Black Contemporary Film and the Endurance of Legacy

Oscars season is officially here! As a self-described film nerd, 2016 felt like a dream. From small films like ‘Little Men’ and ‘White Girl’ (who were royally gipped this awards season) to standard American blockbusters, it was an incredible year for cinema. When tasked with the responsibility to reflect on the last year in Black film, the word that continued to ring through my head was ‘legacy’. Black folk are natural storytellers. Whether oral or written, the griot exists as an integral member of our community, no matter where we may find ourselves around the diaspora. A physical archive of who’ve been, the griot holds the cannon that will inform the next generation. The creative teams behind the Oscars nominees ‘Hidden Figures’, ‘Moonlight’, and ‘Fences’ stepped in and dug their heels deep into this post, as they brought to us bodies of work that asserted the importance, and often all but crystal stair, flow of lineage.

The Omission

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Sankofa, the Twi term meaning “it is not taboo to fetch what is at risk of being left behind” or simply “go back and fetch it” resonates deeply when thinking about Hidden Figures. Suppression and flat out erasure of historical moments have been a lingering narrative of our people since we arrived on these shores. Audre Lorde once said, “If I didn’t define myself for myself, I would be crunched into other people’s fantasies for me and eaten alive.” I think the same can be said about the inability to save the memories of self.

Hidden Figures, in its recount of three Black female employees of NASA that were integral to our country’s first space voyage, filled in a gaping hole in the story of Black women in STEM. Viewers left the theater asking where else have Black women shown up (and shown out, may I add) with the information being, no pun intended, hidden from us? What other American advancements were Black women on the front lines for? How did we not know about these pioneers?

In 2018, Black women will make history yet again as Jeanette Epps becomes the first Black International Space Station crew member, serving as its flight engineer. For most millennials, our concept of Black women in space began with Dr. Mae C. Jemison, who in 1992 became the first to travel to space. I remember what Dr. Jemison meant to us and how she opened the door for the wildest unfurling of dreams. Upon the release of Hidden Figures, I wondered what heights my own mother, with her degree in mathematics, could have soared to if Mary Jackson, Katherine Johnson, and Dorothy Vaughn had a prime spot on the cover of Jet when she was a child. Black girls wanna have a hero, too.

The Non-Linear

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Awards season has been monumental for Moonlight, as it’s gone on to rack up over 90 awards, including a Golden Globe for “Best Picture”. Beyond the sure-shot of bringing home a gold man, the accolades and glowing reviews, the film’s greatest feat has been its ability to break yokes amongst Black men. From social media posts, to essays, to hushed conversations at happy hour, Moonlight has opened conversations (and wounds) that we’ve all tried to live and thrive around our entire lives. A film wrapped around the development of identity, it gives an almost documentary view of the chaotic, yet nurturing, experience of growing up in the inner city.

As matriarchal people, much is said about the role of a mother in these neighborhoods. The Barry Jenkins-directed work in its brilliance however made space to celebrate the silent heroes in our communities, surrogate fathers. Mahershala Ali’s portrayal as Blue lifted up the oft forgotten male presence in the neighbors-as-family dynamic. Rev. Neichelle Guidry in a powerful sermon talks about Black neighborhoods as love-filled villages, raising children regardless of blood-ties. I was particularly struck by her invocation of midwives in the form of Black male bodies. Children of single mothers are never truly fatherless when there’s a basketball coach, a pastor, and yes, even the neighborhood drug dealer ushering us into each new stage of our lives.

Blue taught us how to ride our bikes. Blue reminded us not to take mess from anybody. Blue sold crack to our mothers. Blue told us to be the captains of our own ships. Blue made sure we ate. Blue let us know he was proud of us after every milestone. Blue left our homes bare to feed his own habit. Blue didn’t let us miss a day of school. Blue protected us. Blue was simply there. Even in their dichotomy, we are forever indebted to the Blues in our lives for stepping into their divine assignment as a communal mentor, big brother, and father.

 The Burden

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 August Wilson is the GOAT and there is just no way around that. 2016 was a banner year for his legacy as Jitney (starring Moonlight‘s Andre Holland) opened on Broadway and Fences came to theaters. A pillar in the history of theater, it always felt like Wilson never got his due. With President Trump possibly pulling the plug on the National Endowment of the Arts on top of the already drastic cut of the arts in schools, Black history making sparse guest appearances in the classroom, and theater becoming inaccessible to many, Christmas 2016 was a true gift to the generations that would have otherwise never heard the name August Wilson.

Even if you’ve never seen Fences, we all know or have been a Troy or Cory Maxon. We’ve watched sons struggle to be better than their fathers and actively shaking off any resemblance to him in order to walk a path lain solely by themselves. For the entire film, you find yourself agonizing with Cory as he wrestles with the weight of being his father’s child. His mother Rose has so many incredible monologues throughout the play, but her final one pierces and salves in the best way.

“You can’t be nobody but who you are, Cory. That shadow wasn’t nothing but you growing into yourself. You either got to grow into it or cut it down to fit you. But that’s all you got to make life with. That’s all you got to measure yourself against that world out there. Your daddy wanted you to be everything he wasn’t. And at the same time he tried to make you into everything he was.”

With the announcement of this year’s nominees, I am beyond careful about attributing them to #OscarsSoWhite, as these films were already underway. Instead, I see the release of these three films, along with fellow Oscar noms and personal 2016 faves, Tanna and I Am Not Your Negro, as a manifestation of natural order. It’s no coincidence that this onslaught of diverse contemporary Black films came the same year we celebrated major anniversaries of films like The Watermelon Woman (20), Daughters of the Dust (25) and She’s Gotta Have It (30). It’s divine timing. We circled back to that place where we were not only ready to tell our stories truthfully and boldly, but also take ownership of the complexities of who we are as a people.

For a full list of Black nominees at this year’s Oscars Awards, click here.

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