African American Hollywood: The Erasure of African and African Diaspora Voices through Film
As it has recently been Black History Month, and being a fan of film myself, I’ve been looking back and watching some of the recent greats of Black cinema, some of the films that have reached global status as tentpole pieces of kino that highlight the experiences of Black people. Films such as Get Out, Judas and the Black Messiah, and Selma.
However, we can see one big pattern here. They’ve all been African American productions, made by African American filmmakers starring mostly African American actors (though I will be revisiting that fact a little bit later). I love all these films and absolutely do not wish to denigrate them at all (Judas and the Black Messiah being one of my favourite films of the 2020s), but given that there is a whole exciting world of Black film, why is the global fixation on American stories?
One reason we can look to is pop culture and cultural history. We all have some familiarity with the many African American Civil Rights struggles that occurred in the mid-twentieth century, and Black culture has increasingly been outwardly making its mark on the cultural zeitgeist in the modern world. Therefore the lingering familiarity people have with African American stories would make it easier for them to get into cinemas and pump up the box office numbers for these movies. That said, the recent success of Woman King, a film set in the Kingdom on Dahomey in the 18th Century, shows that there may be room for different black stories in the modern film landscape. However it should still be noted that Woman King, is a product of the American studio system, made by an African American director (the extremely talented Gina Prince-Bythewood).
It seems so obvious that the American studio system, and the chokehold they have over the global film market, is a primary driver for the cultural conversation about Black Film being about the African American experience. While non-American actors and directors can be found in African American stories and projects, films from European or African studios for that matter don’t see the revenues and reach that the huge Hollywood giants can get even for their most mediocre releases (even the middling Texas Chainsaw Massacre remake made $29.1 million at the box office). The economic might of studios like Warner Bros, Fox, and the monolithic Disney can pay for mind boggling marketing budgets that make sure that people’s butts get into seats. Smaller studios, such as ones in Europe and Africa, simply can’t afford that kind of media buzz, relying on award wins and word-of-mouth. Films like Timbuktu (2014) only made the money they did from winning awards and the word-of-mouth reception coming from that.
So given these gargantuan marketing budgets, advertising for these films could, and should, have been placed everywhere. Everywhere from the sides of buses, to on billboards, to getting trailer space in cinemas; the fact that American studios bankroll these movies, directly leads to said American movies dominating the conversation when it comes to Black History Month. These are the movies that get seen, and thus are the movies that are talked about at the proverbial water cooler at the office.
Once again, I in no way wish to denigrate films like Get Out or Hidden Figures. However, their control of the narrative does distance us from films made much closer to home that may show narratives that we may have been blind to. Stories that have been told, but have never gained the exposure they deserve because they’ve been overshadowed by the Hollywood institution.
Jeevan Bhogal is a third-year student studying BA International Relations and History. His biggest interest in journalism is in the medium of film, especially the politics surrounding film. Find him on Instagram: @jeevanjay7