In a documentary airing Tuesday night, BCE Director Wes Jackson discusses the historical portrayal of Black people in media and film.
The documentary is a mini 30 for 30 film segment of the ABC six-part series, Soul of a Nation, that debuts March 2 (10:00 to 11:00 pm EST), and will air a new episode the following five Tuesdays. Episodes will be viewable the next day on demand or Hulu. Actor and producer Sterling K. Brown is the host of the series premiere.
“We discussed the portrayal of Black people in media, and specifically in film.
We started at Birth of a Nation then to Gone With The Wind, Reagan-era portrayals, Spike Lee and John Singleton, and ended talking about Ava DuVernay,” said Jackson.
The documentary focuses on how African Americans were practically shut out of cinema for decades, and now there is a significant push for more inclusivity in front of, and behind the lens.
“What’s leading this new emergence of Black films [and television] is women. Shonda Rimes and Ava DuVernay. These women are doing crazy business deals. Shonda left ABC for Netflix,” said Jackson.
Entertainment company executives can talk about the importance of inclusivity, but it comes down to one major thing, says Jackson: money.
“They thought Black Panther was only going to be for Black people…Black Panther is a significant character in the Marvel universe. Every kid who’s read Marvel comic books knows it and gets it. It’s not just women who read Wonder Woman,” said Jackson. “They’re realizing white people are also saying ‘Wakanda forever.’”
Jackson estimates he’s spent around $300 on Black Panther from seeing it in the theater multiple times, bringing his son’s birthday party to a showing, as well as paying for it on Amazon Prime.
“They’re looking at Black people who have more money,” said Jackson, using himself as an example. “I’m a professor. I’ve got middle-class money.”
Inclusivity at All Levels
Jackson pointed to Tyler Perry, who he says was “relegated to only Black markets,” and Perry went and created his own entertainment company. Now he’s one of the richest and most powerful leaders of the entertainment industry.
While Perry was pushed to be marketed primarily to Black people, Rimes’ television shows are marketed broadly. Jackson pointed out that Grey’s Anatomy, Scandal, and How to Get Away with Murder aren’t necessarily “Black shows.” Scandal and How to Get Away with Murder have Black lead stars, and their roles weren’t specific to a white actor.
For greater inclusivity it’s not just the lead actor. It’s also having Black content created by Black people.
“That’s the whole rub. It’s a patriarchal vibe when Steven Spielberg does The Color Purple, and someone can feel they’re an enlightened anti-racist white man who greenlit the project,” said Jackson. “But it’s not the same as Spike Lee doing Malcolm X.”
Black Panther had a Black director, lead actor, and screenwriter.
“It’s more of a connected thread. In those critical pieces you’re going to get a more cohesive project,” said Jackson.
Removing Racist Content
In the documentary, Jackson addresses whether racist content like Song of the South should be removed.
“I took offense at the question. Why are we even debating it? No other group has to answer those questions,” said Jackson. He said there isn’t discussion about having to remove pro-Nazi films on streaming services because there’s sympathy for the Third Reich.
“Just get rid of it. I don’t want it around. The [Anti-Defamation League] requests to remove it and it’s gone,” said Jackson. “Black people need to be treated like the Jewish population [in regards to removing unethical content]. All of that was bad. We died over [slavery]. There’s no other way to spin the antebellum South.”
Jackson said he has seen progress for Black people in cinema.
“It’s not like the cinematic door was busted [through]. That implies all problems are completely gone. It’s like Barack Obama — we didn’t figure out racism because one person got on job, the top job. I think the door is getting wider, which has allowed more to flow,” said Jackson.
He said racism is never good for business, whether it’s missing out on greenlighting Shonda Rimes shows or not having a Black superhero. He compared it to the Negro Leagues when teams realized that Jackie Robinson was winning ballgames for the Brooklyn Dodgers.
“Major League teams started asking, ‘Why don’t we have more Jackie Robinsons? He can hit a lot of homeruns, steal bases, and that’s what he’s doing for the Dodgers’,” said Jackson. “You’re going to have content creators of all shades going through the door. There will be a Jewish executive, or a Hindu executive who are going to look at a trans Black person and say, ‘That’s fine. Let’s do this movie.’”
Jackson said the current generation of Emersonians are puzzled by the notion of not being inclusive.
“They’re asking, ‘Why would you do that?’” said Jackson.