Doing the Right Thing: Film & TV in a Biased World

‘You know, where I come from, there are a lot of different ways of being black.’

‘Well, then you one lucky black man. But see, blood, ‘bout now, where you come from ain’t where you at… Roun’ here, they only got the one way of being black, and sooner or later that’s the black you gonna be. Ain’t no diversity of product [here], they just got this one box for all of us, and sooner or later they gonna squeeze you in that box right along with the rest of us.’

These are a few brief lines of dialogue taken from Richard K Morgan’s dense but entertainingly worthy sci-fi novel, the candid and emphatically named Black Man. A title, simple as it is, to snag the attention, yes? Yet one thought too provocative for American audiences to swallow (where it was redacted in favour of Thirteen, a change that doesn’t bear explaining here). In a way, both the censorship and the above dialogue are emblematic of a struggle that’s been on-going since Frederick Douglass’ speech to the Massachusetts Anti-Slavery Society in Boston way back in 1865, when, whilst arguing for the right of African-Americans to vote, he remarked

‘Men derive their conviction of their own possibilities largely from the estimate formed of them by others.’

His point being that to deny African-Americans suffrage was to deny them the right to think of themselves as persons in the eyes of the constitution, the country, and most importantly their own. Then, as now – and as with the protagonist of Morgan’s novel – the contention was over an idea. Namely, the way the ‘possibilities’ for people of colour are defined, the ways in which we are allowed to be black.


And so when the Afro-American photographer, Peter P. Jones, first turned to making short films in the early part of the 20th century, it was this idea he sought to revise. The presence of black people in cinema was still in its infancy and characterised almost entirely by what came to be known as ‘coonery buffoonery’ – productions in which African Americans were depicted as lazy, unintelligent, hyper-sexed, laughable or docile; in short, as somehow subhuman, a kind of propaganda that at this point, I hope, hardly needs explaining (people smarter than I have already marked the sly pulleys that tug between what Cornel West has called ‘aesthetics’ and their ‘political consequences’ ,i.e., How things are allowed to appear — on screen, in print or elsewhere — does matter).

It was against this backdrop Jones formed his own motion picture company in 1914. One aimed at ‘showing the progress of the Afro-American in the United States’ (Chicago Defender, 1914) and demonstrating that the ‘Negro of today [was] no longer the Negro of forty years ago’ (Walton, 1906). Through film, those of the African-American community would, in the words of one historian[1], seek to ‘construct themselves’.

And so this goal having been the aim of black cinema since its beginnings, a baton passed from the likes of William Foster (who became the first black proprietor of a film company in 1910), Peter Jones, and Oscar Micheaux (the most prolific black filmmaker of the early 20th century) to the likes of John Singleton (Boyz in the Hood), Ava DuVernay (Middle of Nowhere), Antoine Fuqua (Training Day), and of course, the inimitable Spike Lee today, it’s perhaps disappointing to find that ‘blackness’ remains a question that invites only the simplest types of answer, as though it’s a word to describe just one thing.

I mean think about it. How many black dramas do you come across in British television that don’t carry the ‘urban’ tag? Where are the black middle-class? Why is an actor as accomplished as David Harewood having to consider living in the states to make his living? Why, at a time when black British talent finds itself in so much Oscar contention, were this year’s BAFTAs so white. And as for black women

Now understand, I’m not (contrary to stereotype) angry about this. I’m just interested, curious as to the reason why.

Micheaux, often criticized during his career by members of the Afro-American community for making films that were sometimes less than aspirational (depicting issues like alcoholism, colourism, and abuse amongst black people), once said ‘one of the greatest tasks of my life has been to teach that the coloured man can be anything.’ And, ‘to lay before the race a cross section of its own life.’[2]

Chinua Achebe, the Nigerian author, poet and academic complained about the reductive and condescending Eurocentric eye through which the continent of Africa has been viewed by the west.

For both, the concern was not just what they saw to be western society’s denigrating take on their respective communities, rather its one-eyed view of them. Blackness as monolith. A one size fits all.

