Do you remember all of the Oscar nonsense this year? When a bunch of white filmmakers said something to the tune of “race shouldn’t be a factor and it should be based on quality”. Well, that whole image of the best films/actors/directors/etc being rewarded goes up in flames when you consider Selma. When discussing the recent Black Lives Matter protests, actor David Oyelowo spoke out about the way the Oscars turned their backs on Ava DuVernay’s film. For anyone that missed it, Selma came out around the time that Eric Garner was murdered. When the cast wore “I Can’t Breathe” t-shirts to the premier, the Academy didn’t like it one bit. They went so far as to say to the studio and producers ‘We are not going to vote for that film because we do not think it is their place to be doing that.’ So, Selma, a film that had received critical acclaim, was shunned for speaking out against police brutality. A film about the civil rights movement, one of the defining political movements in American history, was criticised for being too political. The Academy spat out its dummy and ignored the story of Black people standing up for their rights. And people wonder why #Oscarssowhite trended all over social media?
When Hamilton first came to the stage in 2015, I was adamant that I wouldn’t jump on the bandwagon. I mean, everyone was banging on about this musical and how amazing it was. How different and inspiring. It didn’t help that my interest in American history is basically non-existent. But, for whatever reason, I stubbornly avoided it. Until one day when I decided to listen to the soundtrack. I don’t know why I decided it was the day but I was on my way to a job interview. I wasn’t really paying attention on the way there but I was hooked by the time I got home. I couldn’t stop listening to it and I’ve not been able to stop since. Most of my top songs on Spotify for 2019 were from Hamilton. My top artist for last year was Hamilton. It’s become my go-to album and works for any mood. When I’m tired, sad, happy, bored, or just facing a long day of work. Hamilton would always be the perfect thing to sort me out. So, when it was announced that the West End run in 2019 was being lengthened, I knew I had to get tickets. Seeing it live was one of the best theatre experiences I’ve ever had. And I’ve had some great ones.
One of the things I’m tired of hearing about George Floyd is when people keep bringing up the fact that he had a criminal record. As if that, in some way, makes his death acceptable. That the fact that he was once in prison makes it okay that a police officer put his knee on George’s kneck for almost 8 minutes. Why does it matter who George was or what he was doing at the time? Nothing should be able to justify the death of a man regardless of what they’ve done. And what about all of those white men who were arrested for mass shootings? How many of them are still alive in prison despite murdering people? I mean Nikolas Cruz shot 17 at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in February 2018. He was arrested “without incident”. Without incident? All George Floyd was arrested for was allegedly using a counterfeit $20 note. Allegedly. And he was killed. A 19-year-old white kid shot 17 other kids and was arrested “without incident”. And people still don’t think systemic racism exists? It’s bullshit.
There was plenty of controversy surrounding the release of this film. After a mass brawl broke out at a Birmingham cinema, Vue and Showcase cinemas decided to stop showing it. This decision was widely criticised for many reasons and eventually reversed. The decision to pull the film was described as dangerous and racist. Dangerous because the film would be seen as taboo. This would change the way that people engaged with it and the message at its core. At the same time, the decision was viewed as racist. The idea that a film showing gang violence would definitely push young people into mass violence was only strengthening the link between Black communities and uncontrollable violence. Especially as the film wasn’t actually as violent as other entertainment that’s widely available. Whatever the reasoning, it did just look like another attempt to diminish the release of non-white films. Even when they are made, they were being pulled at the slightest provocation. To compare, nothing was pulled from screens when a white dude killed 12 people and injured 70 other when he brought a gun into a screening of The Dark Knight Rises. So, why was this incident so different?
I’m not normally much of a documentary watcher. If you ask me why I’d probably give you the excuse that I don’t have the time. That I have so many other films to watch and so many books to read. This is clearly nonsense. What I’ve discovered over the past few weeks is that I’m not as great an activist as I’d like to believe. It’s not that I don’t believe in the causes that I go on and on about. It’s more that I’m often too afraid of putting my money where my mouth is. Not watching documentaries like this is just another way to shield myself from real life. It helps me stay inside my little bubble where I can pretend that the world isn’t as bad as it actually is. So, as part of my vow to live a more non-racist lifestyle, I’m making sure that I watch all of the films that I let pass me by. As I’d already read James Baldwin’s If Beale Street Could Talk this week, it only seemed right to start here.
