Dis: 1. to treat or speak to someone in a way that does not show them respect; “Yo, you just got dissed.” 2. This; “Dis redemption waan ‘appen.”
The Academy of Motion Pictures Arts and Sciences dissed Black America. By nominating 12 Years a Slave for Oscar awards in nine categories, Hollywood highlighted the color line that still runs through La La Land. Obviously the Steven McQueen film starring Chiwetel Ejiofor and Lupita Nyong’o, both of whom received nominations, deserves every accolade. But it is not the only film examining Black life that does. Indeed, 2013 was such an important year for Black filmmakers, this year’s Oscar snubs feel more like carefully crafted quotas: Rather than lift the velvet rope to let a representative number of Black creatives in, The Academy is acting like a bad bouncer at the hottest club in town, clicking the velvet rope back in place to keep out all the Black creatives good enough to get in.
Our creative power, however, has never been content to wait in line.
A New New Wave
Four Black films, three of which were directed by Black men, have helped signal a shift in cinema in this new century. McQueen’s 12 Years, Ryan Coogler’s Fruitvale Station, Lee Daniel’s The Butler and white director Justin Chadwick’s Mandela: Long Walk to Freedom deserve special attention not just because they portray the lives of real Black men in situations of historical significance. Each of these four films renders Black male encounters with the dominant white with sensitivity and accuracy and even a kind of surrealist beauty. That the audience for each of these films is moved to a different emotional state is also important. And these films are good – really, really good – made by moviemakers who have paid careful attention to craft. These four films also deserve special attention because they do all this not only for the Black men driving the narratives, but also for the Black women in supporting roles.
The men directing these films are not alone. Another filmmaker re-envisioning the African-American experience as part of this new New Wave is woman director Ava DuVernay. DuVernay’s award-winning examination of Black female life, Middle of Nowhere, garnered her the Sundance prize for Best Director, the first ever win for a Black woman in that category. Works such as Mother of George (2013), directed by Andrew Dosunmu, and Dee Rees’ Pariah (2011) must be added to the list of elegant films that provide a wider scope of vision of what it means to be Black and female in America. Even Malcolm Lee’s 2013 popcorn hit The Best Man Holiday is an important movie to include in this newest wave, not just because it gave the four Black female characters equal development as the male characters – but also because the good time Best Man gave was good. 2014 likely will shift the public discourse back to Black women with the release of Amma Asante’s highly anticipated Belle; but, if barrier-breaking productions belonged to a Black woman in 2012, then in 2013 and this awards season the barrier-breaking should have belonged to a whole troop of Black men – and at least two Black women.
Coogler and Chadwick deserved nominations for Best Director because they, like McQueen, delivered stellar productions that honor the art of filmmaking. Michael B Jordan and Idris Elba deserved nominations for Best Actor because they, like Ejiofor, delivered stellar performances that honor the real-life experiences of the Black men they played. And, for stellar performances that honor the real-life women who loved them, both Oprah Winfrey and Nyong’o deserved nominations for Best Supporting Actress.
By placing the rich fullness of authentic Black life onscreen, by lingering over us in all of our beauty and all of our ugly, all of our victimhood and all of our victory – by lingering on us in all of our humanity, the creatives that worked on these productions have shown us that they love us. These four films express great emotion, understanding and engagement with real Black life.
A Murmur of Rhythms
In an opening sequence of the film adaptation of Solomon Northrup’s same-titled slave narrative, Ejiofor lies in a room with several sleeping adult slaves. A woman next to him stirs, rouses him, and positions his hand between her legs, inside her body. After using his hand to satisfy herself, she rolls back over and weeps. Juxtaposed with images of Northrup and his wife, played by Kelsey Scott, this scene emphasizes the depravity of slavery, the human degradation that it induces, the departure from the spiritual aspects of sex achievable only in freedom. Though brief, this scene offers a pulse point for the film, a beat in the murmur of rhythms that express to the audience the vital aspects of the narrative.
