Art Opinion

On The Modern Black Cinematic Renaissance

Currently, there is a renaissance brewing in Black film, entertainment and visual culture that is being jolted by Black creatives who are harnessing their “otherness” and attempting to take advantage of, invert or reposition white spectatorship in relation to the consumption of Black images by creating marketable, holistic, and humanized narratives.

“The only color Hollywood cares about is green…For them, it’s about commerce and the truth is the color of our skin has always been about commerce,” the Emmy award-winning writer Lena Waithe said to an audience of about 800 University of Wisconsin-Madison students. In her Q&A session with students last week, Waithe explained the complexities of her relationship with entertainment and visual culture as a queer, Black woman.

Waithe’s intersections allow her to create art and media that challenges current constructions of Blackness, womaness, and queerness that are heavily crafted by white, heteronormative writers. “Intersectionality” was a term coined by Kimerblé Crenshaw, to explain the overlap of multiple identities and how this overlap can subject individuals to exacerbated and often unexamined traumas and oppression.[1]

Her work in ‘The Chi’ and her award-winning ‘Thanksgiving’ episode in Aziz Ansari’s program ‘Master of None’ employ a revolutionary oppositional gaze by redefining and reexamining characters and narratives that are often misconstrued to fit a stereotypical frame or are erased completely.

In Black Looks: Race and Representation, author bell hooks explains the power and impact of the ‘gaze’ as form or resistance and opposition. As marginalized people view and current media, an interrogational gaze is developed to criticize and evaluate the piece of work.[2]

“Before racial integration, black viewers of movies and television experienced visual pleasure in a context where looking was also about contestation and confrontation…Critical, interrogating black looks were mainly concerned with issues of race and racism, the way racial domination of black by whites overdetermined representation.”[3]

This culture of examining any and all images of ourselves produced in the media is still apparent and can be seen in the influx of ‘think-pieces’ that surface after any major production is released, (responses to Marvel’s Black Panther is a good example of this).

What makes Waithe’s work particularly effective in reclaiming images of her identity are her intersections. As a queer, Black, Chicago-native woman and successful storyteller, Waithe is better equipped to critique and deconstruct these images beyond their racist implications. Her position in society also yields interrogations of the patriarchal and heteronormative lens as well.

In her up-and-coming program ‘The Chi,’ this oppositional work can be seen in the details of each moment and interaction that works to humanize the predicament of each character. In her speech, she gave the example that the character Emmet, played by Jacob Latimore, is a nod to Chicago’s Emmett Till who was lynched in Mississippi in 1955. What’s interesting about Emmett’s character in the show, is that he is not presented as perfect or unflawed in a way that counters the stereotypes that led to Emmett Till’s death. Instead, the character is informed by one of Waithe’s friends according to her interview with The Cut.[4]

When asked about the purpose or the ‘hook’ of the show Waithe responded, “It’s about being black and human in a city that’s very complex. That’s it,” Waithe told The Cut.

hooks eloquently stated this phenomenon in Black Looks: “We do more than resist. We create alternative texts…”

Black writers, creatives, producers and media influencers are challenging the standard of Black representation by crafting narratives, dialogues, and characters that are informed by the complexities of their own lives. With the continuation of white fetishization of Black culture, the production of these more holistic images including (but not limited to) Issa Rae’s ‘Insecure,’ Waithe’s ‘The Chi,’ Ryan Coogler’s ‘Black Panther,’  Salim Akil’s ‘Black Lightning’ not only employ the oppositional gaze that allows for multidimensional characters. Some of these works even allow for Black people to exist in a futuristic lens, expanding past their current predicaments.

By humanizing Black people in mass media and by proving to white executives and spectators the marketability of diverse stories, these content creators are forcing white audiences to engage in witnessing Black people as subjects instead of objects. Waithe is a creator intentionally uses white spectatorship or fascination with Blackness or otherness to propel multifaceted storytelling. This is an act of resistance.

“Sometimes I think we can get caught up in our otherness and think of it as a hurdle but the truth is I think it’s actually a superpower,” Waithe told The Black Voice in an interview had before her Q&A. “I think we as an ‘othered’ community have to retrain ourselves and start telling ourselves ‘oh this isn’t a hindrance.’ So, how do we then use that power for good.”

This constant battle to be seen as humans is an undertone in much of the up-and-coming work seen in this budding renaissance. “We aren’t equal until we can be mediocre,” Waithe said. Mediocrity can also be substituted for apolitical, existing without the pressures of rejecting whiteness and honoring an entire race.

By reexamining the role of white spectatorship and the possibility of using it as an entry point to uplift new narratives, can this new wave of content creators successfully change the current state of Black representation in the media? Or will the overwhelming influence of whiteness in American culture find a way to exploit these efforts?

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[1] Crenshaw, Kimberle. Mapping Margins: Intersectionality, Identity Politics, and Violence Against Women of Color. Stanford Review

[2] Hooks, Bell. Black looks: race and representation. Boston: South End Press, 1992.

page 117

[3]  Hooks, Bell. Black looks: race and representation. Boston: South End Press, 1992.

page 117-118

[4] Davis, Allison P. “Lena Waithe Is Creating the Culture.” The Cut. January 07, 2018. Accessed February 19, 2018. https://www.thecut.com/2018/01/lena-waithe-the-chi.html.

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