In honor of “spooky season,” I recently watched Antebellum. It was something I had been looking forward to since the initial trailers blessed all of us with Janelle Monae’s acting ability. When the pandemic forced movies to release next year or go on demand, I was elated to find that those in charge of Antebellum let me stream it in the comfort of my living room. Naturally, I enjoyed myself and as I always do, I like to compare my review of a film with that of others.
With Antebellum, I was purposely seeking out critiques from Black folks, and my search took me down a rabbit hole of an area of Black film critique that I wasn’t familiar with. Before I made it down that route, however, the first path I embarked on was covered with critiques from white men who surprisingly had a lot to say about the film. Among other things, they all echoed that a theme of “unnecessary violence” continued to repeat itself throughout the piece and became a distraction from the story told — something that struck a nerve with me. The way they focused on this component of the story, it seemed like these folks had never read a history book. The “unnecessary violence” they spoke of wouldn’t warrant the film to have a PG rating, but it still paled in comparison to other real life horrors Black people faced as slaves. The telling of any fictitious story pertaining to slavery will inevitably consist of plausible violence because the atrocities committed to Black people were a part of the Black experience then and still is now. So, art imitates life.
We are all socialized into our identities by the world and with that socialization comes inherent biases that we can’t readily perceive. Which is why I take reviews on Black film and TV from white folks with a grain of salt, as whiteness creates a barrier to reviewing Black work, like Antebellum, in the capacity that it is designed to be seen in.
Don’t get me wrong, art developed by Black folks is not absolved from critique. This goes for visual arts, music, film, theatre and TV; however, we have to ask, what do we do when the reviewer is not able to unveil the cloaked biases that hinder them from an objective review?
Biases and racism exist, and it most certainly manifests in regards to critiquing work developed by Black artists. If they didn’t, then we wouldn’t need Black institutions and festivals to critique Black art in ways that allow for more of it to see the light of day and receive the attention it deserves. My issue with the various critiques on Antebellum from white reviewers is that it focused more on how there was gratuitous violence. Those who see Antebellum as a piece designed to spur shock value miss the essence of what it highlights — what happens when the horrors of racism’s past manifest in the present. So with Antebellum going for a more visceral approach, as opposed to steady build up of terror from its contemporaries, it still provides the needed conversation on how racism in horror and thriller films feel plausible and more terrifying in the context of our American society.
Black film has been gracing our screens since 1919, when Oscar Micheaux wrote, directed and produced the silent film The Homesteader. The film, based on an autobiographical account of Micheaux’s experiences in South Dakota, brought Black actress Evelyn Preer to the silver screen. His work continued to highlight Black stories devoid of stereotypes and promoted more Black talent, like Paul Robeson, into the limelight. His films were Black made and constructed for the Black eye, but they also risked cancellation for pushing the envelope on race relations during their time. Consequently, he found his work prohibited from screening in cinemas around the country. Micheaux’s work is the precursor to many Black films of our current day. Black artists are developing work that informs the world of Black people in more complex ways, leaving room for more stories to be told this way.
When you think of work from other Black film greats like Spike Lee, Ava DuVernay and Gina Prince-Blythewood, some of their most pivotal work, like School Daze, Love & Basketball and Selma, may come to mind. Sure, these films grossed funds larger than their production budgets, various traditionally white associations have lauded their work and some of these films are cult classics; however, when you think of the accolades for these pieces, the majority of it comes from Black audiences and critics, unlike the work from these directors’ white contemporaries who received the universal acclaim and awards to match. We may not have Black films being unceremoniously blocked in movie theaters around the country, but racism can still manifest in the review when the work is surrounding a Black narrative and released into the world for consumption.
As the years have gone by, more films and shows where stories are devoid of central white characters and focus on the narrative of Blackness have sprung up. With Issa Rae’s Insecure and Donald Glover’s Atlanta receiving critical acclaim, yet having predominantly Black or solely Black casts and storytelling that encompasses the Black experience, it makes it seem that Blackness on screen can be appreciated how it is, unfiltered. Additionally, films like Moonlight flourished in the eyes of critics, even winning what some consider the ultimate accolade, the Academy Award for Best Picture (even though its win was marred by mistakenly calling out La La Land as the winner). With the Academy being 89% white during Moonlight’s 2017 win, what does that say with their selection of the film? When arguably the highest and whitest echelon of film review selects such a Black film, can Black art be seen for how it was intended by non-Black audiences? Can its true message shine without biases blocking its light?
It can certainly be consumed, but perhaps with hand holding a non-Black audience. Writers like Kenya Barris work on stories that do provide insight into the Black experience, but one that feels like it can be grasped by those who don’t live in it. Shows like Black-ish and #BlackAf traverses down this path, but only highlight a particular Black experience — typically a light-skinned, upper/middle class one. Unfortunately this leaves out the complexities of other Black narratives. Where those complexities vanish, they’re replaced with certain elements of class and tales of race exhibited, either by Black or white characters, that allow for a palpable Black narrative to be digested and related to by white audiences. This doesn’t speak to the show’s quality, but it does speak to when Blackness subscribes to a white perspective it can be digested, interpreted and appreciated by a white audience. This is separate from what Atlanta, Insecure, and Moonlight provide, but all of these pieces seem to mystify what Black art is considered to be palpable to a non-Black audience — even if the work was never meant to be.
But does it matter when Black art is not beholden to one medium, one narrative or one audience? It transcends genres to tell stories from everyday life to the wildest of fantasies. This doesn’t mean that only Black people can critique Black art, but non-Black reviewers must be able to review with their biases checked. If not, we run the risk of Black film and TV being seen through a lens that will never fully capture the beauty of this work, but will highlight the much needed conversation on white reviewers needing a better grasp on Blackness.
Yet, this is the paradox that Black art gets to exist in, to wade out into the waters of white acceptability and either sink or swim, but Black film and TV is not always made for the white gaze and does not need it to be seen as quality to be seen as excellent — and to be seen as worthy. This can change with more Black gatekeepers both on screen, behind it and in print with critiques. A diversification of the folks who make decisions that open doors for more Black artists to tell Black stories in all of their complexities.
We don’t have a lack of Black artists, nor do we have a lack of Black art. We have a lack of a platform to highlight it all in the most positive of ways. The goal is to feature more of it at the same level and frequency of art produced by white artists, but my wish is for Black art to receive the praise it so rightfully deserves.