Taking Back Control of Black Roles in Hollywood

Written By: Aaron Barron

Just the other week I was scrolling on my Facebook feed and saw the trailer for Hidden Figures, a movie about African-American mathematician Katherine Johnson, Dorothy Vaughan and Mary Jackson being instrumental in the launch of John Glenn to outer space. To finish the post, my friend said, “I’m glad this movie is coming out, because I’m tired of seeing slave movies”. I was really thrown off by that comment, so like most Stanford students do, I wrote about it:

There is a common sentiment in Hollywood that black roles are often overlooked on several levels. To explain this, I present this conundrum to you:

1)   Black People: Hey, there a disproportionate amount of cisgender, white male actors nominated for and given Academy Awards.

2)   Them: Well odds are they just weren’t that many black people in movies this year. You can’t help if the best movies just so happen to star white people.

3)   Black People: Well minority actors can’t assimilate into these roles due to biased hiring directors in Hollywood. Minorities aren’t given the chance to be in these writing sessions making authentic characters.

4)   Them: Biased? They just choose the most talented. Besides, there are tons of black films out there-look at Scary Movie!

5)   Black People: explodes from frustration (s/o Scary Movie though.)

I have this back-and-forth often and I only become more infuriated each time. But to be completely clear, it’s not that black films (films that portray events that relate to African American culture or star a predominately black cast) aren’t getting nominated.

To provide context, in the last several years Selma, 12 Years a Slave, Django Unchained, The Help, and The Blind Side were the black films to be nominated for Best Picture in the Academy Awards. What ties all these films together is their focus on the oppression of the black population. So when people say, “I’m tired of seeing movies with black people enslaved/oppressed,” it is a very valid claim, as the most highly decorated awards ceremony seems to have a preference on what they deem is worthy-not to mention those films receive the most funding to ensure an accurate portrayal. The issue with this claim, however, is that to silence the movies that speak on our history, we push away the narrative that needs to be seen by the youth to inspire and warn against repeating an ugly past.

No one is ecstatic about seeing Jamie Foxx being whipped on an IMAX screen. It’s not only surreal and emotionally draining, but there comes a sense of numbness with seeing black oppression on a screen for two and a half hours. Yet these disgusting truths are apart of our history, and the next generation is genuinely unaware with that-especially with new policies to whitewash the actual history books. Future generations know about Dr. Martin Luther King and Malcolm X but aren’t being taught about The War on Drugs, Gentrification and most anything post-King’s death in 1968. We must be careful not to push away the stories about Solomon Northup & Michael Oher that are constantly being voided in schools. It’s up to these films to tell our own stories.

Yes, we should begin to round out and diversify black roles and have more minority roles in Hollywood-that’s very important. But these stories that we have are still amazingly directed, acted, and have broken box office records because of what we decided will matter. Let’s continue to push that in our favor while we diversify our storytelling.

There can exist a movie that has oppression but also proves to be inspirational at the same time. The movie Hidden Figures will center on a group of brave, intelligent African American women who were part of the first U.S. spaceship launches. It’s a great story that I have actually never known about, and I’m pumped to see it in theaters. But if this movie has any sort of historical accuracy, we know there will be discrimination in this movie. Yet we must see this story as significant because of the larger message it’ll send to black girls across the country. Highlighting prominent, successful black women in the STEM field. Stories like these help put into perspective our narrative, and through our voice and support we can continue to push for these types of films. The key word here is “support” (the antonym of bootleg).

If we say we want to show up for our own, we have to start by controlling our own narrative. It sucks when studios go out on a limb to create a show like The Nightly Show with Larry Wilmore only to see it cancelled, but that’s when we need to be very vocal when it comes to what we want out of our entertainment. When Hollywood decides to use white actors for movies that should obviously star minorities (e.g. Gods of Egypt, The Great Wall), it’s on us to speak out on those atrocities. The black dollar should not be taken lightly: every subscription, retweet, and paypal order shows our voice and what we think matters.

We’ve been fighting for our basic human rights for centuries, and through the years we have had resilient, purposeful leaders moving our culture forward. These kings and queens deserve to have their stories recognized and we need to promote those stories and resist settling another whitewashed Hollywood film. Let’s continue to give our kid black heroes to dream about at night.