Are movies with Black casts made to make White audiences feel good?
It’s clear that there has been a concerted effort to create and recognize more diverse stories and characters on the big and small screens. Movies like Selma, The Butler and Loving all have told Black-focused stories to both critical and commercial success. While there have been many Black-centered films for years, why are these films just now getting the recognition they deserve? Why weren’t similar films made earlier recognized in the same way? In part, it has to do with many films with Black cast being exploitation films.
An exploitation film is a B-movie that was created to specifically appeal to a certain audience. In the 60s and 70s, exploitation films targeted towards Black people, known as blaxplotation, were extremely popular in the hood. Tapping into the civil rights/black power zeitgeist of the era, these movies were the first to show black actors as lead characters and not playing second fiddle to white characters. Some of the most popular movies from this era were Blacula (yes the black Dracula), Shaft and Super Fly. Today you see the genre’s influence in films like Eddie Griffin’s Undercover Brother, Beyoncé’s Foxy Cleopatra in the Austin Powers: Goldmember, and throughout Quentin Tarentino’s films, most notably Jackie Brown.
I’m explaining what exploitation films are because it’s important to see the evolution of films featuring black actors. 50 years ago, a film like Ride Along with Ice Cube and Kevin Heart would have been regulated to inner-city theaters. But today, it gets a nationwide release, is the #1 film in the country and gets a sequel. While it’s great to see that progress, I still have to ask what lead to that change? What have black films done to start getting widespread recognition? While there are many societal factors that can answer this question, I’m particularly interested in one theory. I think that part of White audience’s acceptance of black films is because they are the new WHITEsploitation films.
The final cut of a movie is never the writer’s pure vision of the film. Throughout the financing and distribution process, many people can influence any number of aspects of the movie. Often these changes happen before filming even starts. If you are a smart filmmaker that just wants to see your film get made, you will adjust your script to better appeal to a financial benefactor. As a result, many movies with Black casts are influenced to appeal to White funders and audiences. If the story is fiction, a white character is usually highlighted as the ally to the black characters. Take The Help, for example, where Emma Stone’s character’s writings on the mistreatment of Black maids was the focus of the movie. When the story is based on real life, facts may be changed to make the story more dramatic. Take Remember the Titans as an example. In the movie, the school is portrayed as being in a rural Virginia town. In reality, the school is located in Alexandria, a (relatively) progressive suburb right across the Potomac river from Washington DC.
Inevitably in many of these Black movies, a White person is presented as a key factor in helping solve the problem of racism, even if they don’t actually solve it. In Hidden Figures, Taraji P. Henson’s character was promoted because of a misunderstanding. But thanks to White knight Kevin Costner, he let her stay in the position because he only sees skill, not race. And when he does see race, he’ll lead the charge against discrimination. When he noticed that Taraji was absent for large periods of time because the colored restrooms were across campus, he proceeded to take a crowbar to the “Colored Restroom” sign to represent that he would not stand for any more segregation at NASA. Right…because vandalizing company proper is the most effective way to eliminate racism from your work place (PS. The character Kevin Costner played, Al Harrison, is a fictional character. No Al Harrison ever worked at NASA in that role.)
I mentioned earlier that in The Help, Emma Stone decides to write a book about the experiences of black maids. At the end of the movie, Emma Stone’s character gets offered a job in New York City for her efforts informing the public about the struggles of the Black maids. However at the end of the movie, nothing really changes for the maids. A couple switched jobs or left the business, but overall the system she exposed was more-or-less unchanged. In both of these cases, White peoples are presented as the savior even though they didn’t actually do anything. Maybe this just only happens in Octavia Spenser movies.
Different Races, Different Perspectives
The reason this happened in so many Black-lead movies is the natural White guilt that comes with the humanization of Black characters. It’s uncomfortable for people to see themselves as the antagonist/problem so they create characters and situations where they also can feel as if the problem is solved, preferably by themselves. But there are two things wrong with this. 1) It continues to perpetuate the idea that Black people are hopeless to change their situation without the benevolence of Whites and 2) It pretends like the problem is solved when it’s not. The issues of racism haven’t disappeared since the Civil Rights Era, they’ve just changed form and become less overt.
12 Years a Slave is the perfect example of how a movie with a supposed positive ending for White audiences could be viewed as a negative one by audiences of color. At the end of the movie, Solomon Northup’s White business partner tracked him down, got his freedom and brought him back North to his family. While I was relieved for Solomon, I felt no joy since my mind was still with the slaves back on the plantation he abandoned. What about Patsey who would still be rapped and whipped? What about the other Northern Blacks and Africans who were tricked into slavery and never rescued? What about the millions of slaves who were born into slavery and never escaped? But these movies don’t deal with these lingering questions. They just tie a “justice has been served” bow and the end of the movie and leave the audience grateful that we no longer live in that horrible world. That’s what makes these mainstream films Whitesplioitation
Reclaiming our stories
Fortunately, a concurrent trend of Black movies and TV shows have also emerged that have addressed current Black issues without the need for White saviordom and pretending racism has been solved. Black-created movies and TV shows like Atlanta, Moonlight and Queen Sugar are more open to leaving ambiguous endings and incorporating the somber tones that better reflect where we are as a country in terms of how we deal with race. Often these projects are done outside of major movie studios and television networks. Moonlight was an independent film. Atlanta is on FX. Queen Sugar is on the OWN network.
I’m glad that we are seeing more Black faces and stories being told on the big screen. These are American stories that deserve to be told just as much as the other historical fictions and biopics. And yes, I’m aware that in every film based on an historical event has details changed in order to tell a more dramatic story. All I’m saying is that in the case of Black films, let’s make sure where aware who the story is being told to.