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Usurping the White Saviour

There is an argument that black and ethic minority people should exclusively tell “black and minority ethnic” stories – stories that strongly feature or are based on BME characters, history, and culture. A very recent example would be Detroit, directed by the stellar, Oscar-winning Katherine Bigelow, and about the race-driven 1967 Detroit riots. So far, the film has received both critical acclaim and some backlash from those who would have preferred a black director to be chosen to tell this story.

It is easy to see why it is important for black voices to be heard, especially when it is a black story being told. Some may suggest that only black people can tell these stories, as only they can understand the gravity that these stories are laden with for black people. I disagree. I feel people can definitely sympathise beyond racial lines and authentically commiserate with pain, suffering, or any experience that they themselves have not experienced. Nonetheless, it is obvious that there is at least a categorical subjective authenticity achieved if this rule is applied – so for the sake of this article, let’s presume that it is valid.

According to this rule, a black director ought to have been chosen over Bigelow to make Detroit. However, Katherine Bigelow was not chosen. Detroit was not a ‘studio’ film. It was an independent production, and Katherine Bigelow chased up the project herself. So – should she not be allowed to chase up stories she is inspired to tell because her skin colour suggests she may not tell those stories well, in spite of her critically acclaimed track record?

Recently I attended a screenwriter’s festival – one of the biggest in the world, which I would rather not name specifically in case any points raised are construed as negative; because this festival was fantastic. It was reasonably priced; provided opportunities to learn, network, and be discovered; did not exclude anyone; was well advertised; and almost sold out. The festival was aimed at burgeoning screenwriters, aspirers, dreamers, and wannabes, and definitely provided some tools for success – top of the line speakers informing on the qualitative elements of screenwriting, strategies to break into the industry, and the opportunity to pitch your projects to actual agents and producers. The audience was a decent sample of the lower levels of the film industry – particularly of aspiring screenwriters in the country.

The one thing it did not have was a large number of domestic BME delegates in attendance.

Personally, I did not notice this until I bonded with another member – a white man whose project was one of the most fascinating I heard. It was the story of the first Black British police officer – in 1830s Carlisle, a time and place where slavery was still a fresh memory and racism was still truly active. Ultimately, it is a fundamentally “black” story. The white man telling this story is unknown, unrepresented, and just hustling to break into the industry – the same hustle any other aspiring screenwriter has to do.

This then leads me to ask: where are all the black people, and why aren’t they here chasing this (or any other “black”) story, but this white man is? For the sake of this article, let us presume that institutional racism within the global film industry is waning. There is a fair bit of evidence to suggest this is so – the recent success of BMEs at the Emmy’s, the more diverse perspective explored in studio tentpoles (consider Spiderman: Homecoming, Deadpool 2, and the Hellboy reboot), and the diversity-driven shakeup of the Academy voting membership. So if the barriers that once stopped black people from entering this industry are coming down, why aren’t black people at grassroots festivals like this?

I posit two possible, and possibly complementary, reasons:

A recurring joke was made at the festival, one that you may have heard, which, slightly paraphrased, goes: “If you don’t want to hustle to make it, you might as well go become an accountant”. Ironically, I was an accountant. There was a dearth of black people there too. The corporate world as well is notorious for its absence of BMEs. So – if what is meant to be the “backup” is incredibly tough already, why would anyone bother to reach, hustle, and chase the dream?

The second reason is the true legacy of racism. I am a young black writer. I know many young black writers. But even if the barriers that would have stopped me in a previous generation are waning now, they were in full force a generation ago – in the generation of our parents and mentors, the generation tasked with motivating us to “dream big”, “chase our dreams”, and “believe in yourself”. Their understanding of the world was defined by these barriers and even if they are coming down now, that memory and the existential impact it had on them is still there.

This is an incredibly saddening idea. This means that hypothetically, even if institutional racism is completely eradicated, its effects will still remain because it still lives in the memory of those that experienced it. This legacy will hamper any protocols aimed at improving diversity.

This may explain why BMEs were not at the event. And consequently, why we are not developing our voice or working to be in a place where we can “tell our stories” (or at least doing so at a disappointing rate). And this is why a white person is telling the story of John Kent, a black policeman in 1837 Carlisle. And to be honest, I would rather a white person tell that story than that story not be told at all.

And now you are probably asking – why am I not telling it? I am a young black writer, why am I not using my voice to tell this story? Perhaps I too am part of the problem. I have written five screenplays which feature a grand total of three black leading characters – an embarrassing statistic and one of which I am aware. However, beside the facts that I don’t think I will do John Kent justice, I am not as inspired as my white friend is to tell this story, and I don’t actually believe that exclusively “black” people should tell “black” stories (although that should definitely be encouraged), ultimately representation and diversity is a “numbers game”.

