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Blackness on screen

10/05/2017


What is the importance of having blackness represented on screen? And what responsibility do we have as black artists in this?

Representation. Diversity. #OscarsSoWhite. These are words and catchphrase we often hear when referring to the lack of blackness on screen. I believe the issue is also a bit more complex than just diversity. It's also an issue of having blackness degraded or removed from it's rightful position. For ages the media and art have removed the beauty and power of blackness. Films have diluted the beautiful black skins of the powerful Egyptians to white. Black fathers have been portrayed as dead beat dads. Even the complexion of Jesus has been diluted to white in art and films (which is not historically accurate).

Additionally, when attempting to portray "the truth" about blackness, the media has focussed on this brief unglamorous history of Africans forgetting that before colonisation, civil wars and famine, there were great kingdoms, great heroes and heroines, inspiring love stories, and the source of civilisation and the sciences. Yes, Africa was once great. However, in this little piece history, we are portrayed as a sad, defeated people. That's not a very inspiring thing to look at for a black child watching TV. Why are we not telling the stories of our greatness? Well, that's because the people telling the stories might not be that interested in it. Enter in the need for the voice of the black artist.

The voice of the black artist helps to raise the profile of blackness.

Media moguls like Shonda Rhimes are creating strong black characters in TV. Celebrities like Viola Davis are accepting Oscar and Emmy awards in their natural hair. Personalities like Lupita N'yongo are advocating for black beauty and being authentic to ourselves. Ava Duvernay was asked to direct a film based on a well-known book called A Wrinkle In Time, and she insisted that the lead child actress is a child of colour because she has strength and adventures that aren't typically seen with a child of colour. As the #Woke movement gains momentum, media bodies are also waking up and moving towards a more heroic and proud blackness on screen. Walt Disney has made an animation with a black princess (The Princess and the Frog) and a film based in Uganda (Queen of Katwe). Marvel is making a film with an African superhero, Black Panther (can't wait!). These are all moves in an encouraging direction.

I recently shot a film which I thought would contribute to showing black beauty and strength on screen and complex black characters. A black hero, a black heroine, black love and a black villain. However, I decided that it was enough for my lead characters to be black and to be racially agnostic about the rest, so that I could have a mixed cast, which is a legitimate goal in terms of having diversity and representation. What ended up happening, however, was that I had less black representation than I had intended. The lack of intentionality with the race of the entire cast ended up diluting the original intention that I had. Intentionality is important.

Is it fair to put that "burden" on the black artist? I don't know. I just feel like it might be one of those "with great power comes great responsibility" moments. Let's not forget the power the media has to shape culture and moments. I personally want to take on that responsibility to shape new cultures and mindsets around blackness.

Till next time...