Black Film?

This is reprinted from a post which appeared originally on The Gavin Media NU World Blog.

Minstrel
Bert Williams, The Quintessential Minstrel

Trying to define what makes a “black” film, television program, play, book, any form of art has to be analysed from the standpoint of its motivation, purpose and not just whether the participates happen to have a certain hue of skin tone and cultural background.

I’m always struck sometimes as to just how “white” so-called black films, black media really are. In some ways to be very super critical most “black” media (not being a student of media created by black folks throughout the Diaspora, I’m referring to media created by black folks in America) is in many ways an “aping” of white media forms and conventions. Because in many ways that is what we all have been conditioned to expect. Every mode of expression contains two essential elements, form and content. Both should be taken into account when defining what makes a film or any other mode of expression “black.”

the-butler
Poster for Lee Daniels’ The Butler

Most “black” storytelling in the commercial space copies the same “western (white) narrative” form and conventions when it comes to film, television, theater, etc. Anything which strays “outside the lines” is considered “experimental” or avant-garde. Black film/media has essentially been boiled down to stories that have black characters as their protagonists and told by a “black” artist.

The problem I’ve always had with this definition is that it is shortsighted and does not take into account POV, (point-of-view), or motivation, which are the two key elements that truly set a story apart as being “black.” I think for example you could have a “black” film that wasn’t primarily about black people, but about “white privilege,” and its destructive nature.

Black when it comes to African Americans is never just a color, but must always have a cultural component and perspective. Black has to capture the universal as well as the specific. It has to seek to free our minds -to enlighten, inform, entertain, and most importantly, inspire. It must always not just deal with what is, or was, but what can be, possibilities. It must seek to change how we think about ourselves as humans be-ing, not just as “black folk.”

I am reminded of the so-called Black Arts Movement that came alive in the 1960s and 1970s, where poets, writers, playwrights, visual artists, were experimenting with new forms of expression that sought to break the bonds of white convention. Today we have settled in to a place, artistically speaking, that seems less about braking barriers or inventing something new or being creative and more with being popular.

ColtraneBlack media can be both “black” and popular. We only have to look at the history of “black music” as an example. There are no black filmmakers working today (commercially) who can claim the same kind of creative innovation that a Charlie Parker, Miles Davis, John Coltrane, Louis Armstrong, Muddy Waters, Robert Johnson, had in the musical arena. These “innovators” created a whole new musical genre with that same “raw material” that was available to every musician.

When will “black” film artisans do the same for the motion picture, or television program that these black musical artisans did for records?