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Film & Television

‘They’ve Gotta Have Us’ Is a Lesson On Black Cinema We All Needed!

written by Kimberly Jones

They’ve Gotta Have Us created by director Simon Frederick is a three-part docuseries that tells the story and history of black filmmakers and actors in Hollywood. Now available on Netflix, it is just in time for Black History Month. The series provides the audience with an in-depth behind the scenes look at the many struggles that black artists and filmmakers faced and the events that led to Black Hollywood as we know it today.

The documentary opens with a scene from the 2017 Oscars ceremony in which the winner for Best Picture was incorrectly announced as La La Land but the trophy belonged to Moonlight. It was this moment that stuck out to creator Simon Frederick; this pivotal moment and win for Moonlight (which had an all-black cast) had been overshadowed by this mistake. Once again black artists were taking a backseat to their colleagues and not given the full moment of celebration that they deserved.

Image: Getty

Frederick shot the docuseries in three parts. The first focused on the pioneers of the black film industry. Harry Belafonte gives some of his very candid accounts of how difficult it was to become a lead in a film and to also be a love interest of a white actor. Belafonte broke industry barriers in the movie Island in the Sun. When the film came out in 1957, it was not accepted for the interracial relationship displayed on the big screen. Other pioneers who paved the way include Hattie McDaniel who in 1939 became the first black actor to win an Oscar for her role in Gone with the Wind. In 1964 Sidney Poitier was the first black actor to win Best Actor in a lead role for Lillies in the Field. The late Diahann Carroll, who was also featured in the documentary, received an Oscar nomination for Best Actress for the 1974 film Claudine. The movie highlighted the stories and daily struggles of black women on screen for the first time.

Among the innovators of Black film are Robert Townsend, Spike Lee, and the late John Singleton. After growing exhausted of the roadblocks he had faced in the industry, Townsend produced his first independent film Hollywood Shuffle in 1987 – a comedy about the stereotypes black actors faced in the film industry. Academy Award-winning director Spike Lee took the industry to the next level with his groundbreaking films including She’s Gotta Have It (1986), School Daze (1988) and Malcolm X (1992). John Singleton’s coming of age film Boyz n the Hood earned him an Oscar nomination for Best Director making him the first black and youngest person to have received a nomination for directing. Most of the time the producers had a small budget and often struggled to get funding, but their films had box office success. This sent a clear message to Hollywood – black films were in demand and people wanted to see them. The innovators of the 80s and 90s had a very different approach to filmmaking. By taking matters into their own hands these producers created timeless masterpieces that generations to come could enjoy.

British actor John Boyega became the first black actor to be cast as a lead in the Star Wars franchise – Star Wars: The Force Awakens (2015). Boyega’s role, however, was not accepted well by everyone. In China, for example, on the promotional posters for the film, Boyega’s picture was reduced significantly in size compared to his counterparts. Boyega didn’t let that discourage him, however, he knew he got the leading role based on his talent, not skin color.

Selma (2014), directed by Ava DuVernay and starring David Oyelowo, was a historical drama based on the 1954 voting march from Selma to Montgomery. The film focuses on Martin Luther King Jr, the significant role he and his associates along with his wife Coretta Scott King played in the march, as well as the events that led to it. Before DuVernay got on board as the director, the films’ focus was on President Lyndon B. Johnson, which really did not make sense to Oyelowo and other cast members. DuVernay used her vision to tell a more detailed story of the black people involved in this historic day. This fact goes back to the running theme of the documentary – the importance of having black writers, producers, and directors to tell black stories.

‘They’ve Gotta Have Us’, Netflix

Moonlight (2016) written and directed by Barry Jenkins followed the journey of a young black boy into adulthood. Throughout the film, the main character deals with a drug-addicted mother, struggles with sexuality and searches for his rightful place in the world. Moonlight opened a new chapter for black films – it was the first movie with an all-black cast and also the first LGBTQ film to win an Oscar for Best Picture. Jenkins is considered a trailblazer because of the doors he opened for future artists.

The future of black cinema seems to be bright largely because black artists have taken creative control over the black stories being told in Hollywood. With more up-and-coming black writers and directors black films are starting to get the recognition they deserve. There are more doors opening for creators to tell their stories. Actor Jessie Williams made a valid point about the creative freedom white artists have. He stated, “I lost my dog, here’s a little independent movie of me going to find it and how it reminds me of my mother. And it’s not even good.” Williams’ point was that all artists have the right to create their art, regardless of race. They’ve Gotta Have Us provides a necessary history lesson, shows how far the black film industry has come and excites with what is yet to come.

