It’s wonderful that 12 Years a Slave is making an impact, but as I mentioned in an earlier post, there seems to be a great deal of grumbling this year over the same ground being re-trod for Black History Month. Theodore Johnson noted last month in the Huffington Post how America seemed to go through the motions: “There will be children reciting famous lines from ‘I Have A Dream,’ high school students writing about George Washington Carver and his peanuts and probably some game shows questions on African-American inventors…” Johnson returned to the theme only a couple of days ago in The Atlantic, pointing out that history’s tapestry wasn’t making life any better for Black Americans.
I don’t know if it can or should be expected to. But I do think movies can do a better job of using Black History to inspire us. We can’t necessarily pick on the bad flicks like Red Tails because there are lousy offerings for every genre and category. But what if we widen our perspectives?
Consider the films that we’ve had in the last few years. 12 Years a Slave, The Butler, The Help… Slaves, butlers, maids. Then there is the biopic for movies or television on the revered figure or the famous first, though these seem to be getting few and far between lately, don’t they? Yes, Mandela had Idris Elba to take his Long Walk and we’ve just had Jackie Robinson again in 42. But do other examples come easily to mind? It’s been fifteen years since Cuba Gooding Jr. did Men of Honor, a decade since Jamie Foxx did Ray. Forget World War Two, sports, Rosa Parks or MLK for the moment. There are tons of other historical scenarios and themes for the black experience rich in dramatic material just begging to be filmed.
Like this: instead of another biopic on one single personality, what if you had a feature film devoted to the whole expatriate African-American community in Paris? Pick your decade: Josephine Baker, Sidney Bechet, Bricktop Smith in the 1920s (blotting out the memory of a really poor HBO film on Josephine). What a cool movie that would be. And there’s enough raw material for a whole other film: Chester Himes, James Baldwin, all the great jazz musicians in the 1950s.
And while we’re on the subject, why is the black experience limited most of the time to the perspective from America? Fortunately, there are those who have an open mind. Danny Glover has been trying literally for years to make a film about Toussaint L’Ouverture, the leader of the Haitian Revolution during the Napoleonic era.
That brings us to subjects that are long overdue for serious celluloid. Angry stories, stories where black rage was not only justified but expressed, and to hell with whether it makes you feel uncomfortable.
It’s one thing to offer tepid portrayals of past wrongs with appropriate sprinklings of oh-so-noble white guilt – Lincoln, Amistad, Amazing Grace. Stories where Lincoln frees the slaves and nice folks with English accents change their ways. It’s another to have black people take back their rights and give the villains a good stomping – and not in the overblown, cartoonish and ludicrous Django version. No, what really happened.
Why not have some brave stars, a brave director and an even braver studio take on the controversial subject of the Mau Mau Uprising? Especially as we’re now finally getting some proper scholarship on the concentration camps and atrocities committed by the British, whose colonial machinery once looked like the “lesser of the two evils” (only it wasn’t).
How about a film on London’s infamous Notting Hill Riots? When Caribbean immigrants sailed over in the 1950s, they weren’t welcomed with open arms, and landlords really did use the N-word for signs posted in their windows, telling new black arrivals they shouldn’t bother to apply for rooms or jobs. It would be a raw, poignant tale, and Gawd knows there’s enough black British talent for major roles.
If we must have more biopics, because of course, major actors love great parts and studios love major actors who can bring in the box office, let’s get behind Idris Elba’s notion of playing Thelonius Monk. What an interesting movie could be made out of the life of Marcus Garvey! Hollywood, which loves to gaze at its own navel, could bring to life Oscar Micheaux, who got so pissed off over Birth of a Nation’s racism and Klan-worship he allegedly set out to create his own retaliatory epic with positive black portrayals.
And there is a great David Lean-style epic in the story of Ethiopia’s resistance against Mussolini’s Italian Fascist invasion. Especially since the entire world was watching, and blacks in the Caribbean, the United States and parts of Africa were all willing to go fight for Ethiopia’s cause. Granted I’m biased, given that my own book on the subject, Prevail, will be out this September. But this incredible story is perfect for Hollywood because a) it has everything: spies, romance, battles, famous figures, betrayals; and b) in the end, the good guys are victorious. We’ve seen colonial soldiers in red coats winning against tribal Africans (watch Zulu), but imagine a movie in which black men with spears, shields and antique rifles go up against tanks… and win.
It would make an amazing movie. But it should be in great company, too.