Has Black Feminism actually progressed in film?

Is Black female representation as presented in film just a trend?
Originally posted on The National Student.

Hollywood has come under a lot of scrutiny in recent years. Just last year we were finally exposed to the “open secret” of Harvey Weinstein, prompting the beginning of the #MeToo and Time’s Up campaigns, which challenged the status quo of the industry as a whole. And Hollywood hasn’t just been criticised its treatment and representation of women. In 2015 and 2016, the Academy Awards in particular were called out for being overwhelmingly white.

Despite the recent success of Black women on screen and the progressive message that their performances are depicting, many fear that the “Black girl magic” and the empowerment of marginalised voices is nothing more than a marketing tool for ‘woke points’. But being woke is more than being a political young person, it’s more than a hashtag, and way more than a trend.

While some might have feigned surprise that the 2016 Oscars were #SoWhite, anyone with an insight into the industry could have foreseen it. From whitewashing to nepotism, and the promotion of stereotypes, it’s about time that we as a society have a conversation about films, feminism, and race.

Across all aspects of life, society indicates that women are second-rate citizens, people who need to be dominated, and are incapable of succeeding in the ways men can. This is a belief especially damaging towards women of colour, who face discrimination due to their race too. Finally, especially within in the last few years, the presence of melanated heroines on our screens has been at an all time high. Particularly worth mentioning are Hidden Figures, Black Panther and A Wrinkle in Time.

ava storm wrinkle in time
A Wrinkle In Time, 2018

In 2015, there were no people of colour nominated for an Oscar in acting. None. In 2016, once again, there were absolutely no people of colour nominated for an Oscar in acting. Suddenly in 2017, there were six. Among the films to tackle issues of race and to garner the Academy’s attention were Loving, Fences, The People v. O.J. Simpson, I Am Not Your Negro, Moonlight, and 13th.

With her documentary 13th, Ava DuVernay calls out the racist history behind America’s penal system and challenges perceptions about the War on Drugs. She has dared to reclaim history, and ended up making it as a result. Even though DuVernay’s A Wrinkle in Time didn’t excel in the box office nor did it do well amongst critics, the film itself is a game-changer.

And that is not only because it is a landmark achievement for inclusive science fiction and fantasy (SFF) films, but also in the way that it shows Black girls a young hero who looks like them. A Wrinkle in Time is an open love letter to Black girls, and addresses the uncertainties of girlhood, especially for girls of colour.

Hidden Figures, the 20th Century Fox film telling the long-forgotten story of the African-American women at NASA who played instrumental roles in some of their most iconic missions, promotes the message that “We shall overcome”.

But it’s more than just a ‘Black movie’ – it’s an intelligent movie. It forces us to revisit one of the most monumental events in American history and acknowledge the unsung heroes that made it possible. It’s not a story that many people have heard before, but it’s one we all deserve to. It is a feminist movie, one that demonstrates a triumph of progress and perseverance through the rampant sexism of the 60’s.

Hidden Figures Day 41
Hidden Figures, 2016

“The fight has changed, the stereotypes remain, and the cause will never die.”

A woman of colour doesn’t face racism and sexism separately. The sexism she faces is often racialised, and the racism she faces is often sexualised. Black Americans have endured innumerable hardships since their involuntary migration and subsequent enslavement from Africa to America. The game-changing book “Why I’m No Longer Talking to White People about Race” by British journalist Reni Eddo-Lodge details the equivalent Black British experience, which is far less talked about.

The labour of women, but especially women of colour, is undervalued and overlooked. We are glaringly absent from textbooks, and our whitewashed histories are only available during Black History Month or through elective courses.

The representation of Black women throughout history has affected the way Black people, as well as Western society, values, identifies and idealises Black women in general. There have clearly been changes in these ideologies over time, and they are heavily influenced by the way Black women are represented in media.

Black Panther is an important film for diversity across various spectrum’s. It’s a blockbuster movie that features a majority Black cast with major names attached to it, and the merchandising is aimed at Black children. Its existence in the pop culture scene and what it means for representation in media cannot be understated and yes, finally, it is a film that Black women can actually celebrate.

black panther women
Black Panther, 2018

The narrative places the women of Black Panther front and centre, making them the heroes of their own stories. From the start, the story avoids the sexist tropes we are accustomed to watching in film.

