THE BLOG
11/13/2013 04:41 pm ET | Updated Jan 23, 2014

When Will Black Historical Films Focus On Triumph, Rather Than Plight?

12 Years A Slave is a film that is beautifully shot, wonderfully acted, and told in a compelling manner. However, there are some questions, in my opinion, as to its importance. Paramount among those questions is, What does this scenario illustrate that we didn't know or haven't seen before? And why does such a film garner such popularity? And the list of questions goes on: Why are equal rights the greatest, and seemingly the only, commercial product for so-called black film coming out of Hollywood? Does this imply that mea-culpa-slavery-films are an artistic perennial for a predominately white audience? Why are there few films about African American heroes, produced by Hollywood, as opposed to African American victims? Why has there never been a film about Nat Love or William Pickett (African American cowboys), Bass Reeves (the first African American lawman in the west who, if Reeves were fictional, would be a combination of Sherlock Holmes, Superman, and the Lone Ranger) or The Exodusters (African American pioneers who ventured west)? These are stories about people who took charge of their own destinies and were only victims of their individual circumstances, like their white counterparts. These are characters that are heroic, not victims.

It is very difficult for me, as an American of African descent, to view a film like 12 Years a Slave, as brilliant as it might be perceived, without being angered about the amount of violence perpetrated upon black flesh and black womanhood, without feeling that the self-worth of modern day African Americans is being diminished, without feeling that this kind of film enflames an omnipresent and smoldering mistrust of whites by blacks.

To be fair, perhaps 12 Years a Slave has as much importance for a younger audience as a tool to teach the history of American slavery, as The Diary of Anne Frank is valuable as a lesson on the genocide of Jews during World War II. I think the filmmakers' hearts are in the right place: producing a tragic depiction of enslaved and brutalized innocence. And if there were films centered on a more universal/diverse accounting of black life in America, either modern or historic, I would be less judgmental. However, the existence of that kind of film is minimal in number at best and token at worst, despite the fact that films like The Assassination of Jessie James by the Coward Robert Ford, True Grit, 3:10 to Yuma, No Country for Old Men, or There Will Be Blood, period pieces, featuring white stars, are very successful. The argument, historically, has been that so-called black film does not sell in European markets. If, however, the Democratic Party can elect an African American senator to the presidency in a country whose history is slavery, bigotry, and the fight for civil rights, Hollywood can promote an African American star, in a so-called black film, with a less narrow story line, in countries with less blighted narratives, modern day or otherwise.

African American filmmakers have been frustrated by theses facts for years. Perhaps, despite my objections, the success of films like: The Help, Django, The Butler, or 12 Years a Slave, will further persuade Hollywood to widen its view and edit its erroneous perception of what a commercial black film can look like.

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