start time of the chat and shown up late. I have then found myself sprinting through past questions and answers at Forrest-Gump-like speed.

I know I am not the only one like this, many of my friends and fellow chatters are the same, so set an alarm!

OPEN UP YOUR LETTERBOXD

Most of us filmies have now discovered the brilliance of Letterboxd; a social media dedicated entirely to the films we watch, have watched, or simply want to watch.

Under the Films section you can find all the films you have added to your profile, which makes it the perfect companion to an A Film Club chat. Can’t think of a response to a question? Have a quick scroll, and BAM! You have your answer.

TRY TWEETDECK

I had not heard of TweetDeck until it popped-up as a recommended site on Twitter one day, but I have never participated in a Twitter chat without it since.

Giving you the ability to divide your screen into columns of your choice, the site allows you to look at the #afilmclub feed, your mentions, and notifications all at once. It is truly a life saver!

REMEMBER THE HASHTAG

This one comes from experience too. I get far too excited over a witty answer or an sudo-intellectual reply, and in my haste send off my tweet without the hashtag to get lost online. Then I have to waste time copying, deleting and pasting the original tweet, before adding in the hashtag and resending.

Using the hashtag makes it so much easier to see what everybody is talking about, and what films they are recommending, so make sure you do not do a ‘me’ and leave it off!

DON’T BE SHY

If you are following the chat and have something to say, say it!

The best thing about the #afilmclub chat is that it is a unique, and safe space to talk about a shared passion for film. We have differing opinions at times, and whilst we are not afraid to share them, as long as you are respectful, kind and polite the Twitter Chat will be right... What? No, Paddington didn’t say it first!

There is something so exciting about sitting down in front of a screen, often with a cup of tea to hand, to share in something you love, with people who love it too. Film is both an individual and communal thing, and the #afilmclub chat encapsulates that. And so, those were my tips. I hope to see you online soon!

The #afilmclub Twitter chat takes place every Thursday at 7pm (GMT/BST) right here.


This piece was written by Alex Dewing - you can find out more about Alex via their Twitter and Wordpress site, Alex Dewing.

A big personal thank you to Alex for penning this post, and sending it in out of the blue. I am so grateful to you, and everyone else, who takes the time to support A Film Club and the chat. It means the absolute world! - Sian, Creator of A Film Club

How to Make the Most Out of Your Film Education by Ada Calgie

So, you are going to study film. Congratulations! Film production is a tough nut to crack, and getting on to your chosen course is a huge achievement. That is not to say that going down the study route is the be all and end all, but it can be useful. It is the route that I chose, therefore the one I know most about. 

Full disclosure: after working in the industry for a while, I decided that the production side of it was not the best choice for me at the time. Still, I learned a lot from the experience and my studies, but there was so much I wish I had known at the time. 

With this in mind I have compiled a wee list of things I wish I had known before studying, and working in, film production - take this as a cautionary tale if you will!

LOVE YOUR IDEA

Filmmaking is a team process, yes, but it is also a competitive one. 

When I was an undergraduate, every student had to pitch an idea for a Grad film in our final year. Out of 13 students, only 3 ideas were developed into films. Everyone thinks their idea is the best, so why should yours be any different? 

If you are pitching an idea against other people, you have to fight for it. And to fight for it, you need to love it. After all, why should a Producer bank roll a film that its creator is not invested in? Why would people want to watch it? 

From the inception of an idea, through to a draft script, you have to really believe in what you are selling. Your script might change through the development process. You might change characters, scenarios, settings, and endings, but that basic idea - your USP - has got to be something that is worth fighting for. That will shine through, above anything else. 

KEEP AN OPEN MIND

When I started my film course I assumed that my photography background would make me a natural with a camera. I thought I was a Director of Photography (DoP) in the making, just waiting to be untapped. But, once we started camera classes, it did not come naturally to me at all. 

I really struggled, and it got me down. No matter how hard I tried, something did not quite click. The more it went on, I felt lost, and halfway through my degree felt like I had made a huge mistake. 

At the end of my second year, everyone had to help out on each other’s short films. Somehow I ended up working as the sound department on all of ‘em - probably because everyone else wanted to be a DoP. That was when something really clicked. 

Sure, it was still complicated. I did not understand the technicalities right away. Yet, when I did, I knew I had found my ‘thing’. At the start of my course I would have never considered hoisting a boom mic up and standing with it over my head, but that is the beauty of learning a craft. Your talents might just take you by surprise. 

KNOW YOUR ROLE AND INTERESTS

Throughout your film education you might be fortunate enough to attend delegate events, festivals or networking opportunities. If you are like me, that idea will strike fear into your heart. It might not; you might be naturally chatty and at ease with people, and this will definitely stand you in good stead with networking. But, if you would rather retreat into a corner, remember this: you deserve to be there

You are on your course through your own merit and hard work. You have as much of a chance of making it in the industry as anyone else. If you do find networking events challenging, it helps to concentrate on areas which interest you. It is the same principle as pitching an idea; if you are genuinely enthusiastic, people will remember it. 

USE YOUR CONTACTS

Whilst you are at university or college, your lecturers will either be industry practitioners or have contacts in the business. Use this to your advantage. That is how I got my first job - a week after graduating! 

That being said, it will help to have some ideas of your own, too. Very few opportunities are simply going to land on your lap, so… Research people who are working in your chosen field. Look at the kind of projects they are making. Find out about your local arts council funding. Are there any good apprenticeship or training schemes? Who is working in your chosen field and what are they working on?

Do not worry about being a pest. People expect it. Take it from me; I hate approaching people. I feel like I am being annoying. However, when I went out on a limb and contacted people, guess what? I got responses. Not all of them were a yes, but a couple did lead to jobs. A lot of getting into the film industry is who you know, so you are gonna have to put yourself out there.

PUT YOURSELF OUT THERE

The film industry is based on reputation. If you are a grafter who is not afraid of mucking in, helping out, and have an idea of where you want to go, it will work in your favour.

This does not have to mean approaching people though. You can stand out by making your own work, or helping friends with their projects. Look at ways in which you can make yourself stand out. Whether it is making your own films on the side, blogging, vlogging, or any other kind of content creation, it shows initiative. That you are willing to put the work in, even when you do not have to. 

Sure, luck can sometimes play a hand. People who know people can sometimes get ahead. The actual process of filmmaking, though, is what separates those who want to be there from those who think they do.


This piece was written by Ada - you can find out more about Ada via their Twitter and website.