Black Panther contains powerful messages about gender roles. The Wakandan women’s sex appeal is obvious, but secondary to their personality and skill, and rarely do we see Black women who are as assertive and independent as they are in this Marvel creation. Furthermore, almost every significant female role is played by a dark-skinned actress. It’s amazing to witness.

Yet a YouGov survey recently found that most Americans still believe there are not enough film roles for women and people of colour. The survey of 1,220 adults found that 37% of respondents believed women had enough roles available, just 2% points more than people who believed black people had enough parts available.

On-screen representations of minorities, the survey found, are seen as sometimes inauthentic, though that depends on whom you asked. Nearly half of Black respondents (46%) said on-screen representation of black characters were inauthentic, about twice the rate of the respondents overall. The analysis reveals people of colour remained underrepresented, considering they comprised 40% of the U.S. population in 2016.

Just 13.9% of the year’s film leads and 12.6% of film directors were people of colour.
But what does this mean now? The portrayal of Black women has certainly changed since the age of Blaxploitation, and of course, the success of Black women should be celebrated on screens, but do a few big-budget films with a Black cast count as progress? Is it fair?

3-fences
Fences, 2016

Investing in stories that center around people of colour without dwelling on their pain or oppression is a large step towards healing, particularly in this brutal contemporary political climate. It’s important not just to show tokenised images of Black characters, but to present diverse narratives of individuals with different stories and experiences.
It can be argued that in Hollywood, in an industry where everything is about marketing and making fortunes, that money is the only motivator. Therefore, Hollywood isn’t being progressive in including more Black actors and characters, they’re being tactical.

It seems that Hollywood has yet to understand what makes money, however. The last report on diversity in UCLA’s Ralph J. Bunche Center for African American Studies shows that “films and television shows with casts attuned to America’s diversity tend to register the highest global box office figures and viewer ratings.” Yet the study still indicates that the industry could do better.

While the data notes that some progress has been made, it also highlights that Hollywood decision-makers still consider the presence of diverse talent to be the exception, rather than the rule, but sometimes things have to get worse before they get better. To reach a point where we can put marginalised voices on screens, and tell the stories of women of colour without any prescribed idea of what we should be, to find real examples of those like ourselves – this can all be attained.

A few extra nominations won’t undo years of exclusion of women and PoC, because we are as different as we are complicated. Hollywood has to actively work to give more opportunities to those previously ostracised and make sure a wider range of stories get told.

black feminism film
The Black Feminist Documentary, 2019

The importance of “Dear White People” and the struggle with self-indentity

An opinion piece on the Netflix series “Dear White People” told from a mixed race perspective.

“When the truth is suppressed, it doesn’t die; it goes underground”.

It has been quite some time since I’ve written a blog post, I find that my intentions with this site change every other month. Originally, it was just a safe space for me to talk about my life and adventures, then it became a platform for me to practice my music journalism by reviewing albums, but then somewhere along the way I lost track of all of that in an abundance of things, like my exams, internships, portfolio expanding, maintaining friendships, working etc. And as a result my self-esteem sort of plummeted, especially in a creative sense. But one thing that I like and, above all else, appreciate about this blog is that I’m free to express whatever I want, no judgement on how I deliver statements or no one to devalue my views and opinions, and nowadays I find that my work frequently intersects with issues of race, gender, sexuality, feminism, and progressive politics.

Nevertheless, everybody experiences things in a different way, it’s not always easy to get people to understand what you mean or for everyone to see eye-to -eye. We’re living in far more polarising, politically intense times where things almost go full circle to the point that we lose direction. Or that we’re all reciting the same lines to the point where every room becomes an echo chamber, and it’s getting cramped.

If I choose to one day have children, the only values I hope for them to have is to appreciate nature, to love themselves and their bodies, have gratitude and empathy towards others but most importantly, to keep an open mind towards things and people that they don’t understand. This should be just the basis, but unfortunately this isn’t a natural inclination for everybody.

As a young person I always felt that it was important that I cultivate these strengths within my own character so that I can lead by example, not words. To be open to a new era of political correctness and changing sexual politics. You can call it whatever you want, whether it be “a liberal” or a “social justice warrior”, or the current favourite insult, a “snowflake” *cringes* however, these are the values I live by. Though it hasn’t always been this way.

Growing up in a predominantly white area in the UK (no, seriously the population of minorities is 2.2% in my area and that’s all the minority races in total) I never realised how oblivious I was to a lot of things, or how oblivious others were. Every comment that was made about my appearance and identity I mostly usually brushed off, especially because I was (unfortunately fortunate) enough to be light-skinned and borderline considered “White passing”. Yet still had the features of a Black person. So all my life I’ve been, what can be considered as ‘lucky’ in a way that not being ‘black’ enough came to my advantage, but in the least rewarding way. It’s as complex as it is problematic.