I know that I spend a lot of time moaning about Netflix Original films but, I have to admit, they do get it right now and then. The platform also manages to great some great filmmakers on board. Their 2019 releases on the streaming service saw Noah Baumbach and Martin Scorsese gain multiple Oscar nominations. Before he won awards and hearts, Bong Joon-Ho released the fantastic Okja. So, there have certainly been some high points and it looked as though it might have another. Spike Lee’s latest film Da 5 Bloods was released in mid-June. This was the first time we’ve seen Lee since his Oscar-nominated BlacKkKlansman and it couldn’t have come out at a better time. One of the major themes is how race fits into America. There is the same passion and anger that can be seen throughout the Black Lives Matter protests that have been happening all over the globe. What better film to watch when I’m trying to Amplify Melanated Voices?
Yes, we should all be doing what we can to learn more about racism and how to live a more anti-racist life. Watching documentaries is a great thing but, every so often, it’s good to take a bit of time off and remember that life isn’t all bleakness. But if you’re feeling overwhelmed and exhausted by the things you’re hearing and reading about, do remember that Black people have been feeling like that their whole lives. So, it’s important not to let fatigue turn into ambivalence. After all, there are so many other things you can do to keep on living an anti-racist life. That includes watching and celebrating films made by, starring and written by Black people. We all know that there is a huge disparity in Hollywood when it comes to the representation of non-white people in all areas. It’s more than just Oscars so white. So, we need to start proving that people watch films starring BIPOC actors and telling BIPOC stories. And what’s the best way to do that? By watching films starring BIPOC characters.
Did you see the super cringe “I Take Responsibility” video that the NACCP made starring several Hollywood actors. It was well-meaning, yes, but another kind of mis-judged entry to the “we’re all in this together” folder. The video is just tone-deaf and completely misunderstands what people need to hear right now. This is a time when a lot of people are angry and they don’t need a bunch of actors showcasing their white guilt for all to see. God knows, Hollywood has an awful lot to do to make up for their lack of representation for Black actors. It’s going to take more than just Stanley Tucci and Julianne Moore getting all actory in a black and white video. Thankfully, to counter this, several films have been made free to stream in the US. One of them is this 2019 film that lays bare the prejudice that exists at the heart of American law enforcement. It only felt right to watch it for my review this week.
Over the last few days, we’ve seen a few films being made free to stream in the US. These included Selma and Just Mercy. Both films should help educate people about the role of race in their society. It’s a great thing to do because there will be plenty of people who won’t have previously had access to them. Of course, Hollywood films that depict the difficulties faced by black people in America are all well and good but it’s facts that are needed in this fight. Which is why Netflix’s decision to make Ava DuVarney’s documentary 13th free to non-subscribers is so important. There’s a reason that it has appeared on so many lists of ways you can educate yourself. It’s a great place to start if you’re the type who is unconvinced by the idea that society has been engineered to make black lives difficult. If you go in with an open mind, it’ll definitely have the power to shock you.
Last week, I posted a short video to Instagram that featured a few ideas for films, documentaries, and television shows that people could watch to champion black voices. When it comes to the films that I review on this blog, I don’t tend to put too much thought into what I’m watching. It’s either whatever I fancy watching or whatever I can access at the time. I’ve never really looked at the diversity in my film choices in the same way that I do with my book choices. I make an effort to read a wider range of authors and stories every year, so why don’t I do the same with films? Why do I not do more to listen and pay attention to black voices and stories? Why do I not think more about who is directing and writing the films that I watch? All I care about is the story. It’s the very thing I get angry about whenever anyone speaks out against Oscars So White criticism. It’s something I need to work on and there’s no better time than now. Starting with one of the documentaries that I suggested on my Instagram post.