Why must films feature the humiliation and pain of black bodies to be considered worthy of distinction?
Rapper Snoop Dogg is making headlines, but this time it's for a surprising reason. Generally, Snoop isn't one to comment on social issues; however the remake of Alex Haley's Roots really upset him.
On Memorial Day, A&E premiered the scripted miniseries, and Snoop Dogg posted an expletive-filled rant to his social media accounts about not only Roots but also other slavery-themed entertainment including 12 Years a Slave and Underground. He went so far as to urge his fans to boycott Roots and expressed his desire to see more inspiring programming about the achievements of African Americans.
Although I'm critical of many of the images and lyrics that Snoop Dogg presents, I do agree with him about the recent onslaught of slavery-inspired movies. Enough is enough.
I understand that some people feel as if movies about slavery are needed in order to provide a historical perspective about one of the founding institutions of this country. This is, by far, the most popular rebuttal of those who support these types of films. However, if as a society we've decided to leave the responsibility to educate us and our children about America's history up to Hollywood, we have bigger problems than Snoop Dogg's rant.
It was 12 Years a Slave that ended my support of these historical films. Although the movie received widespread critical acclaim, I found it both traumatizing and disgusting. In fact, I almost walked out of the movie theater after the brutal rape of Patsy (played by the gorgeous Lupita Nyong'o). I realized that I wasn't actually learning anything new about slavery in America or my ancestry by watching 12 Years a Slave.
I've done my genealogy and family tree. I've seen the bills of sale and the census documents that declared my ancestors property. However, I also know the story of my great-great-great-grandfather who ran away from his plantation to fight for the Union during the Civil War. I also know the story about his son, who took part in the Back-to-Africa movement and died from yellow fever after reaching West Africa; and the story about my great-grandfather who left Tulsa, Oklahoma, after Black Wall Street was bombed and moved to California where he purchased hundreds of acres of land and grew prize-winning cotton.
Unfortunately, I haven't seen or been made aware of one movie about the Back-to-Africa movement, Black Wall Street, or even African-American farmers. And that's what is so frustrating. By no stretch of the imagination are my family's stories unique. They are merely a small piece of the larger legacy of African Americans in the United States. However, the richness of the history is being lost to Hollywood's formulaic and played-out narratives that seek to profit from the pain and suffering of black people.
After Twelve Years a Slave, I went almost three years without watching anything remotely related to slavery. Then Underground premiered on WGN, and I kept hearing about how "wonderful" the show was. Well, I broke down and tuned in one night. And I'll admit that it was entertaining. The characters were captivating. The lead character, Rosalee, played by actress Jurnee Smollet-Bell is cute as a button, and her love interest, Noah, played by Aldis Hodge, is tall, dark and handsome. It's a soap opera on a plantation.
And then it dawned on me (or rather my fiancé brought it to my attention since I broke our 12 Years a Slave pact) that there is something so very problematic about the fact that while we have our very first African-American President in the White House, black actors are still faced with the age-old problem of either not working or playing slaves.
See, I live in Hollywood. I know black screenwriters. And I know they aren't all sitting around sipping $6 lattes, typing away about the good old days on the plantation. So I don't want to hear the excuse that there's no other material available, because there is.
So my question is why? Why must films feature the humiliation and pain of black bodies to be considered worthy of distinction? Cue Oscar-nominated Django Unchained, Oscar-winning 12 Years a Slave, and most recently, The Birth of a Nation about Nat Turner's slave rebellion, which made history at Sundance selling for a record $17.5 million to Fox Searchlight.
I'm not arguing that these aren't worthwhile stories that need to be told, because they are. It's just that as an African-American, I'm tired of one-dimensional narratives of my history. Black history isn't just whips, chains or rapes in the cotton fields.
The purpose of film is to find the commonality in our humanity. People of color also fall in love (without laugh tracks), have awkward teenage years, grieve the loss of parents, and go to space. It's time for Hollywood executives, film critics, and audiences to open their perspective to these everyday stories of black Americans.