Black Storytelling in 2019

2019 was defined by the debate over Black storytelling and what it means to portray Black lives on screen.
Last Black Man
By  · Published on January 2nd, 2020

This article is part of our 2019 Rewind. Follow along as we explore the best and most interesting movies, shows, performances, and more from 2019.

If someone were to ask you, “What is Black storytelling?” what would you say? That it is stories told and written by Black people? Or perhaps you would reference Black literature and cinema and the characters that reside in them. This is not an easy question to answer, but it does raise another valuable question: why do Black storytelling and, by relation, Black cinema exist?

There has never been one defining answer to that question because, like iron, Black storytelling bends to fit the needs of the people. And the core of Black storytelling is something that can only be discovered once you are ready to accept the reason for its existence: Black lives matter

And, no, the origins of black cinema is not the Black Lives Matter organization. Rather, the stories passed down and told of black people’s lives are significant to show that we love, we live, we cry, and we feel anger for the circumstances we didn’t choose but were forced to carry. To show others that they are not alone and that we can stand united. To lift them up in a society built on putting us down. 

In short, Black storytelling and Black Lives Matter are one and the same. Black storytelling has been my people’s way of showing us that Black lives matter for hundreds of years, as the origin of black storytelling was to preserve our culture and traditions and to remind us of how far we have come. But 2019 was a special year for Black storytelling in the form of Black cinema and television, as storytellers grappled with the complexity of what it means to portray Black lives on screen and how that portrayal can change the narrative of how Black people are viewed in society.

Whether it was about gentrification, Black masculinity and identity, or historical events, such as the Central Park Five case and the Tulsa Massacre, the films and television shows of 2019 as a whole offered a powerful reminder that, yes, Black cinema is making progress, but, oh, do we still have a long way to go. However, before we talk about the Black stories of 2019, let’s talk about who gets to tell Black stories to begin with. 

Waves, directed by Trey Edwards Shults, is a 2019 Black film on paper. It tells the story of a Black family, stars Black actors, and is accompanied by a soundtrack of mostly Black artists. Yet, if you were to change the main cast from Black to white, the story would still be the same. Waves was sold as a Black product, but, in actuality, that blackness is just paint that can be scraped off. In the case of this film, blackness is an aesthetic choice. But the faults of Waves isn’t because Shults is a white man, it is because he failed to listen to the Black storytelling that came before Waves. He became fascinated with the environment of the stories, the landscape, the music, but the message was lost.

There will always be a Waves as long as Black storytelling exists because, to some people, our stories and, by extension, our way of life is open to interpretation. It was only a year ago that Green Book, another black story misinterpreted by a white man, won several awards, including Best Picture at the Oscars. The subject of the film, Don Shirley, a famous Black pianist played by the impeccable Mahershala Ali, had a surviving family. Yet, not one of them was consulted when Green Book was written and filmed. The story of Shirley was left to Peter Farrelly, the director, and the surviving family of Frank Anthony Vallelonga Sr., the white bodyguard of Shirley. This led to a major backlash from minorities and allies, as the film has leaned hard into the white savior trope, and it is obviously a story centered more on Vallelonga than Shirley. Like Waves, Green Book uses Black characters as subjects and props, instead of actual human beings.

But for every poor interpretation, there are exceptions. Black stories can be properly heard and transcribed, such as with Steven Spielberg’s 1985 adaption of The Color Purple, which is for the most part accepted by us, but these are few and far between. As actor Charles S. Dutton wrote in the New York Times back in 2000, in regards to Black storytelling, “The Black culture’s story and the white culture’s story are as different as night and day. We share the same sky, the same county, and the same air, but our human experience has been as different from one another as you can get. It’s the year 2000, but will white people ever know the souls of Black folks? I don’t think so.” I agree. They will never know our souls, but damn if they can’t feel it. 

Though Waves made a big splash due to critical acclaim (mostly by non-Black writers) and criticism (mostly by Black writers), there were Black stories told by white directors that captured the feeling of what it’s like to be Black in America, specifically Joe Talbot’s The Last Black Man in San Francisco and Julia Hart’s Fast Color. Let’s talk about the latter first, but just as a reminder, these are the exceptions to the rule and shouldn’t be copied. 

Fast Color is a sci-fi film that tells the story of a woman on the run (Gugu Mbatha-Raw), her daughter (Saniyya Sidney), and her aging mother (Lorraine Toussaint). Three generations of black women with supernatural powers that could save or destroy the world based on how they are channeled. Without spoiling the movie for you, because you honestly need to see it for yourself, Hart weaves a compelling story of feminism and environmentalism, but what is most fascinating is how the director, aided by co-writer Jordan Horowitz, displays one of the best depictions of Black women’s role in society and their breaking free from confinements.

Hart couldn’t possibly “know the soul” of Black women, but by using the powers of the three women aided by their spellbinding effects as a representation of how Black women are viewed in society, along with the burdens of having to bear not just the weight of white people but Black men, too, we experience their emotional catharsis and newfound freedom once they let go of their burdens. But the story of Fast Color doesn’t end there, as Amazon Studios acquired the rights to a show based on the film that is set to be produced by Viola Davis with Hart and Horowitz returning to write the script, as they should. 

