HOLLYWOOD – More than 100 years after the racist epic “The Birth of a Nation” burst onto movie screens glorifying Klan brutality against black people, a new screen and stage trend is emerging that portrays an equally sinister violence:
That of white police officers and vigilantes gunning down black Americans, and a criminal justice system that is indifferent at best, if not racist.
Media reports of blacks being killed by police, security officers or domestic terrorists – and being subjected to injustice in the courts – have not only sparked protests and heightened public awareness, they also have triggered a spate of films, documentaries, TV shows, plays and other works reflecting the injustice.
It’s almost as if social activist groups formed their own multimedia company to magnify public awareness about systemic violence against blacks.
Film historian and author Donald Bogle says films that feature police officers using unnecessary violence or deadly force against blacks are clearly “growing out of the social-political atmosphere or dynamic of the period.”
“I don’t think movies operate, for the most part, in a social or political vacuum. The nature of the times very much can influence or determine what it is we’re going to see in movies,” says Bogle, widely seen as the nation’s leading authority on African American images in film.
“All of this is happening in the culture and the movies are reflecting that now.”
Longtime activist and cultural historian Ayuko Babu, co-founder and executive director of the Pan African Film Festival (PAFF), agrees.
“Anytime you have the masses revolting and confronting the state, it stimulates the artist to respond,” says Babu, who co-founded PAFF in 1992 to showcase films that promote understanding among people of African descent.
“These artists, writers and filmmakers are the people – they’re from the people. So they are as outraged as the average person is outraged about all this.”
Film depictions of police violence against blacks, of course, are nothing new. “Sweet Sweetback’s Baadasssss Song” in 1971 and “Do the Right Thing” in 1989 also showcased police brutality against black Americans, but these films were more the exception than the norm.
Today, such films are more prevalent, thanks in part to rising opportunities for black filmmakers in Hollywood, a growing trend toward independent filmmaking, and advances in technology and social media that make filmmaking, marketing and distribution easier and less costly for content producers.
As a result, filmmakers and producers find it easier to not only mirror what they see on the streets, but also to use their mediums as activist tools for messaging about social injustices, experts say.
“We’re in a politically conservative age. In a sense, the art is responding to that in resistance,” says Bogle, whose latest book is “Hollywood Black, The Stars, The Films, The Filmmakers.” “Productions such as “Fruitvale Station”, “The Central Park Five” and “Scraps” epitomize the new aesthetic of opposition to the power elite.”
Los Angeles-based actress Denise Yolén, who stars in the hit play “Scraps,” believes this growing wave represents a new form of protest, messaging and activism among black filmmakers and producers.
“I see it in a sense as a… form of protest through education,” said Yolén, whose play explores how loved ones struggle to cope after a white police officer guns down a black man in Brooklyn. “What these different works are doing is they are teaching audiences the hows and the whys: How something like this could happen and teaching us the inner mechanics of it.
“They’re also teaching audiences how [police killings] affect the family, how it causes a ripple effect and why you see it over and over and over again,” she said. “It’s getting deeper into what’s really wrong with the system – and now it’s up to you, the audience, to decide what are we going to do about it.”
Yolén said films, plays and other creative works can not only entertain audiences, but can also stimulate public dialogue on critical public policy issues.
“Through my work I have always looked for those opportunities” to comment on social issues, she said. “Performing in a production like ‘Scraps’ is my form of getting the word out and showing these lies. I’m a writer as well, [and] my subject matter generally will have some sort of message.”
Such ability to educate audiences and stimulate public dialogue sometimes can mobilize people and ignite social change, Babu said. For example, he said the horrific Jet magazine photos of a disfigured Emmett Till, published in 1955, helped lay a foundation for structural social change in the 1950s and 1960s.
“Those pictures changed my whole life, because I knew that was me, had I been in Mississippi,” said Babu, a former member of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) and the Black Panther Party.
“That galvanized the whole black community and kick-started the beginning of the civil rights movement, the Montgomery bus boycott and so forth, because we weren’t going to take that no more.”
Bogle agrees, stating that the prevalence of video cameras throughout society has helped expose images – in the news media and online – that might have gone unknown, unnoticed or under-reported.
“We can go back to Rodney King. Had not someone observed that scene and videotaped it, we probably wouldn’t have fully known what that police brutality was like,” Bogle said.
This burgeoning trend of dramatizing the conflict between law enforcement and African Americans also has spread from feature films to documentaries, TV shows, theater and other works – a fact that comes as no surprise to longtime Los Angeles-based theater critic Don Shirley.
“Most nonprofit theaters… naturally want to address topics that are current in the national conversation,” Shirley said. “This particular topic lends itself quite easily to relatable human drama. Also, most of these theater companies certainly don’t want their audiences to remain as white or as old as they often are, so they’re usually on the lookout for ways to broaden their base of support.”
Babu and Bogle agree that audiences can expect this creative trend to continue – partly because of increased awareness of blue-on-black violence in society and partly because consumers have come to expect it.
“The artists live off the masses. Their messages and stories come from the people. All of these stories come from actual life – this is where artists get their ideas and inspiration,” Babu said.
“As long as the people are in the streets [and] as long as the people are confronting the state, films and art will be made,” he added. “When you have that kind of strength and energy, the artists stand up. They’re not the spearhead – they’re merely the reflection.”
L.A.-based film historian/critic Ed Rampell co-authored “The Hawaii Movie and Television Book.” For more information, visit mutualpublishing.com. He is co-presenting the 400th Anniversary Anti-Slavery Cinema Commemoration to observe the 1619 introduction of slavery at Jamestown, Virginia on Aug. 25 at the LA Workers Center. For more information, visit hollywoodprogressive.com/anti-slavery-cinema.