I tried to pass on saying anything about this, but it’s gone viral across the web, and several people have sent it to me, asking for commentary, so… here we go… again… for the millionth time…
I’ve said this before, and I guess I’ll continue to repeat it: ultimately, the concerns that Snoop voices in the video above (which many, many, many of us have also expressed over the years) are more a result of the lack of variety in terms of the stories about black people that Hollywood (specifically, in this case) greenlights on an annual basis. I see absolutely nothing wrong with ongoing representations (on film and TV) of the Trans-Atlantic Slave Trade and its long-lasting aftermath. It’s history. It happened. It shouldn’t be forgotten. In fact, I would argue that we’ve barely scratched the surface in terms of the kinds of stories that we could and should tell about the trials and triumphs of black people during that ugly period in world history, exploring every genre. If it’s so hard for you to watch fictionalized accounts of these stories, imagine what it was like for those who actually lived through the atrocity! They didn’t have the option of simply turning off the TV, or not buying a ticket to a movie about slavery if they weren’t interested in it.
But consider this; and not to make a direct link, or comparisons in terms of significance between slavery and the Holocaust, but just to make a point, indulge me for a minute here… Think about the number of movies and TV shows over the years that have told (and continue to tell) stories about the Holocaust, whether explicitly set during the Holocaust and centered on those who were directly affected and/or involved, or stories about those who came after and are living with the results of the horror, or stories in which the Holocaust is the setting or the background upon which, let’s say, a love story, or a mystery, or even, in some cases, a supernatural story unfolds (fiction or otherwise). There’s no comparison whatsoever in terms of mainstream industry output, between the number of slavery movies and TV shows, versus Holocaust-related films and TV series. So, as far as I’m concerned, there’s still a lot of story to be told about the lives of black people during one of the ugliest instances of human oppression, injustice, cruelty, brutality (and so many other adjectives I could list here) against other human beings in world history – the likes of which still weigh on us significantly today (even if only because of that reason alone; the past’s influences on the present).
BUT, but, but…. The KEY difference here is that, unlike the descendants of those who suffered through the Holocaust, the variety in terms of representations of black lives here in the USA (and, quite frankly, globally) on the big and small screens (as well as behind the camera and in executive suites), is severely lacking – especially at the mainstream Hollywood studio level, which is our primary focus here. So, yes, overall, we’ve barely scratched the surface in terms of stories about the black global experience, from humanity’s beginnings to the present day (again, emphasizing Hollywood studio output), so what continues to happen (and this has been the case since cinema’s first steps a century ago) is that, because of that lack of variety and volume when it comes to the telling of stories about the lives of black people on film and TV, the few projects that do make it to our screens are so very closely scrutinized by us (black people), because there’s very little else for us to consider.
This is a problem that black film artists have been fighting for a century, since D.W. Griffith’s “The Birth of a Nation” inspired people like the Johnson brothers (George and Noble) to create the Lincoln Motion Picture Company, as well as Oscar Micheaux’s prolific efforts, all combating the very limited depictions of black people in cinema at the time. Certainly we’ve come a long way since those early 20th century years. But there’s still a long way to go.
To finalize, my point here is this: films and TV series about slavery shouldn’t be dismissed. They are still very much relevant and we should continue to see films and TV shows that depict our VARIED experiences during that period in world history – emphasis on the word “varied” obviously (whether fiction or based on true events). What we’re lacking even more of are those stories about black people set during other times in world history; after all, black people existed before the Transatlantic Slave Trade. Where are their stories? We were kings, queens, empires, creators, artists, visionaries, rich, poor, neither; we were men, women and children just like any other, who loved, hated, envied, gave life to, took like from, built, destroyed, etc, etc, etc… We were (and still obviously are) human beings with a vast wealth of stories (pre- and post-slavery) that remain woefully untouched when it comes to Hollywood’s interests. But that’s simply not enough of a reason to be so scornful towards films and TV series that tackle slavery in some way. Don’t call for them to be banished or boycotted. They should continue to exist and, more importantly, evolve in terms of the specific stories about slavery that are selected to be told, as well as the genres in which they are explored. Consider a film adaptation of Octavia Butler’s bestselling time-travel novel, “Kindred,” for example, which is, in effect, a fresh take on the “slave narrative” with a science fiction/fantasy twist. If that was adapted to film, I’m sure a lot of you would find that thrilling. Our past articles on the possibility of this happening have always been very popular. Ava DuVernay once voiced interest in adapting the novel! It’s still very much a “slave narrative,” if you will, but there’s an unexpected magical twist that makes it fresh.
