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Their Life Before  

A mediocre white man's look at Black cinema 

In celebration of this year's Juneteenth, I thought it might be nice to talk about some seminal movies from black filmmakers that didn't get heralded in the same way some inferior and exploitative ones get spoken about. Every few years Hollywood gushes over one or two black-led films like "Moonlight," "12 Years a Slave" or "Black Panther" while ignoring dozens more that don't capture the cultural zeitgeist in the same way. They also tend to gush over films with BIPOC leads or cast members, but ignore the black filmmakers, producers and writers who actually make the projects happen.  

click to enlarge LaKeith Stanfield astounds in Boots Riley's underseen masterpiece "Sorry to Bother You."  - COURTESY OF ANNAPURNA
  • Courtesy of Annapurna
  • LaKeith Stanfield astounds in Boots Riley's underseen masterpiece "Sorry to Bother You." 

It's a habit this country has been in for centuries. America would cheer like mad for Jesse Owens when he ran and won four gold medals at the 1936 Berlin Summer Olympics, but when he got home, he was barely allowed to make a living for himself, let alone get treated with anything approaching equality. We loved Owens when he was entertaining us and being a sports champion, but when he came home, civil rights were too much to ask for, let alone was he allowed enough agency to make a good living off of his accomplishments.  

This systemic form of oppression, while getting somewhat better, is still very much in place. We want our black entertainers entertaining, not leading or shaping the cultural discussion. Look at the sadly overrated "Green Book," a film that tells the incredibly important story of pianist Don Shirley and his fearless tour of the Deep South in 1962. Only Hollywood would say "Hey, that's a great idea, but let's have one of the directors of "There's Something About Mary" make it, and instead of telling the story from Shirley's perspective, let's focus on his racist Italian driver.  

So Shirley's entire arc of the film is making his white driver less racist. I guarantee you, if a black filmmaker had made "Green Book," it wouldn't have been about life lessons for racists. It would have been from the perspective of Shirley as he created art for people who treated him as if he were less than human, instead of from the point of view of another white savior.  

So many of the movies telling black stories are instead telling white stories featuring black people or, to be frank, black stories that studios and producers think will be palatable for white audiences. Look at some of the big nominees like "Green Book" from the Oscars over the last few years: "The Blind Side," "Crash," "The Help," "Driving Miss Daisy" and so many others. While "racism is bad" as a plot line is a nice thought and all, it's still treating black lives as a device for white people to learn lessons from instead of, oh I don't know, treating them as sentient humans with lives that exist outside of making a country's collective guilt feel mildly less brutal.  

If you want a truly beautiful film about artists of color actually made by them, look at the 2018 surrealist comedy "Sorry To Bother You," written, produced and directed by Boots Riley of the wildly underrated hip-hop group The Coup. "Sorry To Bother You" literally makes subtext into text by telling the story of a black telemarketer who only finds success at his job when he adopts a white accent during his calls. As he gets swept up in a wildly successful series of promotions and piles of money, he has to choose between his newfound life-style or helping create equity for those he left behind. There's no white savior narrative because Riley is telling a story not designed to be palatable to the average filmgoer, let alone Hollywood, and the film is a thousand times more honest for it.  

When D.W. Griffith's racist Klan propaganda "The Birth of a Nation," was released in 1915, it was a full five years later that Oscar Micheaux's silent film "Within Our Gates" came out swinging, focusing on Jim Crow, the migration of blacks to the North and the Midwest, and the birth of what was called "The New Negro." So why is it that, more than a hundred years later, film historians consider "Birth of a Nation" to be a groundbreaking film, but the oldest known film by a black director, "Within Our Gates" (which told the story of a black woman raising money in the North for a poor school in the South), is barely remembered beyond film nerds like me.  

White Hollywood wants black auteurs making films so they can pat themselves on the back for inclusivity and acceptance, but in order to enter the mainstream, those filmmakers have to check some very specific boxes in order to be screened in the multiplexes of America. One box is exploring the impact of racism on non-racist America and, the one that continues to be explored the most, the genre of Black Trauma.  

Don't get me wrong, the genre is important as it serves to remind a country and world with a very short memory (and attention span) of the many horrors of the recent past. But there are more to these stories than we see anymore because they aren't as lucrative as ones co-opting suffering for awards and money. In a recent pan of the series "Them" by NPR's Aisha Harris, she wrote, "'Them' suffers from the same predicament that has arisen in the wake of Black people becoming hashtags in death— the public knows far more about their last moments on Earth than all the moments that made up their life before."  

If film exists to create empathy, then we can't reframe marginalized voices into just their most sensationalized aspects. Ryan Coogler's "Fruitvale Station" is an unforgettable look at the 2009 death of Oscar Grant, but we only got a look at the last day of his life instead of the years leading up to it. When we remember someone only for their death, we lose any sense of the history or the context of institutional racism.  

Movies like "Green Book" serve only two masters: corporate interest and white guilt. Don't let them. Instead, give your time and mind to some recent important Black movies such as "The Harder They Fall," "Passing," "Judas and the Black Messiah," and "If Beale Street Could Talk." Also check out lesser-known classics like "Ashes and Embers," "Hollywood Shuffle," "The Learning Tree" and "Killer of Sheep."  

We can do better as consumers, because when we watch movies only interested in Black trauma and how Black lives effect white ones, we're actually losing authentic stories about Black lives...especially when we give homogenized lies like "Green Book" our money. And yes, I see the irony of being a white male writing a thousand words about Black voices. But I have a platform, and if I'm not amplifying voices more marginalized and important than mine, then I'm ultimately not doing anything with it. Happy Juneteenth. Now listen. 

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