25 Apr The Success Of Black Filmmakers Shows We Are Finally Being Heard
He had just come off one of the most successful weekends at the box office — ever. Director Jordan Peele was speaking at the Hollywood Improv Theatre after his horror flick scared up US$88 million in its opening. It has since raked in more than US$200 million.
With the success of “Get Out” (US$174M) and now “Us,” Peele can literally write his ticket with the studios when it comes to what he wants in a movie, and he said as much to an audience of aspiring actors and fans: “I get to cast black people in my movies. I feel fortunate to be in this position where I can say to Universal, ‘I want to make a $20-million horror movie with a black family.’ And they say yes.”
Now that’s power.
But it wasn’t this bit of pride and, yes, boastfulness that got the Twittersphere and others in a tizzy. It was his next statement that got the debate rolling: “I don’t see myself casting a white dude as the lead in my movie. Not that I don’t like white dudes,” he said. “But I’ve seen that movie.”
Cue the outrage, the false equivalencies — “What if a white director had said that about casting black actors?” — and the debate about why a black director (or any creative of colour) should choose to tell stories that reflect their own perspective and experiences.
Lost in all the unfounded indignation was the rest of his statement: “It really is one of the best, greatest pieces of this story, is feeling like we are in this time — a renaissance has happened and proved the myths about representation in the industry are false.”
I’ve fought the good fight for many years to tell stories that reflect the fabric of our multicultural reality.
And this is a “finally” that has been said before. Consider last year’s smash “Black Panther” ($1.34B) and a long list of black films dating back to the early 1990s: “New Jack City” ($100M), “Malcolm X” ($102M), “The Book of Eli” ($105M), “The Equalizer” ($108M), “Barbershop” ($115M), “Boyz In Da Hood” ($120M), “The Butler” ($130M), “Boomerang” ($149M), “Waiting To Exhale” ($134M), “Ride Along” ($149M) and “Straight Outta Compton” ($172M). Let’s not forget the Tyler Perry/Madea franchise.
Black films have proven Peele’s point over and over again. Yet, telling stories through the lens of a community that is not “mainstream” (read: white) continues to be a hard sell for financial backing.
White narratives dominate media
I’ve fought the good fight for many years to tell stories that reflect the fabric of our multicultural reality. As a drama producer at BBC Television in England, where I began my career, I fought to represent the authentic voices of Britain’s diverse communities on screen.
My ambition was met with resistance. I arrived during the mid-1980s, hired to work on one of the first black TV magazine programs, “Ebony.” It was a time of marked political and racial division. London burned — as did Handsworth, Birmingham and Manchester — amid black communities protesting decades of racial oppression.
The first news story that I covered was in the aftermath of what was called the “Black Riots” — a policeman had been murdered. In retaliation, hundreds of black youth were arrested, tried without evidence and deprived of their rights. I remember black people being described as “black monkeys” in the media and people making monkey noises in reference to them.
I covered not just the trials but also the community’s response. After we cut our program together, I was shocked and disappointed when the program was pulled minutes before it was to be broadcast. I recall being told that it was because of a “lack of balance.”
Thirty years later, the real reasons for the frustrations of Britain’s black communities are now coming to light in what has become known as the Windrush Scandal. This political scandal rocked Britain last year when British-born subjects (from the Commonwealth) who arrived in the U.K. before 1973 were wrongly detained, denied legal rights and threatened with deportation. Many were from Caribbean countries and the name “Windrush” was given after the ‘Empire Windrush’ — a ship that brought one of the first groups of West Indian migrants to the U.K. in 1948.
Our voices are finally being heard.
In 2000, I returned to Canada, where I went to university. As a producer of colour, working in media here has been heartbreaking. Year after year, the same folks receive funding for the same recycled stories. White-centred or European narratives overshadow the authentic stories of people of colour — telling our struggles, but forgetting to speak of our joys and triumphs.
We will no longer seek approval or permission
The reality is that the Canadian immigrant story is changing. Beyond the refugee camps we see on the news; scenes of war and poverty; two-dimensional images of victims and criminals; and the cookie-cutter, paint-by-numbers approaches of Hollywood, the lives of people of colour are so much more interesting, more nuanced and compelling. But we have yet to see this extraordinary transformation documented on television and film screens.
Our authentic stories matter. It is our birthright, as important as breathing and eating, to express the truths of our experiences and pass these on from generation to generation so that those coming after learn from and about us, and survive, thrive and grow.
We deserve three-dimensional characters who look like us, in every genre; stories in which we are the heroes, the protagonists of our own destinies. Not all of these will be multi-million-dollar box office films — they shouldn’t have to be.
It is important that the few of us who do arrive in positions of power or decision-making feel comfortable and confident telling stories the way we want to. Arriving doesn’t mean that we now tell the mainstream stories that solely focus on white characters and their experiences or ones developed out of the minds of powerful white male producers.
More from HuffPost Canada:
In an interview with The Guardian, acclaimed author Toni Morrison explains unapologetically, “I’m writing for black people in the same way that Tolstoy was not writing for me, a 14-year-old coloured girl from Lorain, Ohio. I don’t have to apologize or consider myself limited because I don’t [write about white people] …. The point is not having the white critic sit on your shoulder and approve it.”
We will no longer seek approval or permission to tell our stories. As Jordan Peele pointed out, we are in a renaissance, and myths have been shattered. And at the end of the day, let’s be real — the colour that truly speaks volumes is the colour of money.