Hollywood’s Black renaissance and why the glass ceiling is barely cracked
Hollywood is currently in the midst of a Black renaissance.
The overwhelming success of Marvel’s Black Panther has set a new precedent for Black films and highlights what has been gradual fight for representation for all people of color in film.
Black Panther had the biggest opening weekend for a Black director and is the highest-grossing movie (in North America) directed by a Black filmmaker in history. It’s the first major motion film with a majority Black cast, it’s based on an African nation that’s insulated, un-colonized and technologically advanced, and even the soundtrack was produced by a Black label in Top Dawg Entertainment.
BP also disproves the notion that Blacks can’t carry a big film or that their story isn’t relatable enough to garner international attention. In its four day debut, Black Panther pulled in a staggering $241.9m domestically and $169 million abroad (and that’s without debuting in some of the biggest global markets, like China, Japan, and Russia).
Black Panther is easily the biggest, Blackest movie off all-time.
But Black Panther’s success is just the latest peak of what has been a surge of successful Black films and television shows over the past couple of years. It’s the cherry on top, the sucker punch, and closing argument to Black’s cry for representation, access, and entry for the same opportunities white actors have been getting for decades.
Jordan Peele’s Get Out (2017) was the highest-grossing original debut ever, Barry Jenkins’ Moonlight (2016) became the smallest budget production — accounting for inflation — to ever receive best picture at the Academy Awards.
Original, Black shows that tell true, Black stories are infiltrating television, too. Issa Rae’s Insecure was renewed for a third season on HBO and Donald Glover’s Atlanta, which plays snippets of Migos’s and other rap favorites throughout the show on network television of all places, is shooting its second season.
That doesn’t include Shonda Rhimes, who is dominating with the trifecta of Scandal, Grey’s Anatomy and How to get Away with Murder (two of which have Black women as leads).
For an industry that has cast Elizabeth Taylor as Cleopatra, John Wayne as Genghis Khan, Jake Gyllenhaal as the Prince of Persia, Johnny Depp as Tonto (a Native American) in The Lone Ranger (2013) and tried to cast some white dude as Michael Jackson, it’s safe to say that we’re slowly turning a leaf.
Hollywood’s front door is finally beginning to sliver open for Blacks, but it’s important to remember that it’s just that — a sliver. The glass ceiling is far from being broken through. In fact, there’s barely been a crack.
For perspective, think about how far women have had to come and still have to go.
In 1980, the Bechdel test was developed to determine whether women were adequately represented in film. To pass the test was simple: two women had to talk to each other on screen about something other than a man.
Imagine that — being so ignorant to the void of women in film that a test to measure gender inequality was created. There’s still work to do though, there’s been more inclusion, more (white) women on screen talk to other (white) women and (white) women with leads.
Considering this, think how tough it is for Blacks, and imagine how much tougher for Black women.
An average of 75.2 percent of speaking roles already go to white actors, according to the 2014 University of Southern California study “Inequality in 700 Popular Films,” some of those parts are actually characters of color. And the films that have done well and that do cast Black actors, usually are the same roles.
With 12 Years a Slave, and 2015’s Selma — the last pictures nominated for best picture at the Academy Awards before Moonlight — it seemed as if Hollywood was only okay seeing Blacks cast in a certain light.
And while Black Panther is somewhat of a breakthrough, the metaphorical ceiling won’t truly be broken until Blacks consistently land leads for a multi-cultural major motion films, not just a film where everyone is Black.
There is an undeniable movement in Hollywood for Blacks that shouldn’t be ignored. Companies, like Macro for example, have been working to attract the right attention so that more Ryan Coogler’s and Ava Duvernay’s can exist, thrive and have a seat at the table.
Established around three years ago by former big name Hollywood agent, Charles D. King, Macro has made an intention to occupy the television, film, and even publication space, so that the Black voice can be heard. It’s why we’ve gotten a Mudbound (2017) and sites like Blavity, which cater to the black millennial voice.
For the first time in a long time, Black people can look at a screen and see themselves as a superhero, successful lawyer, a compassionate gay men or woman, and many other different complex ways that show actual people.
On the same token, however, it is important that we know there is still work to do.
As we celebrate Black Panther’s success, let’s hope this groundbreaking moment goes far beyond sales, and continues to chip away at the ceiling that has cast a shadow over Hollywood.