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Watching “Black trauma” films isn’t as anti-racist as you think

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Previously published on Medium

Following the murder of George Floyd, I have seen a (re)interest in “Black trauma” films, as conduits for (white) audiences wanting to self-educate — meaning slavery and stories relating to crime. I am writing this post in response to the number of people I have seen watching “trauma films” as their only entry into anti-racism. As far as film is concerned we must treat anti-racist education in modules. Police brutality and slavery are part of one module, the trauma narrative. Just like how we would treat a degree. There are more perspectives to Black lives than “trauma”, audiences must remember that.

Films depicting slavery, and “police violence” (really hate that term) work to a certain extent but what the plethora of films promoted on these subjects fitting that narrative show, is really an indictment on an industry that still refuses see us outside of the realms of suffering and subordination. We had Marvel’s Black Panther, which is great, but that was one. We need more and this Black renaissance needs to keep going.

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Thandie Newton and Matt Dillon in Crash. Photograph: Everett/Rex Shutterstock

In this historical moment, where many of us are trying to educate ourselves on these issues, I want to remind people there are more types of films than “trauma flicks”… and I would also caution people about films like The Help and Paul Haggis’ Crash (both of which are problematic, and should only really be watched in the knowledge of this is what not to do). I am by no means saying not to watch those films but both should be watched through the lens of “Hollywood effed up here”, as they are by no means anti-racist narratives. For people starting out on this journey, a road that many of us Black and brown people have been on since our first encounter of racism, which for many of us was as infants / children — white people now starting out on this need to be aware of the problem films and the issue of representation in the film and television industry.

There are more images of Black people we could see; it’s telling in this moment that the images of Black people being pushed are ones of suffering and servitude. By all means self-educate on these issues, but we must also remember that “anti-blackness” strips us of humanity and those films — from Get Out to Moonlight — do somewhat play into the hands of the establishment even if they are telling stories that need to be told.

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Photo by Georgia Vagim on Unsplash

Here, are five films with varied perspectives and viewpoints that may not even talk about race or fall into the stereotypes of ‘police brutality’, ‘slavery’ or ‘immigration.’ I admit this list was harder to make than I first thought, which just shows the industry can do better. The lack of films sitting outside of “trauma” narratives shows the deficit of ethnic representation in the industry and I hope in this post to show people there are other images out there too.

I have done my best in finding films that draw audiences away from Black trauma flicks, but I admit even in that I think I might have failed in my goal.

Queen of Katwe (2016), Dir. Mira Nair

Queen of Katwe (Disney)

Set in Uganda, Disney’s Queen of Katwe follows ten-year-old Phiona (Madina Nalwanga), who lives in a slum in Kampala with her mother Nakku (Lupita Nyong’o) and other members of her family. Helping her mother sell maise at the local market, as well as care for her brother, one day, her life changes forever when she meets Robert Katende (David Oyelowo), a football coach, and a chess teacher at a centre. Wanting to find out more, Phiona learns how to play the game of chess. And under Katende’s firm but fair guidance, she becomes the best player in the group ready to take on the world as a chess prodigy. As someone who played a lot of chess as youth, this film is so heartwarming and wholesome. Not only because I have an affinity and love for the game, but because it is also about BLACK people. And by Black I do not mean me, I mean dark-skinned people. Particularly, a film featuring dark-skinned women in prominent roles that did not fall into the “adultification” of Black girls (Georgetown Law, 2019). And seeing as this film has an all-Black cast and does not feature the Black trauma of police violence or slavery, seeing David Oyelowo in this elevated image of a Black man is also worthy of comment.

Availability: Disney+

A Pool of London (1951), Dir. Basil Dearden

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Earl Cameron with Susan Shaw in 1951’s ‘Pool of London’ (Universal Pictures)

Summary: Dan McDonald (Bonar Colleano), a sailor, has a “side business” in smuggling illegal goods ashore. While their ship is docked in London, he and best friend Johnny Lambert (the late Earl Cameron) get themselves tied up with a gang of jewel thieves. Complications arise when Lambert falls in love with Pat (Susan Shaw), and is charged with a murder he did not do.

‘A Pool of London’ is an early example of “social conscience” in British cinema and it could just have been “another crime film” had it not been in such well-practiced hands.

Not only is this a fantastic film, it is also one of the first British films in which a Black actor featured. Whilst Lambert is noticeably a Black man, his character did not need to be. There’s only a handful of times when his character’s race is raised. Director Basil Dearden (Flame in the Streets) directs Earl Cameron as an actor, (in comparison to many Hollywood directors), not a Black actor.

