Watching and discussing films and TV shows has always been a source of connection within my family. I remember watching “Gone With the Wind” with my parents as a child, and recall my mother shaking her head in disapproval at Hattie McDaniel’s stereotypical Mammy character. My father countered by noting the strength of her performance and how she dominated every scene in which she appeared.
When I was a college freshman, my father sent me a care package that included stacks of VHS tapes on which he had lovingly and painstakingly recorded episodes of my favorite television show, “The Golden Girls.” Like “Gone With the Wind,” it’s something that we had often watched together at home, a source of enjoyment as well as a prompt for talking about the various issues that the episodes raised.
Our experiences take place at the intersection of the personal and political. Both of these titles were formative in my life as a media scholar, and both are among the many cultural products that are now being reconsidered in light of the George Floyd protests and ongoing discussions about systemic racism. Last month “Gone With the Wind” was temporarily removed from HBO Max so that a newly recorded introduction providing historical context could be added. A couple of weeks later, an episode of “The Golden Girls” was pulled from Hulu altogether because of an “accidental blackface” sight gag involving two characters in mud masks.
HBO Max’s strategy of grappling with “Gone With the Wind” while contextualizing its production and reception is a meaningful one, requiring thoughtfulness and additional labor. Yet Hulu and other companies have decided to do the equivalent of a “dirty delete”: erasing the evidence of their racist practices, rather than addressing how they came to be in the first place. Like Hulu, many businesses and institutions are now quick to make seemingly anti-racist overtures, while neglecting the nuanced reflection the moment requires.
In this long overdue rush to acknowledge America’s deeply entrenched anti-blackness, white people’s perspectives have remained prioritized. Countless articles have offered variations on the same theme — “Concerned About Racism? Here are 19 Anti-Racist Movies and TV Shows You Can Stream Right Now” — followed by the same handful of titles. (“13th.” “Dear White People.” “Malcolm X.”) The articles may be well-intentioned and these works are worth viewing. But such lists reduce Black art to a hastily constructed manual to understanding oppression, always with white people as the implied audience.
The idea that a singular film, or even a collection of films, can serve as a guide to the history of Black oppression is simplistic. In her 1975 speech “A Humanist View,” Toni Morrison identified the function of racism as one of “distraction,” a device that “keeps you explaining, over and over again, your reason for being.” Indeed, the very idea that Black film’s greatest purpose is to be an educational primer on race in America is a notion that we need to lay to rest.
During this reflection on blackness and media, we must focus on the complexity and brilliance of Black film on its own merits. Now more than ever, we should return to Black narratives that decenter whiteness or ignore it altogether, films that connect audiences with the pathos, joy and even treachery of the Black characters and lives they depict, the films that recognize their complex humanity.
Such films have existed since the beginning of American cinema. At first glance, the recently discovered short film “Something Good Negro Kiss,” from 1898, appears to be a joyous rendering of Black people in love, but as the film historian Allyson Field argues, the Black performers actually seem to be satirizing Thomas Edison’s “The Kiss” from two years prior.
The 1913 film “Lime Kiln Club Field Day” features the Black minstrel performer Bert Williams wearing blackface makeup, and complicates our understanding of the art form. His presence alongside non-blackfaced Black actors draws focus to the performative, rather than racist, aspects of blackface. It demonstrates how Black performers sometimes used the makeup as a mask to differentiate between cinematic tropes of blackness and “real” Black people, a practice that indicates a keen awareness — yes, even then — of how cinema functions in relation to representation.
Though we keep insisting on the importance of “authenticity” in Black representations (a fraught and contested term), these early examples suggest Black modalities that were wry and subversive, and which understood the difference between performance and reality. How different might our understanding of the history of film be today, had these been the starting point for what we imagine Black film was, is and can be yet?
The recently rediscovered films “Losing Ground,” directed by Kathleen Collins, and “Cane River,” directed by Horace Jenkins, offer loving and nuanced explorations of Black characters. Both films were released in 1982 — the same year as the Nick Nolte/Eddie Murphy buddy cop film “48 Hours” — yet have remained largely unknown and unseen until recently. “Losing Ground” focuses on a Black woman professor navigating the tensions in her work and in her marriage, while “Cane River” is a love story that intersects with class and skin color issues.
Layered, thoughtful and depicting aspects of Black experience that exist outside of Hollywood tropes, neither film received theatrical release until decades after their production. Their rediscovery inspires a feeling of melancholy for me as much as excitement. How many more Black films languish on the verge of disappearance, films that may not have been deemed “important” because they cared more to focus on the lovely intricacies of Black life rather than delivering Black pain for white consumption?
Even as filmmakers like Ryan Coogler, Ava DuVernay and Barry Jenkins have found recent success in telling these kinds of stories, Black film is still too often assessed for its didactic value, with artistic and intellectual contributions deemed secondary. We need to emphasize the works of Zeinabu Irene Davis, Yvonne Welbon, Garrett Bradley, Marlon Riggs, Dee Rees, Cheryl Dunye and other filmmakers who tap into themes on Black peoples’ experiences as individuals, and how those experiences are shaped by race, sexuality, class and countless other social realities. These names, among so many others, need to be at the center of a discussion about the potential of film to connect audiences with the intimate contours of Black life.
Like monuments, state flags and pancake mix, film and television have always been contested and negotiated endeavors — histories that society is doomed to repeat because white people refuse to sit with the discomfort and complexity of its past. The recent performative nods to blackness through screening lists and the erasure of racist elements in TV shows, do more to assuage white guilt than to offer recompense to Black people, who have always had to deal with contradictions in the very art that gives them pleasure.
These moves are shallow and condescending, meant to gaslight us into thinking that there was a time when production companies, networks, performers and audiences — when “we” — simply didn’t know any better. That time never existed.
Racquel Gates (@racquelgates) is an associate professor of cinema and media studies at The College of Staten Island and the author of “Double Negative: The Black Image and Popular Culture.”
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