And that’s where my fascination with “Dear White People” came in, I immediately recognised the protagonist, played by Logan Browning, from Bratz: The Movie in 2007. My initial thoughts were “Oh god, please don’t let another mixed race girl not acknowledge her biracial heritage” I know, to some of you this may sound ghastly. But Zendaya in Disney Channel’s Shake It Up had two Black parents, and growing up I found this quite damaging, because it made it seem like multiculturalism couldn’t and shouldn’t exist, like we’re experiments and not the real thing, as if you had to be either one or the other. A “watered down” version of the original. So watching a show that finally addresses the struggles of a biracial individual and the war with their self-identification was refreshing to say the least, as well as reflecting the real internal struggle of figuring out who you are in this world.

Gail Lukasik’s novel ‘White Like Her‘ is a prime example of the struggle with self-identifying, she explains how her mother pretended to be White throughout her entire life and by doing this, she received a lot more privileges socially and economically, because she was “passing”. The saddest part, is that it all has to even matter in the first place. It’s funny how race is apparent on sight, isn’t it?

Yet racism hasn’t always been black and white. White supremacists, for example, used to hate Irish and Italians at the turn of the century. They weren’t considered white. But once people realised that there were a huge amount of them, they needed to include them for power’s sake and they did. Race is almost a concept, but in which involves real and damaging effects.

I kind of understand why people are interested in people like myself who are racially ambiguous. Race, however flawed the concept, is used as a tool for understanding people. Personally, I’m curious about other people’s racial backgrounds too and as human beings we are always searching for ways to identify, and factors like skin tone serve as physical reminders of our ancestry and racial heritage.

BUUUUUT, there are appropriate ways to talk to someone about their background and then there are ways to sound like, for lack of better words, an ignorant dickhead. And a lot of what I went through before was never worth compromising myself and who I am just to have a couple of friends, I’d go through the countless eye rolls and the tone deaf “You’re not even Black so you have no right to be offended!” statements just to get people to finally understand me on some level.

Since recently visiting an old friend from school that I had contrasting views with, the daunting realisation that I’m forever going to have to explain and justify my existence hit me like a bus. It was a heart-breaking epitome, racism is a lot more than “being mean” to someone because of their race. They’re a whole load of stages in White supremacy before being considered an extremist and with the case of my close friend from school, it was past indifference and minimisation, you know, “We all belong to the human race!” and the use of phrases like “post-racial society” and the casual White saviour complex followed by the denial of White privilege, plus never forgetting the constant false equivocation. Classic.

Yet the movie/television show “Dear White People” was enough in its title because it caused a bellicose, erupting reaction. Even Antoinette Robertson who played ‘white whisperer’ Coco Conners stated in an interview with Harper’s Bazaar that the name and podcasts ‘alienated’ White people. The like/dislike ratio on the YouTube official trailer was almost equal and the comments were all too familiar “What if there was a show called ‘Dear Black People??? There would be a war!”

Sigh. In explanation of that; first of all, the intent with the show was to generally raise more awareness with racial sensitivity i.e not doing black face and other blatantly racist hate crimes. Whereas a show directed towards minorities is always done with malicious intentions and is poorly informed i.e. everything Nicole Arbour has posted, ever.

Back to the show; each episode in the second season, save for the last, focuses on the experiences of one character, nose-diving viewers into the realities and trepidation’s of what it means to be black, or not black, or not black enough. Although the creator recognises that the show quantifies this problem through blackness, he thinks it’s a systemic result of the human condition.

In an ideal world, Dear White People would be better received. It encourages people to call out ignorance when they see it while educating individuals without chastising them, and holding both sides accountable. It deserves to have its watercooler moment because it encourages the discussions and bring issues to the surface that we really need to be having during these increasingly divisive times.

As journalist Wesley Morris of The New York Times pointed out in a podcast, change is happening in the Western world; “It’s just happening in dog years”. 

Drama Films about PoC by Women of Colour that everyone should watch

A small list of some of the most talented women of colour directors within the film industry telling important stories.

