New school of filmmakers creating narratives for the black experience

Director Ava DuVernay and actor David Oyelowo. (AFP)

Director Ava DuVernay and actor David Oyelowo. (AFP)

As reports poured in about the shooting of yet another black teenager in St Louis, I was reminded of what filmmaker Ava DuVernay said a few weeks ago: “This aggression is ambient, it’s all-around, and it’s the atmosphere of people of colour in this country”.

DuVernay said these words while promoting her latest film, Selma, which opened in the US in December. It’s a gorgeous and brave film that tells the story of the 1965 marches from Selma to Montgomery, led by Dr Martin Luther King Jr.

When DuVernay began filming Selma in 2014, she could not have predicted that in August, a young unarmed black man named Michael Brown would be shot by police in Ferguson, Missouri. She could not have predicted that a grand jury would decide not to indict police officers in the death of not just Mike Brown, but also in the death of Eric Garner.

And yet, Selma lands perfectly in sync with the unrest that has characterised the last few months for black America. By grounding the film in the conversations being had in America in 2014, Selma succeeds in transcending the historical drama category – it’s as contemporary as ever, and as real and familiar as it could be.

There’s a scene in the film where Martin Luther King, played by David Oyelowo, speaks to his congregation after a young black man has been shot.
His fury rises as he wonders: “how many fingers were on that trigger? Every white preacher who stands silent. Every Negro who stands back.” The conversation about the silence of white Americans about racial injustice is one that is most likely taking place right now, and with nearly the same language.

DuVernay isn’t the only black director making brave, forward-thinking cinema. She is among the leaders of a new school of black filmmakers who are creating new contemporary narratives for the black experience. DuVernay made history by becoming the first black woman to be nominated for best director at the Golden Globes; Selma is up for best picture.

Also at the forefront of this movement are Justin Simien, the writer and director of Dear White People; Ryan Coogler, whose 2013 directorial debut, Fruitvale Station, took home the Grand Jury Prize at Sundance; Beyond The Lights director Gina Prince-Bythewood, and, of course, British artist-turned-director Steve McQueen, whose third feature film, 12 Years A Slave, won the Oscar for best picture this year.

Justin Simien. (AFP)

Simien’s film satirically explores crises in modern blackness, while Coogler’s Fruitvale Station chronicles the events that led to the death of Oscar Grant, a young black man from Oakland. McQueen’s film, 12 Years A Slave, brought slavery to audiences in brutal realism rarely seen on the screen.

These directors are reimagining possibilities not just for black filmmakers, but for new stories to be told about the black experience – and audiences are interested. Fruitvale Station was made for the paltry sum of $900 000 and so far has made more than $17-million. Simien described Dear White People’s budget as “real low”, and said that film is approaching $4.5-million at the box office. And 12 Years A Slave has banked more than $185 million on a $22 million budget. With Oscar buzz building around Selma, it’s easy to imagine the film being equally successful.

The encouraging reaction has spurred interest from studios in making more black films. McQueen has announced that his next project will be about the singer Paul Robeson, the civil rights activist, singer and actor. Meanwhile, Coogler’s next film will be entitled Creed, and is a spinoff of the Rocky films centring on the grandson of Apollo Creed, the black boxer whom Rocky beats to become champion.

These filmmakers are making markedly different films than the projects Hollywood was interested in just five years ago. Only Lee Daniels’s Precious warranted any attention from the Oscars. That film received a great deal of criticism for telling a one-dimensional story of the black experience: poor, downtrodden, and gratuitously hopeless. It’s a story that is targets a specific audience.

Courtland Milloy criticised the exaggerated story of black life portrayed in Precious: “When human pathology is given a black face, white people don’t have to feel so bad about their own.”

Fast forward to 2014 and one of the year’s most significant releases is Chris Rock’s comedy Top Five. The central theme of that film is the rejection of singular, dominant narratives. Chris Rock’s promotion of the film, has sparked interesting conversations about new realities of race and racism in the US. There is a great deal to dissect about race relations today, and grounding these films in the contemporary black experience stands in contrast to films that Hollywood usually hungers for.

There was a serious lull in black films about contemporary experience, but with directors such as DuVernay, Simien, Coogler, and McQueen, it seems we’ve entered a new and promising era where stories about blackness are told by artists who are as concerned with the storytelling as they are with how their work will resonate with those who have lived the black experience in America. That is no small thing. – The Guardian

This article was updated