Many of the films and TV shows that held our attention this year were centered around the black experience. Barry Jenkins’s elegant depiction of a black man’s love in Moonlight earned due praise, and several other prominent titles told black American stories: Fences, Hidden Figures, Loving. On television, the subtle depth of Donald Glover’s Atlanta made the show an instant hit. Ava DuVernay gave us gorgeous complexity with Queen Sugar and her equally powerful prison documentary, 13th. Issa Rae’s Insecure, a modern portrait of black women in love, made it to HBO and connected with an audience eager for such under-told stories. In contrast to last year, awards season will not be all white. But as this year’s election has proven, the truth has many layers.
What’s disheartening is that the celebration of these projects has to be met with caution, partly because this was a year in which America chose to elect a man who stands in direct opposition to progress. In Hollywood, too, it’s clear that white mediocrity still dominates conversations and capital—see: Manchester by the Sea, La La Land, Nocturnal Animals, etc—and that inclusion across the board remains rare. In our discussion of film and TV in 2016, among other topics, we talked about the fraudulence of The Birth of a Nation, the evolution of the Oscars So White debate, tokenism, minority and LGBT representation, and the challenges of diversity in film vs. television. Read our edited conversation below.
Rich Juzwiak: I think a good starting point is Nate Parker’s The Birth of a Nation, which is a case study in the tendency of contemporary cultural gatekeepers (and pundits) to prioritize art’s politics over aesthetics, and the overall wielding of commodified identity today. When that movie played Sundance, it was in the wake of the #OscarsSoWhite movement, which started in 2015 via a tweet from April Reign, and went all the way to alter the way the Academy is assembled and operates (at least per Cheryl Boone Isaacs’s direct response to the outcry over a second round of nominations featuring no people of color in any of the Oscars’ acting categories). At the time, Nation must have seemed like an antidote—a sweeping melodrama specifically about racism that focused on the slave Nat Turner, whose righteous indignation is as relatable and perhaps more socially acceptable than ever to behold as a self-consciously woke, white moviegoer. It didn’t quite matter how it said what it said; it just mattered that it said what it said. Fox Searchlight figured it was the right movie at the right time and snapped it up at Sundance for $17.5 million.
Nation’s inability to make back Fox Searchlight’s money seemed primarily dictated by other social forces: rape charges against Nate Parker in 1999, for which he was ultimately acquitted. They became synonymous with the film, not in the least because of its own ahistorical rape scene and otherwise shoddy treatment of female characters, who have very little to do but sit around waiting for a man to save them.
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Though Nation holds a 72 percent on Rotten Tomatoes, by the time it was released, the consensus seemed to be that this is not a very good movie. It’s full of slave-movie clichés that we’re all too familiar with, hammy performances, and it’s incompetently paced (the uprising that the movie is supposed to be about is confined to its final quarter, while much of what precedes it serves to remind us that slavery was really awful). It’s just bad. I wonder if as many people would have felt emboldened enough to admit that if Parker were never accused of rape (or indecent exposure in 2000). The idea that any representation is good representation lingers on. I understand it given the crumbs Hollywood tosses at the feet of anyone who isn’t white and straight, but I also expect more and better, and I have a feeling that you guys do too.
Clover Hope: Not that this was a big revelation or anything, but that whole Sundance spectacle—and then the bad reviews coming months down the line after Nate Parker foolishly self-destructed—once again exposed how much the film world likes to promote symbolic material over substance to perpetuate this false image of Hollywood as an inclusive entity. And like you said, after the Oscars So White debate, the (white) people who control these projects were desperate to, not so much get rid of the whiteness on screen (I think many of them are fine with it), but to be the ones who got it right, in terms of inclusion. That the critics didn’t look past The Birth of a Nation’s poor quality and stale storytelling to see that it wasn’t very good says a lot.
We do want to move toward a point where essentially good black films and TV shows are rewarded for being good, not for being black. I just feel like that’s largely a pipe dream. As far as representation, there’s positive headway with shows like Atlanta and Insecure, which seem to be political just by being. They pushed past the expected archetypes and were rewarded for it. I think there’s some measure of hope in that, but Hollywood as a business will always be disingenuous.
Kara Brown: There are some interesting layers to this. On one hand, if we’re going to allow bad movies to be made in the first place, I think everyone should be allowed to make bad movies. Films by black people should not be held to a different standard than films made by white people. However, we saw exactly that with Birth of a Nation and we see it often with so-called “important” black films.
