Blank Panther to Beale Street: Representation in American Film
By Kaitlin Joshua
The smells of hot popcorn, tempura from the sushi place across the street, and cold air drifting inside from the ever-opening door pooled together into that one inescapable scent: the movies. More and more faces drifted in, noses burnt with bitter winds, hands stuffed into pockets, and cheeks red, aglow with the warmth of anticipation. Many were varying shades of black and brown, a testament to the film advertised on the outdoor brick walls of the Belcourt. “IF BEALE STREET COULD TALK. DIR. BY BARRY JENKINS” was set in beaming letters against a dreamy background.
For many moviegoers, film is already an escape. According to a poll conducted by Reuters, 51 percent of Americans consider going to the movies “an escape from the daily grind.” Each year, Americans spend billions at the box office, reaching a new high of 11.89 billion dollars in 2018. However, regardless of how much beautiful people doing beautiful things in beautiful places might entrance us, Black Americans have had minimal representation on the big screen.
Black film has had a rocky, racist history in America, heightened by an unwillingness to allow - or trust - Black people with their own narratives. In 1915, director D.W. Griffith released his film “The Birth of a Nation,” a blackface-laden ode to racist stereotypes that then-president Woodrow Wilson’s former classmate screened at the White House. It was an inauspicious beginning to “Black” film, and it was followed by similar “storytelling” attempts. Hattie McDaniel famously became the first Black Oscar winner for her performance as “Mammy” in Gone With the Wind. She was not permitted to attend the ceremony.
Thankfully, box offices have grown. My own Black film class was a testament to the reach of Black film, from Otto Preminger’s Carmen Jones to Spike Lee’s Do The Right Thing to John Singleton’s Boyz N The Hood. Each syllabus addition sparkled not because it showed every Black person, but because each honed in on a particular aspect of a particular Black storyteller’s experience, lived or told. As each film represented, there was no broad brush with which to paint Black film as a whole: our movies are as much as a diaspora as we are.
However, Black actors and actresses still found themselves largely iced out of top Oscars caterogies. In 2016, editor April Reign started the #OscarsSoWhite hashtag in response to underwhelming show of representation in the 2016 Oscar nominations: none of the 20 actors nominated for the lead and supporting actor awards was of color. In protest, Spike Lee, Will Smith, and Jada Pinkett Smith boycotted the event.
In 2017 the Oscars responded in kind. Black films made up 33 percent of Best Picture nominations, including Fences, Hidden Figures, and Moonlight. The 2018 Oscars followed up with several nominations for Jordan Peele’s stunning debut film Get Out. Finally, Black films seemed to be having the moment that avid moviegoers had always known it deserved. Now, Twitter seems to light up with excitement for a new film featuring Black faces every month.
And 2018 was a moment. Ryan Coogler’s star-studded Black Panther took the stage, breaking several box office records and toppling Deadpool as the largest February opening ever. In December, Marvel’s animated follow-up to its Spider-man series, the charming Spider-Man: Into the Spiderverse delighted audiences with its endearing Afro-Latino star, Miles Morales. Suddenly, kids who had never seen themselves as superheroes were presented candidly on the big screen. Later that month, Barry Jenkins’s highly-anticipated James Baldwin adaptation If Beale Street Could Talk premiered. The film was simultaneously heartbreaking and breathtaking. It showcased love between two dark-skinned people in a way social media found novel - and beautiful.
More than any records, it is important to consider the lessons that many Black people have already discovered within their lived experiences. Regardless of how successful such film depictions are in white spaces - the 2019 Oscars showed, disappointingly, that the revolutionary may not always be celebrated in full - each film possesses a beauty of which many of us are quite aware: Black love is beautiful. Black kids are superheroes.
Black film is having a moment. Let’s keep it going.