Why We Need More Movies About Black Writers, Artists, and Scholars; Not Musicians

Jasmine Chantel
Jun 22, 2018 · 9 min read
Halle Berry in Introducing Dorothy Dandridge (1999)

Last year, the Black cinema-focused website Shadow and Act updated their list of biopics set to be produced on African-American public figures. At the time, the list contained over sixty projects. Personally, I have yet to see most of these projects hit the screen and according to the writer, many of them haven’t made it far beyond an initial announcement. Reading through the list I couldn’t help but note that it features mostly musicians and entertainers; followed by athletes and figures in the Civil Rights Movement.

My mission was to find projects specifically on African-American writers. I gathered two names.

Michael Jackson Impersonator Navi in Lifetime’s Michael Jackson: Searching for Neverland (2017)

Every year there are at least a handful of biopics released on African-American musicians; from Tina Turner to Whitney Houston to Michael Jackson. Those whose music has dominated the Billboard charts at one time or another have had their lives documented on the big screen. There are at least three movies depicting Michael Jackson’s traumatic childhood, his rise to fame and fortune through his unearthly musical talents, along with his later battles with his identity and within the courts. Jackson is a legend who absolutely deserves to have his story told. So is Turner, Houston, and all the other black musicians who have inspired millions through their music and earned the status of music icons.

Why is it that Black musicians seem to be the only ones who are deemed worthy enough to have their stories told though?

Nicholas Hoult as J.D. Salinger in A Rebel in the Rye (2017)

I recently went on a search for biopics about writers, after watching A Rebel in the Rye which documents the life of famed author J.D. Salinger. I scoured through numerous websites that compiled lists on what they deemed the “greatest” movies about writers. I made a couple of observations: First, that most of the movies were about male authors (no surprise there) and second, that I had not come across one movie about an African-American writer. This probably shouldn’t have surprised me as much as it did. I thought maybe I was looking in the wrong place. Sure enough, after searching through a long list of biopics on African-Americans, I came up short once again. What I did find was a plethora of movies about African-American entertainers. Mostly musical greats like Ray Charles, James Brown, even Biggie Smalls.

Music has always been a fundamental cornerstone in black culture; in American culture for that matter. The impact of jazz, blues, hip-hop, along with so many other genres continues to thrive and evolve in new and remarkable ways. But still, why so much attention only to those that entertain the American masses through singing and dancing? As far as I can tell, there are so few films about black innovation through crafts like writing, visual arts, and even scholarship that it’s worth mention.

The impact that movies have on our view of the world has always been significant. They spread awareness, offer us insight into others and ourselves, and they have the ability to make us experience a mixture of emotions in a span of two or so hours.

As a movie lover, I live for diversity on the screen. Unfortunately, we still live in a culture where it is hard for many minorities to get cast in TV and movie roles. And where roles meant for minorities are whitewashed and filled with the same pale faces we see on screen every few months or even every day. This year, with the release of Black Panther and A Wrinkle in Time, both directed by African-Americans, the hope that more minorities can be a part of the creation of great films is steadily rising. There are still many boundaries that minorities have to overcome in this industry and others, but one would think that ensuring more visual representation of the roles that we would like our underrepresented youth to one day pursue would be a good start.

Students watching a free screening of Black Panther (2018)

That would mean holding back on the next attempt at an MJ movie and focusing more on the lives of African-Americans who aren’t acclaimed superstars but have, in some way, proven to be trailblazers, creators, and significant in the prosperity of African-American culture, nonetheless.

Though movies, media, and most of society would have us think differently, there are African-Americans that are writers, scholars, artists, and intellectuals who have contributed great things to our culture.

Growing up I found that the only ways that I could feel like myself were through reading, writing stories, and through sketching and painting. But we hardly, if ever, see African-Americans partake in these activities on the screen, do we?

There even still seems to be this crazy idea out there that Black people don’t read. They don’t write books. They’re not interested in education or intellectual arguments. Often in the media, they are portrayed as people only interested in blasting loud music in hopes of disrupting public spaces and intimidating people. They like to cause a ruckus, shuck and jive, and maybe even be the comical relief from time to time.

Poet and Author Gwendolyn Brooks

These are often the roles that Black people are limited to. Like most aspects of African-American culture; Black literature, creativity, and intellect are overlooked unless it can, in some way, prove appealing to White audiences and be warped to suit their needs and fascination.

This is where music comes in.

Music is a universal language. One that we can all feel, interpret, and connect with on various levels. It’s also a language that can be easily replicated and mimicked.