There are so many great and beautiful black stories that can be told. So many. Consider the number of civil rights activists in America beyond the well trod Malcolm X and MLK; or any of the phenomenal black people that have thrived in Britain, or even in any country in Africa, or even more fantastical stories centred on African mythology and fairy tales, or the vastly underexplored genre of African period dramas or political thrillers – where there are in fact phenomenal true stories of dramatic military coups, fragile governments, bribery and corruption that make House of Cards look like Jenga, or even of stable landmark governments or the vastly stronger position women have in African governments compared to their European or American counterparts. There are so many incredible and dramatic stories that can be told, but ultimately, black people can only use their voices to tell these stories if they are here.

And until they are, perhaps we are better served by this white man writing one of our stories; because film is a hugely collaborative medium and hopefully his screenplay will be picked up by a black producer or a black director, and will most likely have a black lead actor, but more importantly, will inspire swathes of young black audience members, informing them that there is a market for stories that they can tell, and tell well with a categorical subjective authenticity. This may not even be so speculative – for instance consider the impact Hidden Figures, a film directed by a white man and written by himself and a white woman, is having on the discussions of diversity, with free screenings used to inspire young black children with high aspirations.

Image by Joe in DC


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Budding legal theoretician currently doing his time as an auditor. Diverse interests ranging from the aforementioned law to film, literature, and art. Don't get him talking because he'd probably never stop.

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19 thoughts on “Usurping the White Saviour

  1. You posit two possible reasons for the low participation of POC. Why stop there.

    Maybe POC have less interest in this field?
    Maybe POC have had less contact with films/cinema in general and don’t envision themselves being the people that make movies.

    That’s 2 off the top of my head.

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    • Thanks for your comment Damon. I’m not sure both are really valid reasons though:

      Maybe POC have less interest in this field?

      This “reason” instinctively begs the question – why? Even if it is true, it’s not an answer in and of itself. Specifically, considering the efforts the industry is making to promote POC voices and encourage POC participation, why would POC still have less interest in the field?

      Furthermore, evidence would suggest that it is untrue. Considering the passion behind movements like #OscarsSoWhite, and the fact that POC are significant demographics in the viewership of both film and TV – to the extent that diversity was a significant driving factor for profitable movies in an abysmal summer movie season, where most less diverse movies bombed spectacularly, I will say that there is definitely interest from POC in the film industry. So the question then becomes: why isn’t this interest manifesting itself as a presence at a grassroots level? Perhaps for the two reasons I posit above.

      Maybe POC have had less contact with films/cinema in general and don’t envision themselves being the people that make movies.

      This is perhaps somewhat true. It specifically reminds me of the Barry Jenkins (‘Moonlight’) interview linked. However, as noted by Barry, the reason people (not just POC) will have less contact with films/cinema is because of economic reasons – poverty or a general lack of means. It’s no secret that the distribution of wealth is definitely not in the favour of POC, particularly as a result of past institutional racism. So therefore, the “reason” why POC don’t envision themselves as filmmakers is because that entire industry has been closed off to them – in the past. However if the barriers that closed them off are coming down now – why aren’t POC featuring at the grassroots level of the industry. Again, perhaps for the reasons I noted above.

      And furthermore, it is a stretch to say that POC have less contact with films and cinema. As noted above, specifically that demographic is a box office driving force. I can’t think of any better evidence than box office results to prove that POC are interested and have a strong contact with films and cinema.

      So yes, perhaps the reasons you noted are “reasons” – but they are very superficial “top-of-the-head” explanations that require more excavation and depth of thought. But more importantly, they are dangerous. Because beyond being shallow and flawed, they are “victim-blaming”. They suggest that POC are at fault for their own problems. This is untrue and dangerous because it ignores the history of the problems and how its current manifestation of these problems is truly just the legacy of a history of institutional racism.

      Thanks for you comment though. The two reasons I noted above are most likely not the only ones and I am open to further thoughts and ideas.

      J

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      • “but they are very superficial “top-of-the-head” explanations that require more excavation and depth of thought.”

        Exactly. That’s exactly what I was pointing out. Regardless of the reasons, as you have stated, POC aren’t that much involved. I think it’s best to start asking these types of questions, weeding them down, just as you did with my two “throw outs”. Narrow down the possibilities with research to find the actual causes. THEN action can be taken. It’s always best, I think, not to go off half cocked and hope for the best, but to actually try and find the root cause. I think solutions are easier/clearer then.

