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“I’ve been working on this social commentary about the white gaze’s eroticism of black pain,” says struggling playwright and would-be rapper Radha Blank in The Forty-Year-Old Version. That’s great material for her music but it is not what her white theatre producers want to hear. They feel her play about Harlem gentrification could really do with a new white character (“We need to grab the core audience”). And couldn’t the teens do a rap number? And wouldn’t she rather write a musical about Harriet Tubman? Blank channels her rage into her rhymes, not least her song Poverty Porn: “No happy blacks in the plotlines, please / But a crane shot of Big Momma crying on her knees / For her dead son, the b-ball star, who almost made it out / Sounds fucked-up enough to gain my film some capital.”
The Forty-Year-Old Version is not that kind of film – it is a gutsy, very funny indie in a 90s Spike Lee spirit – but Blank, playing a loosely fictionalised version of herself, clearly knows this territory. Indeed, the renaissance of black cinema might even have made matters worse. To avoid looking out of touch post #OscarSoWhite, many white power-brokers have been in a rush to tick the “representation” box. Which often means greenlighting something to do with slavery or civil rights or “poverty porn”– ideally with a white character to grab the “core audience”. We haven’t had a Harriet Tubman musical yet, but we did have a biopic of her just last year. We have also had many powerful films dealing with black history, by black film-makers, but there is always the danger that prioritising this form of representation ends up defining black people in terms of their suffering and oppression.
Black commentators have long complained about this. After the success of 12 Years a Slave in 2013, Ebony magazine ran a piece headlined “Where Are The Oscar-Worthy Black Movies With No Suffering?” Seven years later, the question is still being asked, most recently in response to Antebellum, a provocative but shallow new horror, led by Janelle Monáe, set on a brutal slave plantation. “I am tired of pop-cultural artefacts that render Black people as merely Black bodies onto which the sins of this ragged country are violently mapped,” wrote Vulture’s critic Angelica Jade Bastién. “I am tired of films like Antebellum.”
From Moonlight to Black Panther, Girls Trip to last week’s Miss Juneteenth, the black cinema renaissance has thankfully generated alternatives. But like Radha Blank, film-makers are often presented with an impossible dilemma: make the compromises and get your film made, or stay true to yourself and risk never being heard. By calling out the rules of the game, Blank chooses the latter, but still achieves the former, which is a deserved triumph.
Source: The Guardian
Keyword: The Forty-Year-Old Version and the radical optimism of black cinema | Film