So, again, don’t ostracize slavery-era movies and TV shows. They are necessary. They aren’t the “problem.” Instead realize that the problem lies in the fact that there’s very little variety and volume, not only in terms of the kinds of slavery-era films and TV series that are made, but also stories on the overall black experience, throughout history to the present-day.
But what do we do to fix that? That’s the question that I always end up with; what happens now? What comes next? I’m sick of writing and speaking out about this lack of variety and volume (in Hollywood output notably), and I instead choose to seek out those who are doing the kind of work that I believe we’re missing (we write about these folks on this blog regularly) across the Diaspora; and I support them however I can, whether it’s a crowdfunding campaign, or just simply writing about them and their work on this blog, hoping to introduce more people to what they’re doing.
Where I agree fully with Snoop is when he says: “Let’s create our own shit based on today, how we live and how we inspire people today.” Long time readers of this blog will know that this is something I’ve said numerous times. I mentioned the Johnson brothers and Oscar Micheaux reacting to the limited depictions of black people a century ago, by deciding to do just that: create their own shit! Imagine how much of a challenge that was for them in the early 1900s, as black people in America. And then imagine where we are today, 100 years later, and how much (or how little) we’ve been able to build on what they started.
As I asked of all the black Hollywood folks who were calling for a boycott of the Oscars this year, I would like to see Snoop act on his words and get behind some black filmmakers who are creating the kind of work that he wants to see, using his celebrity in whatever ways he can to help bring some of these many untold stories about black people to the screen. It’s easy to use one’s social media platform (with more than 10 million followers) and express one’s frustrations. And it’s certainly his right. I’m not implying that he can’t or shouldn’t do that. But given the subject of his rant, imagine if Snoop had instead used the above 2 minutes to shout-out some black independent filmmaker whose film hasn’t been able to drum up much industry or audience attention, and encouraged his more than 10 million followers on Instagram alone to follow that filmmaker, or go see the filmmaker’s film that’s playing at some small theater that the filmmaker rented for that purpose. And maybe Snoop has done this in the past, and I’m just not aware. If he has, mega kudos to him! We need black celebrities with massive followings and platforms to do more of that for up-and-comers.
The rest of us should support the Oscar Micheauxs and Johnson brothers of 2016 and beyond; not blindly of course. Find those who are speaking your language, and reassure them however you can. As I type this, there are enterprising black creatives and business people like Numa Perrier and Dennis Dortch who created their own digital network (Black & Sexy TV), with original scripted programming output that rivals many network and cable TV channels. And they’re not the only ones out there operating at these levels. We recently featured the launch of a new digital network by Jackie J. Stone called Enchant TV, which is now running its first original scripted series. On a grander scale, there’s Charles D. King (longtime agent and partner at William Morris Endeavor), who launched MACRO Ventures a year-and-a-half ago, raising millions of dollars to sustain the media holding company that plans to create and distribute content for radically under-served African American, Latino and Multicultural audiences. Since then, MACRO has announced its backing of several projects with black filmmakers attached, like Justin Simien, Rick Famuyiwa, Ryan Coogler, Seith Mann and others. In fact, one of those projects will tell a slavery-era story – specifically, that of Harriet Tubman – one that King has promised will “have action, adventure,” and will be “epic and sweeping,” showing “what an incredible badass Harriet Tubman was.”
How could you not be excited for that, slave-era story or not?
Nate Parker’s “The Birth of a Nation” (a Nat Turner film) will be in theaters later this year. It certainly fits under the “slave narrative” umbrella, but it’s one that we haven’t seen yet! And I know a lot of black folks are excited about it. And that’s partly my point. That we’ve only just begun to tell the many different stories about that period in world history, and there’s still so much that hasn’t been explored yet.
Ignore those films and TV shows that don’t speak to you; get behind those that do Consider how powerful we can be by acting collectively (whether in small circles, or on some larger scale).
Unless you folks have some other answer…
Consider the late Sam Greenlee’s words: