Recent years have seen culture-conscious voices behind the scenes translate into a more authentic, fully realized representation of black life in front of the camera. Still, recognition for our achievements on screen continues to lag.
When I was very small, my family gathered around the flickering gray screen of our living room TV night after night. The mere sight of an African American entertainer caused all activity and conversation to cease. “Colored on TV!” my father would shout.
Some of us actually leaned toward the set to get a closer look. It was such a rarity. You had a better chance of seeing a talking horse – which you soon could, every week – than a black man or woman in front of the camera.
Nat King Cole, the legendary crooner, was the first male Negro (as we were called then) to host a network variety series in prime time. For 15 minutes. Once a week. And even though the program was in black and white, studio technicians had so little experience lighting and filming someone of color that the ebony-hued Cole looked like an amorphous ink blot sitting at a piano. I remember crying.
Against that historical backdrop, it seems almost inconceivable that at any time, much less in the last 10 years, we would see: A sitcom called Black-ish become such a hit that it spawns two spinoffs, Grown-ish and Mixed-ish; the most successful talk show host in history would be a black woman powerful enough to launch her OWN television network; a series about a sepia superhero, Black Lightning, be popular in prime time; a female African American producer, Shonda Rhimes, literally transform the shape of television through such diverse ensemble dramas as Grey’s Anatomy and How to Get Away With Murder; Tyler Perry dragging himself out of his onscreen Madea persona to create the largest TV and film production studio in the U.S. and become the first African American to own a major studio outright; Steve Harvey, everywhere.
So the state of blacks on TV as we begin the second decade of the 21st century is truly a matter of perspective. “I think it’s progress,” says Mekeisha Madden Toby, the Cass Tech alum and former Detroit News television critic who now works as a staff writer for TV Guide.
“I remember when it was a big deal to see a black person on television,” Toby says. “And even though sometimes, unfortunately, us watching was not enough to save the show – like Frank’s Place – it still was exciting to see a black person in a show of their own, especially if they were the lead and not a sidekick.”
In Toby’s view, the current landscape “is kind of two-tier. We have seemingly gotten over the hurdle of not seeing ourselves represented, and I think I can safely say we have gotten over the hurdle of being presented as a monolith. We don’t all like Tyler Perry, but for those who do, he’s there. We may not all like Issa Rae (creator and star of Insecure, now featured in the movie The Photograph), but for those who do, she’s there.
“There’s Donald Glover, Lena Waithe, all these black creators, many of whom are under 40 and are great examples of how you can’t wait for someone to deign you worthy. In Issa’s case, she created her own web series and made Hollywood pay attention to her, because she didn’t fit what they would have picked anyway.”
What’s true in TV also could be said of film in 2020. If someone had told you 10 years ago that a movie with an all-black cast about a gay male relationship (Moonlight) would win multiple Academy Awards including best picture, or that a superhero blockbuster with a predominantly African American cast (Black Panther) would gross over $1.3 billion worldwide, or that comedian Jordan Peele’s first feature film, Get Out, would win an Oscar for its script and become one of the biggest horror movies of all time, wouldn’t you have asked that person to seek some help?
“It is a good time to be black in Hollywood,” Rob Edwards smiles. “It is really interesting.” He should know. The Detroit-born screenwriter and producer has been in the rooms where it happens for decades, writing animated feature films for Disney and currently developing projects with Chris Rock and acclaimed producer-director Reggie Hudlin. However, one of those ventures underscores the blatant, continuing struggles that still exist for black filmmakers in Tinseltown.
“I had a project with Reggie, a modern-day Western, and we had Chadwick Boseman attached,” Edwards says. “Chad and Reggie had just finished Marshall (the biopic on Supreme Court Justice Thurgood Marshall) and they were like, ‘What’s next?’ So we take it to a bunch of studios and everybody says, ‘We like the script, but is anybody really going to watch an action movie with a black protagonist?’ Those were the conversations we had. One guy said, ‘I love this, but I’ve got to go upstairs and try to sell it. If it was Tom Cruise or somebody like that, that’s an easy sell. Who is Chadwick Boseman?’
“Then a month or two later, he signs to do Black Panther, so we went out again. ‘Hey: Chadwick Boseman. Black Panther. Don’t you want to have the movie right after?’ And they still weren’t sure. Then, of course, Black Panther comes out and it goes crazy.”
There’s also the matter of wage discrepancy. Actress-comedian Mo’Nique won an Academy Award in 2009 for her role in the movie Precious but hasn’t worked significantly in films since. Some say it’s because of her celebrated dustup with director Lee Daniels; she has another explanation.
“You know how in sports you can see what all the players are making?” Mo’Nique asks. “You know how you see the Forbes lists and see all the white actresses listed? Have you ever seen a black actress listed? What I would say is, if we believe it’s getting better, let’s just put all our numbers on paper and then compare.”
