Black America is caught in a pride shift, a culture shift and a societal backlash all at the same time. They’re caught in a collective headwind where they think they’re moving forward but are being blown backwards. Their social image and cultural definition is being reshaped before their very eyes. And you have tons of cultural “contributors” contributing to their own demise—being it anti-intellectualism, capitalism, exceptionalism or tribalism. Black people are being redefined before the public’s eyes and its to the detriment of collective progress.
About six weeks ago, a national debate began about the making of 12 Years A Slave.
This movie was rolled out like it was the second coming of Christ—some new revelation of the black experience when a free man is kidnapped into slavery. In reality, it was the second coming of a movie that had been made in 1984 when actor Avery Brooks played the lead.
The 1984 movie was a much better storyline. The 2013 movie was a much better propaganda line. Commercials billed it as the “greatest movie ever.” The greatest movie ever?
We’re living in an age of artistic propaganda, where art feeds cultural sentiment. In this age of black pride over the Obama presidency, we have witnessed the greatest social backlash since the Presidential Election of 1876, when the national referendum was, to both parties, “What are you going to do about black equality?” Public sentiment wanted blacks “in their place,” subjugated in the race caste system. Reconstruction ended the next year, in 1877.
As we have witnessed in the obstruction to Obama, another national referendum on black equality has been in play. One to undermine the good intentions of a populous movement.
Make Obama fail is the not so subtle statement.
Whites don’t do subservience well. They’ve never had to. But many of them long for the return of black subservience and it’s the only story they seem to want to tell. And they couch it as “black history” and then have some of us buy off on it as a “truth that needs to be told.”
Since the election of Barack Obama in 2008, we’ve witnessed art and media distort the black image in a way we haven’t seen since Amos N’ Andy. In the eight years of George W. Bush, we didn’t see any of these “sentimentality movies.” No slave movies. No maid or butler movies. In the five years of the Obama administration, there has been four. Two have won Oscars. They expect the other two to win Oscars next time around. The sentimentality for the return of black subservience has been greatly disturbing—not just in content, but in context.
The social effect of these movies have led to a greater hostility toward African Americans, in public policy and social practice. Whether it’s stop and frisk, shopping profiling, stand your ground or a simple police stop for not wearing a seat belt, black people are being socially “checked” right now, when their social self-esteem should be at an all-time high.
The latest iteration of we can’t let them get too “uppity” while reminding a new generation of the dominant culture of who it “used to be.” And maybe can be again.
Don’t believe it. History affirms the influence of film on social behaviors. Segregation took its worse turn after the Birth Of A Nation in 1915. One movie initiated the resurrection of the Klan, from less than 20,000 to over one million in the 1920s and 1930s. Imagery is powerful.
So when many of us attacked 12 Years A Slave for being disturbing and unnecessary, what we were really attacking was the imagery of abuse and inhumane subservience as the dominant body politic of these movies. In real time, a public reception of a people is being reshaped—unbeknownst to most and with the complicity of all who brush this off as “just art.”
Well, two weeks ago, another piece of art was released. The second installment of a fifteen year old franchise, The Best Man. The back story of this movie was that it wasn’t a go until the third or fourth pass. Of course, there was the box office conversation—but there was also the conversation about a movie about the lives of black professionals not having enough of an audience to merit a green light. Because we know black people don’t have normal lives and don’t have the same normal challenges of drama, humor and heartbreak that the larger society has—that are told in movies everyday, right? Nobody wants to see black people that ain’t shufflin’, buckdancin’ and being talked down to—or in a dress (but that’s another article).
So the follow-up, The Best Man Holiday was considered a gamble. Well, the gamble has paid off—like many of us thought it would. The movie had a $30 million dollar opening weekend. Despite a multi-million dollar promotion budget and a bunch of pre-release “hype,” 12 Years A Slave opened at less than a million at $923,715. I guess the “raw truth” was too raw.
I, for one, am glad that the public didn’t believe the hype. There was no reason to make this movie, other than for sentimentality purposes. This movie wasn’t for us. This was for them. Nobody wants to be constantly reminded of one’s misery—except those who imposed the misery. They might get some kind of twisted pleasure from it—but nobody else would.
According to Box Office Mojo, The Best Man Holiday grossed $50 million in two weeks. 12 Years A Slave has done just over $29 million in five weeks. The Best Man Holiday’s opening weekend also outdrew The Butler, which opened at $24.6 million, but it grossed $115 million to date. That’s how you know they won’t stop making subservience movies completely.
They can absorb this one flop.
But will the industry acknowledge that positive African American stories enrich American culture as much (if not more) than the regressive recollection of the nation’s worse times. It might be history that we need to know—but not history we have to see every year.
We can’t continue to let them continue to tell us that positive black movies don’t draw.
They do—if Hollywood is serious about positive black images.
Anthony Asadullah Samad, Ph.D., is a national columnist and author of, REAL EYEZ: Race, Reality and Politics in 21 Century Popular Culture. He can be reached at www.AnthonySamad.com and on Twitter at @DrAnthonySamad.