"if you let them tell it."
today is martin luther king jr. day. its a distinguished honor for a black man to have his own holiday in america. to most of america, he’s a symbol for seeking the best in the people that hated him most. they’ve made him the face for the safe black man who may cause disruption but won’t go about the business of destroying an entire system built atop white supremacy. they are wrong. “they” forgot that before his assassination he was organizing a movement for poor people that would challenge the distribution of wealth in this country. media networks show his face and play his most benign words as if he wasn’t the same man that challenged the notion that freedom could be obtained by merely the passive acceptance of suffering. all the kids will know is “nonviolent. nonviolent,” if you let them tell it. they forgot that dr. king was monitored by the fbi without committing a crime. now “they” are the ones telling his story. our textbooks don’t tell the full story. i remember breezing through the civil rights chapter in american history class back in high school. our guide has been literature from black writers since the first abolitionist writings. in the age of media and images, we look to the screen. our story is being told through images on phone screens and on the big screen. the medium of field is less accessible for black people. in lieu of us, white filmmakers have been trying to tell our story and they’ve been doing it wrong. look at the production credits of your favorite movie involving historical black people. who wrote it? who directed it? the same people who stand aside as black men and women are incarcerated at higher rate or more likely to experience brutality at the hands of police at are the same ones writing our stories. “that don’t sit well with my spirit.”
i’m always dubious of movies about black people and even mores when its about a historical black person. stories change hands so much in hollywood, its like playing the telephone game. the first person says a phrase to the person next to them and its their job to pass the message along verbatim. at the end of the game after the phrase has been disseminated from person to person, the message is usually different from its original form. i don’t know if you’ve noticed but most of these movies follow a certain pattern. 42, Marshall, Get on Up, and Hidden Figures are films that have been recently released that fit into the pattern.
chadwick boseman starred in Marshall, 42, and Get on Up as; thurgood marshall, jackie robinson, and james brown. on the most basic level, none of these brothers look alike. this isn’t chadwick baseman’s fault. he was given the opportunity to portray these prominent black men and he seized it. with that said, it isn’t a coincidence that these movies are basically the same. Marshall was directed by reginald hudlin, a black man. reginald directed house party, which makes him a legend in my book, but hadn’t directed a wide released film since serving sara which was released in 2002. he’d been directing television in the time between the two releases. now we have a credible black director to go along with a black star. so far so good.
Marshall was written by michael and jacob koskoff, two white men (a white guy wrote Selma too, but shoutout oprah and ava duvarney they handed ava duvarney paul webber’s script and she made magic). the koskoff duo didn’t have any experience with telling stories with a black protagonist until Marshall.
the first 5 cast credits are in this order on imdb: chadwick boseman, josh gad, kate hudson, sterling k. brown and dan stevens. two black men made the cut: the star of the film and an emmy award winning actor in sterling k brown. it must be noted that sterling k. brown’s character, joseph spell, is a chauffeur accused of raping a wealthy white woman. its interesting that this is the case that was chosen to tell the story of thurgood marshall. its not the most important nor most prominent case in his career but its most relatable for a white audience. early in the film thurgood marshall is talking to sam friedman, josh gad, and refers to howard university as a place for failures before charles hamilton houston arrived as dean. a place for failures? it was a place for young smart black people that weren’t allowed to pursue higher education at white universities. the struggle for funds and resources might have contributed to their reputation as “a school for failures,” but the koskoffs may not have been equipped with that information. when its a movie about combatting racism, maybe they should’ve been.
there were so many lost opportunities to accurately portray the invisible weight of racism bared by the characters in the film. there’s a trend within Marshall, 42 and Get on Up. the studios placed chadwick baseman next to a popular or established white actor. in Marshall, it was the likable josh gad. In 42 it was harrison ford. harrison ford played branch rickey. branch rickey was the executive that first signed Jackie Robinson, making him the first black player in major league baseball. in the film they have an exchange:
Jackie Robinson : You want a player who doesn't have the guts to fight back?
Branch Rickey : No. No. I want a player who's got the guts not to fight back. People aren't gonna like this. They're gonna do anything to get you to react. Echo a curse with a curse and, uh, they'll hear only yours. Follow a blow with a blow and they'll say, "The Negro lost his temper."
i think this is a good time to mention that this film was written and directed by brian hegeland. hegleland didn’t have any experience with this kind of subject matter before the film but here he writing about a black man who was so alone as a baseball player and so sorely affected by the racism that he received that he never truly was able to move past it. this is the same man that wrote a letter to president dwight eisenhower condemning his speech in which he asked blacks to be patient and have self respect in the face of racism. guts not to fight back?
in Get on Up, boseman is placed next to another legendary actor in dan akroyd. akroyd is a name more than a talent these days and this is the film business. akroyd plays ben bart in the film. bart played a huge part in brown’s success. besides akroyd, the cast of the movie is full of talented black people. the movie was written by jez & john-henry Butterworth along with Steven Baigelman. it was directed by tate taylor. all four of those guys are white.james brown’s legacy is complicated so its only right telling his story would be complicated too. the filmmakers missed an opportunity to explore brown’s anger and its effect on his family. black men from this time walked around with a heaviness from generational poverty, life as a secondary citizen and the pressure to provide for those around you with the understanding that the only way to pull all of this off is to be exceptional. spike lee was supposed to direct it but that wouldn’t have improved this film much. i got thoughts about spike but that’s for another day.
octavia spencer, taraji p henson, and janelle monae all did a wonderful job in hidden figures. they received top billing. kevin costner, kirsten dunst, and jim parsons are next on that billing according to imdb. dunst and parsons play racist colleagues that are complicit in a system that exclude blacks, especially black women. dorthy vaughn, katherine g johnson, mary jackson (spencer, henson, monae) were the smartest women in the building but had to rely on the credibility of their white superior in order for their voices to be heard. kevin costner portrayed al harrison. al harrison is a composite character. he’s comprised of different people that may have served a similar function in the protagonists’ life. he didn’t exist in reality but he received the most screen time excluding our leading ladies. al harrison is there so an audience of white liberal americans have someone that reflects their beliefs. al harrison wanted results. he didn’t care about the main characters’ skin color. with his credibility katherine g johnson was promoted. theodore melfi and allison shroeder adapted margot shelley’s book, Hidden Figures. melfi and shroeder are white.
black biopics and stories about african-americans should be written and directed by african-americans. there are inexperienced white writers in hollywood telling our stories. they stick the script with credible black directors that have to do the best they can to express emotions and cultural nuances that aren’t in the screenplay. the last biopic about a historical black person that was written and directed by a black person was Malcolm X. spike lee famously ran out of money to produce his film so he pulled out his rolodex full of wealthy black people and began making calls. its nearly impossible to make a movie about a historical black figure without the credibility of white people. my worry is that some stories will scare off hollywood and never make it to the big screen. harriet tubman is known as the black moses for helping so many slaves escape. she is also the first woman to lead a military expedition. she was also a spy for the union army. harriet tubman is a black hero and an american hero but where’s her biopic? where is her statue? where’s her face on my dollar bills? “they” will only tell the kids that she freed slaves, if you let them tell it.