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The great debate about whether films that depict Black stories placed against the backdrop of American history’s dark side are a form of healing or, conversely, a reopening of long-expressed wounds, is nuanced and unneat. Consistently, the most celebrated prestige films that center the Black experience or feature predominantly Black casts — like this year’s Devotion, Emancipation and Till, plus previous Oscar winners Judas and the Black Messiah, Selma and 12 Years a Slave — have been historical narratives repackaged and reanimated for modern audiences. And, most often, they operate in the register of adversity and trauma, which is, at best, a lopsided representation of the vast dynamism of Black American life and, at worst, retrigger new generations of viewers who deserve fresh stories and lighter fare.
To this end, there may be some who are weary of exploring slavery or the civil rights movement as film subjects (or feel that they have become convenient settings in which to cast Black actors in dramatic roles) because they require a reiteration of Black trauma throughout different eras in American history, even if they do provide some historical context for audiences about the injustices of the present day. But at a time when U.S. history lessons in school curricula — particularly where race relations, policing and the legal system are concerned — are biased or being erased, historical dramas are a useful, educational supplement for the movie-watching public.
“The beauty of film is that it attracts everyone, so it does become an opportunity for a variety of stories that may be receiving scrutiny or censoring in other settings [to be] couched under the auspices of entertainment,” says Rhea Combs, director of curatorial affairs at the Smithsonian’s National Portrait Gallery and co-curator of the exhibition Regeneration: Black Cinema 1898-1971, now on view at the Academy Museum of Motion Pictures. “That allows people to experience and learn things that might otherwise be blocked or inhibited,” she adds.
Emmett Till’s legacy, for instance, illustrates the power of imagery and how it can ground a narrative in truth depending on who’s controlling how it’s framed. When Mamie Till-Mobley insisted that the brutality of her son’s murder be shared widely, she gave racism a face — and insisted that a country of visual learners see a reality that countless people and institutions worked to establish as a mirage. That extends to the heaviness of United Artists’ Till, which follows Till-Mobley’s activism to bring national awareness to her son’s brutal lynching.
Till writer-director Chinonye Chukwu discussed the process of disseminating difficult images and dramatizing historical narratives in THR‘s Writer Roundtable: “It was, in a way, an extension of [Mamie’s] critical care for the Black community, for her community, for herself. It was a call to action, and she had full agency and ownership and control over that experience. … It’s a different kind of intention and ownership and agency over the image, but the power of the image is still the same.”
The counter to this is that trauma can be turned into “entertainment” when promoted in Hollywood. And the optics become doubly complicated when it appears that films that feature Black actors, but aren’t heavy-handed in their centering of race, are rarely awarded by the Academy. Devotion, Sony’s biopic of naval pilot Jesse Brown, may follow last Oscar season’s King Richard as an exception to this rule; it’s a film that prioritizes Black excellence over Black pain. (Though they fall outside of the period genre, Moonlight and Black Panther brought Black representation onscreen and were celebrated by the Academy without centering on America’s legacy of subjugation. Yet Black Panther lost the best picture prize to Green Book, a period film about racism seen through a white male perspective.)
“These are films dramatizing moments that for some are traumatic and have been what you would call ‘kitchen table conversation’ in the Black community,” says Combs. “For others, [these films can be] illuminating, with the hope [of providing] a bridge for individuals of various backgrounds to understand and create a dialogue around the shared historical moment. It’s a double-edged sword, because it creates a limited understanding of Black experiences, whereby one could just assume that everything is about hardship, destruction and overt racism — and it gives this false impression of progress and overcoming that moment.” However, the victory ultimately lies in the fact that these films are able to be produced and considered in Oscar categories at all, when historically that was not the case.
Combs also notes that the rise of “race films,” produced outside the Hollywood studio system and released from roughly 1915 through the 1940s, exemplified the interest in creating counternarratives to the stereotypical screen presentations of Black life.
“We have the machine of the film industrial complex that has a predominant narrative, and then there are individuals operating simultaneously on parallel tracks [from those early race films to Blaxploitation and other independent films], who … provide us with the nuance and the range of human experiences onscreen that are far more universal, but at times don’t get as much traction,” says Combs. “That’s what we were hoping to accomplish with Regeneration: Even in the midst of the overarching story, there’s always this underground movement that has existed.”
This story first appeared in the Nov. 30 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. Click here to subscribe.
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