BLACK STORIES MATTER: Of the people, by the people - for all people
Award-winning playwright, screenwriter and Fulbright alumna Ade Solanke shares her thoughts on race, representation and storytelling in British and American TV and movies.
I blame Will Smith.
It was watching The Fresh Prince of Bel Air that made 90s LA such a shock. I knew there’d be racism. “Are you still going? That city’s on fire!” my mum nagged, watching BBC News. But with Will, Uncle Phil, Ashley et al all having such a good time, I thought I’d be fine.
In fact, it was exhilarating. I had a wonderful, life-changing experience during my Fulbright years at the University of Southern California. It was a privilege to study in one of the world’s leading film schools, to be taught by accomplished filmmakers and surrounded by peers who lived and breathed storytelling. I made friends who’ve become family. I survived the Northridge Earthquake of 1994 and brush fires.
But – although growing up in Black-Conscious, Boho Notting Hill gave me tools against UK racism – nothing had prepared me for the full trauma and shock of how America does race.
I thought I was going to film school. It turned out to be race school too.
I was there between 1992 and 1997, arriving into the tense aftermath of the ‘92 Los Angeles uprisings against police brutality, departing amidst the febrile heat of the trial of superstar athlete and actor OJ Simpson.
Now, another 30 years on, as we’re again engulfed in racial convulsions after the murder of George Floyd, Will Smith is re-imagining his sitcom as a drama. The remake, according to the Hollywood Reporter, “will dive deeper into the inherent conflicts, emotions and biases of what it means to be a Black man in America today.”
It’s great that a show with a Black male protagonist, and exploring issues of being a Black man, is coming soon.
The protagonist is the beating heart of a narrative story and there are still too few Black ones. They are the person the audience follows through the story, and invests their deepest hopes and fears in. In the era of the attention economy, do decision-makers see Black people as being worthy of that level of attention? And if not, does this matter?
Stories can heal – or harm
Many people only meet people unlike themselves in stories. That’s why story telling matters. It offers a meeting place. Stories can inform, mobilise and heal. They can bring people together.
But they can also divide us.
That’s why being reduced to supporting characters and to the bottom of the story ecosystem has real life consequences.
The truth is people don’t see; we recognise. We respond to what’s in front of us and accept or reject it in favour of what we ‘know’ based on prior representations – or misrepresentations.
How white America sees Black men can be a life or death affair.
That’s why director Ava Du Vernay changed the title of her mini-series about how five young Black men were wrongfully and without evidence convicted of rape, from The Central Park Five to When They See Us.
It’s why the white man who murdered nine people in a church in Charleston got a burger and a drink from his arresting officer whilst George Floyd was killed by a cop kneeling on his neck over a $20 bill. These responses were shaped by how each was seen by police.
How storytellers position Black characters affects Black lives.
Who’s in the room?
Yes, representation on our cinema and television screens has improved. But how many broadcasters and streaming services in the US and in the UK invest in returning shows with Black protagonists? There’s no Black equivalent to Midsomer Murders (21 seasons), Law and Order (21 seasons), Modern Family (11 seasons), Death in Paradise (10 seasons). The latter is set in the Caribbean and boasts a fantastic Black cast – and a white lead.
What’s currently on screen is limited, not re Black presence, but re Black leads.
I have never seen a returning UK TV drama centring a Black female detective or doctor (although cops and docs are ubiquitous in screen fictions) last more than two seasons. Or one centring a Black family. We had the wonderful Desmonds sitcom set in a Black barbershop. In spite of it being Channel 4’s most successful sitcom ever, there’s been little since. At the moment, across all shows in the UK, we have one Black family on air, in Sky’s In The Long Run.
And in the story pantheon, there isn’t a Black equivalent of James Bond, Sherlock Holmes, or Miss Marple: protagonists who’ve transcended their fictional casing and move outside it, roaming around the culture.
One problem is the gatekeepers. Studies such as UCLA’s annual Hollywood Diversity Report estimate that over 90% of studio heads and senior executives remain white. The faces in the 2020 Colour of Power report reveals a similar picture in UK film and TV.
At a recent Screenskills Diversity Roundtable, the heads of the BBC, ITV, Channel 4 and Sky, spoke about hiring senior Black commissioners. This is crucial. Things may change if Black people – with budgets and authority – are in the room when the decisions are made about what stories to tell.