In less capable hands, this scene would have devolved into voyeuristic, exploitative titillation. With McQueen’s direction and both actors’ fine acting, however, this scene presents a substantive and too often silenced aspect of slave life in larger-than-life images that expose the truth of slavery’s personal horrors. Forced into captivity hundreds of miles away from his lawful wife, Northrup is forced to perform sex acts on a woman; but, even more compellingly, his rape is also hers.
Denied the opportunity to achieve healthy sexual partnerships, this slave woman’s personal experience, her relationship with her own body, is predetermined by an institution that treats her like a beast. Even in a room full of women and men like her, this slave is in isolation, too dispossessed of a future she can self-determine to enter a lasting and fulfilling union with a man, totally disconnected from the possibility of the healthy human relationship she craves. Neither she nor Northrup can be fully human. Unable to say no to chains, no to whips, no to sly gestures of ownership and superimposed will that scar their flesh, unable to say no to a communal space designated for sleep, no to lack of privacy in sleep, no to the length of time designated for sleep, no to the forced nocturnal awakenings that deny sleep, neither Nortrup nor this nameless slave woman next to him can experience sex as a liberating force. Nothing in the slave system liberates. Nothing. Both are victims, both raped, both in anguish over the silencing of their bodies.
Complex, disturbing, surreal, this scene emphasizes the revolutionary aspects of Black intimacy as experienced by a free Northrup and his wife in The North. Lying face to face, free to smile (to freely smile) and gaze, free to linger, Northrup and his wife perform a revolutionary act. In this historical context, Black love is revolutionary.
This scene also prepares the viewer for Patsey’s rape, when every gesture, every slap, every grunt disembowels her. As she stares out and away from the brute who owns her, a fracture occurs, a disembodiment, and a denial. That Patsey will know rape, and only rape, her entire life explains why she so earnestly begs Northrup to take that life away. Multiplied by hundreds of millions of Black women (and men) whose experience was the same – hundreds of millions over hundreds of years, through hundreds of generations, across hundreds upon hundreds of slave-lands throughout this country, and every country in the Caribbean, and most of South America, too – it is a wonder that we survived it all. It is a wonder that we even exist, here, at all.
Leaving the audience with questions like that is just one of the countless ways McQueen’s film triumphs over the blaxploitative slave story that, incredibly and insultingly, won an Oscar for Best Writing, Original Screenplay, at last year’s awards. Rather than titillate with images of African-American women more stylized than a Hype Williams music video, McQueen registers the truth of Black female hypersexualization with a child (Quvenzhané Wallis) separated from her mother because her light skin and features will fetch more money for the trader when she reaches puberty and with a dark-skinned woman (Alfre Woodard) sitting on the porch, articulating her Machiavellian approach to survival and her certainty that the owners who forced her to such egregious acts of survival will face retributive punishment, not her. Women wail; women strategize; women feel and think through their oppression – they do not sip on thin phallic symbols, they do not blow smoke in an Ellisonian obstruction of Truth.
The stark contrast between Quentin Tarantino and McQueen is so significant, it is not possible to celebrate the latter without deriding the former. An African-descended filmmaker, one rooted in a 500-year legacy that feeds cultural memory and holds the artist’s vision in a sacred, psychic space, our narrative of resistance and rebellion, of anguish and suffering, indeed of afro-surrealism, sorrow songs and blues, remembers and tells. A White filmmaker, one rooted in a 50-year legacy of pimpology, distorts cultural memory and unleashes the fury and psychic violence of White Supremacy to reinforce stereotypes in the audience’s mind.
Family Man, and Felon
None of the stereotypes that dominated Django Unchained appear in Fruitvale, although Tarantino exploited the tropes associated with contemporary Black culture in his historical narrative, and Coogler honors history in his contemporary narrative. Indeed, women are not props in Coogler’s aching depiction of Bay Area resident Oscar Grant’s last day alive. One of the many compelling aspects of this rich film is the depiction of Grant’s relationships with women.