Their complaint was that what was shown or thought of as ‘blackness’ was too lacking in diversity to be true. Someone, somewhere, wilfully or otherwise, had spied a leaf and treated it as the whole tree.

It’s this beef you hear Spike Lee chewing on whenever you sit down to watch one of his films. From his debut work She’s Gotta Have it on through his impressively eclectic back-catalogue, there are recurring themes.

Spike Lee has been involved in the production of over 30 feature films and documentaries since his directorial debut She’s Gotta Have It in 1986
Spike Lee has been involved in the production of over 30 feature films and documentaries since his directorial debut She’s Gotta Have It in 1986

Take a film like Do The Right Thing, a study of multiculturalism and gentrification in Lee’s beloved New York. A movie in which the choreographed cleanness and colour of the inner-city neighbourhood in which the film is set is both contrast and backdrop for racial tensions as simmering and grimy as the sweaty summer day on which the story plays out.

Korean, Hispanic, Italian-American, African-American – none escape the deliciously unPC monologuing montage that punctuates the film’s third act, showing the claustrophobia and narrowness that comes from different communities being pressed together with no playbook of how to get along.

The Koreans become no more than “slanty-eyed, me-no-speako-american, own-every-fruit-and-vegetable-store, kickboxing, son-of-a-bitches,” Italian Americans are “garlic breath, pizza slinging, spaghetti binning [and] Pavarotti loving,” the Hispanics are called “goya bean eating, fifteen-in-a-car, thirty-in-an-apartment, pointy shoe and red wearing Puerto Ricans,” and African Americans, “fried chicken and biscuit eating, fast running, high jumping, spear chucking, 360 degree basketball dunking…” and on and on.

In other words, each one, in the eyes of their counterparts, are reduced to derogatory caricature, ‘just like the black man,’ you can almost imagine Lee’s director’s commentary drawling in voice over.

similar monologue follows from Ed Norton in The 25th hour, an ode to post-9/11 New York. Whilst 2002’s Bamboozled is a more explicit commentary on how a particular kind of ‘blackness’ has been annexed for America’s (and perhaps the world’s) entertainment, with the blackface that the film’s performers are asked to wear becoming metaphor for a straitened, false version of their community, one they must continue to present in order to get a laugh.

The subtext? 1920s America is not so long ago, blackness – a very particular kind of it – is still a thing Hollywood and network television would have black people ‘put on’ rather than reflect.

Lee’s complaint then is the same as David Harewood’s, Paterson Joseph’s and David Oyelowo’s – black people are not just one thing. Which gets one to wondering why only one kind tends to get airtime in British film and television.

Could it be there’s little audience for anything more diverse?

Well. According to a recent study:-

  • Right now around a fifth of people in the UK are non-white or non-British.
  • The UK has the fastest-rising percentage of ethnic minorities and foreign-born populations in the world.
  • Foreigners and non-white Britons are expected to double by 2040 and make up one third of the UK population.

There seems to be a healthy market for more authentic and varied characters, from differing backgrounds, on screen. And it’s even suggested this market is, fairly rapidly, growing (and it’s not as if people of colour would be the only ones interested in watching dramas that depict them anymore than only white people watch, say, The Office).

But then perhaps the problem is talent, there’s not enough quality British actors from ethnic minority backgrounds able to carry off these more nuanced roles. So let’s think…

Chiwetel EjioforSophie OkonedoDavid HarewoodMarianne Jean-BaptistePaterson JosephNaomie HarrisIdris ElbaRiz AhmedLennie JamesSanjeev BhaskarFreema AgymanZawe AshtonAce BhattiAdrian LesterDelroy LindoShazad LatifDanny Sapani,  Eamonn WalkerDavid OyelowoColin SalmonPreeya KalidasHugh QuarshieThandie NewtonGugu Mbatha-Raw to name but a few.

Not exactly a dearth.

