We are in the middle of a remarkable moment.
Black folks around the globe are standing up to demand justice. Beyoncé sang about Negro noses and ‘bamas in front of over 119 million people during this year’s Super Bowl. And Black creatives are putting in work on the big and small screen to tell our stories, on our terms. Just this week both Ava DuVernay’s Queen Sugar and Donald Glover’s Atlanta hit television offering a complex, nuanced, and downright gorgeous depiction of Black life. And it ain’t even over yet.
Empire and black-ish return on September 21, Issa Rae’s new Black ass HBO show Insecure debuts on October 9, Fox is lining up Pitch and Lethal Weapon, and over on the digital side of town, Black&SexyTV continues to roll out a whole slew of smart, funny, and binge-worthy shows. Black writers and directors are also doing the damn thing in theaters with John Legend’s Southside With You, Barry Jenkins’ Moonlight, Nate Parker’s The Birth of a Nation, Lupita Nyong’o’s Queen of Katwe, Taraji P. Henson’s Hidden Figures, and Benny Boom’s All Eyez On Me all coming down the pipeline.
In short…we got a lot of quality, unapologetically BLACK content to indulge in for a long time to come, and I’m absolutely here for it.
When I learned that Hollywood would be taking a deep dive into the murders of the Notorious B.I.G. and Tupac, I got excited. As a hip hop head who cites the 90s and early 2000s as the golden era of the genre, I was happy another story from my youth was finally being told. That was until I heard Johnny Depp—yeah, Pirates of the Caribbean Johnny Depp—was starring in the film and it wouldn’t really be about Biggie or Pac at all, but rather a White cop who worked on the case.
Based on a (problematic) book about former Los Angeles Police Department detective Russell Poole, the film, described by the Hollywood Reporter as a thriller, will explore Poole’s hypothesis that a group of “gangsta cops” were not only involved in Biggie’s death, “but were also tied to Death Row Records and the Bloods street gang.” Compelling stuff, but considering we haven’t even gotten a comprehensive story about the case from the victims’ perspective (or any arrests), centering a White cop in the narrative about two of music’s most influential figures is annoying and typical–and I’m tired of it.
When it comes to the Biggie and Tupac saga there are mountains of material for a great film, but this one will most likely get the big budget and award show treatment for one reason alone: Johnny Depp is White. And in Hollywood, White folks need to be in the center of the action for just about any story to be taken seriously.
Don’t believe me? Ask Don Cheadle.
When Cheadle (who should always win all the awards) was attempting to make a film about iconic jazz musician Miles Davis he kept running into roadblocks. Never mind Davis was one of the most important artists of the 20th century, or that his story was full of enough sex, drugs, heartache, and triumph to stretch out over a whole series of movies. But Cheadle struggled to get enough funding to make Miles Ahead until he added one key element: a White man.
“To get this film financed, we needed a white co-star,” Cheadle explained. “These are issues that come into play. And until Ewan [McGregor] came on, until we had cast the proper white co-star, there was no Miles Davis movie. There was no Miles Ahead. The family had been trying to make this movie for years, and we straight-up told them, ‘We need a white co-star. We need to tell this story, in order to get this money, with a white male lead.’”
Cheadle added McGregor’s character—WHO DID NOT EXIST IN REAL LIFE—and boom, Miles Ahead was made.
Back in 2012, George Lucas, the man who brought us the multi-billion-dollar Star Wars franchise, lamented about the difficulty of getting funding for his World War II film, Red Tails. While people seem to love a good war movie, investors weren’t clamoring to hand over their cash to Lucas because his subjects were the Tuskegee Airmen, and a group of Black pilots.
“It’s because it’s an all-Black movie, Lucas said. “There’s no major White roles in it at all…I showed it to all of them and they said, ‘Nooooo. We don’t know how to market a move like this.'”
Now, if Lucas, a Hollywood heavyweight, had a difficult time selling the idea of an all-Black film that didn’t include a White hero, imagine how hard others have it.
While there are some Black filmmakers who choose not to cave and cast Well-Meaning White folks™ as the savior, they typically pay a high price. When Ava DuVernay brought the struggle for voting rights to the big screen in Selma, choosing to focus on the work of the actual activists involved rather than show President Lyndon Johnson as the lone savior of the poor, downtrodden Southern Blacks, many critics cried foul. One writer, a former assistant to the President Johnson, argued DuVernay “falsely [portrayed]” him because “Selma was LBJ’s idea.” Another, the director of Johnson’s library and museum, accused DuVernay of trying to “bastardize one of the most hallowed chapters in the civil rights movement.”
In short: when White folks don’t see themselves at the center of the story they don’t know how to deal.
Diversity has been a big topic in Hollywood over the past few years as the industry has gotten a lot of rightly-deserved flack for being extremely White and male, and yet these White Savior/White-Centered films about subjects of color will most likely continue to get made. The good thing, though, is that with the rise of indie filmmakers, the success of others who manage to work within the studio system, and a hungry audience of Black folks who not only crave, but will support GOOD Black projects, many writers, directors, and filmmakers are telling our stories, our way—by any means necessary.
Britni Danielle is the Entertainment/Culture Director for EBONY. Catch her tweeting @BritniDWrites.