Welcome to the Golden Age of Black Filmmaking
Music journalist and cultural critic Touré reflects on how seeing the Black Panther flying through the air and Olivia Pope saving the day helps to alleviate the overwhelming effects of white supremacy.
Photo illustration by Max-O-Matic
I went to see Black Panther on opening night, and it was like going to a party. We danced while standing in line and felt an electric buzz as we waited to buy popcorn. People dressed in traditional African clothes or modern pieces like a jacket that read on the back, “Rooting for Everybody Black.” The audience hooted and shouted as the film began. It was more than a movie. It was like a drug, a powerful upper that gave you a boost of self-esteem, empowerment, and spiritual strength — it was a shot of uncut pride right to the veins. This was a vision of Africa, our motherland, as a beautiful high-tech paradise, a rebuke to all the regressive visions of Africa that came before it.
And the Black Panther himself?A scholar and a warrior who could kick ass, lead his country, and deliver a great UN speech. My favorite moment is when he’s in the giant battle, surrounded, getting beat down, and in the distance, he spots his sister in danger. With a burst of energy, he flicks away the soldiers pounding on him and leaps up to save her. Of course, the ultimate Black man would do anything to save his little sister. For days afterward, I walked around with my head held a little higher and my chest puffed out a little more. The film made me proud.
If you really want to sell to Black audiences, it pays to hire Black creators.
For most of my life, feeling that kind of joy at the movies has been rare — like, less than once a year rare. For every Shaft or Malcolm X, there have been at least five “magical Negroes” like Will Smith in The Legend of Bagger Vance, appearing only to help the white character find his way, or films where Black characters are subservient — like Driving Miss Daisy or The Help. But Black Panther arrived in the middle of a Black cinema boom. In the past two years, there has been a slew of powerful, authentic films about the Black experience directed by Black people. In 2016, there was Barry Jenkins’s Moonlight, a story of a poor, gay Black boy who grows up to become a drug dealer. But the audience doesn’t condemn him — we’ve seen him since childhood; we know that he became a dealer after he landed in juvie because his environment pushed him into a violent act, to fight back against years of homophobic repression. Then there was Get Out, Jordan Peele’s brilliant film that brought together horror film tropes, racial stereotypes, and bizarro science. And there was Girls Trip, a comedy about four women journeying together to Essence Fest, a trip many Black women take every year. In other words, a relatable, realistic slice of life. The characters aren’t being dragged down by the hood or struggling with racism but rather enjoying themselves at an iconic event. Girls Trip grossed over $100 million. Get Out made over $175 million. And Moonlight won the Oscar for best picture. All of which made it clear to Hollywood that big audiences would pay to see great films centered around Black characters and Academy voters would take these films very seriously. As Reggie Hudlin, director of 2017’s Marshall, recently told me: “There’s no doubt this is a golden era in Black film.”
To be white is to go to the movies or watch TV and expect to see people who look like you portrayed as heroes, leaders, and moral saviors. If the villain is white, you can be certain that there will be white heroes. For Black people, watching movies and TV is like crossing a minefield of stereotypes where people who look like us are too often the bad guy or the clown or the screw-up. Or else the Black and brown characters feel like twodimensional supporting players, only there to make the white stars shine. It’s as if some secret board is whispering to producers, Hey, be sure to include a Streetwise Thug, or a Sassy Black Woman, or a trusty Black Best Friend, just to remind everyone of the boxes they’re supposed to put us in, which is why it’s so powerful when we encounter role models who are truly affirming and authentic. I call this the George Jefferson Effect.
When I was growing up, the star of the ’70s sitcom The Jeffersons was a character unlike any I’d ever seen. Brash, surly, rude, and egotistical as hell, Jefferson owned a chain of dry cleaners, which afforded him “a deluxe apartment in the sky.” As a rich Black entrepreneur, he represented the burgeoning Black upper middle class, many of whom agonized over what it meant to be authentically Black while living in a white neighborhood and working in all-white offices. Jefferson smashed through that delicate balancing act. His money gave him the freedom to never have to kowtow to white people, and he’d be damned if he ever did. How he stood up to white people was at the heart of the character; his signature move was to slam the front door of his apartment in some white person’s face, usually a neighbor. In a country where Black men once cowered in fear of white men, he flaunted his freedom. To be clear — Jefferson’s signature move did not exist in a vacuum. This was the mid-’70s, just two decades after Emmett Till was snatched from his family’s home and brutally murdered. It was still shocking to see a Black man who acted like his home was his castle. His door-slamming came after decades of regressive portrayals of Blackness on TV, so when Jefferson slammed it, I felt like he was doing it for every actor before him who’d had to shuck and jive to be on TV, and for every viewer who felt beat down by the characterizations they had to watch onscreen.
