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Will black cinema be able to make films without the burden of politics?

Nate Parker as "Nat Turner" in THE BIRTH OF A NATION. Photo by Jahi Chikwendiu. � 2016 Twentieth Century Fox Film Corporation All Rights Reserved

Nate Parker as "Nat Turner" in THE BIRTH OF A NATION. Photo by Jahi Chikwendiu. � 2016 Twentieth Century Fox Film Corporation All Rights Reserved

Published Oct 17, 2016

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The last year probably marked the most consistent conversation that Hollywood has had about race since, well ever.

It came as no surprise to those of us who had been following this conversation that for the last two weekends in the US, Mira Nair’s new film Queen of Katwe, went almost entirely ignored.

The resounding shrug around the film’s release is the culmination of what has been the most illogical attempt at diversifying entertainment we will probably see in our lifetime.

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Earlier this year actors and actresses of colour were up in arms at the whiteness of the Oscars.

An insane proposition when you consider that the Oscars are only able to select from the pool of movies that is available to them.

You cannot blame an award ceremony for the lack of will by studios to make films that are inclusive.

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Second, it’s not the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences that nominates or awards actors, it’s the actor’s branch.

This often is a conveniently forgotten fact in the think pieces about how actors of colour are ignored at the ceremony.

The actor’s branch is one of the most diverse in the academy. It’s their peers that are ignoring actors of colour.

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It’s also nauseating how big black Hollywood actors (Will Smith and Jada Pinkett-Smith) will feel some type of way when they are the ones who didn’t get the nomination but are quiet when other deserving films about people of colour were ignored.

 

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It would have been nice to see the Smiths at the picket line for Beasts of the Southern Wild or Fruitvale Station. Maybe then their calls for diversity would seem more genuine and not seem like narcissistic Oscar hunger.

A few years ago Quentin Tarantino was labelled a racist for saying that Ava DuVernay’s Selma looked like a TV movie.

Why do we feel the need to make black film-makers such victims? For the record I am with Tarantino on this. Selma was boring and visually uninteresting.

But we have to stand behind it. Because it’s a feel-good film, because it has black people in it, because it’s political.

I am sick and tired of politics trumping aesthetics when it comes to black film-makers. I am tired of the constant hand-wringing and attempts at being nice about bad work.

As long as you are seen to be peddling some message then you are good, you don’t have to try hard. You can be mediocre all you want. I have said it before but since no one was listening I am gonna say it again, a film’s subject does not a good film make.

The refusal of black film-makers to acknowledge their responsibility to do what they can to push the medium forward is worrying.

There is a long tradition of black film-makers innovating in cinema yet this is not being tapped in to.

Did Mario Van Peebles really make Sweet Sweetback’s Baadasssss Song so that decades later Tyler Perry could make a film as unstimulating as Madea Goes To Jail?

I think not.

The requirement on black film-makers to perform their “blackness” is precisely what is preventing them from doing the work they ought to and can be doing.

This pathological performing of one’s blackness is the exact kind of nonsense that allowed Nate Parker’s The Birth Of A Nation to get a standing ovation before it was even screened.

Politics and smart film-making are not exclusive, they can go hand in hand.

In this vein I am thinking of films like Fruitvale Station by Ryan Coogler. He incidentally also made Creed and will helm The Black Panther.

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Yes, he makes films about black characters, but his politics do not restrict his cinematic range.

12 Years A Slave was great not because of its politics but because of the assured film-making.

What is frustrating is that while all this political navel-gazing is going on there are film-makers of colour and stories about black people that are challenging but are not getting the attention they deserve.

Terrance Nance’s An Oversimplification Of Her Beauty is an example. Earlier this year I saw The Fits and it left me wrecked.

I had a similar feeling when I watched Memphis a few years ago. I am looking forward to the TuPac biopic, All Eyez On Me and Moonlight later this year.

The problem with being so insistent on emphasising politics over aesthetics is that politics and the people who peddle them are fallible.

All of a sudden The Birth Of A Nation has lost its value because Parker is problematic. If the film had been sold on its aesthetics would it have been as badly affected as it has been? I am not sure.

David Oyelowo is another example. He was hailed for his performance as Martin Luther King on Selma, yet somehow he agreed to perform and executive produce Nina, a film where Nina Simone was being played by Zoe Saldana in black face.

And here is the thing, and I hope you’re sitting down. When the average movie goer is watching a film, they are not thinking about its politics.

They want to be entertained. And for this reason I, like many, will not be going to see Queen of Katwe. Not because I do not want to support black stories, but because I want to support black excellence and Queen of Katwe does not seem like the kind of thing I’d enjoy.

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