This brings me to the Black story that helped set the foundation of this piece: The Last Black Man in San Fransico, a beautifully shot film set against a score that will send chills down your spine. Both The Last Black Man in San Francisco and Waves tell stories about Black masculinity, but The Last Black Man in San Francisco is an actual story from a Black man, for it is in part a semi-autobiographical story of Jimmie Fails, the star of the film. 

Talbots might be the director of Fail’s story, but because he is longtime friends with Fail and because of his willingness to listen to the Black voices who inhabit the city he loves, The Last Black Man in San Francisco is able to rise above being a “Black film directed by a white director.” I don’t just say this because of who was involved with the film, but what the film portrays. Gentrification, the process of renovating a district to appease the middle class, or as we should call it, the legal but unethical act of forcing minorities from their homes, is perfectly displayed in The Last Black Man in San Francisco. From its opening moments, audiences feel what it’s like for Black people to live in polluted rougher areas and how quickly the landscape changes to a nice environment the closer you get to white business and neighborhoods. 

But the main reason I consider The Last Black Man in San Francisco a Black film is not only how well it portrays what it is like to be a Black man but how it makes the audience feel what it is like to be a Black man in America. Similar to Fast Color, this is conveyed through emotional catharsis, primarily seen in Montgomery “Mont” Allen (Jonathan Majors), Jimmy’s companion in the film. Both men struggle with their identity as they don’t fit in with a white crowd, nor do they fit the image of a Black man amongst their Black brethren. Even Jimmy’s father (Robert Morgan) ridicules him for dressing and acting white. There is actually a scene of Mont practicing the n-word in front of a mirror after witnessing a group of Black men in the neighborhood comfortably calling each other that. This scene might appear comical, but in reality, it speaks volumes on Mont’s attempt to fit into a society that considers him an outcast. 

Often in The Last Black Man in San Francisco, the neighborhood Black men make fun of Mont and Jimmie for being too close to each other. Although we know that they are just close friends, in my culture and in the film, this can and often results in being referred to as a homosexual, yet another example of Black toxic masculinity but with actual substance to support it.

The creative collaboration between Talbot and Fails shows that exceptions can happen when it comes to white people directing Black films, but there are also exceptions in television. HBO’s Watchmen, created, produced, and co-written by Damon Lindelof and starring Regina King, is brilliant in adapting and paying homage to the original 1980s comic of the same name by Alan Moore. But what makes the show enticing is its commitment to telling a Black story that involves several generations of a Black crime-fighting family amongst the backdrop of racial tension and political turmoil in Tulsa, Oklahoma. 

One factor to the success of the Watchmen series was Lindelof’s diverse writing team. Out of his 12 writers, only four were white men. But the key component to Lindelof’s choice of making the Watchmen story predominantly Black is, ironically enough, because of his reading on the Tulsa Massacre in Ta-Nehisi Coates’s “The Case for Reparations,” a gripping story based on actual history published in The Atlantic. If it wasn’t for Coates’ factual storytelling on the history of Black people, Lindelof’s Watchmen wouldn’t be what it is. 

Coates’ story shows the importance of why Black storytelling belongs in the hands of the people who created it, which brings me back to Black storytelling by actual Black people. Though we come in different complexions from different parts of the world and don’t all think alike or agree on the same things, our viewpoints definitely shed more nuance of Black storytelling. All in a plight to further the cause of seeing a better representation of Black people in film, television, and behind the camera.

But one vital reason why Black storytelling by Black people will forever ring true is that we lived through and witnessed the experiences that are often chewed up by non-minorities as a form of entertainment instead of an informative experience. Jordan Peele’s sophomore feature, Us, is a prime example of this, causing quite a few to miss the commentary on racial, social, and political issues plaguing American society.

Ava Duvernay’s When They See Us, a powerful display of Black storytelling based on the Central Park Five case, is by all accounts the most important watch of 2019, but not everyone recognizes it as such. Going with it is Chinonye Chukwu’s Clemency, a film that demonstrates how the American judicial system has treated young Black men throughout the decades. Winner of the Sundance 2019 Jury Award, it’s the most important film of 2019. 

Then there is Black storytelling that provides much-needed representation and awareness, such as Matthew A. Cherry’s five-minute short, Hair Love, about a Black father trying to do his daughter’s hair. And there are some that usher in a new era of Black storytellers, such as Maiti Diop’s Cannes breakout hit, Atlantics, which is a superb ghost story that touches upon Black love and tragedy with a unique tenderness featuring several shots that will leave you speechless.

Last but not least, the youngest Black storyteller that I will mention, Phillip Youmans, is the first Black man to win the Founder’s Prize at the 2019 Tribeca Film Festival for his directorial debut, Burning Cane. It’s a film that he directed at the young age of 17 and is a tough watch but a necessary discussion of Southern Black churches, alcoholism, and toxic masculinity in the Black community. 

With a record amount of Black stories being geared to release in the new year, beginning with Numa Perrier’s semi-autobiographical film, Jezebel, releasing in theaters and on Netflix on January 16th, and with Clemency releasing in more theaters in 2020, this year will set the tone for the next decade when it comes to Black storytelling.

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Central Florida based Film Critic striving to be the best. Fighting for the ten percent.