Violence against Black people is distressingly common in America, and the media bears some responsibility.
A casual glance at Black-led movies reveal title after title of Black people suffering: from slavery, from discrimination, from gang violence. These movies reflect real-world struggles faced by Black people, but there is more to Blackness than screaming, crying, and dying. Are these the only stories the Black experience has to offer the world of film?
As Maryam Muhammad wrote for Medium, “Where are the movies about happy Black people?”
Happy Black stories do actually exist, though it’s understandable why they’re not widely known. Popular Black films like “Queen and Slim,” a 2019 love story, have historically been ignored in mainstream award shows, and investors rarely sink the same amount of money into Black films as white films. What follows is a self-fulfilling prophecy: investors project that only Black audiences will be interested in happier Black movies, so they only market to Black audiences, depriving the movie of the opportunity for mainstream success. When stories about Black joy are pushed to the sidelines, producers may think that the only way they can make big bucks off of Black movies is to make them about trauma.
The other unsavory truth about Black trauma movies is that they’re a great way to win an Academy Award. Ever since “12 Years a Slave” won Best Picture in 2013, every new movie about slavery or racism gets called “Oscar bait,” like “Judas and the Black Messiah,” “BlacKkKlansmen,” or “The Help.” Directors and actors gravitate towards Black trauma movies because they’ve got a great return-on-investment — “Django Unchained,” for example, grossed over $400 million, compared to the similarly popular “Madea” movies, which usually make around $50 million.
Even more disturbing is that many of these movies are directed, produced, watched, and then reviewed and awarded by white people, as if to pat themselves on the back for addressing this atrocity time and time again.
From police brutality videos to racism biopics, many Black people categorically refuse to consume Black trauma, including myself, for mental health reasons. This means an entire genre of very profitable film about Black people exists where our only participation is being brutalized on camera.
Don’t get me wrong: these stories are important, and deserve to be told. But instead of the History Channel investing in an even more brutal remake of the 1977 slavery miniseries “Roots,” perhaps we should sink that $50 million budget into movies with a more positive impact.
The response to Marvel’s “Black Panther” showed that it isn’t the horrors of Black history that can bring the community together, but rather a fantastically optimistic vision of the Black future. The New York Times reported that “The trailer teaser — not even the full trailer — racked up 89 million views in 24 hours,” and that “the movie’s first 24 hours of advance ticket sales exceeded those of any other movie from the Marvel Cinematic Universe [at the time].”
Currently, “Black Panther” is the 15th highest-grossing movie of all time, and the only Marvel film to win an Oscar — three times over. Its cultural impact has been huge; the entire African diaspora from America, Europe, the Caribbean, and Africa was engaged. People were wearing African prints, going to multiple showings, and throwing up the “Wakanda Forever” salute at every opportunity. This energy returned for the sequel “Wakanda Forever,” which is currently the most-watched Marvel debut on Disney+.
Of course, “Black Panther” and its sequel aren’t ignorant of the problems plaguing the international Black community. The movies include dialogue about rampant Western resource extraction in Africa and the loss of identity from displaced members of the African diaspora, but they do so in a way that poses solutions to those problems, rather than just dwelling on the trauma and pain that lies in the past.
Between “Black Panther,” “Into the Spiderverse,” “Moonlight,” and Jordan Peele’s “Nope,” we’re finally in an era where Black stories that aren’t about our historical traumas are receiving mainstream attention and even awards. More importantly, the impact of these films is positive; sparking inspiration and conversation, not just rehashing ancestral wrongdoings.
As Roxane Gay wrote in Vulture, “I am worn out by broken Black bodies and the broken Black spirit somehow persevering in the face of overwhelming and impossible circumstance.”
Blackness can be hopeful and inspiring, too.