Slavery, Servitude and the State of Black Film

This week it has been awesome to see the marketing maven that is Oprah Winfrey land on these shores in the UK. Here to promote the film The Butler in which she co leads with Forrest Whitaker, she has appeared on TV chat shows and radio programmes and has set social media abuzz with her presence. It has been amazing to see how even cocksure hosts like Jonathan Ross have shown deference to her “power and presence”, but heck this article is not about Oprah. Per se.

The Butler is one of a series of films with leading black actors that have been promoted quite heavily and in many respects garnered interesting debate. Along with The Help, Django and 12 Years a Slave the narrative of servitude with black leads seems to be a growing trend of green lighted films in Hollywood. The only stand out exceptions, at least on my radar are Half of a Yellow Sun and the Mandela:Long Walk to Freedom biopic. Personally I am tiring of most of the offerings and prefer to watch other films which are produced independently and reflect a wider texture and depth to the experience of people of the African diaspora. Or black for those who want one word.

I tire of this narrative in the same way I tire of the gang/hood narratives that dominate any break out shows on British TV or film. Awesome that such stories get aired to begin with but at what point do we break away from the one story to have an opportunity to express the other stories. Top Boy is good. Luther is great. In a similar sense I tire of the likes of Downton Abbey and other such period dramas which whilst beautifully shot are great reminders of the class division, and the dearth of any good comedy shows that have not seen the light of day since Desmonds or The Real McCoy.

So anyway back to The Butler. The story has a stellar cast including some amazing British actors, David Oyewalo and Aml Ameen, both who have left the UK and have made major waves in the US, joining the likes of Idris Elba, Chiwetel Ejiofor and Kwame Kwei Armah. A cohort affectionately referred to in some quarters as the black exodus. The Butler is a fictional story written by Danny Strong, and is loosely based on article about real life butler Cecil Gaines. I am an admirer of the director also, Lee Daniels who previously directed Monsters Ball and Precious. I hasten to admit I still have not seen the latter.

The narrative of the world through the eyes of a long standing presidential butler doesn’t interest me. It doesn’t mean it has no relevance of course it does. For me however there are stronger story lines out there that mean more to me to take my time out to watch. For example Mandela,
with reportedly strong leads by Idris Elba and Naomie Harris piques my interest and of course my favourite Biyi Bandele “Half of a Yellow Sun”. The latter especially because of the amazing rising talent that is John Boyega. Plus a host of other black independent films such as Fruitvale Station, Shola Lynch’s “Free Angela” and Obi Emelonye’s “Last Flight to Abuja”

I love to go and watch films based on a number of criteria including the main story arc, directorial team, film critic reviews and rather subjectively whether I can be bothered. As a blogger I am also quite outspoken about those I cannot watch as well. For example other than Jackie Brown, which I tolerated I have not time for Quentin Tarantino films. I try not to watch too many Samuel L Jackson films either, especially those where he is the angry black man spouting “nigga nigga” once too many times. (See earlier reference to Tarantino). The same with Tyler Perry. As an entrepreneur and platform provider for many films with black leads I salute him, but again his narratives for me are quite one dimensional. On that same vein I loved the black characters in Shonda Rhymes “Grey’s Anatomy”, but could only handle a couple episodes of Scandal. I guess it is personal taste.

There have been incredibly stunning films/shows in the past which have depicted story arcs that show the complexity of the black experience from servitude from Roots to Amistad, The Colour Purple to Driving Miss Daisy, and now there are the likes of 12 Years a Slave and The Butler. The former of which I also aim to avoid as I no longer wish to see brutal depiction of slavery for ninety plus minutes. I just yearn more.

Born in an era where my father was quite pan African in his thinking I got to reading books and literature that was not mainstream. I discovered Biko long before I knew about Mandela. “Cry Freedom” will forever remain one of my favourite films. I was steeped in the oral traditions of Anansi stories, the post colonial activism of men like Sankara and Nkrumah, the voices of Zora Neale Hurston and Fannie Hurst from the Harlem Renaissance, I learned that slavery came to an end not because of do gooder liberal activists but of the constant slave revolts from Nat Turner to Nanny, the Creole Case to John Brown. This is what I would love to see more of on film. The black history narrative is so full of incredibly powerful stories that when you are exposed to some of these as part of your learning you tire with the tamer tropes that Hollywood dishes out and yearn for so much more.

The fact is there are some incredible directors of colour in the US and abroad. Although I struggle with wanting to see “12 years a Slave” (I struggle with continuous on screen violence) Steve McQueen is an amazing director. Ava Duvernay (Middle of Nowhere), Kasi Lemmons (Eve’s Bayou), Antoine Fuqua (Training Day), F Gary Gray (Set it Off, The Negotiator) as well Spike Lee, John Singelton, Denzel Washington and a host of others. There are also some absolutely amazing independent directors across the Diaspora whose work is deep and complex but yet don’t attract the A lister stars or finance backers of Hollywood and the like. Again notwithstanding that the movie business is just that a business about numbers, it is so tiresome to not see other strong story lines. This is why for me, in spite of the stellar cast I probably will wait until the Butler hits DVDs or Netflix. This doesn’t discredit it as a story or good piece of fictional writing, as some may read it, it’s just that I seek more.

Which reminds me. I need to go get the DVDs for Rosa Parks and Toussaint L’Ouverture.

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4 thoughts on “Slavery, Servitude and the State of Black Film

  1. I wish I could “like” this post twice! I agree with practically every word especially about the films of Tarantino & Perry. Perhaps you’ve seen and appreciate the Ted Talk by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie: The Danger of a Single Story. Unfortunately, Hollywood needs to tell a single story about African Americans to be consistent with the dominant culture’s narrative and black filmmakers have to work with one hand tied if they want distribution through the system. As you point out so well, thank goodness more independent films are getting attention. Thank you for a wonderful post.

  2. Reblogged this on Purple Reign UK and commented:
    I totally agree 2013/2014 is the era where black film looks heavily at slavery and Black servitude a topic which is emotional and uncomfortable experience for some of us. However watching films like ’12 Years a Slave’ makes us question humanity not between races but us human beings.

  3. Oh ok yeah I’m still a bitanxious with it mainly because I hate seeing Blacks being portrayed like this even though this part of our history. Maybe in time I’ll go. Oh please could you follow my blog I would appreciate it 🙂

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