by Melissa Strong
The release of Detroit (2017) raised questions about who gets to tell the story of the 1967 rebellion in which white police officers killed black men. Detroit was written by a white man, Mark Boal, and directed by a white woman, Kathryn Bigelow. This raised some criticism, but Michael Eric Dyson wrote in the New York Times that Bigelow “has done what us black folk often demand white folk do: Take responsibility for your actions and a legacy of hate that is often silently transmitted.” Shining a light on injustice may constitute one way the film industry could take responsibility, but the thorny yet common issue of racial ventriloquism remains.
Equally problematic is the ongoing problem of “redface,” the cinematic manufacturing of Native identities. Hollywood’s invented representations of indigenous people have become encoded as authentic and historical. This includes using white actors to portray Native characters. As Kevin Noble Maillard notes in an article about Wind River (2017), Hollywood has “a well-documented history of hiring non-Indians for Indian roles.” Ironically, though, Native actors tend to be typecast and limited to Native roles. Gil Birmingham, a Comanche actor whose performance is the best thing about Wind River, points out, “If you are Native, you rarely get cast in crossover parts.”
In other words, roles in which race and ethnicity are not specifically defined tend to be reserved for white actors. This leaves talented non-white actors out of the running. Additionally, it reinforces the way mainstream films portray whiteness as a universal experience, another longtime tradition increasingly out of sync with changing demographics. The 2014 Pew Research Center study “The Next America” reports that the U.S. had an 85% majority-white population in 1960, but in 2000 69% of Americans were white. Projections for 2060 predict a majority minority with a white population at 43%.
All of these things were on my mind when I attended a panel called “Who Gets to Tell Which Stories?” at the sixth annual BlackStar Film Festival. BlackStar describes its purpose as celebrating “the visual and storytelling traditions of the African diaspora and of global indigenous communities, showcasing films by black people from around the world.” This sounds to me like something movies really need right now. Being a movie lover and a white person against white supremacy, I was also curious about the question around which the panel was organized.
The panel was a free event that took place August 3 at the Institute for Contemporary Art on the campus of the University of Pennsylvania. The moderator, Nehad Khader, is a filmmaker and senior program manager of BlackStar. Panelists were producer Iyabo Boyd, filmmakers Michael Premo and David Felix Sutcliffe, and Numa Perrier, co-founder of Black&SexyTV. Perrier explained that Black&Sexy is a black-owned and operated digital network, sort of like a Netflix that focuses on black stories and experiences.
Discussion began with panelists identifying keywords to anchor the conversation: appropriation, colonialism, representation, authenticity, and responsibility. In defining these terms, panel participants pointed out that race, ethnicity, nation, geography, and power all factor into appropriation. The camera forces decisions about representation, since both documentary and narrative films require making decisions which result in foregrounding particular perspectives, sides, and groups. As I listened, I realized that constraints of the medium itself make it impossible for filmmakers to cover every aspect of a topic. I thought of docs like What Happened, Miss Simone? (2015), which can only attempt to address the complexity of the subject’s life and the intersection of race, class, gender, talent, fame, and power.
Despite these challenges, panelists seemed to agree that people in the industry - and filmmakers in particular - have the responsibility to do justice to the subjects and stories of their movies. Part of this is recognizing their own perspective, history, and privilege, particularly compared with the people their films portray. Other components of this responsibility include countering stereotypes and striving to depict people in all their wholeness and complexity. This sounds to me like a great antidote to cinematic “redface.”
But it’s not easy to do. For Ahkeem (2017), a documentary Iyabo Boyd produced, exemplifies the challenges of ethical filmmaking. Boyd discussed her experience working on the film and the efforts of the documentary team to do the right thing on and off the screen. For Ahkeem is about a teenage girl named Daje in north St. Louis coming of age in the wake of racial violence and the Black Lives Matter movement while facing friends dying, family members being incarcerated, and her own pregnancy. Boyd pointed out that the directors of For Ahkeem, Jeremy S. Levine & Landon Van Soest, are white men. Yet Boyd describes Levine and Van Soest as “always trying to check themselves” in telling a black girl’s story, even suggesting that their initial lack of awareness of lives like Daje’s provided a catalyst to making For Ahkeem. Nevertheless, Boyd often was the only black person in the room working on the documentary. As a result, she felt a particular responsibility “to ensure that in the editing room” Daje “had someone watching her back.” But Iyabo pointed out that being a black woman did not mean that she understood Daje or shared her experiences. I loved this point and wished that mainstream movies better represented the diversity of African American identities and experiences. Moonlight (2016) and Straight Outta Compton (2015) are important, but so is Morris from America (2016), a touching yet real movie about a black father and son.
Iyabo went on to identify questions that arose about the purpose and audience for For Ahkeem. Who is this film for? What is it for? Is the purpose to make white people sad? To support Daje and her family? Considering that most film festival attendees are white, to what extent do viewers bring a colonial gaze to films like For Ahkeem? These are important questions without clear answers.
But filmmakers (and viewers) can take steps to share the power of telling stories. Numa Perrier pointed out that people who create and consume film and media have the power, and that this power can be shared and disseminated. Black&SexyTV is a case in point as a web-based network with humble beginnings which is now almost completely funded by viewers. Michael Premo recognized that filmmakers are products of an oppressive culture, to which Nehad Khader replied, “We have to decolonize ourselves.” This sounds like good advice for viewers, too. The question of who gets to tell which stories is complex and lacking clear answers, but this panel provided some valuable insight.
Sometimes, it seems, white people who wish to contribute to racial justice simply need to get out of the way. If this feels uncomfortable, it’s probably because you are used to taking charge or having a say. Maybe the same is true for movies. Audiences are so used to seeing mostly white faces and experiences on screen and white people behind the camera. Isn’t it time to make room for other voices and other stories?