Does Criticizing Black Cinema Take Away Its Power?
Black People are not a monolith! Not with the music we listen to, the movies we watch, or how we consume any form of art made by us for us. I know it’s hard to believe, seeing as though many of our experiences, good and bad, are shared. There is an entire game called Black Card Revoked, which in some ways can debunk the monolith statement, but still, we should not feel shame when criticizing Black cinema. Think about it, how did you react when someone asked if you watched Lena Waithe’s latest project Queen & Slim? Did you truly enjoy it, but found yourself having to oversell the premise? Did you not enjoy it, but felt obligated to say it was a good movie, even though you list all of the reasons why you didn’t like the film? Either way, when it comes to how we consume and criticize Black cinema, it seems as though it’s another layer of our complex history. But by criticizing Black cinema, do we take away its power?
Before Spike Lee and Ava Duvernay, there was Oscar Micheaux, the first African American feature filmmaker, with over 44 films. Micheaux films featured contemporary Black life. He dealt with racial relationships between Blacks and Whites. Topics such as lynching, job discrimination, rape, mob violence, and economic exploitation were depicted in his films. Fast forward to 2020, and a lot of those same stories are being told through the eyes of a handful of African American filmmakers, which shows how far behind we still are; as these stories are a reflection of the times we are living in. Even before criticism of Black cinema can be discussed, we must first identify what constitutes Black cinema. Does a film have to tell the story of the Black experience or does a film simply have to have a Black filmmaker and cast to be considered Black cinema? There is a difference between films such as The Color Purple, directed by Steven Spielberg, a White man, and Olympus Has Fallen, directed by Antoine Fuqua - a Black man.
Actor Terrence Howard once said in a 2005 interview with the Chicago Tribune, “Any film that deals with the subject of Black people or has a predominantly Black cast, is a Black film.” Which differs from what film critic Sergio Mims considers a Black film, “A Black film is a film with a Black cast, made by a Black director, aimed exclusively for a Black audience.” Because of the blurred line of what is considered Black cinema, we cringe when having to critique a film we know was made to depict our shared experiences and/or history. It’s because of this blurred line, we don’t think twice when criticizing a movie like Olympus Has Fallen. “No I don’t feel pressured to tell the story of the Black experience,” writer/director, Thomas Cooksey explains. “I want to write films across all genres… films like Ocean Eleven.”
Cooksey, like other up and coming Black filmmakers and those who simply enjoy watching films, share the desire to adapt to a new narrative in Black Hollywood filmmaking. That narrative does not look like or tells the story of the Black person’s oppression or has a targeted African American audience. “Our stories are universal, and until they are accepted universally, we will continue to have this disconnect in answering what makes a film Black cinema,” Atlanta PR consultant, Shamir Campbell says. “It is great to have our stories, but sometimes we have Black actors in roles where their race shouldn't be the focal point, but it is. The topic is a revolving door,” Campbell explains.
In the end, we’ve been starving for our stories and representation for so long, we take what we can get. We feel bad criticizing because we feel it will be that much easier for the decision-makers to point out why our stories do not matter or sell. We take back our power by criticizing, by showing up and being okay with not agreeing with the way a story unfolds or is told, but we must show up! We are entitled to have a bad movie, and by saying so, the power of what is deemed Black cinema remains, because we are saying we are equal to Hollywood's typical standards. By criticizing we are uplifting and helping set standards of the quality we want to see when our stories are told and representation is shown; that is how we keep and build our power.