        BTW, I enjoyed your post. Like to see move of your posts here.

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  2. I like this piece, and I wish you well. I wanted to note something about this passage:

    This is an incredibly saddening idea. This means that hypothetically, even if institutional racism is completely eradicated, its effects will still remain because it still lives in the memory of those that experienced it.

    It is saddening, and true as best I know. When psychotherapists speak of emotional trauma, they speak in the present tense. The damage is still there, and every time it activates, it does more damage. It reminds me of the Faulkner quote, “The past isn’t history, it isn’t even past”.

    That’s not to say healing isn’t possible. It’s just a lot harder than I thought.

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  3. I remain surprise that Emperor Menelik of Ethiopia’s victory over the Italians at the Battle of Adwa in 1896 hasn’t been memorialized in an epic movie yet. The early 1960s would have been a great time to make the epic. Hollywood was still producing films like Lawrence of Arabia or Doctor Zhivago and the politics of time, Civil Rights in the United States and de-Colonization in Africa, would have made it relevant. The Ethiopian government would have thrown the entire country at Hollywood’s disposal for the project. The same is true of Haitian Revolution. It would make for a really great Black Epic movie. Same with a Frederick Douglas biopic.

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  4. Dude. Great essay. I am exceptionally sympathetic to the argument but there’s something that also eats at me.

    An example of this thing, that I don’t know what to (usefully) call it is this sort of thing. A few years back, when the movie “Precious” hit the theaters, a local-to-Colorado magazine did a story on the producer of Precious.

    Here’s the cover of the magazine.

    I remember thinking “Damn. They’re doing a story on Precious and that’s the photo they used to sell it.”

    Now, of course, the article was about the producer of the movie (or I presume it was… I didn’t read the story) rather than about the movie itself… but still. I can kind of dig why some might think “the deck is hella stacked”.

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  5. Great piece.

    This is a question I’m asking seriously, but probably am not not going to do it with enough delicacy.

    What is your take on the dynamics, in what was a Big Trend for a bit, of Black men and women born in the UK that have made a name for themselves in the US as writers, directors, and actors in works where the subject matter is of the African American experience? This seemed to reach a relative peak in the release of Twelve Years a Slave, directed by Steve McQueen, and staring Chiwetel Ejiofor. (Staring also Lupita Nyong’o who is not from the UK but also did not live in the US until she was in college). (but there’s also a thing that this movie probably wouldn’t have been made if it didn’t have Brad Pitt’s name behind it on the production end).

    Tangentially, seeing as people from ‘Bollywood’ productions are starting to get some mainstream American traction (i.e. Priyanka Chopra), do you see ‘Nollywood’ associated artists as having potential to make inroads into the American entertainment market?

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    • I think Nollywood definitely would make inroads into Hollywood, and the early signs of that happening are quite clear now. The quality and professionalism of Nollywood films are improving, as are the distribution methods. And the stardom of Nollywood actors are spreading too. In fact, I saw a Wikipedia ad campaign starring legendary Nollywood actor Pete Edochie just today. It’s only a matter of time (and continued improvements) before Nollywood bleeds into Hollywood like Bollywood has.

      Regarding Black Brits acting Black American roles – I think this is a hugely complex and nuanced issue, and one I can hardly do justice to here. I think it’s worth noting that the root cause behind this is distinctly different from that behind the absence of black people as a whole in the film industry. Speaking superficially, it seems that the reason studios prefer Brits is because they are “classically” trained, and therefore more “prestigious” and “sophisticated”. Generally speaking, the formal acting training received by British actors regardless of race tends to be greater than American actors. This is important to note because it means the root of the issue isn’t a “race” issue but rather a “class” issue. Considering that, the issue isn’t isolated to just black roles or even to Hollywood. I remember Christopher Eccleston’s complaints that all the best acting roles in the UK were going to “upper class” actors; and also there’s Hollywood’s objective preference for British talent when casting a “sophisticated” nemesis (even when said nemesis isn’t even British – Die Hard’s Hans Gruber comes to mind).

      Again, I am only speaking superficially, but if the issue is a “class” rather than a “race” issue, then it’s solution is perhaps an economic one as well – perhaps increasing grants, scholarships, and formal training schemes for actors in the States so they will perhaps be seen as just as “sophisticated” as those from the UK.

      This in no way posits or justifies the view that US actors are less “sophisticated” than UK actors. The fact that they are seen as so is unfair.