So again, why is it there are so few screen roles for people of colour and, more annoyingly, why are those few so often either narrow (KidulthoodTop Boy, Bullet Boy, Sket, Anuvahood, etc.) or just poorly written, like the Ferreira family in Eastenders? Speaking of which…

A few years ago Dr Samir Shah, a member of the BBC’s board of directors, suggested the problem was not so much with having ethnic minority actors on screen, rather that the roles and characters they were asked to portray were ‘deracinated’, devoid of authenticity, not reflective of the cultures their onscreen presence was designed to depict. Black and Asian actors basically playing white roles. A problem Shah felt would resolve only when the demographic for commissioners, writers and directors changes. His view was that people of colour must have meaningful input into the creation of the characters and narratives that portray them.

This is a subject John Singleton (Director of the Oscar nominated 1991 film, Boyz n the Hood) recently took up in an (excellent) article for The Hollywood Reporter, asking the question: Can A White Director Make a Great Black Movie?

Although Singleton accepts there can be and indeed have been well told black stories helmed by white filmmakers (The Hurricane, In the Heat of the Night, Ray, and this year’s 42) he still sees it as a ‘worrying trend’ if those successes come at the expense of allowing opportunities for black people to create, convey or have input into their own narratives. Singleton’s concern, like Shah’s, isn’t so much to do with fairness as it is quality.

‘Audiences,’ he says ‘can smell what’s real and what isn’t. And there is a noticeable difference between [black] pictures that have significant contributions from African-Americans behind the scenes and those that don’t.’

As Göran Olsson, the Swedish writer/director of the powerful and moving documentary, The Black Power Mixtape, 1967-1975 himself acknowledged in an interview with Film Quarterly last year; ‘I didn’t make a film about the black power movement or underprivileged people in America, I made a film about the Swedish point of view on it. Because that’s what I could do.’

In other words, with some things, certain things, there’s a limit to how far you can inhabit someone else’s experience and rightly portray it.

Meaning in the end Dr Shah is right. If there are going to be nuanced, varied and authentic portrayals of people of colour on this side of the pond or the other it’s going to take having more voices and backgrounds at the table when those films and shows are made or commissioned. For fairness reasons, for quality reasons, and, some would say, for cultural reasons too.

As filmmaker, Ava DuVernay, put it;-

“There are so many films being approached about black life by people who aren’t black. Whether it’s Django Unchained, or Beasts of the Southern Wild, or Nina Simone… and ok, that’s one perspective of who we are but it’s an interpretation, not a reflection, it’s not reality…  it’s an interpretation of us, based upon caricatures [from] people who may not actually have [these characters] in their lives. So where’s that coming from, where are [they] getting these stories… Understand the power of film, it affects the way we see ourselves and the way we are seen. So who’s controlling these images? Who’s creating these images?”

And this, really, is the nub of it.

Because when all’s said and done, the only way for people of colour to be rightly presented in film or television without the race of the characters being either contrived (and by that I mean shaped around one particular context or issue i.e. always ‘urban’ ‘street’ ‘gang’ ‘drugs’ etc.), fetishized (yeah, we’re looking at you Tarantino. And don’t anyone try and tell me he hasn’t got, at the very least, a strange fascination with the word ‘nigger’) or ignored (I think I’ve already mentioned the Ferreira/Eastenders thing) is, yes, for those who create the stories to include people of colour, but more importantly, those who commission the stories that are to become films and television dramas (i.e. the studio execs, the financiers), they must include people of colour too.

If we have only the former then we’ll have, as we do now, only those narratives that fit the proven marketable stereotype (and so more Top Boy and Kidulthood, which I don’t have anything against, it’s just this kind of drama is one repetitive note in what ought to be a symphony. We have more stories to tell than just this, and they need telling, perhaps for many important reasons).

It’s this American writer/director, Ava DuVernay, has sought to remedy through her own work, making films that deal in themes beyond the typical black stereotypes and garnering her own financing (seeing as these are not the kind of stories the larger film studios are interested in) in order to do so.

Her 2011 debut, I Will Follow, is a perfect example of this, as is her follow up, Middle of Nowhere, which earned DuVernay the Directing Award at last year’s Sundance Film Festival (the first black woman to do so).

