This has been an amazing ten months for Black cinematic culture. We had Beyoncé’s Lemonade in April 2016. Donald Glover’s Atlanta and Ava Duvernay’s Queen Sugar both premiered on September 6, 2016. Luke Cage’s entire season broke the Internet on September 30. Barry Jenkins’s Best Picture Oscar winning Moonlight dropped October 2016. So did Issa Rae’s Insecure. And then the wicked mind of Jordan Peele unleashed Get Out, this past weekend. There were other films, television shows, videos and the like, but damn. Look at this trajectory. It would be so easy to label this a Black Cinematic Renaissance, but I don’t think I want to be that optimistic.
I lived through a few of these “renaissances.” The Cosby Show, Frank’s Place, In Living Color, Living Single on television; Spike Lee, John Singleton, Kasi Lemmons, Charles Burnett, Carl Franklin, Julie Dash, Haile Gerima, Arthur Jafa, John Akomfrah, Ava Duvernay in film. Issa Rae, Vine stars, Cecile Emeke, Nicole Amarteifo, Kid Fury dominating the online space. The thing with a renaissance is that there are lasting effects. Permanent cultural changes. Black art, especially Black cinematic art, seems to crash and then recede, like a wave.
It’s coming. It’s coming. It’s here! And there it goes.
There is no doubt that the Web has become the great entertainment equalizer. The barriers to entry are so low that anyone determined to make a film, a web series, or a visual album can do so. I will concede that we are in a DIY renaissance and it is wonderful.
But there are some truths we have to acknowledge.
Hollywood is the place. Not the physical place, but the system in which most film/TV makers want to work. Along with wanting to work in the Hollywood system, people in the system want to be accepted by the system. Operating in that system — unless you’re a name like, say, Spike Lee — you may have to make some pretty egregious compromises to be accepted.
We did have our film free-for-all heyday in the 1990s. Fear of a Black Hat, Tales from the Hood (soon on Blu-ray!!!!), Slam, The Watermelon Woman, Malcolm X, Waiting to Exhale, Love Jones, Boomerang, Eve’s Bayou and a host of others. But by the early 2000s, Black popular film became formulaic, safe, and bland with a strain of Black tragedy porn ushered in by Lee Daniels and Tyler Perry. I’m keeping my lens focused soley on the United States. There were (and are) some wonderful Black British and French films that deserve their own post.
With Black cinema suffering under sequels no one wanted (I’m looking at you, The Best Man 2), Kevin Hart’s repetitive goofiness, and so many sequels in the Fast and Furious franchise, it is a small miracle, two miracles, that Barry Jenkins’ Moonlight and Jordan Peele’s Get Out got made, and were released on a national scale.
I Stan for Barry Jenkins. His film Medicine for Melancholy (2008) is one of my all-time favorite films. It spoke to the dislocation that Black folks in anti-Black San Francisco feel. Living in the Bay Area, the film spoke to feelings I had, but had no name for. It was Before Sunrise for the Black indie set. So when I heard he had another film coming out — after such a long break — I couldn’t wait.
As I sat in the theater, post-Moonlight viewing, I couldn’t move. I was stunned. The film was beautiful, moving, and in a time when the Black body is experienced in public only as a site of pain and fear, necessary. Those of you who read me here know that I am not one to spoil a film. I want you to see it and then we can discuss it. There were scenes in this film that left me blubbering in my seat thankful that someone was brave enough to put this story to film, and utterly devastated that so many Black men are living lives like those depicted. The ending shook me as it ended on an ambiguously hopeful note that I haven’t seen in a long while.
Go see Moonlight. See it for the performances (Mahershala Ali is transcendent.) See it for the narrative. See it for the cinematography. See it because it paints a picture of Black life and Black struggle and Black Masculinity that is holistic, and not exploitative or a font of pathology.
If you can, see Get Out soon after. It is the perfect complement.
While Moonlight deftly leads us through a more nuanced Black journey, Get Out (nodding to that classic Eddie Murphy bit) forces us to feel the insidious violence of liberal racism. Director and writer, Jordan Peele (from Key and Peele infamy), calls his film ‘social horror’ and it fits. No jump scares, no physical violence (until the end and, oh my damn), but the creep factor is ratcheted up to the nth degree. You can gather the story from the trailers.
An interracial couple, Black man (Daniel Kaluuya) and white woman (Allison Williams), visit her cool and liberal parents. Terror ensures. Get Out works because of the near constant fear Black folks feel in white spaces. We are in constant epistemological and ontological dilemma. Am I in danger, for real, or am I projecting based on past experiences? Are they gaslighting me, or am I gaslighting myself?
There are few things more liable to make you question your entire reality than being the only chip on the cookie. And there are few things more dangerous than the brand of hip white folks racism depicted in this marvel of a film, and the shocking ways in which white privilege can and is used. Get Out is the consequence of thinking that America became some post-racial bastion because of Obama’s two terms as president. It is one of the better films I’ve seen in years. It is my most sincere wish that social horror films become a thing and that Jordan Peele is the standard bearer.
While Black cinematic culture seems to be moving in the right direction, it remains to be seen whether or not it is a true renaissance, with lasting cultural change and influence, or another wave. Either way, we’re all better for it.
But I do have a question: When will we see Black women’s stories given the non-compromising Hollywood treatment?
That’s a post for another day.