Movies aren’t miracles

I have long believed that film has the ability to change the world.  I wrote in my 2002 and 2004 applications to graduate schools in film and dramatic writing that I wrote scripts “with the intent to provoke a time of serious comtemplation in the life of everyone who heard [my words].” I believed that as a screenwriter, I would “have great power” to influence society.

I still believe that art, of all kinds, can change the world.  I have to, or else everything I do is moot.  I won’t act as though my motives for pursuing my artistic dreams have ever been 100 percent selfless; I like having a long list of awards on my résumé, and I’ve had acceptance speeches for world reknown awards shows in mind for a long time. But my primary goal of using popular art forms as avenues for social change hasn’t altered.

I’ve begun to wonder, however, if the goal is too lofty when it comes to cinema—at least to the movies released by major studios and to the films that get the widest distribution. My doubt not only sprang from knowing the state of Hollywood for black filmmakers and knowing the dismal revenues (see #6) of the film industry in general.  It also stems from social media chatter reflecting how much the viewing public has expected of films as of late.

It appears that for some films, we’ve moved beyond entertainment for entertainment’s sake.  If a black film—that is, a film in which the majority of leading roles are played by black actors or a film written and/or directed and/or produced by African-Americans—is playing nation wide, the script better be tight, the performances award-worthy, the visual and sound editing flawless, the cinematography stunning and the director’s genius evident.  If set before 2012, it better be historically accurate, even if it’s not a documentary.  No “demeaning” or morally bad (also known as morally complex, character-driven) roles are allowed. And if the filmmaker wants to make social commentary, he or she better say that black heterosexual love is beautiful; black women are in no way angry, whorish or incapable of pleasing black men; black men don’t kill one another; black men never mistreat women who also happen to be black; the black nuclear family unit is strong and intact; and “the” black community, no matter what city, town or era the movie is set in, is full of these beautiful, strong, married, man-led, proud, Afro-centric families who live in unity and who, were it possible that dramatic conflict could occur in this utopia, would overcome their obstacles without any help from anyone who’s not in their utopia.

(And I’m willing to bet anything that if the latest wave of independent films that expand the definition of “the black experience in America” don’t leave negative stereotypes, especially those about black families and relationships, out of the story, their films will come under the same scrutiny as those in wide release.)

People, stop this. Please.

If we’re making these kinds of analytical arguments, then I guess film is doing the job I thought it could do, but is it fair to ask it to do that? As an artist, I feel like film has a responsibility to encourage critical thinking and promote cultural awareness and social change.  But as someone who just doesn’t want to have to think that damn deep all the time and who sometimes wants to just be entertained, I feel like we put too much pressure on the big screen.

By all means, expect and demand that the writer, director, cinematographer, audio engineer, actors, costume designer, dialect coach—every person in the credits—performs his or her craft with excellence.  This is the same thing each of those people should demand of themselves.  And yes, black audiences should demand that screen versions of the black experience in America not continually cast blacks as savages who deserved to be enslaved.

But don’t limit your high expectations to black movies.

Be a critic.  Write your own version of Roger Ebert’s Your Movie Sucks.  Every time a movie sucks, say it.

Because then, maybe more movies like Pariah, Precious, Love Jones or just about anything you might see at Sundance but won’t see at a multiplex in the midwest, would get financed more readily and released more widely. And maybe we wouldn’t have to hype black movies that may not deserve the hype because we no longer fear that no black movies, or no good movies, will be made ever again if we don’t.

This post was first published on Jan. 24, 2012, as an op-ed in the Courier-Journal Forum section, Keith Runyon, editor.

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