By Julia Clausen
According to Co-Founder and President of the African American Film Critics Association, Gil Robertson, “By any measurement, it’s been an exceptional year for Blacks in film.” In an interview with the Huffington Post in November, he even went so far as to call it the “best year ever,” and the numbers agree.
2016 saw a large number of critically-acclaimed and extremely popular film and television releases created and performed by African Americans. “American Crime Story: The People vs O.J. Simpson” on FX was the most-watched new cable series of 2016, and the most-watched new FX series ever. The Netflix series “Luke Cage” was so popular that Netflix servers crashed the day it was released when too many people tried to watch it at once.
From Barry Jenkins’s independent film “Moonlight” taking awards season by storm to the successful adaptation of popular web series “The Misadventures of Awkward Black Girl” into the high-ranking comedy series “Insecure” by producer, director and actress Issa Rae, new projects from African American voices are proving just how powerful and popular their stories can be.
What makes film and television from the past year particularly important, however, is the fact that they do not only star Black actors, but are also created, produced, directed, and written by Black artists. The entire production is an act of self-representation.
During the Twitter storm of #OscarsSoWhite in 2016, it was often pointed out that one of the few nominated films starring African American actors, “Straight Outta Compton,” was only nominated for a writing credit; incredibly, both writers for that film were white, proving self-representation is even more difficult to achieve than some might imagine.
Denzel Washington’s new film “Fences” was met with critical and commercial success, but the road to getting it made was not so simple. “Fences” is based on a play of the same name by Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright August Wilson, and after it opened successfully in 1987, Wilson declared interest in adapting it for film. However, he refused to let the project move forward unless it was manned by a Black director, even writing an op-ed defending his position for the New York Times in 1990. Not until the play was revived on Broadway in 2010, five years after the playwright’s death, did Washington decide to take charge of the project.
On top of co-creating the hit HBO comedy, “Insecure,” Issa Rae also runs her own production company called Issa Rae Presents. Even at 31, Rae is able to use her success to provide a platform for other underrepresented voices to create quality web series that reflect their realities.
In fact, that seemed to be a major theme of the year: authenticity. There have been plenty of biopics on famous African American history-makers over the years, but never quite so many all at once, and often not made by people who were intimately tied to the experiences portrayed.
Barry Jenkins, writer/director of “Moonlight,” picked up the project because he felt the original play to be similar to his own story. After working with the playwright Tarrell Alvin McCraney, who based the play on his own experiences, Jenkins discovered that he and McCraney actually grew up in the same neighborhood of Miami.
This dynamic duo was able to tell their story in the way they wanted to, with both aching silences and stunning visuals. In an interview with Film Comment, Jenkins explained that he wanted his neighborhood to be seen the way he remembered it: “super vibrant, super bright, and super colorful.” He filmed several scenes in an apartment only minutes away from where he grew up.
Other projects achieved authenticity by looking at history with fresh eyes, such as “Hidden Figures” telling the story of the unsung African American women heroes of the NASA space program, “American Crime Story” revising O.J. Simpson’s trial, or the Netflix documentary “13th” by “Selma” director Ava DuVernay about the mass incarceration of African Americans and the continued legacy of slavery. These and others delve into truths of the past, portraying African American lives beyond the tropes of the slave story or the lovable 1960s maid, with Black artists at the helm.
Shows and films this year focused on telling the stories of real people who are both complex and ordinary. From “Queen Sugar,” about three grown children who inherit a dying farm in Louisiana, to the very unlikeable protagonist of “Fences” and from the odd magical realism of “Atlanta,” to the painfully relatable awkwardness of “Insecure,” 2016 was a year of varied and vulnerable narratives that weren’t afraid to show the ordinariness of Black lives.
As Issa Rae put it in an interview with NPR this year, “We don’t get to just have a show about regular black people being basic.”
Awards season is already promising success for many of these shows and films, with “Moonlight” in particular looking to sweep the board with nominations for writing, directing, acting, music, and best drama. As Robertson of the AAFCA stated in his interview with Huffington Post, “The coming award nominations are going to definitely put a pause on #OscarsSoWhite this year.”
However, this journey for representation is far from over, and it would be naïve to think that one year of positive statistics will cause immediate change in, well, anything.
While this year of revolutionary outpour of film and television does make the president of the AAFCA hopeful for the future, as Issa Rae put it in her NPR interview, “Isn’t it sad that it’s revolutionary?”
But perhaps these successful artists can continue to provide platforms for more African American voices so that, one day, a large number of authentic and moving stories will not be considered a marvel, but the norm.