So the Oscars aired last night and they were the whitest Oscars since 1998. This of course caused a lot of anger as the amazing film Selma was almost completely shut out was it not for the Best Original Song and the Best Picture Nominations. It would have been funny if Ava DurVernay’s look into the march from Selma to Montgomery through the eyes of Dr. King played magnificently by David Oyelowo won the award but after comments that stated the film had “no art” by an anonymous member of the Academy, those brief hopes were erased. Now let me make this clear Selma does not need the Academy’s recognition because the Academy does not reflect diversity or own the right to validate our stories. I am so glad we *Reads as black people/people of color* are starting to value our own awards so much more now and we can now proud say that Selma is a NAACP Image Award winning film staring the NAACP Image Award winning David Oyelowo.
A lot of the critiques about the Oscars stem from how black actors are so easily honored for their portrayal as down trodden oppressed people or stereotypes (Halle Berry Monster’s Ball, Denzel Washington Training Day, Forest Whittaker The Last King of Scotland, Monique Precious, Octavia Spencer The Help, Lupita Nyong’o 12 Years a Slave). These critiques are valid yet not so simply reduced to a binary of good representation versus bad representation. Why is Denzel celebrated for playing a crooked cop but not even nominated for his stunning portrayal as Malcolm X? However, if you have been reading my stuff for a while, you have come to know I never like viewing things in simplistic terms. We can criticize Halle Berry’s win but at the same time it was groundbreaking as she was the first African American woman to win for leading actress. Some people criticize Lupita’s win (not me) because she was in another slave movie (more on this later) but her portrayal reminds us of our female ancestors whose blood runs through our veins after suffering and dreaming that one day freedom would come. In other words the black experience can’t be boiled down into simple terms and though we may disagree with some of the wins, we have to admit that when a black actor portrays a black person, they are telling a different story of the black experience. (Now I am completely aware of stereotypical images yet Hattie McDaniels win with the nostalgic Gone With the Wind was still important to black history).
Now this post was inspired by me finally finishing The Book of Negroes television miniseries which aired on BET. I thought the series was a wonderful and incredibly telling of the journey of Aminata Diallo played brilliantly by Aunjanue Ellis. The parallels between this series and the famed Roots were undeniable. This series starts in Africa instead of like many movies and series that depict the evils of slavery. By doing this the viewer is automatically confronted with the fact that there was a life before slavery. So often when slavery is discussed we can so easily boil down the lives of our ancestors to just slavery. That is why I prefer the use of enslaved people instead of slaves as it emphasizes the humanity of my African ancestors. The series proceeds to show through Aminata’s eyes the complications that slavery engendered on enslaved people from the separation from families and friends to the brutality of rape and the jealousy of slave masters. At the same time the series so beautifully illustrate how the human heart refuses to be broken as Aminata still finds hope in the midst of her situation. The Book of Negroes is also a love story as it shows how love cannot be governed by slavery as Aminata falls in love with one of the boys, Chekura played by Lyriq Bent, who was also a slave and forced to capture her.
Despite the positives of the series, respectability politics managed to creep into the discussion with people saying “I’m tired of seeing slave movies.” Now like I stated before, I completely understand where these feelings are coming from. It can be argued that especially after Selma‘s snub that black people are only celebrated when they are subservient in films (but if we stop requiring the acknowledgement of these institutions we would eliminate a lot of this anger on the issue). Though I can see this line of reasoning and agree to an extent, isn’t now a time when we should be telling the stories of our enslaved ancestors even more? With everything going on with the Black Lives Matter Movement and the devaluing of black lives we need to remember why these feelings of anti-blackness run so deep? Watching The Book of Negroes made me angry no doubt but like medicine that is bitter it was necessary. The problem with the demands that we only show movies of black people being triumphant is that it buys into the European model of what successful stories have to be. Now I am not saying I would not like to see a movie about Mansa Musa or the great kings of Africa or even fictionalize heroic accounts or maybe even some ancient Egyptians who aren’t European transplants with a tan but why are we always trying to measure our success by their standards? Slavery is ugly and painful yes but our ancestors aren’t. They are powerful beyond measure as they underwent the greatest evil humans can enact on others and survived. There stories are valid no matter how painful and must be told.
An important theme throughout the series is telling one’s own story as it was Aminata’s lifelong dream to be a storyteller a highly respected position in her childhood village. Chekura reminds her of this dream when she is writing the names of the enslaved black people who helped the British during the Revolutionary War. Later on Aminata is able to achieve her dream first when she returned to her childhood village and talked about how she crossed “the big river” and secondly after she spoke before Parliament in London about ending the slave trade. A telling moment of Aminata’s time in London was when the abolitionists so overzealous to discuss the horrors of slavery that they planned on Aminata taking a back seat while they told her story for her making it clear that she was not to speak to the black Londeners less someone say she was corrupted. What Aminata said was so powerful that I have to quote it, “Nobody must tell my story but me.” This statement is what it is all about! The abolitionists represent white liberals who want to help to the point where they take away the agency of black people. I understand the apprehension of having our stories being told by white storytellers as there is the history of them constructing racist and derogatory images. That is why WE need to tell our stories for ourselves. All of them not just the ones that seem to match the classic heroic formula. Aminata didn’t ride on the back of some white horse to slay some mythical beast, she struggled and fought and loved and in the end survived and told her story which was her triumph. As a historian in training who studies black people whose voices have often been lost with time as our oral histories were devalued and not passed on, the concept of us telling our stories needs to prioritized. That is why Selma is so powerful because a black woman director told the story of how she interpreted the events of Selma. An important factor is how she was punished for not paying tribute to the white liberal who was so crucial to the success of the Voting Rights Act (oh please). It is essential to note that The Book of Negroes was directed by a black director Clement Virgo showing the power we have when we become the storytellers. Telling the stories of our ancestors that were enslaved does not make us weak, it shows our strength.
So instead of criticizing films that depict the reality of what our ancestors went through, let’s use the anger to create a positive change. With the Black Lives Matter Movement trying to convince white America that black lives indeed matter let’s not make them forget the racial history of the Americas, Africa, Asia, Australia, and Europe. White supremacy would love for us to stop talking about slavery and Jim Crow and things of the racial past but we cannot because it is not talking about them that allowed for people to become convinced that we are post-racial. Not talking about slavery and showing the graphic nature of it allowed for people to think “I’m not racist because I disagree with slavery” yet the same people use racialized language when discussing predominately black towns and cities. In the movie a male character who ran away from slavery and was bound for Novia Scotia was captured in New York and sent back to the south to be enslaved. We still have this separation of black fathers from their communities due to compounded issues of poverty, the war on drugs and limited job opportunities. The New Jim Crow is a direct descendant of slavery as is housing discrimination, police brutality, and the lack of educational and job opportunities. Cuba Gooding Jr’s character Sam says, ” Freedom will come to every negro in America. It will take some time but one day the declarations of Independence will live up to its creed.“ To this Aminata responds,”There is nothing United about a nation that declares all men are created equal but keep its people in chains.” Our chains have changed from being physical to being engraved into the institutional fabric of America. We can’t sugar coat these stories that target the root of America’s racist foundation because when we do, we are giving someone the green light to think it is okay to kill an unarmed black person who they find threatening because we have not made the effort to show why that practice is a continuation of the racial domination of slavery.
To lighten the mood just a little and show how great NAACP Image Award winning Actor David Oyelowo was in Selma Ava shared this clip and I had to post it!
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