“CINEMA IS a matter of what’s in the frame and what’s out.” With this, Martin Scorsese, one of the greatest living U.S. directors, gives us a simple window to understand the power of cinema. What is in the frame is a choice by the filmmaker, and what is not highlighted is also a choice.
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People of color, literally and metaphorically, have struggled to be included in the frame and fought to move from the background to the foreground of the cinematic imagination.
The U.S. cinema, historically, has been the vanguard of stereotypes and the enforcer of our racialized imagination. Our view of women, people of color, and ethnicities define and are expanded by the power of cinema.
D.W. Griffith’s 1915 silent film The Birth of a Nation was a revisionist history of the Civil War and Reconstruction that defined the Ku Klux Klan as the hero of the story and used white actors in blackface to frame black people as a threat to white society. This film, while not seen by the majority of filmgoers, set into motion the racial constructs we now view as normative. Black men, for example, have often been viewed in cinematic history as ethically dubious, highly sexualized, violent, or childlike comic characters.
These stereotypes created by the filmmaker’s imagination became, in the minds of many in the U.S., a historical fact. Cinema helped reinforce myths and arbitrary prejudices not based on cultural differences but created to protect economic interests of white Southerners who feared black labor.
When a film seeks to break this colonized cinematic imagination, the filmmaker and the audience take a risk. The financial risk is the rejection of the work by the “mainstream audience” and the rejection by critics for not being “real and authentic.” I mention being “real and authentic” because black films carry the unfair double weight of proving they are financially viable and “authentic” depictions of black life. One writer calls this the “documentary impulse of black criticism.” It should be noted that Woody Allen, Ron Howard, Barry Levinson, or Martin Scorsese have never been told to stop making films because of a box office flop. Filmmakers of color and women are routinely categorized as too risky if one film fails to reach profitability. I should also add that Woody Allen has only created one mainstream hit in his amazing career, but he is consistently financed as an art house director.
Black film is not only unfairly scrutinized during the preproduction phase, but is asked, “Is this film real and authentic to black life?” When Spike Lee produced his cinematic masterpiece Do the Right Thing, critics, many white and middle class, claimed the film did not have enough “drug use” to accurately portray black life. Several prominent critics claimed “the riot scene” in the film would cause ethically dubious, over-sexualized black men to run rampant in the streets of America.
Cinematic myths have damaged our imagination and hurt our ability to view people of color with complexity. With all this cinematic history in tow, the release in 2013 of 12 Years A Slave, Lee Daniels’ The Butler, Fruitvale Station, and Mandela: Long Walk to Freedom is all the more fascinating. The black cinematic renaissance we are witnessing is a testament to the changing face of the country. For years blacks and Latinos have watched mostly men of European descent define the world through image and sound on the big screen. The changing demographics of the U.S. are giving birth to a new audience, not threatened by characters of color and hungry for diverse stories.
I am not suggesting Hollywood is trying to correct her past wrongs. But this untapped market colliding with talented auteurs has created space for films with a cultural nuance about race and families long absent from theaters.
For instance, The Butler shines a light on an often overlooked aspect of U.S. history, the dignified working class, who sacrificed to make life better for the next generation. The Butler, despite all the famous historical characters it includes, is in the end a story of a father and a son attempting to find meaning and space in the world.
Fruitvale Station, directed by Ryan Coogler, a film that on the surface is about a brazen act of injustice, is a story of a young man, flawed but very human, who has dreams and desires that are cut short by the virus of racism affecting our nation.
12 Years a Slave, directed by Steve McQueen, dares to show a black man loving his wife and children against the backdrop of the nation’s greatest sin, chattel slavery. McQueen takes D.W. Griffith’s racial archetypes and obliterates and reimagines them, showing slaves as complex people caught in a system of evil constructed by the immorality of markets, betrothed to the myth of biological white supremacy.
All of these films share a vision of America that has been hidden from view by the distorting veil of race that cinema has supported and perpetuated. Each of these films forces the viewer to expand his or her visual vocabulary and dare to see a world beyond traditional roles and stereotypes.
Hollywood is in the business of myth-making and legend creation. It is through myth and stories we find our humanity and dare to dream of a better world. The films of Frank Capra, such as It’s a Wonderful Life and Mr. Smith Goes to Washington, developed the myth of the small town hero endowed with faith and a good heart.
The Rocky saga created the myth of the white working-class underdog who, if faithful, could defeat an arrogant, physically endowed (and black) champion. Star Wars created a spiritual quest myth borrowing from the Eastern and Western religious traditions. (It should be noted that very few people of color are represented in this future world.)
I, for one, am glad new myths and legends are being born and the national imagination is being decolonized by directors who dare to dream of a world beyond European roots.
Otis Moss III is senior pastor of Trinity United Church of Christ in Chicago.