Updated: Sep 1, 2022
by Camille Ofulue
Today, film is the greatest tool for altering social consciousness and sparking conversations. It is the new medium for conveying the stories of the Black Americans of today and yesterday. The establishment of Black cinema, a genre separate from their portrayal in white media like minstrel shows, created a new opportunity for Black stories to be shown to the masses. However, as this genre grows, it has become more and more inundated with white voices, causing a rift. This has created the need to differentiate between Black films, films produced by and for black people with black voices in the forefront, and Black-themed films, the retelling of Black stories by white led production and directing teams.
When the prominent voice of a project meant to portray Black stories is white, the story can become altered. Great films like The Color Purple, based on the novel written by a Black woman, are directed by white men. Many of the scenes of violence against the Black women in the book, The Color Purple, were not included in the film adaptation. This redacting of Black suffering by a white director is just one instance of how the lack of Black voices in the retelling of Black stories reshapes the narrative.
Not only may whole parts of Black stories be left out of films, but Black-themed movies also tend to refocus the narrative to include a white savior. Black-themed films like Hidden Figures, another film adapted from a book written by a Black woman, include many instances of white people, specifically white men, being the savior or solution to the problems plaguing the Black protagonists. Although the film is meant to highlight the experiences of Black Americans, the inclusion of the white savior arcs dilutes the strength of these stories. In her essay, Xiomara Santamarina warns audiences to take note of “white mediated stories” when reading slave narratives and that the same caution should be taken when watching Black-themed films.
The solution to the improper retelling of Black stories is not as simple as one may think. Despite the increased prominence of Black directed films in the last few decades, they do not get the recognition they deserve. This is mainly because production firms and film academies are still predominantly white male-dominated. Case and point, Spike Lee, responsible for directing and producing over 40 Black films encapsulating controversial issues in the Black community, only has received one Oscar despite his extensive filmography. Black-directed Get Out, a pivotal movie in the Black Horror subgenre, was initially classified by the Golden Globes as a comedy. This disconnect occurs because of the lack of white voices in creating these films. Without that quintessential white voucher, Black films are not taken seriously and are quite literally deemed laughable. Thus, increasing the number of Black directors in the telling of Black stories is not the all-encompassing solution.
While film is the contemporary method of depicting Black stories, it still is as problematic as the methods of yesteryear. Like the slave narratives, white input and edits are almost essential for the film depictions of Black stories to receive acclaim and reach a wider audience. Often, this manifests itself in the prominence of white directors in Black Cinema. They now have the ability to morph the stories from the originally intended Black film into a Black-themed film, often including white voices in narratives intended to be solely Black. However, the solution to this is not just more Black directors. Structural change in film academies and production companies must occur as well. Black directors, voices, and stories must be supported by the academies and companies despite excluding white input in the representation of Black stories. Only then can Black films overtake Black-themed films, allowing Black Cinema to continue expanding and thriving.