For several years, stories of Black people have centered around the struggles and trauma we have endured by the hands of white people and slavery. Films, television shows, and other forms of media constantly remind Black people of the pain and suffering their ancestors went through. While the telling of these stories are necessary, a shift of focus is needed. Through different film genres, commentary is now being made on the Black experience and its importance to film.
Slave narratives— the stories of enslaved Africans in the Americas— tell the trauma enslaved people endured in great detail. The authenticity of the accounts allow people to understand the dehumanizing effects of slavery. For instance, in Solomon Northup’s, 12 Years A Slave, Northup describes the violence he had to suffer at the hands of his owners. One account includes where he was whipped and forced to accept his new identity as an enslaved man.
“As soon as these formidable whips appeared, I was seized by both of them, and roughly divested of my clothing. My feet, as has been stated, were fastened to the floor […]. With the paddle, Burch commenced beating me. Blow after blow was inflicted on my naked body. When his unrelenting arm grew tired, he stopped and asked if I still insisted I was a free man. I did insist upon it, and then the blows were renewed, faster and more energetically, if possible, than before,” Northup said.
Northup uses his story to show the unrelenting violence enslaved people went through. The pain and suffering he felt is viewed as seemingly unbearable to many. Yet, Black people are asked to repeatedly play in these types of roles. One of the effects slave narratives have on the readers or viewers is the authenticity of the accounts. In order to capture that properly, actors must be willing to bear that pain. In an interview for the Black Girl Nerds blog, Michelle Jackson, writer and director of Another Slave Narrative, discusses the trouble Black actors go through when depicting these characters.
“One of the reasons why I wanted to use non-Black actors which I’ve gotten some criticism about from viewers who don’t appreciate that, which I respect, but one of the reasons why I did use non-Black actors was because there are some Black actors that I approached to do this project, who expressed real fatigue at doing slave narratives as an actor,” Jackson said.
Jackson would continue to say that Latarsha Rose, one of the actors considered, said that for a period of time, a great deal of her auditions were for slave narratives. For so long, just Black actors were expected to carry the weight and pain of their enslaved ancestors and to only depict these events. The limited amount of diverse roles takes a true toll on actors asked to play them. The stories of Black people are not limited to the enslavement of Africans, but rather stem from the pain and sorrow the enslaved felt. The desire to create new stories has pushed creatives into other film genres and has now allowed the complexity of Black stories in this society to shine through a different lens.
The rise of the Black horror genre has been a slow journey that took off with Jordan Peele’s box office hit, Get Out. The premise of the plot is that Chris Washington, played by Daniel Kaluuya, is meeting his girlfriend’s family for the first time. As the story develops, viewers learn that the Armitage’s are seeking Black men and women to use them for exploitation. The genius behind Peele’s Get Out is how he used different horror tropes— more specifically voyeurism and surveillance— to create a commentary on the racism that still exists today. Across the horror genre, the idea of being watched is something the protagonist struggles with throughout the movie. In reference to Get Out, Chris uses his camera to help viewers visualize what it is like to be ogled at and judged because of the color of your skin. Beyond the racial and political metaphors, Get Out gave the genre of Black horror a newfound rise. In an article entitled “Re-centering the Black experience in the horror genre, from ‘Beloved’ to ‘Get Out’,” writer Noah Berlatsky discusses why Get Out is so important to the horror genre.
“Get Out is important because it turned Black horror from an underground niche into a commercially viable genre. But more than that, its genius was in showing that the Black experience had always been central to the horror genre,” Berlatsky said.
In order to break the cycle of only slave narrative pieces, the film industry must see how important Black people’s stories are to other genres. The misrepresentation of Black people and their experiences in film allowed for a gross and false characterization of who Black people are. Peele’s Get Out is a clever and authentic movie discussing the struggles Black people go through, but in a lens that does not cause trauma to the actor nor the viewer. Removing the need to constantly depict traumatizing Black experiences allows Black actors to tell all kinds of stories, not just ones of oppression.
Slavery is an important topic for people to be educated about. However, it is not the only story Black people have to share. With movies like Get Out and Marvel’s Black Panther, Black culture is now becoming centralized to other literary and film genres. Diversity in the film industry will not only help actors remove the pain and fatigue of playing enslaved people, but also create avenues to tell the stories of Black people today.