Still shot of James Baldwin from the documentary "I Am Not Your Negro"
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Black Films That Don’t Work The System by Lauren Zoë

2017 has been such a momentous year for black cinema, and we’re only 3 months in. This isn’t only a reflection of Hollywood, but a testament to what America has been craving in unique and authentic story telling. Black Americans are tired of being rewarded for playing disenfranchised, poor housekeepers and slaves. These are all stories that have been told since the beginning of film. Actual change is creating nuanced characters, mimicking everyday stories in the black community.

Miami born Director Barry Jenkins, tells these stories so beautifully in his short career as a writer and director. His 2008 film, Medicine for Melancholy, he examines two black 20-somethings navigating through white alternative culture in a rapidly gentrifying San Francisco. It is one of my favorite movies in its simplicity and story telling, Jenkins has opted to write authentically on these experiences of himself as well. Moonlight does this beautifully as well, not only by the exceptional cinematography, but also by his exceptional directing skills of narrating with very little dialogue. Moonlight creates a visionary tale of one boy in three stages of life battling his personal demons while living in poverty. Moonlight examines the truth of being a black man in our society, which is seen as being the pillar of strength and reverence while also being feared by society. This begets the main character, Chiron’s fear of fringing himself further by accepting his homosexuality. Jenkins is not only making a “black film”, he is creating a new language of freedom within the black film industry.

Still shot from the film "Moonlight"

Still shot from the film “Moonlight”

In 1979, James Baldwin wrote to his agent outlining the prose for his next book, Remember This House, which would eventually become the narrated film, I Am Not Your Negro. This film acts as a reflection of how modern day society has not changed much in our racial agenda, but rather mutated into a subversively idealistic lie. Many of James Baldwin’s ruminations reflect how the Black Lives Matter movement continuously peels away at the propaganda of a post-racial society. Baldwin touches little on himself as a gay black man, but rather acts as a third seeing eye to his late friends and colleagues, Martin Luther King Jr., Malcolm X and Medgar Evers.

One of the most important details Baldwin reoccurs in his book are aspects of Hollywood reflecting white dissonance while deflecting how society really was during that time and still is today. Many people in general don’t have a nuanced understanding of race relations in this country, and this is because American media waters down our visibility then sugar coats what is left. Baldwin heavily cites movies such as, Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner (1967), and In the Heat of the Night (1967) as patronizing portrayals of black people as minor characters. Both movies starring Sidney Poitier, pushed boundaries for it’s time, but never pushed beyond the scope of ease from white people. Sidney Poitier was bankable for white audiences – clean cut, handsome and non-threatening. Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner allows tremendous legroom for white audiences to see themselves as Poitier’s fiancé and her parents, who take strides in “doing the right thing” while also recognizing their own biases. In the plot, to require Poitier’s vetting by her family, he had to appear near perfect with a sympathetic backstory, all of which was not a ruse, but Poitier’s character, John’s reality. One of Baldwin’s criticisms is the obvious portrayal of people of color in film never acting as their own deus ex machina, rather than those to white people that surround them. They usually lack a complex backstory if they have one at all and are relegated to playing the parts that help the well-meaning white character to their grace.

These were highlighted criticisms Baldwin had 40 years ago, criticisms that are still active today. I watched this film about a week prior to watching Get Out, written and directed by Jordan Peele. Get Out was only released this past week, but has collected a variance of reviews attempting to dissect the motivations of Peele’s portrayal of race relations on film. In rare form, many elements of Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner reflect Get Out, but not on a basic thematic level, but as a response to the movie and white media who choose how they want to represent themselves in racially themed films.

Still shot from the film "Guess Who's Coming To Dinner"

Still shot from the film “Guess Who’s Coming To Dinner”

Without giving spoilers away, Get Out perfectly and uniquely simplifies the black experience within white society. Peele intentionally uses classic horror movie tropes as a backdrop to what a seemingly average interracial dating experience may seem like. A Black man dates a white girl, white girl doesn’t tell parents he’s black, they are neo-liberals (they would have voted for Obama three times), so she is not concerned with their opinions either way, but the black man is still nervous because liberalism still modifies within each race. One thing that is noticeable, but commendable is that there is no dialogue that reinforces the audience to believe that this is a thought that you or the character is supposed to be having at the moment, the thematic elements do that for us.

Still Shot from the film "Get Out"

Still Shot from the film “Get Out”

Jordan Peele, discusses in the podcast, Still Processing, that this movie wasn’t meant to be “right on time” with its release. With the thick social climate hovering over everyone’s psyche, most white people have just now become more sensitive to actions of their peers, family and even themselves. Black folk have always wanted to have a simultaneous social awakening “on time”, but what does that mean when not everyone is willing to be “awake”.

The horror elements of Get Out may not seem unique to a white audience because it lacks a lot of modern day horror movie scares, but the reason it passes as one is that is tackles the theories that have been prevalent within every black person’s personal narrative…never trust white people. The theory is realized in basic horror movie writing concepts; assuming safety, questioning safety (paranoia), the fear confronted being personal and sensitive to you as the viewer.

Historically, race based films have always catered to softening white guilt, planting the seed of “these people are not as bad as me, we are post racial”. Much like the theories of James Baldwin, present day politics always reflects where the country is headed from how the entertainment industry sees it fit. White people in the 21st century condemn those overt racists of our past, separating themselves, thus feeling like they are exempt from modern day criticism. We can’t say for sure where the country is headed, until we see ourselves reflected appropriately in entertainment, not as plot devices catered to our white counterparts, but as real free thinking individuals who reflect complex thoughts and concerns that affect our everyday life.

Still Shot from the film "Get Out"

Still Shot from the film “Get Out”

Lauren Zoe GadsonLauren Zoë, a native of Houston, Texas and Columbus, Ohio seeks to discover new and exciting ways to explore her artistic palette. Growing up in Ohio and consistently moving around throughout her childhood has rounded her into finding new perspectives on culture through meeting many people of different backgrounds and upbringings. This transcended Lauren from Graphic Designer to Photographer and Writer. Along with her freelancing design career, Lauren has wrote contributing articles for Free Press Houston’s art and film pages and has launched her own website To Be Honest (TBH), where she writes about current social issues, art, music and fashion happening within communities of color.

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