Film & Television

‘The United States Vs. Billie Holiday’ Review

by Betti Halsell

In The United States Vs. Billie Holiday the audience is thrown into a war zone. Viewers stare at the social terrain with world-renowned Jazz legend Billie Holiday, as she climbs through trenches of trauma, addiction, love, betrayal, and corruption, ultimately leaving some of her best men behind.

Holiday, played by Andra Day, encapsulated the current state of events happening to Black Americans with a simple string of verses over a solemn melody. Her song Strange Fruit paints a vivid picture of events that took place during her time – lynchings in the 1930’s that were happening with no reprimand. The melancholic melody still hits home today, as if America is still singing the same song, with a different tune.

Holiday bellowed with her smoldering voice,

“Southern trees bear a strange fruit

Blood on the leaves and blood at the root

Black bodies swinging in the southern breeze

Strange fruit hanging from the poplar trees.”

The recording and performance of Strange Fruit stood out like a thorn protruding from the rosey lens the rest of America looked through, causing a problem for those in “high places”. So they created a suffocating smoke around the singer’s life, following her to her final resting place.

The movie focuses on the unsolicited surveillance from federal and local law enforcement because of the pressure that came with the iconic song. It touches on a reoccurring theme happening in newly released biographic films, uncovering people within the Black community supplying incriminating intel to the federal government.

Andra Day as Billie Holiday|The United States vs Billie Holiday, HULU

This confirms the involvement of federal sources, but also the lack of trust happening within the collective community. The film was as explicit as the song itself, telling an unbiased truth of an Artist caught in a war that went far beyond her talent.

Directed by Lee Daniels and written by Pulitzer prize-winner Suzan-Lori Parks and Johann Harri, the movie depicts Holiday as an undeniable force – she was feminine and sensual, yet she held a sense of masculine ownership over her life. Although the 1900s were set in gender roles and confined social placement, Holiday was outspoken and knew she had a level of power. The salute to her self-awareness may have beckoned from her childhood. The film exposed Holiday’s early surroundings, which included the power in sexuality and a sense of liberty for women when she was young.

However, there are two sides to every coin. The trauma in her childhood may have given her the soul that is found in her voice and a sense of empowerment, but it also left her damaged. The movie captured her dependency on strong stimulants, to mange her mental state. The singer’s upbringing left her without a true vision of her reflection. The feature focused on nostalgic transitions and captured an unfiltered story of Holiday’s flaws as a friend and lover.

Andra Day as Billie Holiday and Trevante Rhodes as Jimmy Fletcher |The United States vs Billie Holiday, HULU

In The United States vs Billie Holiday, Day is joined by Trevante Rhodes (Birdbox) who played Jimmy Fletcher, the first Black FBN agent and Garrett Hedlund (Four Brothers) as Harry Aslinger, Chief of the Federal Bureau of Narcotics.

Rendering the critiques from Rotten Tomatoes, the story was labeled “sloppy” and “over-characterized.” However, most of those inferential opinions came from predominantly White men. This leaves the opportunity that they may have been missed; the concept of struggle in being a Black woman, while fighting multiple layers of internal and external battles and combating different perspectives of self-worth.

America is still singing about the strange fruit that holds a rotten core, the Anti-lynching Bill was passed last year. A back-breaking victory, countless marches, too many lives lost, all for roughly 100 years of “consideration.”

The strange fruit from those times left seeds, a new harvest of injustice is ripening. Thanks to Holiday’s strong will to keep performing the truth, others have joined the choir for change. The nation is still singing about the obscurities found in racism. It’s all the same song, just a different tune. Stream The United States Vs. Billie Holiday on Hulu starting February 26.

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Film & Television

Black History Caught on Film: Actress Theresa Harris Deserves All the Credit

by Betti Halsell

The acknowledgment gives artists their purpose. During the early development of motion picture, African American roles were set to subservient levels, and even when the acting was outstanding, Black talent did not see their names in the rolling credits. However, phenomenal actors and actresses like Theresa Harris still pushed for their name to be recognized and for their talent to be acknowledged.

