by Alessio Franko
IF JORDAN PEELE’S socially conscious horror film Get Out wins this year’s Best Picture Oscar, I will cringe — not because the film doesn’t deserve the win (quite the contrary), but because, in that moment, the white members of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences will all become versions of that film’s patriarch, Dean Armitage (Bradley Whitford), gushing to his daughter’s black boyfriend, Chris (Daniel Kaluuya), that “I would have voted for Obama for a third term if I could.”
As we find out in Peele’s film, Rose Armitage (Allison Williams) has brought Chris to meet her parents in order to put him on the block of a modern-day slave auction, and Dean’s Obama quip is one among many rehearsed affectations meant to mollify their prey. Chris is not naive — he knows how little it costs this wealthy white family to prostrate themselves before his blackness. What he soon learns is that flattery is not only easy to dole out, but just as easy to weaponize.
Last year’s Best Picture victory for Moonlight, Barry Jenkins’ poignantly understated coming-of-age film about a gay black man, broke a conspicuous trend of the Academy’s passing over films by and about black Americans, a trend brought to national attention under the banner of the #OscarsSoWhite social media discussion. What has emerged is a giant paradox in which the more the overwhelmingly white film industry publicly celebrates black films, the more vigilant activists must be, lest black artists and their audiences end up like Chris, lulled into complacency long enough for power structures to once again propagate themselves.
The problem of race in American film is the problem of race in American commerce is the problem of race in America: Interlocking forms of generational disenfranchisement form an unnavigable blockade around artwork. The lack of black executives deciding whose work gets produced and the lack of black youth with the financial security to take a risk on an artistic career are two sides of the same (jealously guarded) coin. Given this stacked deck, what constitutes a victory for black cinema today?
It’s entirely possible that the question is not so complicated. Actor/director Fred Williamson (Hammer, Three the Hard Way) once said of the term “blaxploitation,” the genre that defined his career and vice-versa: “My checks cleared. And the people who worked for me, their checks cleared. So who the hell was being exploited?” For Williamson, a paying job offers a dignity that cannot be diminished by the circumstances around it, and money moving into the hands of black Americans is never not a win.
But the availability of these paying jobs is not to be taken for granted, says Ava DuVernay, director of the acclaimed Selma and the upcoming A Wrinkle in Time. She credits her prolific career, which spans everything from film to TV to documentaries, in part to “the fear that any artist has that there won’t be another question asked to say no to. And on top of that, the fear that the industry might shift in terms of its attention to women right now or the current renaissance regarding people of color, specifically black folks on TV.” DuVernay’s definition of a win seems to include not only a successful film, but movement towards a sustainable trend of those films being made that is not subject to the vagaries of the market and all its biases.
For every door that being black may now be opening in Hollywood, another closes. Even at her level of recognition, DuVernay still struggles with being confined to a potentially ephemeral racial genre (“blaxploitation,” for example, is long gone). She describes the goal of her TV series Queen Sugar, which chronicles the reunion of three Louisiana siblings whose lives has gone down very different paths, as “to create a world in which people of color, black people, [have] concerns other than being black, which is the way that I move about my day.” By centering Queen Sugar on a businesswoman, a journalist-activist, and ex-convict, DuVernay avoids tying blackness to a particular homogeneous experience.
Director Dee Rees echoed DuVernay in discussing Netflix’s acquisition of her recent film Mudbound, praising the distributor for not “reduc(ing) this film, they didn’t dismiss it as a race film or a social issue film or a black film.” Nor would they have reason to. Based on a book of the same name by Hillary Jordan, told from the perspectives of members of two Tennessee families (one of white landowners, one of black farmers), Rees’ film explores racial themes while by no means being an indisputably “black story” any more so than it is, say, a Southern or an historical one. Moreover, as long as we treat the “blackness” of a film as an epistemological question, it will always be vulnerable to being dismissed in the way Rees wants to avoid. All black art, we understand, is political. At the same time, equality is a black director getting to do what her white predecessors have done for decades upon decades: create beautiful art for beautiful art’s sake.
JORDAN PEELE, on the other hand, sought control of his film’s identity by tackling expectations head on. The marketing for Get Out was strangely loose-lipped with the details of its storyline. Audiences came in ready to see a film from an unmistakably black perspective, halfway through which the white in-laws would reveal themselves as the villains. But Get Out’s apparent commentary on liberal racism was not its ultimate surprise — no one was surprised that the older white liberals in the film would use their politeness to conceal deep-seated racism. What left audiences reeling was the revelation that Chris’ loving girlfriend, Rose, played an enthusiastic role in his abduction. Disbelief that a hip, young white woman could possibly have been complicit has birthed all manner of baseless speculations about a parental brainwashing plot, which Peele has loudly dismissed. Peele is writer and director and also saboteur, leveraging sanitized, acceptable discourse on race and racism in order to sneak a more provocative shock into mainstream theaters.
For some, the only way out of the traps set by genre expectations and narrative conventions is to subvert one’s own film from the inside. Marvel’s Black Panther is breaking box office records right and left this month, outdoing even Star Wars, captivating a massive audience that was starving for a black-led superhero epic. Despite being set around the fictional African national of Wakanda, which hides its vast wealth and advanced technology from the colonizing eyes of the outside world, writer/director Ryan Coogler (Fruitvale Station, Creed) has called Black Panther his most personal film to date. As much as Coogler reveres superhero-prince T’Challa (Chadwick Boseman), his personal touch comes through clearest in the development of the Black Panther’s nemesis, Erik “Killmonger” Stevens (Michael B. Jordan). A royal Wakandan child orphaned and abandoned in Coogler’s hometown of Oakland in the film’s prologue, Stevens grows up in and around generational poverty, knowing that halfway across the world, Wakanda hoards riches.
Stevens’ plot to claim the throne from T’Challa and supply Wakandan weapons to the world’s oppressed black communities puts an ideological battle at the heart of Black Panther unlike anything we have yet to see from a blockbuster comic book movie. Given Stevens’ situation, many viewers find no fault in his militant agenda. But within the confines of a Disney-Marvel story, Stevens is nonetheless the “bad guy” and is punished commensurately, dying in combat with T’Challa before his plan can come to fruition. It is frustrating to think Coogler came so close to making a mainstream film with a revolutionary thrust only to cede power back to the monarchs. But perhaps the real takeaway here is, like Wakanda, hidden underneath a facade of the expected: Coogler was allowed to inject a popular film with his lived experience of rage at a racist system, but not without being forced to denounce rage by the end.
Identity is neither stable nor homogenous, and the myriad approaches today’s black filmmakers are using to balance their artistic and activist motivations is key to Peele’s affirmation that all his favorite “current filmmakers are black.” Note Peele’s choice of words: in framing the issue not in terms of “greatness” but in terms of the work that speaks to him personally, he acknowledges that the pursuit of diversity should be a never-ending one. We should celebrate this year’s new and exciting stories with the awareness that they did not materialize out of nowhere. They are a sliver of the bodies of work from underrepresented groups that are being ignored by the market as they always have been. Perhaps, this year, we should all watch a few more films — and skip the Oscars.
Alessio Franko, a contributing writer to Jewish Currents, is pursuing a Master’s in Screenwriting at the University of Texas at Austin. He trained as an actor at HB Studios in his hometown of New York City and earned his Bachelor’s in Cinema and Media Studies at the University of Chicago.