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The 2010s: The Decade When Black Films Became Highbrow

The 2010s: The Decade When Black Films Became Highbrow

Graphic: Evanka Williamson
Graphic: Evanka Williamson

With rising talent like Ryan Coogler, Issa Rae, Boots Riley, and Lena Waithe, it’s a new dawn for respected, critically acclaimed Black cinema. Now, what’s next?

As this decade comes to a close, Black cinema is at the forefront of the critical conversation. The newest releases by Black auteurs like Barry Jenkins and Jordan Peele are met with a whirlwind of hype, splashy premieres, and ever-climbing expectations. The astonishingly regal Ava DuVernay has become a giant in both the large and small screen. For the first time in recent memory, a Black woman director is a bonafide celebrity with the clout and funds possible to lift up other women filmmakers of color while continuing to make her own work. Director and producer Lee Daniels has become a giant as well, spearheading film and television that depicts dramatic, resonate and sensual Black stories. Tyler Perry has stepped away from his Madea franchise and purchased an expansive studio that will be focused on Black film, the likes of which hasn’t been done since the years of Oscar Micheaux. With rising talent like Ryan Coogler, Issa Rae, Boots Riley, and Lena Waithe, it’s a new dawn for respected, critically acclaimed Black cinema that has climbed to heights of recognition unheard of in any previous decade.

This is a strange phenomenon when you consider the ’90s — a time when Black independent cinema was coming into its own. The decade began with Spike Lee’s most regarded film, Do The Right Thing (1989), only receiving two Oscar nominations and failing to win either one. This set the tone for a decade of prominent Black films being boxed out by high profile, white institutions. Iconic films by Albert and Allen Hughes, F. Gary Gray, John Singleton, Charles Burnett, and Carl Franklin were mostly ignored by the Academy, leaving one of the most fascinating decades in Black film documented mainly by Black scholars and critics. That’s not even accounting for the work of Black women. Landmark films like Daughters of the Dust (1991), Just Another Girl on the IRT (1993), The Watermelon Woman (1996), and Eve’s Bayou (1997) went under-discussed, or worse, unmentioned and easily forgotten, even as white critics like Roger Ebert did his best to champion them.

It seems that, at the time, there was no room in the Academy for Black film. And with that prestige out of the conversation entirely, there was always a ceiling to how much these films would be regarded within the archaic highbrow/lowbrow classifications of the largely white-driven American cinematic landscape. This continued well into the 2000s, even as Denzel Washington began his directing career with the forgotten gem Antwone Fisher (2002). For this reason, many of the talented Black actors that came into their own at the time Derek Luke, Tristan Wilds, Evan Ross, Keke Palmer, Meagan Good, Jackie Long, Elijah Kelley, Rob Brown and the late Lee Thompson Young weren’t provided with the roles that could have launched them into wider Hollywood acclaim. The only film with a predominantly black cast to gain a Best Picture nomination that decade was Ray (2004), bolstered by its primarily white creative team

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And then came 2009, the year that Lee Daniels released indie darling Precious, starring newcomer Gabourey Sidibe and Mo’Nique in her first big dramatic role. Daniels had been around before this, mainly in a producing capacity. He produced Monster’s Ball (2001), the only film in history with an Oscar-winning leading performance by a Black actress (Halle Berry). (Looking back, Monster’s Ball had all the attributes Daniels would be later known for: depictions of put-upon Black women who can’t depend on the men in their life, a special interest in working-class narratives and a sweaty, downbeat tailor-made for melodrama.) And with the backing of producers Tyler Perry and Oprah Winfrey, he was able to get the Oscar spotlight, creating a pathway for films created by and starring Black people to enter real awards consideration.

Right around the same time, the Academy of Motion Pictures and Sciences made the announcement that starting in 2010, the Best Picture category would be doubled from five to ten nominations. This was an effort to increase the scope of the Oscars, allowing them to include films and performances that otherwise wouldn’t be showcased. Although the Academy’s reasoning didn’t seem based on its nearly two-decade-long disinterest in Black film outside of categories like Best Screenplay, Best Costumes, and acting nominations, Black artists benefited. At the 82nd Academy Awards in 2010, Precious was one of the ten films nominated for Best Picture, and Mo’Nique took home an Oscar for Best Actress in a Supporting Role. In 2012, it happened again: The Help was nominated for Best Picture and a respected Black Actress — Octavia Spencer — took home an Oscar for her supporting role. But this time it was a white director — Tate Taylor — who was pushed into the spotlight. 

Like Craig Brewer (Hustle & Flow) and Taylor Hackford (Ray) before him, Taylor gained acclaim for the way The Help showcased black actors. In 2013, the Oscars was much of the same, with Beasts of the Southern Wild and Django Unchained both made by white male filmmakers receiving widespread acclaim. Steven Spielberg’s Lincoln being released that same year seems relevant as well, given it was a film about slavery centering on the white legislation aspect of the conflict. This is not a knock on the film, but it is symptomatic of the attitudes that had prevailed in Hollywood since the release of his other slave-related film Amistad in 1997 and 1989’s Glory before it. Films about Black people from white filmmakers and the white perspectives that color their judgment are easily praised in Hollywood, often to the detriment of more personal, resonant Black art.

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To have all of the major awards attention given to three films regarding blackness made by white directors had an unmistakable feeling of erasure. That same awards year saw the release of Ava DuVernay’s painfully relevant Middle of Nowhere and Daniels’ fascinating follow-up The Paperboy, both of which were wholly ignored by the Academy. Then, in summer 2013, 12 Years a Slave premiered at Telluride and steadily gained steam until it won the Academy Award for Best Picture in the spring of 2014. This was the win that stuck. 12 Years a Slave became the film that changed everything about how Black film was regarded this decade.