I tried to address this earlier in the year in regard to the slave movie genre, which I wrote in part as a response to Parker’s success at Sundance. At times it seems like any movie about slavery or the Holocaust or an HIV-positive gay person is automatically going to be a “good” “important” film because A) they tap into the guilt of viewers and allow their institutions some semblance of diversity and B) those tend to be only the types of “diverse” films we reward and acclaim.
I have no doubt that liberal, white-guilt Hollywood would never have admitted that Birth of a Nation wasn’t very good without Parker’s controversy. It would have been Crash Part 2.
The problem, then, is that it gives more weight to the notion that increasing diversity necessarily leads to a sacrifice in the quality of art, which is I believe the most insidious presumption about Oscars So White and diversity in general.
Clover: This also just reminded me of the Nina Simone project, oh god.
Kara: Honestly, Nina is completely applicable to all the arguments just made.
Clover: Yeah, the Nina filmmakers played themselves completely, in wanting to be the ones to make a meaningful project but then dismissing everything about the real-life version of events that would’ve made the project actually meaningful.
Rich: If I’m not mistaken, the Nina crew was full of white people—including director Cynthia Mort. That movie’s diversity was only ever going to be skin deep. That doesn’t seem particularly useful either. It’s why I spent a good chunk of time bombarding Richard Tanne, who directed an almost entirely black cast in the Obamas first-date movie Southside With You, about his whiteness.
When we’re talking about movies we’re talking about a ship being steered by old white men, and we all saw what happened when white people felt a fraction of their power being threatened this year—they elected Trump. So this is layers and layers and layers to fix. I wouldn’t assume that anyone should never depict any identity other than their own on screen... and yet we see the shenanigans that ensue so often when they do.
Take Ghostbusters, even, a project born of self-conscious diversity that included Leslie Jones practically on the periphery. Would that movie ever ever ever be organized around her character with a bunch of white actresses sketched vaguely so they could merely provide support? Nah.
On the other hand, it was cool that the most complicated and likable Westworld character turned out to be Maeve (Thandie Newton), even if the show’s pseudo utopian vision never explicitly acknowledged race and Maeve is, in the tradition of fictional black female stereotypes, a sex worker. You take the good, you get the bad.
Kara: There’s also the fact that those steering the ship get the most money and credit, which allows them to be able to develop other projects. You can see that with someone like Ava DuVernay, where now that she is considered to be one of the top directors on Hollywood, she’s picking up projects left and right. Keeping women and POC out of THOSE roles is more detrimental to diversity than not having a black Spider-Man.
We see over and over that diversity begets diversity!
But it has to start with the people actually creating the art, I’d argue.
Clover: We do see the great things that happen when people who aren’t old white men have creative control (I’m counting Donald Glover and Issa Rae again, as well as Shonda Rhimes). White people gonna white. And they’re going to pat themselves on the back because this year the Oscars will probably, maybe include Fences, Lion, Hidden Figures, Loving, Moonlight...
So I’m wondering about that... how “Oscars So White” will continue to manifest.
Rich: Right, we know that there will be SOME color in this year’s nominees. But... then what? Could it revert back to an all-white slate? It could, and as quick as you can say “new Jim Crow” or “Hitler’s second coming.”
Even within that list, something like Hidden Figures—a nice movie that amplifies unsung heroes and feels quite useful as a vessel of information—feels sort of tempered to make white people not feel so bad. Yes, Katherine Johnson, Dorothy Vaughn, Mary Jackson, and the black women they worked with endured disgusting racism in 1960s Georgia, but here it’s reduced to sort of micoraggressions at times and so many of the white people turn out to be not so bad after all. A cop that pulls over the three women turns out to be quite helpful, actually! Katherine’s boss, upon seeing how dispiriting and time consuming it is to walk to another building everyday to use it segregated bathroom, does away with bathroom segregation at NASA just like that. It feels a bit like propaganda, and way, way beside the point. But then again, to maximize your potential gross, you have to appeal to as broad of a population as possible, so. Follow the money or the path to it. At the end are happy white people.
Clover: One would think it’s not that hard to separate the Birth of A Nations of the world from the Moonlights, if you have EYES. But as we said, the challenge is there’s still an issue of having not enough people of color making decisions in the filmmaking process—but also as part of the film festivals where all this magic happens. So we’re going to get projects that are pushed as “important,” but it’s a mask of sorts. Loving comes to mind, though I haven’t watched it yet, just thinking of the promo behind it. Basically, give people other than white men more control. Maybe that’s happening more? Kind of?
