Last week, I came across a trailer for a film called Equal Standard that got me going for all the wrong reasons. The drama, which stars rapper Ice-T, is a tale of black gang leaders joining forces to confront the injustice of the NYPD, interweaving stories of race, betrayal and blue-collar cover-ups.
Sound familiar? That’s because it is. For some time now, black suffering has been a theme in Hollywood, and I’ve noticed that in the seven years since the birth of the Black Lives Matter (BLM) movement, our trauma (specifically at the hands of the police) has gone from a subject matter to an entire genre.
Slavery has long been one of Hollywood’s favourite periods of history. From Uncle Tom’s Cabin (1927) to 12 Years a Slave (2013), The Birth of a Nation (1915) to The Birth of a Nation (2016), directors have long narrated American history through the lens of African American enslavement.
Yet since police officer George Zimmerman’s acquittal for shooting unarmed black teenager Trayvon Martin in Florida in 2012, which kickstarted Black Lives Matter, I’ve noticed Hollywood’s fascination with slavery has shifted onto police brutality, and grown exponentially.
In 2013 and at arguably the height of the BLM movement, director Ryan Coogler debuted his first film Fruitvale Station, a biographical drama based on the events leading up to the death of Oscar Grant, killed in 2009 by police officer Johannes Mehserle. The film, which starred Michael B Jordan, did extraordinary things for BLM, forwarding the fight against systemic racism and violence towards black people in America. Hollywood saw the success of the film, which took in $17.4m (£13.3m) at the box office (a hefty sum for such a drama), and it gave the green light to a whole host of others like it – films which, following the deaths of Michael Brown and Eric Garner at the hands of white police officers, were not short of material.
The following few years delivered a flock of films inspired by police brutality: Detroit (2017), about the Detroit Police Department’s raid on a group of African Americans in the 1960s; LA 92 (2017), about the 1992 Los Angeles riots; The Hate U Give (2018), in which a high school student witnesses a police shooting; and Monsters and Men (2018), the story of a police officer killing of a black man, told through the eyes of a bystander who filmed it.
Since 2013, in other words, it seems as if the most fertile ground for black cinema has been trauma.
And if the director wants an Oscar, they’ll throw in a white saviour for good measure.
Yet the proliferation of black narratives feels excessive. Black people don’t need 50 police brutality films a year to remind us of the injustices we’ve faced and continue to face – we’ve been knowing. Imagine forcing Harriet Tubman or Solomon Northup to rewatch what they’ve lived through several times a year, supposedly for entertainment.
Worse still, it feels exploitative. I’ve begun to wonder how much directors genuinely want to investigate black trauma, and how much they wish to profit from it, knowing it is a tried-and-tested path to critical acclaim.
I understand how these police brutality films can be both eye-opening for those who weren’t aware of black struggles, and goosebumps-inducing for those that were, however, there’s so much more to black lives than their toxic entanglement with law enforcement.
Tales of black pain are a dime a dozen. Fewer and further between are storylines – like those of Moonlight (2016), Black Panther (2018), Sorry To Bother You (2018) and Little (2019) – that showcase black people living happy, healthy lives. I challenge Hollywood to make more of those films: films that leave us laughing, and will leave them laughing all the way to the bank.
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