From Butlers to Superheroes: Is the Black Hollywood Renaissance real?
Words by Ziyanda Ntloko
“Film is a mirror. We all want to see ourselves.” – Ava Duvarnay
It was once an accepted truth that Hollywood and diversity don’t mix. In as much as music is a constantly evolving and diverse medium, television and film have long had an elitist and racial barrier. Hollywood is a multi-billion dollar industry with record breaking box office totals that seem to climb every year and soaring profits from TV ad revenue. But it’s more than just entertainment and sales. Media is powerful. The images we see reflected back to us give people a sense of who they are, who they hope to be and where they fit in the world. With that comes the tools to influence the audience and consumer. That kind of power is not wielded lightly and for this reason, the film industry has always been insular. It is controlled by white men who create TV shows and movies that are representative of themselves, not willing to invest in black shows, black directors, black writers or black roles.
But the last decade has seen a distinct and noticeable shift in representation in film and a growing prevalence of black film-makers and writers for major productions. We now live in a post-Black Panther world. The Marvel superhero movie is now the third highest-grossing film of all time at the US Box Office, beating a record set by Titanic. To witness a movie with a largely black cast and black director garner critical and commercial acclaim on a global scale is no small feat. The success of Black Panther is the pinnacle of a larger movement in diversity that has seen the emergence of black talent with a rabid and engaging audience who have been ignored and under-represented for too long. With recent achievements in the presence of black voices in TV and film, Hollywood is gearing towards a new status quo.
One of the first notable milestones in the rise of black creatives in television happened in 2005. A show called Grey’s Anatomy debuted on a major US network. The ensemble cast was incredibly diverse with several black characters in main roles and most notably, the creator and head writer of this show was a black woman – Shonda Rhimes. Grey’s Anatomy went on to become a smash hit anchoring the coveted and marketable prime time slot for the network and is currently in its 14th season of airing.
The success of Grey’s opened the doors for Rhimes to create even more, producing a spin-off series, Private Practice and later creating Scandal and How to Get Away With Murder. These two shows have become a lightening bolt for black female representation with lead roles played brilliantly by Kerry Washington and Viola Davis and positioning black women in powerful, insubordinate positions unheard of at the time. Out of the 9 shows Rhimes has now created, all were made under the umbrella of her production company Shondaland. She holds formidable creative control over her work and that will continue with her signing a multi-year development deal with Netflix to produce even more complex and diverse characters and stories.
When it comes to the history of black roles in film and television, there has always been a quintessential black character. For the most part, black people have been shown as interacting with white characters in a role of servitude and dependence. Black characters have been seen as accessories that are easily disposable to the story. Whether it is the butler, the maid, the driver or the slave – these roles are always in relation to white characters and the black character cannot be seen separately from them. Even more prevalent roles are that of the drug dealer, the pimp, the criminal or the gang member. These kind of roles routinely see black people as homogeneous and lacking any nuance or depth – mostly because they’re not written by us.
The knock-on affect of having a show like Grey’s Anatomy with black characters that challenge this perception was a watershed moment leading to an abundance of new shows created by black writers that give a voice to a multitude of black experiences. One of these shows is HBO’s Insecure, created by Issa Rae. Issa’s journey into becoming a television writer, actress, director and producer started on YouTube with a web series called Awkward Black Girl – a show about a regular 20-something girl navigating her mundane yet comedic life. This may not sound ground-breaking with the existence of Sex and The City and another HBO show called Girls, but having a black character that is not serving any of the stereotypical black roles of the servant or the criminal is hugely important.
Awkward Black Girl went on to evolve into Insecure and as of 2017 was ranked among the top 10 television programs of the year by the American Film Institute and Issa has also earned 2 Golden Globe nominations for Best Actress in a Television Series Musical or Comedy. When describing the purpose of Insecure Issa states that it is a show that displays “the complexities of blackness” and how people of colour are also relatable.
Atlanta, created by Donald Glover is in the same vein. Atlanta is a city with a large black population and is also a hub for hip-hop and a Mecca for trap music. Glover created a show about the experiences of an up and coming rapper who navigates real life and street life with his cousin Earn as his manager and best friend Darius. Atlanta has received critical acclaim for its portrayal of a myriad of characters in a comedic but also socially conscious way. The importance of Insecure and Atlanta is how both successfully show black characters as relatable and engaging so that black people see themselves in these roles and on a larger scale, non-black people can empathize and relate to us as not just stereotypes.
To mirror the developments of diversity in TV, the film industry has taken even greater strides. Moonlight, depicting the life of a black boy growing up in a Miami project and the struggles he faces with his sexuality, went on to become the first black movie to win Best Picture at The 2017 Academy Awards. Right up until the moment the envelope was disastrously misread on-stage, a film like Moonlight had the faintest shot of being nominated let alone winning the most coveted prize in film.
Writer-director Barry Jenkins had a only a budget of $1.5 million to bring this movie to life and it received monumental acclaim with Mahershala Ali also winning an Oscar in Best Supporting Actor in his role. Moonlight also helped dismantle the long-standing Hollywood myth that Black movies are not profitable for international audiences with it netting a multi-million dollar profit worldwide. This together with the previous success of 2015’s Straight Outta Compton which made upwards of $200 million globally, was a wake up call to the Hollywood elite.
2017 was a watershed year for black movies with Hidden Figures, a depiction of three black women who were at the forefront of NASA’s early space program and Get Out an original social-thriller by writer-director Jordan Peele. Both movies enjoyed huge box office returns both within the US and internationally with Get Out also receiving a nomination for Best Film and Best director for Peele at the 2018 Oscars.
All this leads us to Black Panther as the cultural peak for black representation. Ryan Coogler being hand-picked by Marvel to direct a legendary comic book character was monumental. It would be nice to think that Marvel really understood the power of a black superhero movie being told through the eyes of a black director and gifting this to Coogler has made the story so much more authentic and real. What Black Panther has achieved should forever change how Hollywood invest in stories and talent. People are watching black movies. The audience is insatiable for stories that are not linear and don’t cater solely to white audiences.
Black Hollywood is now at the forefront of film and is wielding a new found influence. The question of whether this is sustainable is a two way street. Writers’ rooms need to continue to increase diversity, studios need to invest in black stories and black directors should get the kind of opportunities their white counterparts routinely receive. It is also our responsibility as the audience to watch black TV and black films so that eventually profitability from these productions is no longer seen as an anomaly but a basic fact.
If the current climb in representation continues then we should eventually transcend the historical Hollywood barrier that shuts out any diversion of class, race or gender. The Black Hollywood of the future is one with thriving numbers of film-makers, production companies, casting agencies and distributors where we have the means to not only make but celebrate our own stories whether they’re depictions of everyday life or the supernatural.