Portraying mainstream blackness in cinema - a long journey that’s finally paying off

Young movie-goers wait to attend a screening of the movie, "Black Panther," on Saturday, February 17, 2018 at El Capitan Theatre in Hollywood, Calif. (Genaro Molina/Los Angeles Times/TNS)

Over the last few years, mainstream film has finally begun to widely explore black culture. Releases like “Black Panther” in early 2018 have reinforced the emergence of black cinema in America, just like 2016’s “Moonlight” allowed further success in “BlacKkKlansman” and “The Hate U Give” later this year. 

The undeniable financial success of Ryan Coogler’s “Black Panther” provided much-needed momentum for black directors in a predominantly-white movie industry. 

The film’s $1.34 billion revenue paved the way for Spike Lee’s tour-de-force, “BlacKkKlansman,” which chronicles the fight against white supremacy and the KKK in the ‘70s – led by the first black police chief in Colorado Springs, Ron Stallworth.

Klansman is dramatized, throwing in some great humor and jabs at our current political shift, though more importantly, it gives insight into how African-Americans face racism in present times. While set just after the success of the civil rights movement, the racial climate of small-town Colorado is uncannily familiar to today, which is cemented in possibly the most impactful ending montage to grace cinema this decade.

In wake of Coogler’s success, Lee took advantage of a new opening for true-to-life films to depict black life in America by bringing light to racial volatility in the Trump era. “BlacKkKlansman” makes a point to convey this cry for help not through themes of separation, but of inclusion and cooperation between racial divides. 

It isn’t obvious at first, though Stallworth’s hard-fought struggle against racial discrimination comes between a true comradery with other diverse officers at his station.

2016’s award-winning “Moonlight” acted as a critical stepping stone in desegregating the movie industry. Barry Jenkins’ brainchild further dissolved the invisible wall between black and white viewers while tackling and artfully portraying essential and tough issues that plague black America and the rest of the country. 

“Moonlight” showed a real portrayal of what life looks like for some black youth in destitute urban areas around the country. Children who grow up in impoverished communities are often exposed to gun violence and drug abuse at a young age. The main character, Chiron, watches his mother struggle with drug addiction in his younger years. The film illustrates the complex relationship Chiron develops with a male figure who helps raise him.

“Moonlight” offered a way to break out of cliche black character tropes and to open a conversation of how life is different for minority groups. Chiron’s story deals with abandonment, sexuality and masculinity. These themes are usually accompanied by a stigma within the black community. It is often  thought since black people have survived the middle passage, slavery and outright racism, anything else is frivolous and can be handled without therapy. “Moonlight” was a film that while dealing with tough universal themes, can apply to other people regardless of race, gender or sexual orientation, and opened up the door for productive conversation on problematic rhetoric.

Author Angie Thomas’ breakout novel, “The Hate U Give,” is described as a love letter to the late Tupac Shakur. The film adaptation directed by George Tillman, Jr. is no exception. 

The book and film both follow the story of Starr, a black teenager who witnesses a white police officer shoot and kill her friend in front of her.

The story follows Starr, played by actress Amandla Stenberg, who is on a journey of coping with the loss while trying to do what is right in her mind following tragedy and testifying in front of a grand jury to fight for justice for her friend.

The film is timely with the long list of unarmed black teenagers killed at the hands of white police officers, often times placed on administrative leave after their deaths. 

The movie portrays both sides of the issue: the perception of the slain teenager being a thug or a hoodlum while the police officer is the “hero,” or the unarmed teenager killed mercilessly by a white police officer. 

“The Hate U Give” takes on prejudice when Starr talks to an officer and during their discussion, the officer says that he would be less likely to use force with a white person compared to pulling over a black person. The film mimics real life in a way that all people can watch and assess the biases they have toward different groups of people.

Additionally, “The Hate U Give” looks at interracial dating through a critical lens. Starr lives in a predominantly black neighborhood while attending a predominantly white suburban high school. She has a white boyfriend and a father that would make the Black Panther Party proud. 

The film took time to show how resistant families can be toward dating outside of their race, from a viewpoint not seen much on the big screen.

Films about black culture have become more progressive. There are conversations about systemic racism and white supremacy that need to be held today. The art is reflective of today’s political climate and state of affairs.

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