When Hollywood deals with black history, it tends to over simplify the message into nothing more than ‘racism is bad’, and overlook the subtleties of the characters involved or miss out certain facets of the struggle. However, recently Hollywood has started to address the history of African American’s in a more balanced and positive light, acknowledging the complex issues surrounding these subjects, condemning the atrocities and celebrating the triumphs.
I am loath to say that Steve McQueen’s 12 Years a Slave (2012) ‘celebrates’ black history, as it deals with a topic no one wants to celebrate. I appreciate the level of detail in the way that McQueen presents society during slavery and the way that it permeated every facet of political, economic and social life. The performances and writing imbue each character with a level of subtlety which makes them more sympathetic and/or terrifying depending on which side of the issue they stand on.
Civil rights leaders have also had the Hollywood treatment, most recently Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. in Selma (2014). Selma deals with Martin Luther King Jr. the man, rather than the civil rights leader, lending a depth to his character and makes his struggle that much more poignant. Malcom X got his own movie in X directed by Spike Lee in 1992, starring Denzel Washington, who was famously snubbed by the academy.
But slavery and civil rights are not the only two things in black history. Many key figures in the public sphere, whether they be athletes or artists or public servants, have had their stories told, lending a multiplicity of perspectives on the key issues surrounding black people at the time. 42’s (Brian Helgeland, 2012) story of the first black baseball player during World War II, Dreamgirls (Bill Condon, 2006) and Ray (Taylor Hackford, 2004) deal with the prejudice of the mainstream white culture during the late 1960s, through biopic and fiction (though these films could also fall prey to oversimplification). There have been films set in present day that still deal with the same issues of race relations. Dear White People (Justin Simien, 2014), for instance, carries on the traditions of directors like Spike Lee and John Singleton, which deal with black issues of the day. These films deal with racial prejudice, misrepresentation and cultural absorption with a level of wit and Sophistication that shows us that the story of black history is far from over. These films remind us that issues of race still exist; they have not gone away just because a predominantly white Hollywood has finally started to make positive films about important black figures.