It was New Years’ Eve, the turn of 1906, a star was born to Isaiah and Mable Harris. They were former sharecroppers from Louisiana. Harris was 11-years-old when her family migrated west, to Southern California. She attended Jefferson High School and studied at UCLA Conservatory of Music. Finding her passion in the arts, Harris connected with the “Lafayette Players,” a theatre group that performed comedic musicals.

In 1929, she was attracted to the spotlight, making her debut in the movie Thunderbolt, her voice carrying the soothing remedy to a restless audience, stealing every scene she was in. Harris presented her singing talent as her character of a jazz singer, she serenaded the viewers with, “Daddy won’t you please come home,” no one could take their eyes off of her. Other songs she christened included the “St. Luis Blues,” a masterful piece, showcasing her range and endurance.

Theresa Harris in Baby Face

Although she pushed for more leading roles, Harris was commonly cast as a maid, or in her words “a stooge or servant.” None the less Harris kept acting, with 18 different appearances, Harris played crucial assisting roles to some of the most iconic actresses that were highlighted during that time, yet for most of her acting career, she received zero credit.

Quoting her from IMDb, Harris stated, “I never felt the chance to rise above the role of a maid in Hollywood movies. My color was against me. The fact that I was not ‘hot’ stamped me as either an uppity ‘Negress’ or relegated me to the eternal role of stooge or servant. I can sing but so can hundreds of other girls. My ambitions are to be an actress. Hollywood had no parts for me.”

Harris continued to perform for over two decades, until her last appearance in 1958. For a young Black actress, her personal life (that’s recorded) was pretty traditional, she married only once, to a doctor and lived comfortably into retirement from the investment money she made while acting. To watch Mrs. Harris in her prime was enchanting and impeccable; Harris deserves all the credit and more for her cadence, style, and unmatched talent.

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Film & Television

Lupita Nyong’o Award-Winning Children’s Book “Sulwe” Becomes Animated Musical on Netflix

by Betti Halsell

Netflix announced a new animated musical production that focuses on different shades of beauty. The movie, “Sulwe” is coming to life from its original paperback form. Oscar-winner Lupita Nyong’o created the children’s book to bring awareness to the judgment of skin color happening an early age and to “encourage children to love the skin they are in and see the beauty that radiates from within.”

The bestselling children’s book by Nyong’o includes illustrations by Vashti Harrison, the story is about a young child who has skin that is darker than anyone else’s. According to Deadline, the book begins with “Sulwe was born the color of midnight,” the reader follows Sulwe’s adventure to self discovery and finding her own beauty. 

Rendering information from Entertainment Weekly, the story follows a 5-year-old Kenyen girl struggling to love the skin she’s in, she wants to be like her friends at school and family at home who are lighter-skinned. The young girl is swept into an adventure in the night skies, which helps her see the beauty in darker shades. Sulwe in Swahili means “star.” 

This book is an ode Nyong’o personal challenge of seeing her own beauty within her shade of skin, the publication captured her struggle. However, this book-turned-movie speaks volumes about the change that is happening on a larger scale. Nyong’o’s voice harmonizes with the illustrations; creating a unique perspective. 

A statement found on Kirkus reviews stated Nyong’o shared with Netflix, she said, “The story of Sulwe is one that is very close to my heart. Growing up, I was uncomfortable in my dark skin. I rarely saw anyone who looked like me in the aspirational pages of books and magazines, or even on TV. It was a long journey for me to arrive at self-love.” The book is looking to foster the journey to self beauty for young minds. 

There is a revolutionary change with each turn of the page, “Sulwe” carries a message with gentleness; designing a safe space for all ages to self-reflect. The subject of colorism can be easily talked about in a family setting; either by reading the book or watching the movie, these are the conversations that every household needs to have with the future generation. 

The picture book was released in 2019 by Simon & Schuster Books for Young Readers, making its way to New York’s Times Bestseller list. Nyong’o will be working with Netflix to produce an animated musical based on her original tale of the story. Emphasizing information from the news source listed above, “Sulwe” is an award-winning book; It received the NAACP Image Award for Outstanding Literary Work for Children Last year and Nyong’o also is recorded reading the book, which is available on Netflix’s “Bookmarks.” The musical will sure to reach thousands of young hearts that share a similar story. 

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