History matters. Facts matter. Especially in this moment of racial and political reckoning.
With “Birth of a Nation” as its powerful and wicked origin story, the Hollywood film industry has been shaping the narrative about Black people in America for more than a century. Now as we re-examine many of the false assumptions about American history, Hollywood could play a pivotal role in dismantling tropes it helped create. Some of that work already is being done by filmmakers including Ava DuVernay, Ryan Coogler, Jordan Peele, Lena Waithe, Barry Jenkins and Spike Lee. But we need more.
Studios could seek projects that present a more authentic narrative and reconsider some of the formulas that drive creative decisions. But first the facts need to be right and the history needs to be accurate.
During the last five years I’ve thought about this a lot as I watched “On Her Own Ground: The Life and Times of Madam C. J. Walker” — my biography of my great-great-grandmother — be transformed into “Self Made: Inspired by the Life of Madam C.J. Walker,” the Netflix series starring Octavia Spencer. My experience with “Self Made” has reinforced my belief that projects involving historical figures need scholars, biographers and journalists in the writers’ room. Among other things, their participation lends credibility and guards against embarrassing anachronisms, implausible story lines and after-the-fact sniping from historians, movie critics and, especially in this case, Black Twitter.
When “On Her Own Ground” was optioned in 2015, I was eager to participate in pitch meetings and conversations about story development. My expectations were high because my first exposure to a Hollywood project had been welcoming. Still riding the wave of “Roots,” Alex Haley approached us in the early 1980s with plans for a historical novel and a miniseries. During the next decade, as I gathered research, we talked frequently about characters, scenes and actors, then met on Haley’s Tennessee farm with two producers, two historians and a casting director. That experience set the bar for me.
Having spent 50 years researching the topic, I believed I had something to offer. As a producer with NBC News and then an executive with ABC News, I’d also been a visual storyteller for more than three decades. During my tenure as chair of the National Archives Foundation board, we honored Steven Spielberg, Tom Hanks, Lin-Manuel Miranda and Tommy Kail for their artistry in bringing history to life in film and on stage. But when it came to “Self Made,” I was excluded from the creative process until after the studio had approved the script outline. I had much less impact than I would have liked, but I believe my extensive script notes helped steer clear of some of the worst landmines.
“Historians should be in the room from the moment of inception,” says Gettysburg College professor Jim Downs, a founder of History Studio, an organization that works closely with Hollywood productions in developing and reviewing scripts.
“Writers and historians share a common goal. They want to create authentic and engaging storytelling for large and diverse audiences,” adds Erica Armstrong Dunbar, National Director of the Association of Black Women Historians, whose “Never Caught: The Washingtons’ Relentless Pursuit of Their Runaway Slave, Ona Judge” is in development.
Facts should not be seen as inconvenient intrusions and irritants. Scholars bring deep knowledge and a sustained investment in the subject matter. In contrast, a writers’ room is temporary, assembled then dismantled when the writers and showrunners move onto their next projects. And yet the films and series they create will be seen by generations of viewers.
As Madam Walker and other historical figures of color are being introduced for the first time, it is important to create a baseline of knowledge. Because they are not as well-known as their white counterparts, it might be best to temper some of the embellishment.
“You can invent but you don’t want a violation of history and of the historical figures,” says Donald Bogle, whose book “Toms, Coons, Mulattoes, Mammies and Bucks” is the standard text for any course on the history of African Americans in film.
If I had been in the writers’ room from the beginning, I would have cautioned against the concocted colorism-based rivalry between Madam Walker and Addie Monroe, the fictional stand-in for Walker’s real life competitor Annie Malone. As a student of history, I know that Walker’s life was the flip side of what D. W. Griffith, the son of a Confederate officer, was conveying in “Birth of a Nation.” By the time Walker died in 1919 she had founded a beauty empire, employed thousands of Black women, helped fund the NAACP’s anti-lynching campaign and become a millionaire philanthropist. As he was filming, she and her Black contemporaries were building businesses, influencing politics and creating institutions. As Griffith peddled his white supremacist propaganda, Madam Walker was presenting her counter narrative of what it meant to be Black in America.
We still are countering. There are too few biopics about Black women: Angela Bassett’s 1993 portrayal of Tina Turner in “What’s Love Got to Do With It,” Halle Berry in “Introducing Dorothy Dandridge” in 1999, Taraji P. Henson as Katherine Johnson in “Hidden Figures” in 2016, Cynthia Erivo as Harriet Tubman in 2019’s “Harriet.”
During the first weekend after its March 20 premiere, “Self Made” ranked as the No. 1 show on Netflix. It surely was a triumph for a limited series with Black women as writers, show runners, directors, director of photography and production manager. Octavia Spencer’s masterful performance as a woman who rose from a Reconstruction era cotton plantation in Louisiana to a mansion in America’s wealthiest zip code helped this story resonate with millions of viewers around the world.
Fortunately the pipeline is bulging. A Lena Horne project is in development for Showtime from her granddaughter, Jenny Lumet. Shonda Rhimes has optioned Isabel Wilkerson’s Pulitzer Prize winning “The Warmth of Other Suns” for Netflix. Lee Daniels is directing “The United States vs. Billie Holiday” with Suzan-Lori Parks as his co-writer. Oprah Winfrey is adapting Nikole Hannah-Jones’ “The 1619 Project.”
“There is a kind of emerging consciousness,” says “Hollywood Black” author Donald Bogle. “We have an audience now that is waiting for something, but you can’t use the same hack plot devices, the same hack characterizations, the same hack direction. Take this moment and use it to really transform American movies and television shows.”
We may think of Hollywood productions as escape and entertainment. Indeed that is part of their mission. But they also are mirrors and culture shapers. And they are not viewed in a vacuum.
We know that ratings matter. But the message also matters. Especially in Hollywood. And especially right now.
A’Lelia Bundles is at work on “The Joy Goddess of Harlem: A’Lelia Walker and the Harlem Renaissance,” which will be published by Scribner next summer. She is a member of the advisory board of Harvard’s Schlesinger Library on the History of Women in America and a life member of the Association of Black Women Historians.