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      • Regarding the training of actors and other artists from Europe. From personal interactions with mainly white and entirely continental Europeans around my age, European parents seem generally more willing to let their kids have a go for a career in the arts and see that they get proper training than American parents. Part of this is because government funding for the arts is bigger in Europe so parents don’t have to shell out too much of their money and the greater welfare state means that they know their kids will have at least a minimal living standard of some sort.

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  6. As long as we’re digging for explanations, let’s not forget family wealth and the way that vast gaps exist between the accrued wealth of White and Black households even when they have similar household income.

    Last time I checked (which, admittedly was a while ago), the typical Hollywood career involved a few years of unsuccessful auditions, unpaid internships, and/or uncompensated network building–and it’s only those who last through that period long enough to get their foot in the door that become successful enough to make a career of it.

    That often means living off your parents’ money, or at least having it as a back-up when your minimum wage day-job can’t pay the bills. And the population of budding entertainers in a position to do that skews pretty White.

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    • I saw an interview with the stars of The Hunger Games (Jennifer Lawrence and either Josh Hutcherson or Liam Helmsworth) and they talked about some big apartment complex in LA where all the young wannabe actors end up living while they go through years of auditions. When one of the young folks comes back from an audition they get mobbed by the parents of the other resident aspiring actors, and the swarming parents grill them on every detail so they can better prepare their own kids for the same auditions. For the parents to be there, pushing their children like that, they have to have a lot of belief in the dream and quite a lot of money to burn.

      It would also perhaps be helpful to look at the demographics of US college theater majors, and whether black majors are being discretely aimed toward playing stereotypical black roles.

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  7. I’ll toss out a seemingly unrelated observation I ran across.

    Another singularly lily white conference or convention would be an outdoor, hiking, camping, and hunting gear expo outside the South. It’s a thing. Google “Why blacks don’t go camping” and read through the comments on all the articles. The Forest Service says 95% of their visitors are non-Hispanic whites. This might seem odd because nature doesn’t care about race.

    There are a whole lot of reasons for the disparity and some are quite interesting. I’ll mention a few.

    After WW-II whites had enough money to enjoy nature in large numbers, but they could really stretch their vacations by camping or staying in a trailer at a KOA camp instead of a hotel. All those Scottie trailers and Airstreams were a big thing back then, and so their kids grew up doing outdoorsy things. As more hotels sprang up and people’s incomes rose further, the trailer market pretty much died because although they still like hiking and camping, towing a cramped fake hotel room around was too much trouble. But by then the outdoors and vacations were part of their culture. (As an aside, modernizing countries such as India, China, or in Africa or Latin America might go through the trailer/KOA phase, in which case there’s future fortunes to be made in the camper business).

    For whites, sleeping on the ground and cooking over a fire is associated with wealth. For minority groups it is usually associated with poverty (or escaping from slavery). To someone from someplace like Guatemala, having no electricity, shelter, vehicle, or running water is what they’re trying to escape. For whites it’s camping.

    New Republic Article on the subject

    And a similar pattern holds for hunting, to the extent that most people would think the African American Hunting Association must be an offshoot of the Klan. No, they’re hunters, and they often discuss why blacks outside the South rarely hunt, and why even young Southern blacks are abandoning the tradition.

    Some of it amounts to a class thing. When blacks moved North, they came from the land of what Northerns would regard as rednecks and hicks. The successful Northern blacks were urban. They did not go frog gigging. Expressing a desire to go hunting likely marked someone as a backwards, naive fresh arrival from some Louisiana swamp.

    Hunting also requires a place to hunt. Blacks down South grew up with white friends and everybody grew up knowing where to go hunting and where to go fishing. Even during slavery, blacks went hunting. Some masters would send their slaves out to bag deer and turkey for the dinner table. But move North and see what kind of luck they’d have asking some German American farmer in Michigan if they’d let a black man with Southern accent go traipsing through his fields toting a shotgun. They already knew the answer to that one. So hunting didn’t get incorporated into modern black urban culture, even though they come from a culture of highly skilled hunters and outdoorsmen.

    In support of this notion I’ll note that blacks still go fishing. Nobody owns the lakes and rivers so nobody had to ask permission for that. The participation rate for blacks in hunting is 2%, versus 7% for whites, whereas for fishing the participation rates are 10% versus 17%.

    Detailed numbers from the US Fish and Wildlife serviceParticipation and Expenditure Patterns of African-American, Hispanic, and Women Hunters and Anglers

    To reverse that, all it would take is a critical mass of blacks to go hunting and camping, establishing it as something they do. Then their kids would grow up doing it. There was a time when blacks really didn’t do sports either.