Other arts such as literature and visual arts aren’t as easy to duplicate, especially when they are directly invented from the experience and perspective of the creator. It’s not impossible; just takes more work.

Music circulates faster and farther than any other form of art. According to Billboard, R&B and hip-hop were the most popular music genres in 2017. Within the same month, USA Today reported that rap had officially beat out rock music as the most popular genre among music consumers. The growing admiration for these genres and the artists dominating them is blatantly obvious if you’ve been on social media anytime in the last few years.

Taylor Swift in music video for Shake it Off

As someone who grew up in a home where hip-hop and rap had a constant presence, I can’t help but be elated that these genres and artists are getting the recognition and praise that they deserve. On the other hand, I also find myself disgusted at times by how these genres are being exploited and appropriated simply because of their popularity. Black music has always been profitable, even when it was taboo. It continues to inspire fashion, dances, slang, and now memes.

Its reach continues to grow throughout the media and the world for that matter. There may be millions of people that get a kick out of listening to Kendrick Lamar and Beyoncé and copying their look, but when it comes to actually standing up against or even being aware of issues that plague African-American communities, half of these people are nowhere to be found. There are so many who act as bystanders or even participants in the racism, injustices, and violence that gets committed against African-Americans, yet shamelessly partake in the gratification of popular trends, music, and dances that spring from the culture.

I can’t say for a fact that this is why the lives of Black musicians make it onto the screen for all to see while other types of artists are disregarded but I can’t help but think it’s an integral factor.

Jason Mitchell, O’ Shea Jackson Jr, and Corey Hawkins from Straight Outta Compton (2015)

You can’t consider producing anything nowadays without considering whether or not there is a market for it. Of course, there’s a market for a movie about N.W.A, Tupac, and Whitney Houston; they’re music icons. It’s only natural to assume that there won’t be as big of an audience for a film about Langston Hughes, Phillis Wheatley, or Lorraine Hansberry because people certainly won’t be as familiar with African-American writers as they are with musicians.

Being a writer, in general, doesn’t necessarily mean that your life and work aren’t worth some recognition. Many members of a predominantly White literary canon have had their lives depicted in films. The experiences of Salinger, Poe, Capote, Austen, and so many other writers have found their way onto the screen; be they accurate portrayals or not. The fact that there are so many movies produced about White writers, yet next to none about African-American ones just proves how insignificant African-American literature is seen to so many in our county.

Elle Fanning In Mary Shelley (2018)

This isn’t a far-fetched conclusion considering most Black writers don’t even get taught in schools. Names like Toni Morrison, James Baldwin, and Gwendolyn Brooks weren’t even introduced to me until I reached college. Like many, if not most, minority students in America’s school system I was taught to comprehend predominantly white voices and perspectives; not ones that reflected my own and could have helped me better understand myself and my circumstances. It’s part of the reason why I thought being a writer, as an African-American, would not be a viable career. I thought that I was one of the very few of my race that enjoyed reading books, even if they were about people that I couldn’t really relate to. I felt as though I had deviated from my own culture simply because I took pleasure in reading, as opposed to seeing it as a chore. Taking this into account, I have to acknowledge that maybe this is a significant factor in why more minorities aren’t interested in appreciating literature. Why reading and writing stories is looked down upon or seen as boring, trivial activities by pretty much everyone that I know. They’ve been typecast as things that only white people, or people that wish to be white, do because that’s who they are filled with.

Jordan Peele with Oscar for Best Original Screenplay at the 90th annual Academy Awards

Jordan Peele, Lena Waithe, and Ryan Coogler are just a few of the black screenwriters that have been applauded and honored for their cinematic successes this year. Their work has managed to show underrepresented groups that they’re stories are significant and worth being shared. Displaying the experiences of black artists outside of musicians, and athletes for that matter, on the screen would be another way of proving to children of color that they do not have to be the next Jay-Z or Beyoncé to make a difference in this world. That there are other venues to express their creativity and passion.

Though I have put an emphasis on the need for more films about Black writers, there is just as much of a need for films about other non-musical Black creatives, innovators, and scholars. It would be nice if we could show kids that music is not the only thing that they can depend on to be someone. Show kids that are not musically inclined, or even interested in music, that their abilities matter and are worth recognition. Let’s eliminate the cycle that says if you want any recognition as an African-American, you’ve got to be able to sing, dance, and entertain the white folk. Otherwise, you’re not important.

Jasmine Chantel

Written by

A compulsive reader, wannabe writer, and generous gifter… of unsolicited opinions.

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