Movies and POC liberation, or I want to see success but the silver screen isn’t the gold standard

I am here today to NOT talk about “Wonder Woman.”

OK, to be more honest, I’ll talk about the film, but this blog post isn’t really about it. But hey, context and news hooks and all that…

My daughter saw the movie with her dad and loved it. I’ve seen many women online praise the movie for having a strong woman character, and certainly it’s been a huge success of a superhero movie with a female lead and a female director—something we don’t really see in Hollywood. I’ve seen others criticize the movie as a bad example of feminist ideals. Heck, I’ve even seen think pieces of what it means (or doesn’t) to Black women.

So, as a woman, the talk about “Wonder Woman” is nice, but it’s not my thing (fantasy/sci-fi/superhero genres almost never interest or engage me, no matter how hard I try at times). So, I won’t see it. But it did get me to thinking of female representation in films and that, frankly, got me to thinking about representation of POC, especially Black people, in films. And so, here is where I wave goodbye to Wonder Woman (and by extension to Gal Gadot and Patty Jenkins).

I am a big fan of representation of POC in films and television (and in Oscar awards and Golden Globe awards and financial success and stardom), be they Black, Latinx, Native American, Arab, Asian or any other non-white group because Hollywood is hellaciously white and white-centered (and male-centered) just like most of everything in America. I am a huge fan of “Scandal” and its Black creator and actors (particularly Shonda Rhimes and Kerry Washington).

I loved “Hidden Figures” for highlighting Black women with historical impact (and big brains) and made sure my co-parent took our daughter to see it since I couldn’t see it with her because of timing issues (even if there are historical inaccuracies…but that always happens in these “based on real life” films…and even if white guys are thrust into heroic/inclusive acts that didn’t really happen).

I loved “Moonlight” for giving us a non-cookie-cutter, heartwarming, tough, quirky coming-of-age film featuring Black people front and center. Before that, I loved “Beasts of the Southern Wild” for many of the same reasons and made sure to see it with my daughter given the young girl who was the lead (yes, I know, that movie has modern fantasy themes and isn’t my “genre”…hey, I break out of my comfort zones at times).

I loved “Get Out” for being a thriller that not only tackles some significant racial themes but also where we don’t have to watch token Black people die in the first third to half of the movie so that a white person can be the sole survivor.

I love that we have blockbuster-level films (whether they actually end up being blockbusters or not) coming soon, like “The Dark Tower” and “Black Panther,” because they will have Black leads (not just prominent supporting roles as in several Marvel superhero movies of late) and, in the case of “Black Panther,” large amounts of Black casting in general. Sadly, I probably won’t see either because they are really, really not my genre thing. Which is too bad, because…well…Idris Elba and Chadwick Boseman, respectively.

But even as I look to past movies and television shows (and not just the ones I’ve mentioned) and to future ones as giving Black people and other POC places to shine and succeed (and to see them appearing at a greater pace and level of prominence even when they aren’t attached to Tyler Perry or the “Barbershop” franchise and such)…well, I don’t see this as a path to liberation.

That doesn’t mean I don’t see value.

Beyoncé’s success in music, for example, didn’t lead to liberation or even the start of it. Certainly, many of us reveled in the release of “Lemonade” and her 2017 Grammy performance, but we’ve had a plethora of Black stars in music and they’ve often drawn unfair fire (or even in a few cases been uplifted by Black people despite being heinous humans) and their success doesn’t really undermine white supremacy. If anything, as we have seen with both of the Beyoncé blockbuster activities recently, sometimes they earn more pushback from white people, especially the police.

No, liberation will come from hard work and lots of painful effort. And lots of back-and-forth and even big steps backward, as we see now under Trump. Liberation will come when we have more of our people in positions of power and influence and some kind of critical mass of white people who are willing to strip away at institutional racism and systems of white supremacy.

But I will still look to the movies and television and other prominent places for Black faces (and other POC) and for their success. Because while it may not bring liberation and while it may not even give much momentum for it (maybe it does, maybe it doesn’t; I don’t know), I revel in being able to say to a white-centered nation (that has way too many non-white people in it to justify being that way) that we will insert ourselves into every corner of society because we deserve to be in those places. We deserve to be recognized and we deserve whatever success and gains we can get. We will celebrate them, because they are what we are owed, and even now, the debt is far from paid off.
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On words and silence in a racialized world

Several years ago when my adult son was still a college student, one night as we were catching up during one of his visits back home, he shared with me that when he had been living in Northern Maine with his father during the late elementary school years, he had routinely been subjected to racist language directed at him. Ranging from being called “Rory Raccoon…coon; Get it?” and other taunts, these words were a part of his every day experience. It was why, when he landed on the campus of a predominantly white college in Northern Wisconsin (and when confronted with classmates who would use racialized language and taunts to remind him that he was other), he had no patience with them.

I asked him why he didn’t tell his father and I when he was in elementary and middle school and he never quite gave me an answer. But as an adult, he is fiercely protective of his sister, who is now in middle school. His watchful eye over his sister is no doubt born out of his own experiences as a child and teenager in Northern New England.

