When Hollywood discusses diversity and inclusion, the focus naturally tends to be on the future — diversifying writers’ rooms and executive suites; tackling pay inequality; erasing the many long-held myths about box office performance and films with people of color. But there’s an all-too-important counterpart to that discussion: How to address Hollywood’s past, and reevaluate the film canon, in a way that takes into account perspectives from outside of the white establishment that has typically served as gatekeeper for which films are considered classics.
That was part of the motivation for the African-American Film Critics Assn.’s partnership with Turner Classic Movies, “The Black Experience on Film,” which launched this week. For the next month, an AAFCA-curated program of 32 films, stretching from the 1920s to the early 1990s, will screen on the network, presented and contextualized by a pair of AAFCA members each night. Organized by theme, the offerings range from 1960s civil rights dramas (“A Raisin in the Sun,” “To Kill a Mockingbird”) to groundbreaking musicals (“Hallelujah,” “Carmen Jones”), 1970s crowdpleasers (“Sparkle,” “Cooley High”) and international selections (“Walkabout,” “Black Orpheus”).
For AAFCA co-founder Shawn Edwards, putting together the program brought back the countless discussions he had had with fellow critics, wherein debates over which movies deserved a place in the canon would often end with films dear to the black community overruled by majority.
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“We would have these debates on what movies were classics,” Edwards remembers, “and I would find myself losing the debate every time because I would mention something like a ‘Cooley High,’ and for a certain percentage of the population, ‘Cooley High’ is most definitely a classic, but when you have certain other critics who are like ‘no it’s not,’ then you can’t win.
“History’s only created by the people who write it, that’s what dictates what history is going to be down the line, and so we have to create something where our voices are heard and we can protect our legacy,” Edwards continues.
“When you’re fighting for a ‘Cooley High’ or ‘Watermelon Man’ to be considered as a classic, it really means something else. That’s the beautiful thing about this partnership with TCM, is finally these films can be officially validated.”
“When you’re fighting for a ‘Cooley High’ or ‘Watermelon Man’ to be considered as a classic, it really means something else … finally these films can be officially validated.”
As AAFCA co-founder and president Gil L. Robertson IV remembers, the idea for the program first started germinating a little over a year ago: he sent out feelers and pitches, and “TCM bit almost immediately.”
For Charles Tabesh, TCM’s senior VP of programming and production, the partnership was “a natural thing.” He notes: “For us, it was a couple things. We don’t get ratings, so we don’t really know what our audience is to the same level that an ad-supported network would know, but what we do know is that we have a very diverse audience that pretty much reflects the country, and so we like to do programming that reaches out to different audiences. And in addition, for non-African-American viewers, it’s always good to get a different perspective, and not just to see these films and enjoy them, but to see how that particular audience received those films when they were made, and how different people can interpret films in different ways.”
As he notes, TCM aired a roughly comparable program 12 years ago — “The Black Image in Film,” hosted by historian Donald Bogle — but the AAFCA program is unique in its focus on the legacies of the selected films among black cinemagoers. “That program had more films that were probably made for white audiences; it included ‘The Birth of a Nation,’ for example,” he says. “Whereas these are primarily, though not exclusively, films that were made with a black audience in mind.”
And that distinction is no small matter.
“Those movies are iconic for us,” says film critic and AAFCA member Carla Renata, who will present the series’ spotlight on musicals on Sept. 18. “While [white filmmakers] were making ‘American Graffiti’ and ‘Porky’s,’ black filmmakers were making ‘Cooley High’ and ‘Sparkle’ and ‘The Five Heartbeats.’ So those films, for people of color, are iconic, and those films represent people in our lives, people we’ve seen and are familiar with. When we see ‘American Graffiti,’ that’s not our experience — we can be entertained by it, but we can’t relate to it the same way.”