Kara: One of the places we’ve seen non-straight white men gain more influence is in television. Of course there are Shonda Rhimes, Kenya Burris, Lee Daniels, Mindy Kaling, etc. And this year we welcomed Issa Rae and Donald Glover who had two of the best new shows of the year. Diversity in television has been moving along nicely now for the past few years especially when compared to film.
One could argue part of the reason is this apparent “golden age of television” where so many of our best storytellers are turning to the medium. It might be that television is general is more innovative right now. Additionally, I’m sure there are some economic components. The cost of making one 12-episode season of television to test the waters versus a $50 million film is likely more appealing to studio heads. Do you guys have any theories about why TV is wining the diversity battle (ugh)? Or is it?
Clover: I’m guessing the production costs are one part of it, so we’re seeing better experimentation and “risks” on TV whereas film is still the center of the industry complex. Also, there’s a better spread of options. Atlanta is FX. Insecure is HBO. Black-ish (which is still very good) is ABC. And the non-conventional TV platforms like Netflix. I love that Chewing Gum, for example, has been getting a lot of love in a way that seems organic. I watched it via a friend’s recommendation and loved it.
Movies are long-term risks where the payoff is less certain and they have to make projections so far in the future sometimes. But I really hope there will be more Moonlight-type successes.
Kara: The funny thing is you’d think the success of these shows would perhaps signal to movie executives that these investments can pay off. It’s not THAT much of a leap.
Yet we’re about to get our 30th Spider-Man film.
Rich: Yes, and why is there only one Tyler Perry? I mean, like him or not, he speaks to masses and his productions make tons of money. It’s bizarre that he doesn’t have people just attempting to be him.
Kara: From an economic standpoint, how is there not a Latino Tyler Perry? That sounds like free money.
Rich: Regarding Moonlight, its success is incredibly heartening. You know, it’s hard not to love that movie just for what it represents—in the same way, I guess that people admired Birth of a Nation at Sundance for what it represented at the time. It’s a movie focused so sharply on identity, and in deliberately explaining how this character came to be the man he was by age 25 or so. I’ve talked to multiple straight black men who were really moved by this film because of its investment in thoughtfully examining processes and emotions that go unsaid on film. Chiron’s sexuality was not at all a hurdle for these guys as they related to this character.
Moonlight felt a lot weightier than Manchester by the Sea, which similarly examines an adult male whose response to trauma is the adoption of a hardened exterior. What does Manchester say that Moonlight doesn’t more eloquently and more crucially? When the Times’ A.O. Scott reviewed Manchester, he wrote that it was a movie “about the sorrows of white men,” which he did not mean as a dismissal. Well I agree and that’s part of why I dismissed that movie. I’ve seen a lot of those sorrows of white men. I’ve been seeing them. The vast majority of movies are in some way about them, even if they’re comedies. It’s gotten tiresome.
Kara: I say this a lot but I too feel like the emotional intricacies of what it means to be a white dude have been covered extensively. We have a movie about a sad rich white guy and a movie about a sad poor white guy. We’ve had movies about evil white guys and benevolent white guys. The full spectrum of their humanity has already been covered. It obviously depends on your personal understanding of why we create art, but if you believe at least part of it is to explore the human experience, then we don’t really need more depictions of the experiences of a white guy. We’ve got plenty!
I also already know how to feel empathy or how to relate to a white male character. The same can’t be said for so many others.
Clover: Right, part of the beauty of Moonlight was that we were seeing a story that was different from what we’re force-fed from white filmmakers and executives. I think a lot of people watched it like, “Am I really watching this? This is beautiful.” And realizing the power in that. And also: “More of this please.” Unfortunately, those stories aren’t given nearly the same budgets or opportunities to even see the light of day, nor are the people who have the ability to make them. Not to belabor that point but...
Kara: Everything is hopeless.
Clover: Lol. Maybe Moonlight will be a real turning point. Maybe Birth of a Nation will be the last of the slave genre.
Rich: And you know, you could make an argument with Moonlight, that it doesn’t go as deep as it could in terms of staffing—a straight guy directed and adapted it, and he installed a straight guy to play the grown-up iteration of his traditionally masculine queer character. But talking to Barry Jenkins really cleared that up for me in terms of what he related to and where his priorities were—they weren’t let me cross every T and dot every I so that no one in the world can have any qualms with the identity issues at hand. It was more like: I think people should hear this story and I’m going to do what I can do to get it made and get it made right.
That he didn’t fuck that up in the process, I think, speaks mostly to his craft. He’s just good!