As his mother, I knew about the blatant racialized events that were regular enough occurrences during his high school and college years, ranging from being brought home in the back of the police cruiser because he “fit the description” (he didn’t, by the way…the suspect was white) to being pelted in the ribs with a full unopened soda can from a moving car while being called a nigger. It was those incidents that were the impetus for much of my writing and later my decision to head up an anti-racism organization. However,  as a mother, it hurt on a molecular level that his very existence made him the subject of ridicule.

In recent years as my work has expanded beyond writing but to speaking with groups on the issue of race, I am struck by how often I will hear that an area doesn’t have a racial problem. At least until the question-and-answer section happens. This year alone, I have heard a Black teenager in a tony town in Massachusetts share that she is singled out for her hair and that her “friends” have used the N-word with her even despite her requests to stop.

Just a few days ago, I gave a talk in Kittery, Maine, where several teens in attendance spoke about how prevalent it was for their white peers to use the N-word at school. Despite parents talking to school officials, there was a belief that the school and by extension the town has no issues with race. The next days, the students who attended my talk went to the school officials who once again intimated that white kids using the N-word is a non-issue. The students staged a walkout, and several of their peers and even some teachers were hateful in their responses to this courageous group of young people.

Words matter and too often we brush words to the side if we cannot grasp the magnitude of them. Despite our attempts to tamp down bullying within our schools and society, when it when it comes to racialized language and acts that are othering and dehumanizing people, we are missing the mark. And it has real consequences far beyond simple hurt feelings. 

Too often we are looking for the truly egregious acts like lynchings and police brutality when in reality, it is the “small stuff” that often we are complicit in agreeing with by our silence. More importantly, the failure of those in charge (which too often are white people) to grasp the nuances of racism and how racism works and impacts not just people of color but white people and creates an environment that allows racism and other forms of hate and bias to thrive unchecked.  

I am often approached by white people who in recent years have started to wake up to their whiteness and who are starting to form their own analyses around the toxicity of whiteness; however, living in predominantly white spaces, they don’t quite know how to proceed. The act of dismantling toxic whiteness does not require that a non-white person be present, though. It starts with the recognition that whiteness is the ultimate shell game upon which we have built whole societies and yet nothing good can come out of something that required the dehumanization and subjugation of Black and Brown people in order to live. It continues to thrive because we have a world that is firmly rooted on the foundation of anti-Blackness.

Whether you choose words or you choose silence, understand that your action or even inaction has consequences.
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Calling all white people, part 13: And now for a brief update…

Calling All White People, Part 13

(A periodic attempt to mobilize white people for something other than supporting just other melanin-deficient folks and maintaining a status quo of a nation geared toward whiteness as the baseline and the norm)

By An Average White Guy

TODAY’S EPISODE: What this thing is all about

[To find other installments of “Calling All White People,” click here]

I’m going to take a very brief break from the usual pontificating and thinking and sharing and perhaps even sometimes sticking my foot in my mouth to say “Hi” and let you know what this column I write here at Black Girl in Maine is all about. And what I’m about when I show up here.

Nope. Not gonna tell you who I am. If anyone does that, it will be BGIM herself. That’s her business and her call.

However, in this installment of “Calling All White People,” I’ve now reached that “baker’s dozen.” That lucky number 13. Seems a good a time as any to make clear what the purpose of this regular column is.

First off, I’m surprised we’ve gotten this far, folks. Or at least that we’ve gotten to a 13th post from me this soon. Honestly, this whole thing was started with the idea it wouldn’t run for long or at least not run very often. I figured those first three posts I did would be something BGIM peppered the blog with lightly every couple months and that maybe she would call on me every once in a while thereafter to address some issue of value for her readership, in particular the white readers.

And while I hope my words have value to most of the readers of this blog, or at least a large chunk of them, this column is aimed primarily at white people. One of the things I’ve sensed about this blog is that as well-read as it is by many people of color, in particular Black people, BGIM has a lot of white readers. And while she has great things to say to white people and to others, I’m also cognizant that we white people have been urged for some years now to not only educate ourselves about the lingering stink of racism and to understand what white privilege, white supremacy, institutional racism and implicit bias are (among other concepts) but also to educate our fellow white people and open their eyes (or open them wider if they are already opening up).

And, by the way, that white privilege thing is one of the reasons I don’t have a byline here. Why my name isn’t up at the top (or even the bottom) of these posts. I’m not shy. I’m not hiding behind anonymity. I just am really unwilling to center myself in this venue. I don’t need the publicity. I don’t want a spotlight on me. I have other places and ways to do that. This blog was started by a Black woman and has grown to become a platform to showcase and elevate the voices of other people of color, especially women of color. That’s where it deserves to continue to go.

So, here’s hoping what I write here has value. Here’s also hoping that the contributors of color continue to grow in number and I become even less prominent on these pages. But here’s also hoping that I’m here as long as some of you need me to be (BGIM included) and that I say things that are worth saying.
If this piece or this blog resonates with you, please consider a one-time “tip” or become a monthly “patron”…this space runs on love and reader support. Want more BGIM? Consider booking me to speak with your group or organization.