Today is March 8th so we celebrate the political, cultural, economic and social achievement of women all around the world! Yay! 👭👩‍❤️‍👩👩‍❤️‍💋‍👩

So to mark Internationals Women’s Day, especially now during the post-Oscars period where there has been a buzz surrounding women and marginalised groups with Greta Gerwig being considered the best director in that category, Daniela Vega of ‘A Fantastic Woman’ became the first openly trans woman with a lead role in history to win an Academy Award and Get Out, which satirises the hidden racism of ‘good white liberals’ also won multiple awards making Jordan Peele the first Black director to win best original screenplay- the thirst for films made for and by PoC are at an all time high.

(Hold the applause guys, Historic achievements are a slippery thing: A ceiling is shattered, but the noise reminds us that the ceiling is there in the first place)

It’s time to recognise the extraordinary work of women behind Hollywood’s cameras; and, though this list is only a tiny portion of those contributions, these women’s creative achievements are certainly worth the celebration so I thought to create a list of films I personally find inspiring and empowering about the journeys of PoC made by WoC.

 

Real Women Have Curves by Patricia Cardoso (2002)

Real Women Have Curves is a charming and warm-hearted look at a Mexican-American teenage girl coming of age in a boiling cauldron of cultural expectations, class constrictions, family duty, and her own personal aspirations that defies popular notions about immigrant families. Brown girls, this is for you.

 

Watermelon Woman by Cheryl Dunye (1996)

“I’m working on being a filmmaker, the problem is I don’t know what I wanna make a film on, I know it has to be about Black women because our stories have never been told”. Cheryl Dunye tells us on the trailer as she’s candidly speaking into a camcorder about how queer women of colour should be represented in movies. And she does just that, writing and directing the first feature-length film to focus on African-American lesbians 20 years ago. So if you fancy a very 90s film, shot in a very fun style by a black lesbian specifically about black lesbians (even more specifically black lesbians in film) then add this on to your list.

 

Monsoon Wedding by Mira Nair (2001)

Following her sexy yet controversial Kama Sutra: A Tale of Love, Nair releases her strongest film yet, shattering stereotypes while being colourful, loud, feel-good and fun as hell. Sharing traits from Bollywood yet not being Bollywood at all, it’s a refreshing look at Indian life and is in a league of its own. Even better, it addresses globally relatable themes and concerns including the bonds of family and, most importantly, love.

 

A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night by Ana Lily Amirpour (2014)

Just when you thought there was no gas left in the tank of revisionist vampire cinema, along comes this feminist semi-Iranian masterpiece. Combing horror, westerns and film noir, Ana Lily Amirpour’s debut feature, A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night, is a unique take on feminism, sex and obviously, vampires.

 

Belle by Amma Asante (2013)– Discussion about race, especially when you’re bi-racial is not something that is Black or White- literally. The mention of biracial people in history is seriously lacking and left me asking a lot of questions growing up about what certain time periods were like for those that were mixed race for years with no real feeling of belonging. Luckily, Belle is a very good historical piece tackling slavery, race and the class system in Enlightenment Era Britain. It’s also based on a true story, some closure for y’all.

 

Pariah by Dee Rees (2011)-

A personal favourite of mine; this movie tells an involving story that’s both urgently progressive and skilfully relatable. Although it adheres to the formula that comes with its genre, “Pariah” is a compelling and necessary study of a black, gay woman having to fight against prejudice to find happiness and acceptance. Dee Rees beautifully tells the story through pictures that is sometimes funny, sometimes heartbreaking and always tender.

 

Women Without Men by Shirin Neshat (2010)

This Farsi-language novel adaption gives a glimpse at Iranian women’s history and the richly cosmopolitan, intellectual culture that you never see on screen, it tells a story about a bunch of women with different background stories in Tehran during the 50’s who manage to a escape a life dominated by men throughout Mohammad Mosaddegh nationalist government’s power. One woman leaving an arranged marriage, a prostitute whose driven frustrated by her work, another leaves her home to join the street politics she hears outside, and eventually joining the Communist Party and an upper-class woman, married to a general, leaves her husband to live in a house in a fruit orchard she has bought. Go figure.

 

Thank you to all the women (trans women, femme identifying, queer, etc) who continue to work every single day – even by just getting up. Some days it’s hard, its always been hard – these past couple of years especially. You and your feelings are valid and real. But here’s a thank you to those who have opened up about their lives, who’ve been vulnerable and brutal and honest. This world couldn’t go on without you so keep telling your stories because they’re viral and there are so many of us who need to hear them and will miss them immensely if they’re not told. I know I will.

Jessie Maple