Earlier this week, while on record with the entertainment blog The Wrap, Hollywood producer and power-player Harvey Weinstein blithely declared, “It’s a great moment [for black films]… Hopefully it signals, with President Obama, a renaissance. He’s erasing racial lines. It is the Obama effect. It’s a better country. What a great thing.”
Let’s get one thing straight: this fall’s slate of mainstream films starring black actors and directed by black filmmakers does not signal a renaissance of African-American film. A renaissance symbolizes newness, rebirth, revival — a moment of artistic vigor and intellectual frenzy amongst a cultural coterie — not lucky timing. More importantly, the oppression narratives propelling this year’s 12 Years a Slave and The Butler are already well-worn tropes about the African-American experience. Yes, by all accounts these films are beautifully acted, compelling, and worthy of praise, but declaring on the basis of these films that black films are having “a moment” isn’t just simplistic; it’s disappointing and willfully narrow-minded.
Between January and August of 2011, The Weinstein Company began production on three films: 12 Years a Slave, Django Unchained, and The Butler. These films strike different tones and address different themes but exist in the same contextual setting of oppression and servitude. In the context of Weinstein’s rather bizarre “Obama effect” theory, this makes perfect sense. These three black films are firmly rooted in the past, where racism and its power structures are clearly identified as morally reprehensible and easy to keep at a distance. It’s easy to prattle on about racial lines being erased when you choose to selectively focus on archaic systems that have also been visibly swept away.
By focusing on historical narratives, Hollywood actually hinders, rather than advances, its ability to present new black narratives. Plainly stated, revisiting the historical black experience strips Hollywood of the need to learn about the contemporary black experience. A choice has been made, and that choice has been to continue to further mine the servitude and/or oppression narrative so long as it’s imbued with a healthy dose of righteous indignation and the moral upper hand bestowed upon us by the passage of time.
It’s also striking that Weinstein portrays himself and the movie industry as the passive benefactors of an “Obama effect.” “Hopefully it signals, with President Obama, a renaissance,” he says, as though the film industry has just been waiting to rain down black films on the American public and simply needed the right beacon of inspiration.
It’s important at this point to reiterate that the individual films themselves are not problematic, so much as the quiet system of logic that ultimately gives primacy to this narrative representation over others. The whole cockamamie theory is a cop-out, and even Weinstein knows it. Within the very same piece he goes on to say, “We didn’t do it because of some cultural shift,” [well, there goes that Obama effect] “we did it because these kinds of stories — it’s the right time.” This statement is noticeably counter to his earlier one and, most likely, a lot more honest. These kinds of stories are exactly the right stories to tell when the only metric for racial progress and equality is, “Hey, at least we’re better than those guys.”
But maybe I’m being too critical. Maybe this is all simply a transitional phase towards seeing more black actors and directors on screen. Maybe 12 Years will become the giant, black-helmed box office success that leads Hollywood to say, “Wow, guys. People totally dig black people on screen!” Suddenly, producers will take black representation to the next level and flock to create films with black people doing normal, non-struggle-y, contemporary, everyday things, like falling in love without anyone dying or being imprisoned! Can’t you just see it? Or, maybe, we just end up with a Django sequel. You know how Hollywood loves retelling good stories that they’ve already told.