I recently found a BBC article while web surfing entitled "A Renaissance of Black Cinema?" The article pointed to the trend of growing variety of "black-narratives" in film, or basically movie narratives featuring African American characters and protagonists that revolve around something other than crime or drugs. It pointed to several examples released just last year (2013): Fruitvale Station, The Butler, and 12 Years a Slave, in an effort to support their hypothesized trend. They ultimately claimed that because the independent film scene (not the Hollywood film scene, the article makes clear) is producing more films featuring African Americans on screen, and because these films revolve more around said African Americans' lives, rather than than simply the circumstances of their settings, that we're supposed to swallow the idea that black cinema has recently experienced an exponential increase in authority, presence, and integrity.
Well, no offense to my pals over at BBC, but I wholeheartedly disagree. Let's explore why:
I'm not saying black cinema hasn't made any growth--increased visibility in the cinema scene is a victory. Yet, a simple increase in more black protagonists, does not a film renaissance make. I argue that, despite increased visibility, the dynamics between the audience and black protagonists, and between black protagonists and their white-character counterparts, have not changed as radically as BBC would like us to believe. Until these dynamics do begin to change no true renaissance can occur.
The particular dynamic I'm interested in here is the interactions between the white and black characters in these so called "black" films. I suspect that, despite BBC's valiant protests, black characters are still very much at the mercies of white characters; basically, the current paradigm is white people have to help black people, even in "black cinema". Irony of ironies, most of BBC's examples provide some of the most damning proof of this trend. Let's take a look:
First, we'll examine one of the movies BBC didn't mention, 2011's The Help, a movie I personally enjoyed. Nevertheless, the film received kick-back for being a tale of white people helping black people.
Ironically, I think that The Help is probably the least culpable of this criticism out of all the films talked about here. Indeed, if anything, I see the relationship between Emma Stone's and Viola Davis' characters as symbiotic, as they help re-awaken one another back into an existence of purpose--neither gains any particular tangible reward by the film's end (before you say it, they split the profits from the book). However, one can't help but notice that it was Emma Stone who rallied the fearful maids into telling their stories--without them, the maids would have remained silent and decentralized. So, yes, there is a certain element of Emma-Stone-savior-Manifest-Destiny-something.
Turning to a much juicier example.
Steve McQueen's third flick 12 Years a Slave, winner of the 2014 Academy Award for Best Picture, was a fantastic movie important for its unflinching look at the horrors of slavery.
Until one point: let's call this point "The Brad Pitt Fiasco." (Spoilers follow)
In the film's last half-hour of the film Brad Pitt appears, seemingly out of the blue, as a hired hand on the vicious Michael Fassbender's plantation. Pitt works alongside our hero, Solomon, to build a house (shed? something? it doesn't matter); one day, when Fassbender offers Pitt a swig of booze, Pitt declines and then proceeds to go on to deliver a semi-lengthy monologue to Fassbender about the importance of racial equality and how, for his abuse of his slaves, Fassbender will face religious punishment post-mortem etc etc. In a film that stares so unflinchingly at the horrors of slavery, that examines so thoroughly the utter nihilism felt by those enslaved, Pitt's speech produces a tonal shift in the film so jarring you almost feel like you've suddenly entered a slightly risque episode of Barney and Friends. Ultimately, Solomon asks Pitt to deliver a letter to his family, which would allow him to re-gain his freedom. And Pitt's character makes this so.
The Brad Pitt Fiasco illustrates not only one of the most egregious instances of producer-abuse I've seen in a film--Brad Pitt's production company produced the film, so it makes sickly sense that Pitt would cast himself in the savior role--but it's also a horribly explicit admission by the film that, without the world's most one-dimensional white person, Solomon would've remained in slavery forever. That sounds an awful lot like white people helping black people to me. While I would hardly call 12 Years an inspirational tale (it's simply too sad to be one), the majority of the narrative stands as a testament to Solomon's morality, strength, and altruism in the face of inhumane horror. The fact that all of Solomon's strife is solved by a white dude after having two conversations feels not only too convenient, but it tarnishes the very message the film means to bestow upon our hero. All I can say is, something smells rotten in New Orleans.
Let's now look briefly at Fruitvale Station, which I saw and enjoyed last summer. I'm sorry BBC, but drugs and crime are very much a part of Fruitvale, even if they don't seem like they are. True, the climax of the film deals with the martyrdom of Michael B. Jordan's Oscar, via his death at the hands of white police--here, Oscar is the victim of a crime, rather than the perpetrator. Okay, one stereotype broken. However, before that? Before the film's third act, he majority of the narrative focuses with Oscar debating between whether or not to re-enter the (you named it) drug-dealing business in order to pay that month's rent. While ultimately Oscar does overcome the temptation to sell a bag of weed the size of a dentist's treasure chest, that doesn't change the fact that the movie, which revolves around an African American male deals largely with the repercussions and temptations of his formerly criminal, drugged ways. So unfortunately, I believe that one of BBC's key pieces of rhetoric fails here.
Ultimately then, I think BBC's suggestion that Black Cinema is undergoing some form of renaissance is largely misguided. Nevertheless, I am left with a troubling question--after examining the plots of all these different films, I wonder how contemporary American cinema will manage to make a film featuring a black protagonist that isn't subjected to any form of analysis concerning racial implications, and is simply examined as would be every other film. I agree with BBC, that perhaps the first step is to simply portray black-protagonists outside of inherently extremely dramatic situations (ie slavery, servitude, drugs, etc); I just don't think that movement has started yet. Meanwhile, I also can't help but wonder if the whole concept of "black cinema" does more harm than help. Why not just "cinema" that happens to feature black characters? Although, then again, this seems to feel wrong, too, as it would mean overlooking the great trials the African American population has faced, and the triumphs they have gained. It's a head-scratcher. If anything, I agree with BBC that "Black Cinema" will only truly be integrated into our film culture if its presence increases in the minds of movie-goers.
(You can read the full BBC article here: http://www.bbc.com/culture/story/20130718-a-renaissance-of-black-cinema)