And you know, we haven’t scratched the surface here on Asian representation (which is just abysmal) or, say, Muslim or various types of queer representation. What did Jeffrey Tambor say at the Globes? That he wouldn’t be unhappy if he were the last cisgender white guy to play a trans person? I mean... OK. I guess things like Transparent can create more things like Transparent (and I, for the record, love Transparent), but there is a sort of exceptionalism there that I think runs deep in a lot of good-intentioned people (he’s still a cis guy playing a trans woman!). And we all know where good intentions lead us...
Kara: God. That speech was... cloying.
I feel like a discussion about Asian representation tends to lead back to Mindy Kaling who, when she was about diversity on her show, famously ducked the question with: “I’m a fucking Indian woman who has her own fucking show!” Which, yes, is true but does that dismiss the fact that her writer’s room has historically been very white and male, the fact that her character primarily dates white guys and that the only black character on the show is kind of a bad stereotype? That goes back to your question about whether all representation is good representation.
Relatedly, on Master Of None, Aziz Ansari caught some flack for his character primarily dating white women on screen. It isn’t fair that POC or female showrunners are more burdened with the need to be diverse than white guys. At the same time, I expect those who have the opportunity to value diversity. The idea of having my own television show and staffing it with straight white guys is insane to me. But then again, that’s me. I’m not the standard.
Clover: That makes sense if the goal is to avoid tokenism in front of the camera and use real people creatively to help tell the stories. Hire different people! Also, people like Ava DuVernay, Tracee Ellis Ross and Kenya Barris addressed the burden issue at different points in the past year, basically telling critics to start asking white people all these diversity questions.
Rich: At this point, I’m not sure how to handle stuff that’s solely invested in heteronormative whiteness anymore. It has to be really fucking phenomenal to really grab me. I don’t want to do what I groused about in the beginning of the post and prioritize politics over art, but it’s hard for me to sit through Manchester by the Sea, or La La Land, which in addition to investing in boring white characters positions one as a savior of real jazz in what is clearly a white fantasy of its white director Damien Chazelle.
If we care about this issue, how can we look at these stories that push anyone but straight white people into the periphery with anything but disdain? How can you not laugh at the tokenism involved in almost every Marvel movie’s transparent attempt at diversity?
How can you even really care? Must we just turn a blind eye to the politics at hand and just invest in the good, should actual good happen to be present? The Doctor Strange casting of Tilda Swinton was a goddamn mess, but that didn’t prevent me from loving the movie’s visual ingenuity. That movie essentially hallucinates for you and it’s hard to resist beauty that visceral, even when what’s propping it up is less than savory.
Kara: I find it very hard to care. After seeing the trailer for La La Land I remember thinking: “Nope.”
Clover: That’s what I thought about Manchester by the Sea and Hell or High Water.
Kara: The other thing is that when I see projects like that, I’m just not convinced its the best possible version it could be. When you’re excluding so many people and interesting voices and perspectives, how can you be sure the product is really excellent?
In the case of Barry Jenkins, he’s a straight guy, yes, but you also get the feeling he was probably the best choice for the job. And the film was excellent. So it doesn’t have to be this specific quota or tiptoeing around shit. A woman doesn’t HAVE to direct a film about a woman. But you’re not going to find the best person to tell that story by excluding women from the running.
Rich: It also helps not to be a shithead who actually hates women.
In the case of Jenkins, he felt a specific need to step up and say something about queer people. It’s not like the cause was incidental to his subject matter. His compassion reflected off the screen.
Kara: You have to wonder how many people truly care that much.
Rich: Capitalism incentivizes selfishness and we aren’t talking about philanthropy here.
Kara: Yep. See: Nina.
Clover: We can often tell the difference between a person who wants to tell a genuine story and the person who presents the illusion of caring. I’m really glad to have Moonlight, Atlanta, Queen Sugar, etc. There seems to be great potential to continue that direction, especially now that more people are (I guess) enlightened about racism post-election. It’s all a blessing and a curse.
Kara: It’s hard to have too much optimism but so much of this is tied to the economics of the industry. If a studio makes an extra billion dollars off of a superhero franchise then perhaps that frees them up to take more risks and put storytelling first. At the same time, we know that more diverse films actually make more money, so you’d think that would be incentive enough. I hate to put too much on the backs of people like DuVernay, but it seems like our best shot is when those artists succeed and either pull up or kick open the door for others. If the election has taught me anything, it’s that I shouldn’t invest too much in the hope that people will do what right and fair for the sake of it.