At the time, I was a child at Milton Academy, a New England prep school, where I dealt with microaggressions daily. It was thrilling to watch Jefferson stand up to the Man in ways I couldn’t, and reject the white gaze so audaciously. Jefferson became a part of me — not the rudeness, but the refusal to change because of the white gaze. I wanted to be like him, never bowing to white folks, never controlled by the compromises they demanded, never afraid to tell them what I really thought. I wanted to be my own man, like George Jefferson. I also wanted art that was more than entertainment, art that inspired me and instructed me on how to live.
A Viewer’s Guide to the Golden Age of Black Visual Culture: Movies
1. Django Unchained, Quentin Tarantino (2012)
2. Moonlight, Barry Jenkins (2016)
3. Get Out, Jordan Peele (2017)
4. Girls Trip, Malcolm D. Lee (2017)
5. Marshall, Reginald Hudlin (2017)
6. Black Panther, Ryan Coogler (2018)
7. A Wrinkle in Time, Ava DuVernay (2018)
8. BlacKkKlansman, Spike Lee (2018)
9. If Beale Street Could Talk, Barry Jenkins (2018)
10. Widows, Steve McQueen (2018)
11. The Hate U Give, George Tillman Jr. (2018)
12. Blindspotting, Carlos López Estrada (2018)
13. Sorry to Bother You, Boots Riley (2018)
In the past two years, I’ve felt the George Jefferson Effect many times. I’m thinking of the cool fortitude of both Black Panther and his archrival, Killmonger. But also Chadwick Boseman’s Thurgood Marshall in Marshall, and Jamie Foxx’s Django in Django Unchained. I felt it, too, in the journey of Lakeith Stanfield’s Cash Green in Sorry to Bother You, a raucous trip from the bottom to the top of the strangest corporation ever. This might be the most anti-capitalist film in the history of Hollywood, as well as one of the most subversive. For me, the George Jefferson effect came while watching the lead character, an entry-level telemarketer, use his white voice to sell things to white people, using whiteness against itself for his own gain. Cash’s white voice — which is actually voiced by a white actor, David Cross — allows him to connect with white people and persuade them to buy virtually anything. But his rapid ascent up the corporate ladder distances him from his friends in the union and his awesome girlfriend (the unforgettable Tessa Thompson), and he loses his soul along the way, as if a Black man flying that high in a corporation is like Icarus, about to burn off his wings. Of course, in real life, many Blacks who are able to code-switch that effectively are also insanely successful — think Barack Obama and Oprah Winfrey.
This extraordinary moment in Black visual culture includes not just movies but TV, too. There’s a wide variety of complex portrayals of Blackness on the tube. On Scandal (ABC), Kerry Washington is a powerful alpha woman who handily operates at the highest levels of global government. On She’s Gotta Have It (Netflix), DeWanda Wise’s Nola Darling is a modern, urbane, hip, sex-positive woman trying to follow her heart. On Insecure (HBO), Issa Rae is a thoughtful, hopeful, awkward, often confused young woman who’s working to take charge of her world. Modern Black TV fathers range from the Machiavellian, suave, and selfish Lucious Lyon on Empire (Fox) to the joyful, suburban, cool dad Dre on black*ish (ABC). Dre is quite emotional for a TV male — he cries, he shows fear, he acts corny, all without losing his manhood. There are so many identities to watch and worship and emulate. It’s a thrilling period — there’s so much to be inspired by — and we haven’t even talked about the seminal show of this moment, Atlanta.
Donald Glover’s vision of the life of rapper Paper Boi (Brian Tyree Henry) and his manager, Earn (Glover), is the coolest show on TV. Atlanta is funny, dramatic, honest, surprising, and all about what you do when you come to some of life’s craziest intersections. There’s often a Black Twilight Zone vibe to the characters’ adventures. In the show’s strangest episode, Glover, in prosthetic whiteface, plays Teddy Perkins, a former musician turned shut-in who still worships the taskmaster father who stole his childhood by pushing him toward fame and achievement. At one point Perkins shows off his shrine to great fathers, where he venerates Joe Jackson (father of Michael), Richard Williams (father of Venus and Serena), Earl Woods (father of Tiger), and Marvin Gay Sr. (who shot and killed his son). It’s a sad moment where he seems both wise and blind. After a long buildup of weirdness and tension, the shocking murder-suicide at the end of the episode is an orgasm of violence. These are the sorts of smart, messy, unforgettable moments Atlanta lives to create. The show breaks the mold of traditional TV in tone and storyline, and it feels unapologetically Black. And none of that is possible without Donald Glover being the creator of Atlanta.