When Grant cuddles with his family in a room too small for three people, yet somehow just right for his daughter, her mother and he to hold each other, it is clear that this filmmaker brings an authentic portrayal of Black manhood in the era of police brutality to the screen. Played by Jordan, Grant is The Truth. He is real, his struggle to support a household, to maintain even that tiny space so that the three of them can live there, together, is the struggle of the 21st century Black family man in America. It is the struggle of my fathers, of my husband. It will one day be the struggle of my son. We Black women know our men are here, right here with us, trying to hold it down, even if they are with us in family configurations that are not traditional in structure. As a counter-narrative to the mainstream storyline of Black male disappearance, Black male abandonment, this image of an imperfect Grant holding the woman and girl he loves is a wonder.
Grant’s girlfriend Sohpina, played by Melodie Diaz, who also offered a solid performance in the lovely 2002 indie Raising Victor Vargas, is fully integrated into Grant’s extended family in Fruitvale. And Uncle Oscar is fully integrated in hers. The ease with which they laugh and work with each other’s aunties, uncles, mammas and cousins answers the question 12 Years asked. We are here; we have survived – across cultures and across time – because of the family ties we’ve held together.
The image of Sophina holding hands with Grant’s family in a simple act of grace before eating the seafood dinner Grant helped put together to celebrate his mother’s birthday is just as important as the image of him playing on the floor with the children in hers. Under Coogler’s direction, the camera lovingly records images of Black people laughing together, honoring God together, being together, keeping us together.
Coogler is also deft at handling America’s fear of Black manhood with his use of the white shopper Grant assists in the grocery store where he begs for a job. All defiance and male bravado as he confronts the male manager who fired him for recurring lateness, Jordan transitions back to a sweet helpfulness with the shopper who can’t fry fish. Coogler shows that transition, and his decision as a filmmaker is meant to trigger anxiety in audiences. Grant’s simple encounter with a white woman heightens narrative tension and shames American racism when Grant is killed by a BART officer, a murder the white woman witnesses. Again, under less-skilled direction, less-nuanced acting, this scene would have collapsed into an exploitative mess. These creatives hold the story up, though – using motifs as old as Miss Anne herself to say something more, something much more substantive and powerful, about white women and their nearness to the condition of the Black men they’ve been taught to fear.
A complexity of the same shade also adds to the depth and substance of Butler’s latest film. Like 12 Years and Fruitvale, The Butler is richer for its scenes of ordinary Black life. The camera’s willingness to linger on Black people in community is a gift this film also gives. At the center of many of these scenes is real-life White House butler Cecil Gaines’ wife, Gloria, played by Winfrey.
Just as Jordan offers a dynamic examination of the 21st-century Black man, one who is both family man and felon, Winfrey delivers a performance of the 20th-century Black woman that is equally genuine. She is a wife who is both devoted and an adulteress, a mother who is both loving and a lush. This visible, felt performance of a flawed housewife should have garnered her an Oscar nomination, if not a win.
To Remember and Tell
Among Black people in The West, the most important act is to remember and tell. By bearing witness to our shared experience of dispossession, Africans in the Americas have offered the only counter-narratives to the text of White Supremacy. It is essential that we people of the Diaspora hold the event, retain it within, in our individual hearts and minds, to feel and think our way through our dispossession. It is also essential that the tale be told, and retold, in those sacred spaces dedicated to the task. We have always communicated our stories to one another. We have also always communicated our stories to The Other.
If Black love is revolutionary, than these loving Black creatives are revolutionaries, loving us, well, onscreen. The real revolution, of course, has already taken place in the souls of the large audiences that paid to experience some of our many Truths in theaters. In the collaborative art of making movies, these teams of Black creatives already have done the work, already have earned The Prize. After all, we all already know that revolution does not require red carpets and velvet ropes and flashing lights. We require no validation from Tinsletown. Although a Black Night in White Hollywood would have been nice, a kind of glory to see, it would not have been the real revolution anyway. After all, the real revolution, The Revolution, will not be televised.