Why is 12 Years a Slave the film to turn things around? The film scratches a certain itch for white viewers rooted in graphic depictions of Black pain and despair. Through their viewing they are granted an image of the other, and through the projection of the other’s pain a white audience may feel like they gain an understanding of racism. 

In the interim between 12 Years A Slave’s Best Picture win in 2014 and Moonlight’s eventual Best Picture win three years later, came the rise of the social media movement #OscarsSoWhite.The movement, created by April Reign, had begun a year prior when Best Picture nominee Selma (2014) and other notable Black films from that year like Gina Prince-Bythewood’s Beyond the Lights were shut out of all four acting categories. #OscarsSoWhite then gained steam in 2016 as favorites from the previous year, like Beasts of No Nation, Creed, Chi-Raq, and Straight Outta Compton, were shut out of most of the major awards. This led to widespread media coverage of the movement, catapulting Reign into the spotlight as an advocate for inclusion in Hollywood. Emily VanDerWerff wrote eloquently about the conflict for Vox in early 2016, explaining that it is no longer possible to ignore the way the Academy shuts out Black films and, specifically, Black performances. She ends the piece by stating how “it’s harder to take the prize seriously when a bunch of critically beloved, commercially successful films are ignored right out of the gate, seemingly because of who their protagonists are.”  

When we consider the Black films of this decade, many of them share a palpable sense of anguish. Black documentaries like O.J.: Made in America (2016), 13th (2016), Strong Island (2017), and I Am Not Your Negro (2017) all reckon with the painful history of racism in our country. Whether it be nonfiction or narrative, Black films of the 2010s have been making moves toward rewriting history in a way that is more thoughtful, truthful and less influenced by the white gaze. The most obvious narrative example of this is Ava DuVernay’s Selma, which boasts the most nuanced portrayal of Martin Luther King, Jr. in a narrative film to date. Gone is the feel-good, agreeable image that white America has been holding onto for decades. What we got instead was a realistic look at movement organizing and negotiation, the kind of work that is still being done today under close government surveillance. Selma is simultaneously a film of then and now that shows us, often painfully, that progress has not been achieved. 

Perhaps Selma’s pragmatic outlook turned off viewers and Oscar voters alike in late 2014 and early 2015 in the wake of the conflict in Ferguson and the rise of the Black Lives Matter movement. But then, how do we explain the overwhelming critical and commercial success of 2017’s Get Out and 2018’s Black Panther? Both films engage with our painful history, whether it be slavery or the over-policing and murdering of unarmed Black people that continues today. Perhaps their appeal lies in the use of genre convictions and ambitious visual storytelling as a way to create a triumphant narrative for Black people in which we overcome. 

These qualities may have also been what appealed 2016’s Moonlight to both Oscar voters and white audiences who ignored other Black queer films like Dee Rees’ Pariah released five years earlier. Though both films have a similar subject matter, Moonlight goes for a more impressionistic narrative with a visual ambition and feel-good ending that tends to speak to Oscar voters. Yet, when it comes to the Big Moonlight/La La Land Debate of 2016, Moonlight was positioned as the “important” movie while La La Land was framed as a more joyous and emotionally resonant narrative. However, those distinctions don’t really hold up to scrutiny. Viewers are able to find joy in emotional resonance, and the rhythms of Moonlight have an otherworldly understanding of pleasure and pain, squeezing joy for its protagonist wherever there is space. La La Land, though superficially brighter, has a much more pessimistic outlook on love with a theatricality seemingly crafted to keep viewers at an emotional distance. It is a film that banks on the assumption that viewers have seen a film like it before and therefore are predisposed to being connected to it. Moonlight, in turn, stands out due to its ability to be emotionally powerful with little precedent, especially in narratives about Black men. And for perhaps the only time this decade, the Oscars congratulated a film for being unlike everything else by giving it the highest honor of Best Picture. That is, after one of the most public mistakes in the Academy’s history.

Now that we’ve made it to the mountaintop, what’s next for the “highbrow” class of Black films? Hopefully, in light of stylistically ambitious films like Jenkins’ Moonlight follow-up If Beale Street Could Talk (2018), Mati Diop’s Atlantics (2019), and Julius Onah’s Luce (2019), there can be a collective move past the quest for prestige. If this year’s Us is any indication, Peele is heading in that direction already. And with Widows (2018), even McQueen is experimenting with messier, more emotion-driven narratives. These films are a release after a decade defined mainly by portraits of anguish. For every Beyond the Lights, Sorry to Bother You (2018), or A Wrinkle in Time (2018), there were several more critically-lauded films that were often politically and socially relevant while lacking a sense of enjoyment or rewatchability. White filmmakers have had decades to make films that are considered both critically worthy and cinematically daring.

Hopefully, Black filmmakers in the coming decade look back at the work of pioneers like Bill Gunn and more contemporary directors like Burnett and Dash to be reminded of film’s enduring sense of wonder. Black cinema is considered highbrow now because it is receiving critique on the world’s stage in print and on social media. Filmmakers should aim higher than simply following the mold of the few Black films and performances to win Oscars this decade, which is perhaps why Queen & Slim, released last month, has become such a contentious subject among Black critics. Queen & Slim is a hopeless note to end the decade on, pandering to our collective trauma while providing no emotional release through its storytelling or visual style. Here’s hoping that in the coming decade, we’ll have more emotionally and structurally rich Black films to look forward to. 

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Jourdain Searles is a writer, comedian, and podcaster who hails from Georgia and resides in Queens. She has written for Bitch Media, Thrillist, The Ringer, and MTV News. As a comic, she has performed stand-up in venues all over New York City, including Union Hall, The People Improv’s Theater, UCB East, and The Creek and the Cave. She can be found on Twitter.

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