Art is very subjective. People will make different assumptions and or opinions about how they perceive a work of art. Whether it's in the form of paintings, spoken word, films, plays or even interpretive dancing – it’s unique to the creator and to anyone who understands it. But that “uniqueness,” as with all art, leaves room for criticism.
In particular, Andres Serrano, a New York artist, received public condemnation for publishing a photograph of a crucifix submerged in his urine. And recently, I purchased a photograph by a Florida artist named Tyler Shields, entitled “Lynching”– it portrays a slave lynching a member of the KKK. My initial reaction was shock; but after consuming the art, I realized it made me think. I also knew it would be considered jarring and inappropriate, but it’s art – and it’s subjective for the consumer.
Which leads me to a recent debate that’s currently happening on social media. In his recent GQ cover story for November 2021, Will Smith expressed why he avoided being in films that depict slavery in any way, shape, or form. He wanted to be careful and considerate of the way he used and expressed his gift to the masses. During his early acting days, he “didn’t want to show Black people in [a bad] light,” and wanted to be portrayed as a superhero – and that alone is rare! We don’t have many Black superheroes in Hollywood! “So I wanted to depict Black excellence alongside my white counterparts,” Smith said. “I wanted to play roles that you would give to Tom Cruise. And the first time I considered it was Django [Unchained]. But I didn’t want to make a slavery film about vengeance.”
But his approach towards slavery films has changed. Smith will play a runaway slave in Emancipation, which is based on a true story known as “The Scourged Back.” He wanted to show Black love through “perseverance” – or a slave who is willing to sacrifice his freedom for others – and not through pain. And I understand what he wants to do with his art. Consuming too many slavery films can be harmful, exhausting… and more importantly, traumatic to our minds and souls!
I applaud Smith for his conscientious effort to stay away from slave narratives that are harmful to the culture. However, I’ve watched the “classic” torture slave film, and perhaps thought I enjoyed it at the time. But it’s a new day. And while many Hollywood executives love to “green light” that story (truth be told), it’s no longer relevant in today’s art world.
Side note: I do find it hypocritical that we live in a country that refuses to acknowledge its ugly history with slavery, but that very same country loves to entertain – and market – the ugly narrative.
When Nate Parker made The Birth of a Nation, the film was considered Oscar worthy when making rounds at film festivals. It captures the story of Nat Turner, the enslaved man who led a slave rebellion in Southampton County, Virginia, in 1831. But before the film’s worldwide debut, there was a public dismantling of the actor and filmmaker. And while the allegations about Parker were disturbing, coupled with his arrogance (when addressing the accusations) – it was clear that Hollywood was sending a strong message to a black filmmaker telling a story of black rebellion. That story didn’t fit the traumatic slave narratives that we've seen in movies. Parker is not the subject here, but it’s the art he created. The art that didn’t make Hollywood comfortable.
The objective is to entertain and tell a story when creating a film (or art). Smith highlights a troubling theme when it comes to telling slave stories. His choice to choose differently empowers every actor, writer, director – and even the consumer – to do the same.
We’re TIREDDDDDD of the tortured slave narrative. No more. Please and Thank you!