Why It’s Time to Step Away from films about Black Trauma
By Louise Giadom
Racial trauma, or race-based traumatic stress (RBTS), refers to the mental and emotional injury caused by encounters with racial bias and ethnic discrimination, racism, and hate crimes.
Racial or Black trauma is frighteningly rife in the film industry with more films seemingly made about subjects like slavery, police brutality and racism, than anything else where Black people are concerned. For years when it came to American history the story has been told through the eyes of African American slaves in films like Uncle Tom’s Cabin (1927), The Birth of a Nation (1915), The Birth of a Nation (2016) and 12 Years a Slave (2016). Most recently, the number of films about police brutality has risen along with the number of stories we see on the news – Detroit (2017), LA 92 (2017), The Hate U Give (2018) and Monsters and Men (2018) are just a few examples of films that come to mind.
These films are a small pool of the extensive list of films focused on Black trauma, the likes of which spans years and years of filmmaking and can, understandably, feel never ending at times. Other Black trauma films include: Antebellum (2020) Precious (2009) Fruitvale Station (2013) The Strange Thing About the Johnsons (2011) Beloved (1998) For Colored Girls (2010) Mississippi Burning (1988) Hotel Rwanda (2004) Django Unchained (2012) Karen (2021) Two Distant Strangers (2020)
So, why are films about slavery and police brutality so prevalent in the film industry? The most obvious answer to this question is profit and acclaim. Films about slavery for example, are constantly nominated for, and win Oscars. Now, while some filmmakers have the good intention of trying to raise awareness and educate audiences on this history, it’s become quite apparent that films about slavery in particular, are a great way to get industry acclaim which calls the intention of the people making these films, into question.
There is a very thin line to cross before films tread into exploitative territory, something that could be seen to be the case now with the sheer amount of traumatic Black stories that are put on the big screen each year.
That’s not to say that it isn’t important to tell these stories because it is, it’s incredibly important that people know what happened during slavery, how the police treat Black people, and the general lives and feelings of Black people in our current society. The issue comes when these are the only stories being told.
Historically, the predominantly white film industry has catered to a mass white audience which has meant the films made haven’t always been created with everyone in mind, they’ve instead been created for a select few, and this has led to stereotypes and misrepresentation.
This misrepresentation comes from the fact that, for a long-time, films about Black people were made without the input of Black people. Why is this important? Well, if you’re a studio executive surrounded by people who look exactly like you, and you greenlight a film about a group of people different to you without their input, it just won’t be accurate and instead will be full of your opinion and biases. These executives may not even be aware that the film isn’t accurate in its portrayal because its intended audience validates it through box office return and critical acclaim. While this is all happening, Black audiences are forced to see themselves in degrading scenarios, likely reliving trauma.
When it comes down to it, we have to ask, who are these films really for? At the end of the day, Black people are bound to already know about slavery and the injustices they face on a daily basis so do they really need such detailed traumatic films about it put out every year?
If filmmakers were to create movies about the Black Experience with Black audiences in mind, then it would look something like debbie tucker green’s latest film Ear for Eye (2021) which was released on BBC Two and BBC iPlayer on 16th October 2021. The film explores the Black British experience with police brutality as well as institutionalised racism within education in America. While the film discusses difficult subjects, it is done in a way that avoids exploiting Black suffering through graphic depictions of the scenarios spoken about, instead focusing on the feelings that these experiences evoke in Black people, especially regarding police brutality. This film is a clear example of how filmmakers can educate people on issues like police brutality and racism in an engaging and innovative way.
The occasional historical film about slavery or insight into how Black people are treated by police is one thing, but we are constantly inundated with film after film about some form of Black suffering. All the while not much thought is given to the real group of people these films are representing. Misrepresentation in film is more harmful than a lot of people realise and in recent years this has become a big topic of debate with many people asking why representation is important. The answer a lot of underrepresented people would give is that it’s easy to ask that question when nearly every film has someone who looks like you in it, portrayed in a generally positive light.
Black people have always been subjected to stereotyping. It has expanded and evolved but generally Black men are aggressors, absent from their kids’ lives, and criminals while Black women are hypersexualised, victims of abuse, angry and sometimes violent, or even fat and unattractive, especially if they’re dark skinned. Black people have had to watch themselves be abused on screen for years in some way or another, so it’s not surprising to think they’ll be affected and want other kind of films made about them.
Of course, not all Black films are focused on trauma, there being many examples of comedies – Girls Trip (2017), Little (2019), dramas – If Beale Street Could Talk (2018), One Night in Miami (2020), Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom (2020), and action films, particularly during the 1970s Black Power movement – Shaft (1971), The Mack (1973), Ride Along (2014), Bad Boys for Life (2020). It’s very easy however, for these films to be drowned out by the sheer volume of slavery, racism and police brutality films made each year.
For the filmmakers who want to educate people on Black history, there is so much positivity to dip into too – Hidden Figures (2016) for example, while showcasing the difficulty of race relations in the 60s, instead focused on the achievements of three Black female NASA scientists. Then there are documentaries like My Name is Pauli Murray (2021); another way of highlighting some of the more favourable areas on Black history of which there is still so much to tell.
Even outside history, Black people deserve films about themselves that show they are normal people like everyone else, that their lives don’t revolve around trauma because they don’t, they are so much more than just slavery and police brutality.
The 90s and 00s Black romcom boom is a perfect example of the ways in which filmmakers can and have, told stories about Black people, stepping away from trauma and the negative stereotypes that so often go hand in hand. Films like The Best Man (1999), How Stella Got Her Groove Back (1998), Deliver Us from Eva (2001), Love and Basketball (2000), Brown Sugar (2002), and more recent films like The Photograph (2020) and yet to be released Boxing Day (2021) show that there are ways to tell stories about Black people, women in particular, that can be entertaining to everyone without being at the expense of a group of people.
No one is saying to stop films about slavery and police brutality, but maybe it’s time to put them on pause and instead do more to celebrate the positives and triumphs of Black people and their lives.
Louise has a background in Events Management and graduated from the National Film and Television School’s Marketing, Distribution, Sales and Exhibition course in early 2021. She is particularly interested in the distribution and marketing of diverse film, specifically Black film.
Since graduating she has freelanced in Social Media Marketing at The New Black Film Collective before moving to a permanent social media role in TV at All3Media International. She is also currently part of the FAN Young Consultants group, providing insight and feedback on how cinemas and distributors can reach young audiences with upcoming film releases.