When I was taking film classes at Baruch towards my degree in Media and Social Issues, I was very conscious (often self-conscious) as a woman of color that I could not look at the history of film and television in the same way as say, a white male film student. I also felt compelled to be as vigilant with my own classmates of color about the myriad ways in which great popular films and television meant to tell a broad story of humanity often doesn’t serve us, even when we are “included.”
Remember that scene in the Matrix when Neo walks in on Cypher while he’s keeping watch on the ship and asks him about looking at the code in its unencrypted form? Joey says something to the effect that like anyone else, he used to look at it and see what most human viewers would see, green lines running vertically up and down a black computer screen. “But now I just see blonde, brunette, redhead…” In essence, after being trained, he knows what the code represents. He knows that the code is written to replicate the illusion of reality which is accepted as the only reality that exists for all the humans who are still plugged in. And as we learn later, he’s already made a deal with agents to have himself plugged back in.
Sit with that for a moment.
It’s not necessary to have a background in film and or media to understand the underwritten code that runs like a current through just about every form of media we consume. And as a person of color and a woman of color no less, my fascination with film and television is based not only from what I have gleaned from an early age from being “plugged in” but even more from what I have discovered and still uncover constantly from the study of intersections of race class and gender politics in film and the ways in which studios, networks, and writers collaborate and clash to produce narratives and pieces of propaganda that feed our minds subliminally and overtly with ideas that have been implemented from the dawn of the age of film, formulas, gender construction, codified mise en scene. We’ve come very far with the transformation and reinterpretation of some ancient narrative devices. And I am not necessarily an enemy of what’s old, because in art as in life, there are some things that always work. The wheel only got invented once and that’s all that was needed. The ideas that are derived from foundational discoveries are endless.
There are the foundational ideas in film and television and there are the politics of racism, sexism, homophobia and power embedded in the censored approach to storytelling that has become the mainstay of American Cinema and television.
So for instance when I’m lying in bed watching the trailers app on my iphone which is something I do religiously, and I see the trailer for a film like “Interstellar” which is sold as this modern day space frontier film with the power of love at its core, I also see what is just beneath that, White space cowboy hero, token black guy, token female fly off into space to repopulate another planet because the Earth is dying.
When I watch the trailer for “Black or White” (aw jeezus) which is being sold as a color blind commentary on a cross racial family divide with of course, love (because it conquers all) at its core, I see White, not “Black or White.” And I see Costner as a yet another tool, a representation of rugged white American male ideal with a little Black girl on his lap.
I love Costner. He’s the spoonful of sugar that’s supposed to make the Kool Aid go down without you realizing it’s just more acid. But I’ve been on that trip before. I don’t need to spend my money on that.
Last night I watched the first episode of “Empire,” a show that I had been anticipating only with the energy of someone excited to see people of color on a television show in such large numbers. But best believe my critical mind took in the code of predominantly light skinned black who make up the majority of the cast and what they means about what networks will accept as representations of people of color on television that can occupy spaces of power. That was kind of a hard one for me to miss. Did you watch it? Did you notice who comes begging for money? Did you notice who gets killed first? Do you remember who asks the oldest son not to forget him on his way up the ladder of success?
The sets are bombastic, hyperbolic and over the top. Did you catch the two large ass Kehinde Wiley paintings? Loved them!
“Empire” is a stallion that busts out of the gate charging forward with seemingly reckless abandon. Yes, I just wrote a promotional blurb for “Empire.” But beyond that, I see some of the same destructive elements of broken black family culture that have been the running theme of many successful reality television shows which revolve around so-called “Black life.” Taraji as the ruthless bitch who stops at nothing to win back her stake on a company she bankrolled, Terence as the ever resplendent male Mulatto who builds and Empire but is destined for tragedy. And the darker skinned bit players who scrabble for scraps near the bottom rung while brushing off the shadows of subordination by their lighter, more privileged superiors.
At least that’s the formula and code I’ve become accustomed to seeing. I’ll watch it few more times and see if it heads in a “surprisingly unexpected” direction because that’s what I long for. And let me be clear about what I mean when I say surprisingly different. I want a dark skinned Black hero, preferably a woman with a decidedly mysterious but grandiose and royally descended past, to pop up, seemingly out of nowhere, unite everyone divided by power and commerce to fight the real enemy.
Okay wait, did I just write a pitch for my own original television show idea?