Long Reads

From Been So Long to Get Out: the last decade has seen black-led films reclaim their narrative

From The Help to The Photograph, the past decade has seen narratives in and around black-led films finally changing.

Picture this: a whimsy musical set to a vibrant Camden backdrop, starring a bald black British girl and an equally bald black British man. The two fall in love – not without the false starts and complications – but that doesn’t stop them from opening up to one another and having their very own happy ending. With a catchy soundtrack that leaves you feeling all warm and fuzzy inside, Been So Long is unashamedly one of my favourite films of the last decade.

The 2018 movie, starring Michaela Coel and Arinzé Kene, resonated with me because I was thrilled to see a film centered around black love that wasn’t rooted in trauma.

Yes, Been So Long tells a story of love, hope and so much more, which is a rarity for most of us when seeing black stories played out on the screen.

Oppression

In the early 2010s, we saw a heightened view of black trauma in cinema with the back-to-back release of films focused on race and slavery.

In 2011, historical drama The Help told the story of African-American maids working in white households in 1960s Mississippi. Told primarily from the perspective of aspiring journalist Skeeter (Emma Stone) who decides to write a book about the African-American maids during the Jim Crow era, The Help failed to challenge a hurtful period in American history while focusing on a “white saviour” narrative and moral development of Skeeter and in turn marginalising the voices of the black maids - something which star Viola Davis admitted herself.

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While its tackling of race left a lot to be desired, it did feature some brilliant performances from Davis and Octavia Spencer, with the latter winning an Oscar for Best Supporting Actress. What we would soon see in the years to follow was a proliferation of black pain exploited on the big screen, with people awarded for their efforts in retelling a painful history which still affects many today.

In 2013 alone, seven slavery focused films were released, leaving many black viewers tired of seeing their suffering played out on screen.

Django Unchained (2012) – a brutal and bloody flick directed by Quentin Tarantino – was the next to receive critical acclaim. The film, which was based on the story of a freed slave, Django, joining forces with bounty hunter Dr. King Schultz to rescue his wife, sees Django get revenge on slave masters. But, like The Help, Django Unchained was partially reliant upon the heroism of a white character in Dr Schultz, but this time the unfiltered view of black bodies bloodied and beaten was on full display for viewers to marvel at.

This culminated with the Academy Award-winning 12 Years A Slave (2013) – an exceptional film following Solomon Northup, a born free African-American man who was kidnapped by two con men and sold into slavery. The film is packed with cinematic moments which remain etched in my memory; confronting images like Northup tip-toeing while hanging from a tree with a noose clenched around his neck still haunts me.

During the release of these films, the phrase “trauma porn” became more and more present on social media, as the amalgamation of entertainment and black pain collided and continued to rehash a story that is difficult to watch unfold – especially when reminded that there are people profiting from this pain.

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It’s therefore understandable that many wanted to see more films that deviate away from the trauma. As noted by director Ava DuVernay, there has been “an imbalance between contemporary and historical cinematic images of black people”.

Despite the many accomplishments made by black people in history, slavery and racism continued to be the key source for black films, resulting in a rather draining view of the black experience which turned many – including myself – off.

However, this lack of positive black storytelling and modern cinematic images slowly began to change in the mid 2010s, with a wider variety of black stories being told across different genres.

Transition

We began to see narratives which explored the many facets of the black experience, with characters and themes which are relatable to black people across the diaspora.

Hidden Figures (2016) drew from our history and the brilliant people within it. Centered on the story of three African American mathematicians – Mary Jackson, Katherine Johnson and Dorothy Vaughan – this true story saw how these women played a vital role in astronaut John Glenn’s launch into orbit, while facing racial and gender discrimination at work. While the white saviour narrative was still at play here, it didn’t overshadow the brilliance of these three women as Hidden Figures displayed their ability to overcome conditions that were not designed for them to win.

We also began to see the development of narratives which relate to the black experience today. Academy Award-winning Moonlight (2016) is a devastatingly beautiful coming-of-age drama focusing on the three stages in the life of Chiron, a black character coming to terms with his identity and sexuality in South Florida.

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From the cinematography to the storytelling, Moonlight documented the black male gay experience with beauty, integrity and complexity in a way which has rarely been seen before.

We also saw a resurgence in the celebration of black womanhood, with films placing black women’s joy at the fore.

Girl’s Trip (2017) proved to be a monster success, as it took a fun, lighthearted look at a group of girlfriends on a trip to New Orleans. Part of its allure was in its ease. It was funny and entertaining to watch, but it also provided a look at black womanhood where we were the focus, rather than it being pain or hardship.

And then there’s the fantasy. For blackness to be immersed far from reality and into a world of magic and comics is something most of us would’ve dreamed of a decade ago.

The socially-aware and action-packed Black Panther was one of these movies which undoubtedly changed the game. Beyond breaking box office records, it also dismantled the myth that big budget movies with black casts don’t sell.

DuVernay’s A Wrinkle In Time (2018) also took us into a fantasy world, focusing on the story of a young black girl, Meg, who goes on a quest to find her father who is lost in another dimension.

DuVernay – who became the first black female director with a £100 million budget – gave viewers a visual feast for the eyes and a story filled with warmth as an ordinary girl’s epic adventure is played out on screen.

These movies in addition to a plethora of others including the coming-of-age drama Dope (2015) to the genre-defining Get Out (2017), showed the growth of black cinema as the storytellers and filmmakers pushed through their narratives to an audience ready to consume it.

Optimistic

We still have a long way to go in navigating our way through black stories in film. For every Moonlight there’s a Green Book – another film which once again centered the painful history of racism in the American south alongside the moral growth of a white character – and we have begun to see a trend in films inspired by the Black Lives Matter movement from The Hate U Give (2018) to the recently-released Queen & Slim (2019), which sparked a conversation around the growth of black filmmakers and the exploitation of black bodies on screen.

However, what the last decade has shown us is that there has been growth, and I am optimistic for the future.

From the upcoming romantic drama The Photograph, action thriller Without Remorse and Twitter-thread-turned-film Zola, I look forward to seeing the vast and beautiful, complex and scary films that will place blackness in all the spaces and scenarios we deserve to be seen in.

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Image: Netflix

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