Last Wednesday, Netflix released a 3-episode docuseries entitled “They Gotta Have Us”. The revealing limited series examines the lack of diversity in Hollywood both on and behind the screen. In this mini-series, some of the biggest names in Hollywood come together to celebrate the achievements and successes of Black entertainers throughout history. The docuseries explores the evolution and untangles the significance of Black characters, film, and storytelling.
‘They Gotta Have Us’ tracks the journey that allowed Black filmmakers to win the space to speak on their terms.
In the early 1900s, there was a limited presence of Black people in film. Hollywood films rarely cast Black actors and actresses. When a Black character was present, it was often a white person in blackface. The diversity of Black characters during this time was non-existent. Cinemas also portrayed a very homogenous image of Black people. This image mostly featured subservient Black people whose sole purpose was to cater to the needs of white people. Black filmmakers were virtually nonexistent at this time. The first film created by a Black independent filmmaker did not grace white movie theatres until 1919.
“They Gotta Have Us” perfectly illustrates the marginalization of Black people in society by describing how Black actors were historically restricted from conducting their craft. Eventually, Black people were able to play characters in feature films; however, these roles still fed into the stereotypes associated with Black people. This docuseries acknowledges Sydney Poitier, Diahanne Caroll and Spike Lee as innovators in Black filmmaking. These actors and filmmakers are often celebrated for their boldness and creativity when portraying Black characters on screen.
With the success of Black independent films comes commodification
Through blaxploitation, Black actors and actresses were able to gain new roles; however, the way that their stories were told was homogenous once again. Hollywood exhausted the cartoonish and stereotypical characters for Black actors and actresses in the initial blaxploitation movement. Millions of dollars were invested into movies like “Juice” and “Shaft” but there was no reinvestment or follow up because these movies did not generally appeal to white audiences.
“They Gotta Have Us” clearly explains that the inclusion of Black people in Hollywood as actors, producers, and directors, is to benefit the film industry. Diversity does sell; however, there is a fear to allow diversity to grow, especially in an industry as influential as the film industry.
Here’s the thing:
Western nations, especially the United States, is a white, patriarchal society. If diversity is going to happen, it must be controlled. The way that Black people are depicted must be approved by those in charge. These people are directors, distributors, and producers. They, more often than not, are also white people. There are numerous reasons why the same images of Black people, like gangsters, drug dealers, and prostitutes, are portrayed in film. One of these reasons is because controlling the image of Black people makes it easier to control those groups. If mainstream society constantly sees Black people as criminals or socially deviant, then it is easier to regulate those groups. But, we’ll get back to this.
The final episode of the docuseries explores the most recent era of Black filmmaking.
The film analyzes the phenomenon of present-day Black themed blockbusters like “Black Panther”, “Moonlight” and “Get Out” to exemplify the success of Black filmmakers, actors and actresses. The fact of the matter is that Black people are doing it for themselves. The number of independent Black filmmakers and companies is growing. The opportunity for these entertainers and artists is in large part due to the path created for them by their predecessors.
Despite the progress that has taken place, Black entertainers are still fighting for diversity in Hollywood. Take this past weekend as an example. At the 92nd Oscars, one Black actress was nominated for an award, and only one Black filmmaker won. Many viewers felt as if the lack of diversity in nominations recapitulated the #OscarsSoWhite sensation that emerged 5 years ago.
“They Gotta Have Us” illuminates the reverberations of racism on Black communities.
The book “Black Film, White Money” by Jesse Algeron Rhines perfectly accompanies the content discussed in “They Gotta Have Us”. Like this docuseries, Rhines argues that the film industry excludes Black people at every level. As previously stated, white people own the majority of the production companies in Hollywood. If they do not own these companies, then they are hired as directors or producers for prominent film companies in Hollywood. Historically, there is little opportunity for Black people to have autonomy over their art. Black entertainers are used in the way that best suits those in control, which, more often than not, is white people.
The media has a lot of influence and control in society. As previously mentioned, historically, the perception of minority populations, like Black people, is shaped through the media. The negative perceptions of Black people facilitated by the media made it easier to control them. One of these methods of control and surveillance is the police. With Black people consistently portrayed as criminals in the media, Blackness has become synonymous with criminality. The image of Black criminality has become the standardized norm when discussing the image of Black people, especially in America. Subsequently, these stereotypical images influence police officers to police Black populations using racist practices such as over-policing and racial profiling. Research shows that officers are more likely to justify these practices based on stereotypical ideas of Black people and their violent criminality.
the exclusion of black filmmaker autonomy unquestionably mirrors the systemic marginalization of black people in mainstream society.
Society projects the image that Black people are not always welcome. The policies and practices in society that make it hard for Black people to thrive reflect this assumption. Many Black people feel like they do not belong, especially in Western countries like America. It is a tale as old as time itself.
By excluding Black actors and filmmakers from the filmmaking process, Hollywood is marginalizing these entertainers. When Hollywood establishes obstacles that prevent these artists and entertainers from exercising their craft, they are projecting a narrative that says Black stories, Black film, and Black art is not welcome. This message dismisses our history and us as Black people, which further separates us from the fabric of the nations we belong to.
Even the repeated use of negative stereotypes for Black characters marginalizes Black people. These stereotypes reduce the scope of who Black people can be. They strip away the ambition, personality, and character of Black people, and instead reduce them to comical typologies. These depictions can be negative, not only in the representation itself but also in the result. For example, In many cases, the portrayal of Black people as criminals inspires society to call for tough-on-crime policies, or justify the use of police brutality. In some cases, these negative portrayals characterize Black people as “the other,” rather than dynamic individuals.
Generation NeXt is rising
What makes the revelation of Generation NeXt so exciting is the unlimited options for the portrayal of Black people in cinema. The freedom that this new era in filmmaking has, provides Black filmmakers with the opportunity to tell real stories about Black people. These stories include science, romance, action, mystery and many other authentic adventures. The opportunity that Black filmmakers have to tell these stories lets Black people and Black communities know that their lives matter. Young Black boys and girls dare to dream about being astronauts or journalists because they see Black characters in cinema pursuing these careers successfully.
With filmmakers who understand Black people and Black culture telling diverse stories about Black characters, the perceptions about Black people will shift within mainstream culture. Diversity is slowing increasing in Hollywood and with it, the understanding of Black culture will change as well.
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