For that reason, says Juanita Anderson, the nationally known documentary filmmaker and head of media arts and studies at Wayne State University, we must emphasize putting our money where our movies are. “I think we are pretty much in the same place we were 10 or 20 years ago in terms of the industry’s response to financing black people on film,” says Anderson, whose landmark 1987 documentary Who Killed Vincent Chin?, which she produced, is being considered for restoration.
“We’re experiencing a real desire to go back to business as usual, even though the old reasons why business as usual existed have been proven not to be true. Black Panther certainly demonstrated something black folks have always known: that there are audiences out there for black people on screen, and all the lies they’ve been telling us all these years just don’t hold up domestically or internationally,” Anderson maintains. “So it’s like, ‘OK, now how do we find other excuses?’
“What we have not seen is the growth of black folks other than those already in the entertainment industry rallying to say, ‘Let’s finance these films.’ Until we collectively as a people find ways to support our film artists, we’re going to keep having these peaks and valleys. On television, you have that new series (ABC’s For Life) Curtis ‘50 Cent’ Jackson is putting his money into. That is a powerful thing to do, and it’s not the first time he has done it.
“So the real question becomes: How do we want to see ourselves on the screen?”
We barely saw ourselves at all at the 92nd Academy Awards in February. Toby, who was on the red carpet, correctly predicted every major winner except South Korean import Parasite for best picture. “I knew Cynthia Erivo (nominated for best lead actress and original song for her work in Harriet) wasn’t going to beat Renée Zellweger, and she certainly wasn’t going to beat out Elton John,” Toby says.
She had already written her TV Guide victory story for ex-athlete Matthew A. Cherry’s delightful animated short Hair Love because, “Just speaking frankly, that was the only category a black person had a chance to win.” Erivo, starring in a film that took seven years to get to the screen, was the only person of color among the major nominees. #OscarsStillSoWhite.
That exasperates veteran entertainment journalist and producer Shaun Robinson, seen on such TLC series as 90 Day Fiancé and currently developing projects with T.D. Jakes and Tracy Edmonds for Lifetime. The native Detroiter says there weren’t many black faces on either side of the red carpet when she began working for the TV newsmagazine Access Hollywood. But that was in 1999.
“When the Oscar nominations came out I thought, ‘What the heck is going on?’” Robinson remembers. “Are we going in reverse?” She points to figures released by the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences that claim the Academy has added more than 2,000 new voting members in the last three years, raising its total composition of racial minorities … to 16%.
“We were happy the Academy opened up its membership to more people, but I was left scratching my head, as were so many others. You see the lack of diversity in terms of people of color and women and you just wonder. Are the voters not engaged in the process? Are they not doing their due diligence in terms of finding projects that have diverse casts? That’s their job. I don’t know if they’re just voting on ‘the buzz’ or what their friends tell them, but we have got to fix this. This is 2020, and it seems the same as 1980. It’s so frustrating,” Robinson says.
Greg Russell, who estimates screening well over 2,000 films in his years as film critic for Live in the D on Detroit’s WDIV-TV and host of the syndicated series Movie Show Plus, predicted Parasite could win for best picture and suggests that, in an odd way, its win could improve Hollywood’s acceptance of black films.
“It could be the Academy saying, ‘OK, we’ve got to be inclusive to everyone,” he says. “So, yes, hopefully it will open up the doors wider for African American films.” However, there also exists an undercurrent of infighting surrounding black British actors flying in to claim iconic American movie roles, like Erivo as Tubman, David Oyelowo as Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. in director Ava DuVernay’s Selma, or John Boyega in recent Star Wars blockbusters.
“My son-in-law is the perfect example,” Russell says. “He gets upset any time he realizes a lead character is actually British. I don’t have a problem with it as long as they do a good job. David was great as MLK.”
Echoing Toby’s observation about a celluloid youth movement, Marshalle Montgomery Favors, founder and co-director of the Trinity Detroit International Film Festival, celebrating its 14th year Aug. 20-23, says that in one year, she and her husband Lazar attended 32 premieres for feature films by African American Detroiters. She marvels, “32! If we start talking about these filmmakers collectively, that’s a story. I just feel there’s always need for the pushback. Not just for diversity and inclusion, but for equity as well.”
In They’ve Gotta Have Us, the controversial must-see Netflix docuseries from British producer Simon Frederick that strikes at the heart of this issue, the late director John Singleton closes the final episode entitled “Black is the New Hollywood,” by saying, “I’m very optimistic that this moment right now is a pivotal point, and actually what I call the new normal. We have evolved and changed culture and cinema forever with the work that we’ve done.” Singleton died last April. May his optimism live on.