Hollywood's Role In Making Black Lives Matter

Hollywood's Role In Making Black Lives Matter

My own journey through recent events has been slow and winding. Dubious of movements likes Black Lives Matter, but also acutely aware of the disparities in every level of the criminal justice system. There is little that is black and white where people say it is, but there is a lot we can learn at this particular moment.

Movies are important. In times of triumph, they can help us rally around the victory and feel a sense of community. In times of despair, they can offer respite where people feel an endless void. But every day, they offer the opportunity to reflect on ourselves, tell our stories and give people insights into lives they have not necessarily lived.

Understanding the path of another is an important function of the human condition. In light of recent events, many are asking why certain institutions fail to see Black Americans as human beings. While that is not necessarily on the Black community to solve itself, it is apparent that we are in dire need of a radical realignment of public perceptions.

Throughout history, when any group has sought to redefine itself, or to advance a message, the motion picture is one of the first mediums people turn to. Every group, from the Nazis to the United States federal government, has sought to alter perceptions via imagery and storytelling. This type of propaganda is used because it has a dramatic impact on how people think.

From Bernie Goetz in 1984 to the shooting of Philandro Castille this week, there is a well-documented history of snap judgments that Black people are dangerous. This idea comes from hundreds of years of oppressive history, which included mob lynchings for everything from a lingering gaze at a white woman to just existing in a Black body. The reason this has always been possible is that there is a certain lack of humanity attributed to Black people throughout history. We are thought to feel less pain, we are thought to be adults before we are, we are thought to inhabit some middle ground between beast and human. Now, this certainly is not everyone’s perception, but it has been enough a part of our history that if you have been raised in America, you probably have at least some remnants of this past inside you. And it is those remnants that bear their existence in times of extreme pressure like that faced by police officers.


How do we turn this tide? It starts with representation. Not just representation in the stories of others, but representation of our own stories—in their truest form. One of the earliest examples of the type of imagery I am referring to is what New York Times Critic At Large Wesley Morris refers to as “the slap” in In The Heat of the Night. That 1967 film starred Sidney Poitier and features one of the earliest moments of racial equality in film. In it, Poitier’s character, Virgil Tibbs, a homicide detective in the South, is confronted with several rounds of prejudice, but it is one moment in particular that is worth highlighting. It is when his character is interrogating a person of interest and that person slaps him. Up to that point, history would dictate Tibbs would have been required to sulk away in shame. Instead, Tibbs slapped the man right back. This one moment showed Sidney Poitier’s character on equal footing with his white counterpart—maintaining his dignity, preserving his space, and being every bit as human as anyone else.

While movies might seem like a trivial expression of equality, I would contend that the routine display of Black life and Black humanity—the likes of which we do not often see—will do wonders when new generations are exposed to the understanding that people that do not look like them still feel in much the same way.


Southside With You, for instance, is a soon to be released film chronicling the events of the Obamas’ first date. The exact contents of the film are less important than the fact it exists at all. Watching it, I felt this overwhelming sense that this was the first time I saw a young, Black, educated couple falling in love on screen. And given that I check those same boxes, and this was my first time seeing those types of images, I can imagine that for most they will feel totally novel—even though they are images we see of white people on a daily basis.

Tears that fall on our own faces don’t have the same effect as ones that live in the eyes of each individual. The idea that someone might turn to Fruitvale Station this weekend, and thus feel our humanity as their own, is powerful. Watching Oscar Grant’s story unfold, even as you already know the tragic end, makes you reconsider every headline. It makes every hashtag and Facebook memorial feel like flesh and blood. And that should be the point of our art going forward. Hollywood has a responsibility to make an effort to combat the corrosive dialogue we have always known.

I can’t help but wonder what would happen if there were decades of such films, chronicling injustice, revealing humanity and conditioning all of us to see humanity in each and every other—regardless of otherness. That is why stereotypes are so dangerous, and why their depiction on screen is particularly baleful. It fills us with notions that it is easy to ascribe simple ideas to broad swaths of people instead of treating each person in accord with their merits and actions.

Truly removing prejudice is likely impossible. There is something biological in deciding things based on snap judgments. We can, however, work to change the direction of the snap. We can work to make what you think you know about a person just from their appearance less pronounced, or at least more positive. Balance is needed and film is more important than ever in delivering just that. 


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