The Importance of Black Joy in Film, Explained
Unfortunately, history is written by the victors. While a particular group is said to run Hollywood, it would be ignorant to believe that a group that has continually been a target of worldwide hate would be a massive contributor to trauma porn. The phrase and its problems are explained by Black Public Media: “Trauma porn is a recurring element of Extractive Storytelling. The media’s excuse for distributing such graphic images is that it ‘raises public awareness.’ But for those at the center of these stories, the footage is nothing short of the digital embalming of their most agonizing and humiliating moments.” Essentially, stories that rely on any marginalized person’s trauma make money rather than solving the problems those communities face.
Public access sites like Rotten Tomatoes and Twitter are overwhelmingly growing more dangerous for marginalized people, especially when a Black person is centered in a production. For example, in 2019, Disney studios announced that the star of the live-action remake of The Little Mermaid would be singer-songwriter-actress Halle Bailey. Yet when the trailer dropped of Halle under the sea in the fall of 2022, users on TikTok went on to explain how a mermaid could not be scientifically Black. The uproar was not only excessively racist for many reasons. Yet the perpetuating reason for any racist commentary for centering Black joy is rooted in the racist narrative of Black trauma across the vastness of cinema.
History of Black People in Film
The first film ever made was by a French director in 1895, showing four people walking around a garden for four seconds, according to History Cooperative. Hollywood’s promise lured in people looking for new opportunities, like Lincoln Theodore Monroe Andrew Perry, also known as the first Black actor. Perry is known for his portrayal of the character Stepin Fetchit in the film In Old Kentucky (1927). As NPR explains, the character of Stepin as the laziest man on Earth is nothing short of racist. In the same film, Stepin falls in love with a Black woman (Mildred Washington) who has no name. Hollywood’s narrative around Black characters, and therefore people, is that they are lazy. By extension, Washington’s nameless character in the feature is tied to the racist stereotypes that society must remember a White person’s name but White people in return cannot be bothered to know a Black person’s name, let alone pronounce their name correctly.
Connecting Film and Reality
As the world becomes more aware of oppression and the harmful stereotypes within Hollywood, the stagnation of film becomes a broader topic. Fans of cinema are more concerned with a film’s social impact rather than the entertainment factor of a film. In an interview with Arizona State University News, Professor Aviva Dove-Viebahn says that Black representation in entertainment has changed, but the degree of tokenism is still a concern. Though the practice of Black-face is no longer performed in Hollywood, the racist stereotypes of the “scary Black man” or “sassy Black woman” still persist. More often than not ,these stereotypes are perpetrated by white writers and directors. According to Statista, 67.7% of film writers in 2021 were white, while the remaining 32.3% of film writers were categorized as “Minority.” Simply zeroing in on the majority of writers in a film being white means that Black and people of color’s joy is not going to be showcased in the same way that a Black writer will prioritize Black joy.
Films Centering Black Joy
While Perry is considered the first Black actor in a feature-length film due to Hollywood’s reliance upon Blackface, Stacker details the entire history of Black cinema. Actors Saint Suttle and Gertie Brown are the first Black actors in a Black film from 1898. The short film, entitled Something Good, was the first film around Black love. By 1919, Oscar Micheaux, the first Black director in Hollywood according to LA Film, released his debut film The Homesteader, which is the first film intended for Black audiences and has an all-Black cast. The film allowed for directors like Jordan Peele, Ava DuVernay, Ryan Coogler, Kathleen Collins, Kasi Lemmons, and other Black directors to celebrate Black people. Films like Waiting to Exhale, starring Angela Bassett, revolve around Black women finding joy which leaves an impact on society.
Impact of Black Joy in Film
Considering how often Black people are portrayed in a negative light throughout cinematic history, films that are directed and written by Black people are going to impact society on a larger scale. Black Panther was the first MCU film to be directed by a Black man, starring a predominantly Black cast, with Black hair stylists and costume designers. Though the film goes far beyond these milestones, Black Panther is one of the top reasons representation in Hollywood is necessary. As Medium discusses the impact of representation in Hollywood, they quote photojournalist Cheriss May, “The media needs to represent the society that it serves because if people don’t see themselves, then it’s almost like a lack of care that’s communicated to people.” Consider the impact of The Wiz, the Sister Act trilogy, or Last Holiday. Each film stars at least one Black woman who is happy. The impact of these films, and others that center on Black joy, are encapsulated in this compilation of girls seeing Halley Bailey as Ariel in this clip from NowThis News. When audiences see themselves on screen, they see their future and what’s possible.