Posted on February 18, 2010

Limited Black Film Genre Fosters Stereotypes

Aisha N. Harris, Hartford Courant, February 17, 2010

{snip} The problem is simple: Stories concerning black people, along with every other minority, are so few and far between and so often feel repetitive in setting and plot that they automatically come to represent all black people.

Months before either film was released, the trailers for “Precious,” an independent film with a black director, and Disney’s “Princess,” a traditional, hand-drawn animated feature, had many at odds over how their subject matter was going to influence black and white audiences, many of them under the age of 10 in Disney’s case. No stranger to criticism regarding racial cliches, the cultural juggernaut had to make sure its subject matter was treated with sensitivity. The princess’s name was changed from Maddy, seen by some as a slave name, to Tiana, a much more black-sounding moniker. Others despaired over Tiana’s romance with a much fairer skinned prince from a far-off, imagined country. They wondered why Disney would be reluctant to give its first black princess an equally black-looking prince.

Raina Kelley of Newsweek was wary about embracing “Precious” because she worries about “the fact that black people have begun to accept as unchangeable the lot of those stuck in the ghetto.” And although many, including the film’s executive producers Oprah Winfrey and Tyler Perry, deemed the movie uplifting and inspirational, the glimmer of hope is hard to see when the movie concludes with Precious living in a halfway house and infected with HIV from her father who raped her and left her with two children, as Courtland Milloy of The Washington Post so pointedly noted.

For blacks, it’s a dangerous thing, being considered a niche. It means you won’t get the respect or the quality or the budgets from filmmakers that audiences expect and deserve. It means that those in charge of distributing films have a limited view of what the audience wants to see and stick to a proven formula instead of aiming for multiple views and new stories. {snip}

If there’s anything to be learned from this incessant cycle of movies that are supposed to epitomize and satisfy the urban market, it is that the black community will not unanimously be satisfied by the release of a black-centered story every few months {snip}. Although there is a black culture that is shared among a large sector of the nation, it is imperative that we recognize that racial minorities do not make up a figurative amoeba, all singularly moving, thinking, feeling or wanting the same things.

{snip} The reason why all critical eyes dart to movies such as “Precious” or “The Princess” is not merely because of standout performances or great storytelling–it is also because they are the only major movies with black leading characters from 2009 to receive that kind of interest. Since its inception, Hollywood has offered audiences slim pickings when it comes to stories by and about minorities. If there were 10 times as many stories in movies, then maybe people wouldn’t be so quick to jump to one film’s portrayal of black people because there would be a range of ideas to choose from.