When actor Stephan James' muscular unclothed brown body flooded the camera lens in If Beale Street Could Talk, becoming larger than life on the theater screen, my heart skipped a palpitation in my chest. All at once, I was filled with a sense of keen wonder, quiet admiration and historical dread. "How beautiful," I thought, and then, "don’t hurt my son." I exhaled. I knew what would happen anyway, having read James Baldwin’s book many years earlier. This young man would be framed and imprisoned for a rape he did not commit by a racist white cop. It was a familiar and tragic story, but one that my heart expected, always prepared to be broken by racism. Yet it was a story I needed to see, a kind of validation for things of the past.
Maybe I am the only one who thinks like this, as a writer, professor of English and mother of a daughter. I don't have sons, but in my 20 years of teaching black literature and the Western canon, exploring blackness in films, hip-hop and black representation in popular culture, interrogating the portrayal of African-Americans since 1619 (the first record of Angolans landing in Jamestown as slaves), I feel as if every black child I see in the streets, at the grocery store, on the playground or in a white chalk outline, is my child.
This same feeling translates to the silver screen and the recent streak of wins for black movies. Before and after I saw Black Panther, I was swept up in the collective pride. We flocked in droves to see the ground-breaking portrayal of a black superhero, our faces dotted with similar tribal markings we made up, donning our fanciest African-style duds: It seemed as if something had shifted in Hollywood by the sheer weight of black engagement. When BlacKkKlansman won its much-deserved 2019 Oscar, I found myself thinking communally again: Why do we need multi-narrative black films at this time in our lives? Why are we supporting them with our presence and dollars?
"I'm very thankful that they're here," says award-winning actor/producer Don Cheadle of black movies. "I think we’re hopefully seeing a wave but we don't know how long it will last because it’s always cyclical. We could look at the past and go, 'Oh, this was the greatest era for our films,' then it goes away."
Cheadle shares his thoughts with me at a surprise appearance at The Solutions Project’s annual ONE100 awards ceremony and screening of Avengers: Endgame at Universal Cinema at Universal CityWalk. With his share of impressive roles and accolades, (Hotel Rwanda, Crash, Devil in a Blue Dress, Black Monday) and his own set of summer production deal-irons in the fire, the acclaimed actor is familiar with the ebb and flow of Hollywood’s love affair with Black movies, yet financial backing and marketing infrastructure are the key.
"It's been very eye-opening for many people in this industry that these movies are as successful as they have been," Cheadle states. "It's not that eye-opening to me. We knew if they give us the lane, pass the ball and give us the same support that other movies have gotten in the past, they will perform."
Indeed, give us the lane, and black movies will perform.
Due to its year-long pre-release marketing campaign, Black Panther earned $1 billion in sales a month after it hit theaters, breaking records at a "mind-boggling" rate nationally and internationally. Riding the wave of Get Out's stunning reception, Us grossed $70 million its opening weekend, becoming the highest banking horror film opening weekend. BlacKkKlansman, Lee’s 35th film, made $96.2 million in box office sales thus far. The numbers don’t lie. But black viewers weren’t in it for the money: they were hungry for funny, tragic, horrifying and "knowledge of self" films.
Black Panther might have portrayed a mythical kingdom, but the lore of African kings and queens are bedtime stories black parents tell their children even if they don’t see the roles regularly in mainstream media. Black mothers and fathers still practice a kind of oral history and the magically scientific city, Wakanda, proved their stories true. Black children who can envision themselves as royalty, innovators, warriors and geniuses experience a spike in self-esteem and self-confidence, a direct result of positive images. Black movies that share the diasporic stories shift and rebut the negative or obfuscation narrative that mainstream society and some media outlets perpetuate, and yes, that some gangsta rap, not all, depict as Black lives.
And that's the incendiary power of cinema, a truism that Spike Lee has known since his first breakout film, She’s Gotta Have It in 1986. Black people want to see their lives on screen in a variety of roles. After more than three decades of churning out beloved movies exploring black life, relationships, identities and culture, Lee’s long-deserved Oscar win for BlacKkKlansman broke another stereotype — we exist in, and love in, satirical crime drama too.
Ultimately, while it translates to dollar signs for studios, seeing one's authentic reality is immensely important. Black people are desperate for quality romantic comedies, mixed-race tales, black innoventor narratives, sci-fi, thrillers and documentaries. We crave stories that remind us who we are and what we have survived, and simultaneously, confirm the direction in which we are going.
Filmmakers Ava DuVernay and TV writer Shonda Rhimes have made, broken and remade the mold for quality, multi-genre film and TV shows (Queen Sugar, Scandal, How to Get Away With Murder), which show there is so much more to black social, political and cultural lives. We covet Michelle Obama and Beyoncé — and any strong, vulnerable black woman taking care of business. Show us those powerful black women onscreen and we will come see us.
Musical visionary and billionaire entrepreneur Beyoncé demonstrated this with her Netflix Homecoming documentary, the Coachella-filmed song-universe ode to historically black colleges and universities, and to the lives of black students. Beyonce was the first African-American woman to headline the music festival and it was important for her, she said, to show the beauty of black culture. From her commanding rendition of the national anthem to "Formation" and "Run the World," with the premise of celebrating blackness, Homecoming broke the internet. Black students needed to see themselves reflected back in the mirror, and appreciated every second of this recognition.
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At the end of Beale Street, shattered yet full from Barry Jenkins’ musicality and visceral imagery, I turned to my USC writer-professor friend and said, "I needed this." But what I really meant was, "America needs this." We, my America, needs to continually see beautiful, whole black male and female bodies in play, in love and in positions of power and vibrant with humanity in order to confront the unfortunate perpetuation of stereotypes, biases, micro-aggressions, and the simple fear of the black body, image and voice that haunts us from an antebellum past. I believe Jenkins’s directorial choices in that moment are indicative of this sentiment: See us. Allow black plots, characters, narratives to enter the mainstream lexicon with the same cultivation and care as white films and we all win. The awards given to the 2018-2019 top black films are gratifying and well-deserved, but it’s just a beginning.
"Let’s take advantage of it while we have it," says Cheadle, who is one of several black actors in record-breaking Endgame (including the young Panther cast and the seasoned Samuel L. Jackson). “We've really got to shine the light on people who’ve been standing there going, 'I just needed the opportunity.' They’re looking for the next Black Panther, they’re looking for the next Beale Street. They’re trying to find these people who've been standing around the whole time like, 'Why are you trying to find me? I’ve been standing here.' Just open the door.'
Read Shonda Buchanan's tribute to John Singleton here.