George Jefferson came from the imagination of Norman Lear, a legendary white TV producer. Jefferson may have been rich, but the very fine actor who played him, Sherman Hemsley, was not. Meanwhile, Atlanta is Glover’s thing; he made his own sandbox with his own rules, and while the character he plays is always a heartbeat away from being homeless, Glover himself is wildly successful. I watch Atlanta and marvel at the stories Glover and his team build, but I also step back and marvel at the product Glover has made. I watch Atlanta and think, I could write a TV show.
Black people can often find work in front of the camera — America loves to watch us perform. But in this boom there’s a large class of Black auteurs, people behind the camera, conceiving, writing, directing, producing. In TV, besides Glover, there’s also Issa Rae (Insecure), Lena Waithe (The Chi), Kenya Barris (black*ish), Cheo Coker (Luke Cage), Salim and Mara Brock Akil (Black Lightning), and, of course, the queen, Shonda Rhimes (Grey’s Anatomy, Scandal, How to Get Away with Murder, more). There’s also a large class of famous, talented Black film directors — Barry Jenkins, Steve McQueen, Jordan Peele, Ryan Coogler, Ava DuVernay, Boots Riley, Spike Lee, and more. We’re in a golden age of Black visual culture. Why is it happening now?
When Nike let the world know that it was standing with Colin Kaepernick and making him the face of a new campaign, it made a huge bet that even if white fans revolted, any losses would be more than offset by gains among Black and brown fans. And, indeed, Nike’s sales popped after the campaign was introduced, but this was a long-term move. Corporations are well aware that America’s share of Black and Latinx people is rising while its share of white folks is dropping. Census projections see America becoming a majority minority nation by 2045. Donald Trump won the presidency by invoking the browning of America and stoking white fear. One night on MSNBC, a Trump supporter told Joy Reid that we need to curtail immigration before there are “taco trucks on every corner.” But most of corporate America is not following Trump’s strategy, and Hollywood is no exception — it’s realized that it’s got to serve a diverse array of Americans.
On top of the money to be made, the way we watch TV today has allowed more diverse points of view to surface. When I was watching George Jefferson in the late ’70s, there were three major networks and no way to record TV, so if you wanted to watch TV, you had to choose from the handful of shows that were on at that moment. Now there are more than 1,000 channels, and with Netflix, on demand, and DVRs, any viewer can watch almost anything ever made at any time. Audiences have been fragmented into small slices of what they used to be. If this year’s current number one Nielsen-rated show had the same ratings in 1978, it wouldn’t have made the top 30. The response has been to make more niche products — better to invest in something that’s beloved by a small demographic than try to create something for everyone that ends up being liked by no one. Audience research consistently shows Black people, on average, go out to the movies more often than whites do and watch more hours of TV than any other race. And the economic viability of Black movies has been repeatedly proven by the commercial success of two men — writer, director, and actor Tyler Perry and producer Will Packer. Each of them has made multiple movies that have grossed over $50 million — 19 times over the last decade. Hollywood can’t ignore those sorts of numbers. Their success also shows that if you really want to sell to Black audiences, it pays to hire Black creators and give them creative freedom. Writer-creator Cheo Coker, who is behind Netflix’s Luke Cage, said Hollywood now believes, “If we want to tell these stories, we need authentic voices.”
When I spoke to producer-director-writer Hudlin, he agreed that Hollywood has finally begun to understand that Black voices are critical. “Studios and networks now know that you can’t just make Black stuff and not have Black people in key decision-making roles, because a) the audience will be aware of that, and b) they will penalize a film that doesn’t have Black people in key creative roles,” he said. Hudlin is referencing the power of blogs and social media to spread news and perspectives about films and TV shows that can make or break them before they’re even released. The Black Internet community is tight and cohesive — Black Twitter is especially effective at spreading influential opinions rapidly. When the Black Panther trailer dropped online, there was no certainty that a movie with no A-listers and a lead character who wasn’t a household name would succeed. But in its first 24 hours, the trailer was watched 89 million times, a rush that was boosted by an enthusiastic tweet from Questlove.