Availability: Amazon Prime (rent), BFI Player

Claudine (1974), Dir. John Berry

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Claudine (20th Century Fox)

Claudine Price (Diahann Carroll) is a single mom in New York City. She works hard as a maid at a white middle-class house. Out of the blue, she meets binman Roop (James Earl Jones) — charming and charismatic, but also works hard. Romance develops, but she doubts this relationship is good for her children. And despite his nature, Roop is hesitant to take on parenthood.

An intelligent look at welfare that does not criticise the need that working class communities can need help from the state. Very much an American prologue to British films such as I, Daniel Blake by British veteran filmmaker Ken Loach. Claudine is also empathetic and just full of so much love for ‘The Black Family’. You thought you loved the Obamas? You’ll love Claudine, Roop and the children. A film that unpicks the napsack of welfare regulations, made harder still by systemic racism — a term that is on everybody’s minds, pertinent, in the recent discourse on Black Lives Matter.

Unlike films such as NetworkSidney Lumet satire taking on big gov, 1974’s Claudine is more personal directing that critique on how the Black working class have also been impacted. Berry, a victim of Joseph McCarthy’s Blacklist — you can feel his sympathy to working class families. Much alike Earl Cameron in A Pool of London, they did not need to cast Claudine with an all Black cast but they did and you can’t help but love it.

It’s one of the few films I have seen which depicts the struggles of the working-class without the tears of liberal piety, condescension or “feel sorry” attitude — it’s a film that shows there is absolutely nothing wrong with being working-class and there many proud of that label, especially Black people living in a class system that is also anti-Black. At its ninety(ish) minutes, it uses every minute wisely and I really did not want it to end.

Whilst this film has its moments of pure comedy, it also has pure drama, with one such episode detailing the intricacies of an underage pregnancy, as well as the to-be grandmother Claudine’s reaction, not making a spectacle of Black trauma. A film carried by Diahann Carroll, written for her in mind… without having the audacity to make a spectacle of Black women suffering.

Availability: If you are committed enough, you will find it!

Hollywood Shuffle (1987), Dir. Robert Townsend

Aspiring actor Bobby Taylor (Robert Townsend) endures the wrath of his grandmother for auditioning for a role in the crudely titled exploitation film Jivetime Jimmy’s Revenge. When Taylor is cast in the title role, he has a series of odd dreams satirising Black stereotypes in Hollywood, and must do better by his goals with his desire to remain a role model to his younger brother. This film makes the list because it subverts common tropes. Over thirty years has passed since it was released and not much has changed. It’s a satire on the role Black actors get in Hollywood. What has changed is that there are more Black actors but the types of roles has barely moved an inch.

Hollywood is still has progress to be made for better representation on grounds of race, let alone other discriminated groups. Even popular films with Black actors still feature stereotypes. Narrating the issues of representation in Hollywood today would only be giving this film a recap.

The issues this film addresses will only change if the system takes a radical shift. Will BLM initiate that shift?

Its cultural references are of its time, especially with Eddie Murphy. Hollywood Shuffle is over the top madness but it’s the message of “representation needs to change” has not aged in over 30 years, emphasising the injustices of the film industry. We needed Hollywood Shuffle, so we could have film like Barry Jenkins’ Moonlight (2016) and Boots Riley’s Sorry to Bother You (2018). It just sucks it’s quite homophobic.

Availability: Amazon Prime (Rent)

Fire in Babylon (2011), Dir. Stevan Riley

Stevan Riley’s British documentary film Fire in Babylon is the true-to-life story of how the West Indies cricket team (1974–1995) rose above their colonial masters through becoming one of the greatest sporting teams in the history of team sports. In the unsettling era of apartheid in South Africa, race riots in England and civil unrest in the Caribbean, the West Indies led by Clive Lloyd, and Viv Richards, dealt a critical blow at the white world.

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Fire in Babylon (New Vdeo Group)

They defeated racism on the field of play, making the cricket field a level playing field. For anyone looking to understand more about Black politics as well as the cultural and sociopolitical context of the game during the 1970s and 1980s, this is a must watch. These players used cricket as a tool to strike back at white power, weaponising whiteness running contrary to the circumstance to which it was made. Truly hitting racism for a BIG six.

Availability: YouTube

In these five films, I have seen elements of Black trauma but nothing compared to the bloodiness of what is being promoted in the lists in response to the recent international civil rights movement. Anti-racist reading and watch lists are advocating for texts and films on police brutality, the prison system and slavery, for example. There are some fantastic reads and watches here but we must also remember that

Black lives also means — Black love; Black smiles; Black families; Black sports; Black friendships; Black arts; Black innocence, Black excellence… and more. These are our lives and there is humanity in that. We cannot forget.

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