Writer/Director Ava DuVernay.
Writer/Director Ava DuVernay.

Both films have been hailed as touching portrayals of loss and its bewildering effects, deftly rendered, skilfully paced. Each exploring, through well-realized black characters, themes that are recognisable beyond the context of their race, yet are not allowed to dissolve it. They’re human stories that, without trying, have the effect of cranking wider the chink through which blackness might be spied. What’s more, they demonstrate what the likes of Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie have already proven to be true in other fields; that people of all races are willing to engage with black stories when they are told well.

And this, really, is the point.

You see, the temptation would be to think this is just about fairness and equality, and therefore a matter only for black people, or ethnic minorities in general. And in part that’s true. It is about fairness. But to make that the only thing would distract from something else that is at least as important, perhaps more so.

When questioned at the 2013 Toronto International Film Festival – where the film he stars in, 12 Years a Slave, premiered, Chiwetel Ejiofor said he hoped the movie would ‘open a discussion not about race, but about human dignity, about our freedoms and what we require in the world,’ adding, ‘and the only way to open that discussion is to see all sides of it.’

His words echo those once written by Harper Lee. “You never really understand a person until you climb inside of his skin and walk around in it.”

Because ultimately, that’s what film is about. Being transported. Because when we see those themes familiar to us – hope, courage, fear, love, things we all recognise – transposed into contexts and experiences (authentically rendered) that are unfamiliar, it gives us a way in, broadens our perspective, enriches our understanding, provides a way to connect with worlds and people beyond what we know. And it’s this that turns the art of film from entertaining to edifying. Because you don’t just watch a film like 12 Years a Slave to be entertained, you watch because it will provoke thought and allow you, and perhaps us as a society, to gain something.

This is why you don’t have to be black for black stories to be meaningful, anymore than I would have to be white and American to engage with, say, Saving Private Ryan.

And this is why it’s a shame to see what a director as skilled as DuVernay has to do to get her films made. DuVernay was, in a former life, a film publicist. She’s marketed for the likes of Spike Lee and Clint Eastwood, a background she’s had to exploit to the utmost to establish her own production company, Forward Movement, as well as help found AFFRM (the African American Film Festival Releasing Movement), a film distribution company dedicated to bringing black-themed indie films – like her own – to audiences in major cities and supporting black filmmakers to present more diverse stories of colour.

In that sense DuVernay is following in the footsteps of Peter P. Jones and Oscar Micheaux, both of whom, a century ago, had to be entrepreneurs as well as artists to get their films made[3]. Then, as now, the market and therefore the art was skewed toward a white mainstream, and those in control of the money, on the occasions they deigned to present black people or blackness onscreen, were only interested in purveying their own narrow version of it.

You might say the more things change the more they stay the same.

But hey, I’m an optimist. And the good news is the talent is out there.

Chiwetel Ejiofor stars in the Steve McQueen film, 12 Years a Slave.

Steve McQueen’s 12 Years a Slave was awarded Best Film at this year’s Toronto International Film Festival, and is already garnering attention as the Academy Awards season gathers pace. American actor/writer/director Issa Rae’s innovative online mockumentaries and Shorty Award-winning Awkward Black Girl have brought her to the attention of HBO, with whom she’s recently signed to develop a comedy series in which she’ll star.

The hope is that as long as they and others – or perhaps you – are acting, writing, playwriting, screenwriting, directing and just creating stories that celebrate the full spectrum of black culture, the film studios, the television networks, and perhaps even the BBC will grow in their willingness to invite more diverse voices into commissioners’ conversations and, who knows, eventually – like Da Mayor said to Mookie in the Spike Lee film of the same name – do the right thing.

Then again, judging from the frustrations expressed by David Oyelowo[4]Paterson Joseph and Lenny Henry this year, it may be more likely that in this country we’ll have to follow the actions and advice of DuVernay and find “a way to build a house for ourselves and our images as opposed to knocking on someone else’s door and asking to be let in.”

Time will tell.


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