A Viewer’s Guide to the Golden Age of Black Visual Culture: TV
1. Scandal (ABC)
2. She’s Gotta Have It (Netflix)
3. Insecure (HBO)
4. Empire (Fox)
5. black*ish (ABC)
6. Atlanta (FX)
7. Queen Sugar (OWN)
8. Pose (FX)
9. Luke Cage (Netflix)
10. Black Lightning (CW)
11. Dear White People (Netflix)
12. The Chi (Showtime)
13. Power (Starz)
14. How to Get Away with Murder (ABC)
So how did we get here? As I see it, there have been two previous booms in Black Hollywood history. In the ’70s we had the era of blaxploitation — a slew of low-budget action films that gave us hypermasculine, streetwise Black men as community saviors, defeating either local thugs or the cops or both. They include Shaft, Super Fly, The Mack, Foxy Brown, and Coffy. The music was soul and funk, the clothes were loud and proud, the dialogue was iconic, and the gorgeous Black women were unforgettable. This era influenced many, including director Quentin Tarantino, and its aesthetic remains influential. But though blaxploitation movies were profitable, Hollywood didn’t invest in the wave. Instead the budgets got smaller as time went on, the quality of the films suffered, and the audiences fled.
There was a second, more promising boom in the late ’80s and early ’90s, which we might call the film school era. This is when we got Spike Lee (Do the Right Thing, Jungle Fever, Malcolm X), John Singleton (Boyz n the Hood), the Hughes Brothers (Menace II Society), Reggie Hudlin (Boomerang), Haile Gerima (Sankofa), Julie Dash (Daughters of the Dust), and more. Most of these filmmakers came into the game with a great film education — Lee had gone to NYU’s film school, Singleton to USC’s, Dash to UCLA’s. They made smart films that were artful and personal. There isn’t a specific aesthetic linking them, as in the blaxploitation era, but there was a sense that filmmakers could use film to tell honest, important stories that could maybe make a difference in the world.
“It’s never been about ability or aptitude, it’s been about access.”
But they were quickly derailed. By the mid-’90s, Hollywood had become obsessed with the foreign box office, which meant more action and more sex. It definitely meant fewer personal films with nuanced explorations of identity, which are less likely to play well within different cultures and varying languages. It also meant fewer Black films, because no one believed that films about the Black experience would sell in Asia and Europe. Insiders also say these young filmmakers ran up against another truism of the Black experience in any field: Black people can’t afford to fail. While white directors can have a movie flop and still draw big budgets, Black directors often don’t get second chances. Hudlin didn’t direct a Hollywood film for 15 years after 2002’s disappointing Serving Sara, but Guy Ritchie made two bombs — The Man from U.N.C.L.E. (2015) and King Arthur (2017) — and still got tapped to direct Aladdin (2019).
The two prior booms lasted about five years each, but I feel confident that this current one will last longer, for two reasons. First, Black cinema has proven its ability to rake in big dollars even globally — 12 Years a Slave, a 2013 release, made $56 million in America and $131 million overseas. But just as important, according to several Hollywood insiders, is that this generation is committed to helping one another. “We’ve come up together,” film executive Franklin Leonard said. “We understand that ladders need to be passed back down. We need to be invested in bringing in everyone. It’s both altruistic and selfish.” Barry Jenkins, director of Moonlight and If Beale Street Could Talk, agrees. “I think this idea of opening a door and letting it close behind you is off the table now,” he said, “because it’s never been about ability or aptitude, it’s been about access.”
I personally needed this golden era of Black cinema. I needed it because my mind was filled with images that I had to be rescued from. In the years before this boom really started, especially between 2014 and 2016, there was a rash of horror films playing nonstop on cable news: tragic short movies showing Black people getting killed by police, unintentional films that shocked us with their brutality. These police violence videos are not Hollywood films, but they’re visuals that dominated our minds. Eric Garner being choked on his block. Tamir Rice being gunned down in a park. Philando Castile bleeding out in his car while his girlfriend’s young daughter sits in the backseat. Walter Scott running away from an officer in the daylight. Laquan McDonald staggering away from cops in the dark of night. These are snuff films that underlined the powerlessness and abject vulnerability of a Black person in a police interaction. They sent the same message that lynchings did in the 20th century — to fear living while Black. I can see each of those videos in my mind at any time, day or night, like on demand from hell. And I’m not the only one. What is the psychic weight of millions of people walking around with multiple police snuff films in their short-term memory?
I never want to forget about the people who were murdered. I owe that to them. Black history is not PG-17. It’s rough, it’s difficult — it’s so violent it’s X-rated. The contemporary moment is no different. So I needed something to balance all of that, for the sake of self-care. I needed inspiring images to sit in my mind alongside the painful ones so that I wouldn’t forget that while we may be oppressed, we are nonetheless beautiful. I had to see and retain the Black Panther flying through the air, and Luke Cage stopping an SUV, and Olivia Pope saving the day, and all the amazing creations of this Black cinema golden era, because my soul craved balance. I know Black is beautiful, but it helps to see it over and over again in the most artful way possible. Nothing can truly save me from the pain of seeing so many other Black bodies unjustly destroyed. But the more joy I can feed my mind, the more I can block white supremacy from turning me insane.
About the author: Touré is a writer.