Antagonists in stories about overcoming racial oppression are often white baddies
During my Fulbright year, I told my son’s LA kindergarten class a story about Dr King’s fight against a segregated funfair. I thought the kids would identify with other kids getting to have fun. But one white girl asked, “Ade, are all white people bad?” The white mothers twitched. I didn’t intend to make a child feel bad, and it taught me we need to be more skilful in how we engage children. But adult audiences reared on a limited diet of ‘feel good’ stories with white heroes (and white saviours in Black stories), may also feel uncomfortable with these stories. That’s ok. As Gloria Steinem says, “The truth will set you free, but first it will piss you off.”
And here’s a critical point: in challenging their white audiences, story makers will also be offering fresh and original material, as well as serving very neglected Black audiences. Don’t they matter? A recent report identified the industry’s catering to the white female reader as the biggest obstacle to diversity.
We have so many untold stories. Frederick Douglass, the abolitionist, and the most photographed man of the 19th century, surely deserves a movie? What about the incredible untold herstories, such as of the Leesburg Stockade Girls, the courageous children jailed for taking part in the Civil Rights Movement?
Struggle has given Black people extraordinary experiences. But are stories about racism too depressing to be commercial? The answer to that is that critically acclaimed 12 Years a Slave, as harrowing as it was, made over $150 million. That’s more than many a romcom with big name white stars.
It’s not the subject people respond to, it’s the artistry of the telling. Objections to Black protagonists/Black stories as ‘less marketable’ are maybe more ideological than commercial.
Tales about enslaved people can be inspiring, uplifting dramas of resistance and liberation. My script, Phillis in London, is about poet and prodigy Phillis Wheatley (also enslaved for 12 years), the first African to publish a book in English. It celebrates her courage and intelligence and the creativity with which she was able emancipate herself. Enslaved people often found ways to resist, to escape, to live in spite of captivity. Her story plunges you into the vitality and drama of pre-Revolutionary 1770s London, shown via the experiences of a Black female lead.
But Black stories can be about anything. Producer Will Packer has had a slate of box office hits. He says his stories (Ride Along, Girls Trip etc.) feature Black leads but are race neutral (i.e. the situations could happen to non-Black people). Black joy and normality is just as vital to represent. And just as lucrative.
And it matters who is doing the telling. When The Help became Netflix’s most watched film in the wake of the George Floyd murder, actress Bryce Dallas Howard was clear about what movies people ought to be watching instead:
“The Help is a fictional story told through the perspective of a white character and was created by predominantly white storytellers… the storytellers we must listen to right now and look to and learn from — [is] work that centers on Black characters from Black creators.”
Eliminating racist culture
George Floyd’s killing has prompted reflection and action in every sphere. This unprecedented moment of protest, activism and change, can be a plot point, a turning point in the system of white privilege in storytelling.
From 1934 to 1968, The Motion Picture Production Code (or Hays Code) upheld, in effect, segregation by banning miscegenation from American screens. Today, a new code can foster integration. We’ve had the War on Drugs and the War on Terror. Why not enlist storytelling in a War on Racism?
Black Artists for Freedom, a group of 1,000 artists mobilised by George Floyd’s murder, argue we need a complete reset of the story system and eradication of Black stereotypes. “Consciously and unconsciously,” they write, “these stereotypes are invoked — in everyday interactions and in courts of law — as reasons why Black people do not deserve human rights. We do not wish merely to modify or alleviate this racist culture. We aim to eliminate it”.
Signatory Franklin Leonard, founder of the Blacklist, suggests, “If we as a business are going to spend a billion dollars on content, 13% of that is going to go to the African American community for stories by and about people in that community …”
We can’t reset the social system without dismantling white supremacy in the story system.
With COVID-19, there’s a financial and economic reset underway; let’s reset culture too. After all, money and fiction both boil down to marks on paper – and both rely on our willing suspension of disbelief.
Jamaican activist and journalist Marcus Garvey wrote that “a people without the knowledge of their history, origin and culture are like a tree without roots.” He was addressing Black people, but his argument applies equally to white people who don’t know the incredible stories, ugly and otherwise, buried within our shared history.
More Black protagonists alone won’t eliminate racist murders. But – by contradicting the central thesis of white supremacy, that only white lives matter – they will help more people see, and recognise, Black humanity.
Ade Solanke is an award-winning playwright and screenwriter, and founder and director of Spora Stories, telling stories of the African diaspora: http://www.sporastories.com/.