    And of course there was some whitewashing of history. If you grew up watching Westerns, John Wayne movies and the like, you wouldn’t guess that one in four cowboys was black, and that they were equal to and worked hand-in-hand with white cowboys. In fact, the word “cowboy” is thought by some to have originally referred to blacks who worked the cattle (the word “boy” is telling), and some historians say that much of the cowboy culture is African. Early Texas ranchers sought out slaves from nomadic African tribes whose lifestyle was moving large herds of cattle long distances, living with the herd. Europeans and American immigrants had never done such things because they had farms with fences and barns, so they had to learn from people who already knew how. The iconic American cowboy might stem from unacknowledged cultural appropriation.

    Smithsonian article

    Huffpo article

    BBC article that mentions some Hollywood plundering.

    The Lone Ranger, for example, is believed to have been inspired by Bass Reeves, a black lawman who used disguises, had a Native American sidekick and went through his whole career without being shot.

    The 1956 John Ford film The Searchers, based on Alan Le May’s novel, was partly inspired by the exploits of Brit Johnson, a black cowboy whose wife and children were captured by the Comanches in 1865. In the film, John Wayne plays as a Civil War veteran who spends years looking for his niece who has been abducted by Indians.

    A screenwriter could have some fun correcting the record.

    But in any case screenwriting was probably subject to somewhat similar things. Until there’s a critical mass, it’s not a thing.

    As an aside, I used to go to the Dayton Ham Radio convention. There are virtually no women there who weren’t dragged by their husbands, and I’ve met more Africans than African Americans there. I suppose that’s because Ham radio was really really useful in Africa, but not so much in Chicago. It also might have a rural component starting out (old white men are the predominant attendees), as it would have been useful in areas where phone lines didn’t go. It’s also an expensive and largely useless techie hobby. The ethnic disparity can’t be easily explained by racism or sexism because in Morse code, nobody can tell what race or sex you are, yet texting shows us that everybody seems pretty equally inclined to send and receive messages. It may come down to what magazines people were reading from the 1920’s through the 1970’s, and what was considered “cool” back then.

    This raises the question as to whether screenwriting overlaps with “hobbies” when someone tries their hand at it, and if so how much. As with Ham radio and other oddball activities, it may be a case of whether you have a friend who is playing at it that makes you think “I should try that too!” If so, screenwriters would be geographically clustered, with vastly more natives of LA and New York trying their hand at it because those would be by far the most likely people to meet people already trying it.

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    • If so, screenwriters would be geographically clustered, with vastly more natives of LA and New York trying their hand at it because those would be by far the most likely people to meet people already trying it.

      I think you’re right to some extent about geography, but there’s another source of screenwriters that is also very white: People involved with local and regional theatre and TV and film production.

      Actors, directors, tech people, etc, all of them seem to have a screenplay or theatrical script or whatever inside them. It’s almost a given among creative people that they want to, at some point, start putting their own vision out there instead of doing someone else’s.

      So, yes, ‘I should try that too!’, but not because their friends are doing it, it’s because they read script after script, and eventually think ‘I bet I could make one of these’.

      And so, we often talk about the resistance of Hollywood to hire POC actors, despite there being plenty of POC actors in Hollywood trying to get jobs. That is…a different problem and slightly off topic.

      But what we don’t often notice is the near-total lack of POCs in the performing arts outside of Hollywood and New York. I don’t mean they aren’t getting roles, I mean they often just fail to exist.

      And the reason is sorta the same as the article said…a lot of that stuff is really poorly paid until later. Not via ‘unpaid internships’, but via ‘poorly paid, or unpaid, community theatre gig’ or ‘unpaid camera operator on no-budget college indie film’, to the point that it’s really a hobby for at least a decade until you go off to New York or Hollywood to become a famous actor or whatever…and black people often can’t afford to screw around with ‘a hobby’ for that long to get the correct training.

      I mean, I volunteer at a local non-profit theatre, and we don’t pay actors (or anyone) and we do not have…well, really, any non-white or Hispanic actors. Granted, that could almost be explained by demographics, except the local high school performances do often have a few black and Hispanic actors, and sometimes even show up to be in our summer shows with the rest of their high school actor friends. And then…they just vanish upon graduation, because they don’t have time or money for that sort of thing once they hit the real world. (Even the theater companies around here that pay actors just barely pay them, until you get to a few union places in Atlanta.)

      Most of them probably just quit acting, and those who didn’t quit presumably moved to New York or Hollywood, where acting could hypothetically pay well enough to live on. Although Atlanta’s film industry is taking off, maybe this will change in the future.

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