Because I need to see more black people like me on screen
I am black and I grew up in the 80s and 90s. At the time, most Hollywood movies featured a white-only cast. That was just the way life was, and I tolerated it. Whenever I did see a black character in movies— especially a black woman, I’d be overjoyed. I’d look at her personality, her style, her hair, and her make-up and try to copy her. Seeing another black woman gave me a high. It made me feel visible and validated my existence in a myriad of good ways.
As a teenager, I remember going to the cinema with my white friends and secretly praying that the film would feature at least one positive black character, no matter how small, to make me feel that people like me mattered. But most times I left disappointed, there were little to no black characters in films. And if there were, they were cast into undesirable roles like the drug pusher, the pimp, or the prostitute. I also felt cheated. As a black person, I was paying to watch movies that subliminally told me time and time again that I didn’t matter enough for positive stories of people that looked like me, people that I could relate to, to be told.
There were of course movies about enslavement, but these only represented one facet of the black experience, one that I did not want to emulate. I also felt that Hollywood producers only wanted to show that side when in reality, as is the case for white people, there are several facets to the black experience. It was all those other sides that I was yearning to see — how does a black woman navigate the corporate world, go through motherhood, and life in general. In those days, narratives like this never made it into those movies. And so I’d watch white women do these things, unable to fully identify with them while trying to imagine how things would be for me.
When I turned 30, I lost interest in watching movies with only a white cast. I was fed up. I couldn’t put myself through that torture any longer no matter how gripping the storyline. I turned to Nigeria’s Nollywood movies — the quality wasn’t perfect at the time, but at least there, there was representation. I saw black characters going about their lives and that again made me feel validated and valued in my black skin.
For some people reading this, this might sound strange, but the fact is, from a mental health perspective, black and brown people suffer when they cannot see themselves reflected in movies and in the media. It’s as if we don’t exist, that we don’t matter, and in my case, after a lifetime of this neglect, a form of trauma settled in. I can no longer watch something in which I am not represented.
I secretly think that Shonda Rhimes understood that when she created her Netflix show Bridgerton. It was the first time I had ever seen black and brown people cast in 19th century Regency England and I was elated and mesmerized by the show. I read a lot of criticism, people attacking Rhimes for what they believed was a factually inaccurate rendition of that time in history. Their main message was that: Black people didn’t exist in that time and place, so Rhimes was wrong to cast them. They accused her of providing a revisionist version of history. Firstly, the critics are wrong, black people have always existed and did exist in Regency England. If Hollywood decided to erase them from earlier narratives about the era, that should beg the question as to “why”? In all likelihood, white supremacy must be behind the effacement of positive black and brown narratives in Hollywood’s early work.
Fast-forward to today, there are many more movies featuring black and brown people — still not as much as there should be, but hey it’s a start. Streaming services have even gone so far as to set up Black Lives Matter genres. While many of the movies still center on black pain and trauma, I am hopeful that they will soon cover broader aspects of the black experience. We are not only always in pain, but we also have happy times like everyone else. This narrative needs to find its way more often into the big screen too.
Most importantly, however, it will be key to make movies that show all human beings living together in equal representation. That’s what society should look like and filmmakers should ensure that what they create represents that. The reality is that films and media have a lot more impact on our mental health than we think. When you see yourself represented, as a black or brown person, it helps you build your self-confidence, your self-worth, and your identity. It makes you feel part of society rather than an outlier. So that’s why I will no longer watch movies that only have a white cast — I know firsthand how this affects black and brown people and I will not support something that can wreak so much havoc on our mental health. So, change must come, and it must come fast.
Thank you for reading my perspective.