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.