Hollywood and the Civil-Rights Struggle: Why Now?
By Sa'iyda Shabazz
In the year 2013 you wouldn’t think that blacks would still be fighting for civil rights. It has now been five years since the groundbreaking election of President Barack Obama, and some would argue that things have gotten worse for African-Americans in the years since, especially following his re-election in 2012. While the struggle is nothing new, it has come to a new light, especially in Hollywood. It can be said that Hollywood’s fascination with the civil-rights struggle started with the 2011 release of the film The Help, based on Kathryn Stockett’s best-selling novel of the same name. The film grossed more than $200 million and received mostly positive reviews from critics. Once it became a hit, it seemed that the floodgates were opened. On Christmas Day 2012, Quentin Tarantino’s Django Unchained was released. The film grossed more than $100 million, was nominated for multiple Oscar awards, and won for Best Screenplay and Supporting Actor. The film was critically acclaimed, but not without controversy.
The controversy? What could a white director (Tarantino) possibly know about the struggles of slavery? And then to have turned it into a typical Tarantino movie with the excessive violence and overuse of the n-word? The black community had every right to be up in arms. The topic of slavery is still touchy within the community, even some 150 years later. We are protective of our history, especially the negative. But the numbers are a testament to something. One could say that it was the filmmaker, the way the film was made or, the subject matter.
In 2013, three movies were released that portrayed the struggle of black men in America. First released was the contemporary film Fruitvale Station, a story of the murder of Oscar Grant III by a white police officer at a Bay Area Rapid Transit Station in 2009; followed by Lee Daniels’ The Butler, a heavily fictionalized account of the life of White House butler Eugene Allen; and lastly, 12 Years a Slave, a film version of the story of Solomon Northup, a free man taken captive as a slave for 12 years in the 1841. Oddly enough, the films were released in opposite chronological order. The most recent event was released first. One could say that we are watching our history in reverse, that to understand where we are now, we must look back at our past.
The question that begs to be asked is, “Why now?” What is it about 2013 that made Hollywood decide these films needed to be released? It could be said that with the re-election of Obama, it’s a celebration of how far we’ve come as a people. On the other side of the same coin it could be said that while we have achieved something as monumental as a black president, we’re still embroiled in a bitter fight to be seen as equals. Because these films place so much emphasis on the struggle, it can be said that the latter is truer than the former. Really all you need to do is look at the subject matter of Fruitvale Station to see that the struggle is still intensely real. It can be said that by making these films and having them in wide release, light is being shed on the issue and will hopefully show the world that while things have changed on the surface, inherently the struggle is still very real. Unlike The Help and Django Unchained, which were directed and created by white authors, The Butler and Fruitvale Station were directed and authored by African-American men. The community would argue that these men would be more inclined to tell the story because they are entrenched in the struggle just by being black.
“There is a level of awareness, alertness, and worry that black males have to deal with that others just can’t understand,” says Garry Bates Jr., a black male from Virginia when asked about these films’ importance. “Being seen as a threat for absolutely no reason except your skin color and gender is stressful enough as it is,” he continues. These reasons can be applied as the inner monologue of the lead characters of these films. This is the motivator for the filmmakers; they want to show the world what life is like for them and their peers. But what about Hollywood? “It is still a business,” says Saeed Shabazz, a black male from New York. “Blacks have close to a trillion-dollar spending power in the United States. Hollywood is finally using their wisdom by tapping into that spending power.” And while that is most definitely true, these films reached a much wider spectrum.
With white audiences turning out to watch these movies in large numbers, it can be said that while the stories are aimed at a black audience, they touched a much broader spectrum. While the jury is still out on the definitive reason why these films have been released now, one thing can be said: They left a lasting impact on us as a society.