Usurping the White Saviour
There is an argument that black and ethic minority people should exclusively tell “black and minority ethnic” stories – stories that strongly feature or are based on BME characters, history, and culture. A very recent example would be Detroit, directed by the stellar, Oscar-winning Katherine Bigelow, and about the race-driven 1967 Detroit riots. So far, the film has received both critical acclaim and some backlash from those who would have preferred a black director to be chosen to tell this story.
It is easy to see why it is important for black voices to be heard, especially when it is a black story being told. Some may suggest that only black people can tell these stories, as only they can understand the gravity that these stories are laden with for black people. I disagree. I feel people can definitely sympathise beyond racial lines and authentically commiserate with pain, suffering, or any experience that they themselves have not experienced. Nonetheless, it is obvious that there is at least a categorical subjective authenticity achieved if this rule is applied – so for the sake of this article, let’s presume that it is valid.
According to this rule, a black director ought to have been chosen over Bigelow to make Detroit. However, Katherine Bigelow was not chosen. Detroit was not a ‘studio’ film. It was an independent production, and Katherine Bigelow chased up the project herself. So – should she not be allowed to chase up stories she is inspired to tell because her skin colour suggests she may not tell those stories well, in spite of her critically acclaimed track record?
Recently I attended a screenwriter’s festival – one of the biggest in the world, which I would rather not name specifically in case any points raised are construed as negative; because this festival was fantastic. It was reasonably priced; provided opportunities to learn, network, and be discovered; did not exclude anyone; was well advertised; and almost sold out. The festival was aimed at burgeoning screenwriters, aspirers, dreamers, and wannabes, and definitely provided some tools for success – top of the line speakers informing on the qualitative elements of screenwriting, strategies to break into the industry, and the opportunity to pitch your projects to actual agents and producers. The audience was a decent sample of the lower levels of the film industry – particularly of aspiring screenwriters in the country.
The one thing it did not have was a large number of domestic BME delegates in attendance.
Personally, I did not notice this until I bonded with another member – a white man whose project was one of the most fascinating I heard. It was the story of the first Black British police officer – in 1830s Carlisle, a time and place where slavery was still a fresh memory and racism was still truly active. Ultimately, it is a fundamentally “black” story. The white man telling this story is unknown, unrepresented, and just hustling to break into the industry – the same hustle any other aspiring screenwriter has to do.
This then leads me to ask: where are all the black people, and why aren’t they here chasing this (or any other “black”) story, but this white man is? For the sake of this article, let us presume that institutional racism within the global film industry is waning. There is a fair bit of evidence to suggest this is so – the recent success of BMEs at the Emmy’s, the more diverse perspective explored in studio tentpoles (consider Spiderman: Homecoming, Deadpool 2, and the Hellboy reboot), and the diversity-driven shakeup of the Academy voting membership. So if the barriers that once stopped black people from entering this industry are coming down, why aren’t black people at grassroots festivals like this?
I posit two possible, and possibly complementary, reasons:
A recurring joke was made at the festival, one that you may have heard, which, slightly paraphrased, goes: “If you don’t want to hustle to make it, you might as well go become an accountant”. Ironically, I was an accountant. There was a dearth of black people there too. The corporate world as well is notorious for its absence of BMEs. So – if what is meant to be the “backup” is incredibly tough already, why would anyone bother to reach, hustle, and chase the dream?
The second reason is the true legacy of racism. I am a young black writer. I know many young black writers. But even if the barriers that would have stopped me in a previous generation are waning now, they were in full force a generation ago – in the generation of our parents and mentors, the generation tasked with motivating us to “dream big”, “chase our dreams”, and “believe in yourself”. Their understanding of the world was defined by these barriers and even if they are coming down now, that memory and the existential impact it had on them is still there.
This is an incredibly saddening idea. This means that hypothetically, even if institutional racism is completely eradicated, its effects will still remain because it still lives in the memory of those that experienced it. This legacy will hamper any protocols aimed at improving diversity.
This may explain why BMEs were not at the event. And consequently, why we are not developing our voice or working to be in a place where we can “tell our stories” (or at least doing so at a disappointing rate). And this is why a white person is telling the story of John Kent, a black policeman in 1837 Carlisle. And to be honest, I would rather a white person tell that story than that story not be told at all.
And now you are probably asking – why am I not telling it? I am a young black writer, why am I not using my voice to tell this story? Perhaps I too am part of the problem. I have written five screenplays which feature a grand total of three black leading characters – an embarrassing statistic and one of which I am aware. However, beside the facts that I don’t think I will do John Kent justice, I am not as inspired as my white friend is to tell this story, and I don’t actually believe that exclusively “black” people should tell “black” stories (although that should definitely be encouraged), ultimately representation and diversity is a “numbers game”.
There are so many great and beautiful black stories that can be told. So many. Consider the number of civil rights activists in America beyond the well trod Malcolm X and MLK; or any of the phenomenal black people that have thrived in Britain, or even in any country in Africa, or even more fantastical stories centred on African mythology and fairy tales, or the vastly underexplored genre of African period dramas or political thrillers – where there are in fact phenomenal true stories of dramatic military coups, fragile governments, bribery and corruption that make House of Cards look like Jenga, or even of stable landmark governments or the vastly stronger position women have in African governments compared to their European or American counterparts. There are so many incredible and dramatic stories that can be told, but ultimately, black people can only use their voices to tell these stories if they are here.
And until they are, perhaps we are better served by this white man writing one of our stories; because film is a hugely collaborative medium and hopefully his screenplay will be picked up by a black producer or a black director, and will most likely have a black lead actor, but more importantly, will inspire swathes of young black audience members, informing them that there is a market for stories that they can tell, and tell well with a categorical subjective authenticity. This may not even be so speculative – for instance consider the impact Hidden Figures, a film directed by a white man and written by himself and a white woman, is having on the discussions of diversity, with free screenings used to inspire young black children with high aspirations.
Image by Joe in DC