It’s no secret that Hollywood, as an industry, has been slow to represent Black culture and real Black narratives on screen. #OscarsSoWhite flagged that issue at the level of prestige pictures and spurred some reflection on just how white it still is, both in front of and behind the camera.
But that problem becomes even more complicated: Within Blackness, there is cultural diversity and Hollywood’s portrayals tend to flatten them. Afro-Caribbean culture in particular is rarely depicted on screen, even though the United States is one of the largest regions of the Caribbean diaspora.
Recently, a group of filmmakers gathered for “Belonging,” a short film screening and panel at L.A.’s Soho House. Their mission: to create more space for Caribbean heritage to shine in the entertainment industry. As discussed by the panelists throughout the evening, the future of Black representation will be more nuanced with the inclusion of Caribbean voices.
“Growing up, what I saw of Black identity on screen was always through an African American lens,” says Sadé Clacken Joseph, an award-winning filmmaker and pilot director of the upcoming series “RAP SH!T.” “It was almost as if there weren’t any other experiences of Blackness in this country to be had.”
Joseph, whose production company Out of Many Media hosted the event, was joined in conversation with emerging writer-directors Thais Francis and Joseph Douglas Elmhirst and DP Othello Banaci, alongside producer Robert A. Maylor as moderator. Each spoke about their experiences working in the industry and how they’ve used their work to negotiate their identity and foster a sense of belonging. Specifically, they touched on their approach to filmmaking meeting at the intersection of identity and culture. Evident in the group’s commentary was that seeing Caribbean people behind and in front of the lens offers an outlet to see self and others. An illustration of their existence.
“When we misrepresent a culture and other people see it as fact, it creates false narratives,” Joseph says. “When you humanize someone and can relate to them, you see them as a person, see them wholly and fully, then you can have a connection that can impact how you see yourself and navigate the world.”
Maylor, founder of independent film production company Mental Telepathy Pictures and producer of award-winning film “Sprinter,” agrees about the importance of authentic representation: “If you don’t get to see anyone who looks like you, talks like you, or can make the same jokes with you, then unless you’re amongst the most confident of people, you begin to fear that you don’t have value.”
The first-generation Jamaican American sees a threat in fusing Black cultures into a single, monolithic experience. “You don’t want to homogenize or make people believe that these lived experiences are the same for everyone from this side of the pond,” Maylor adds. “There is an untapped narrative well leading back to Caribbean influence and impact. We can point to Jamaican sound system culture migrating to New York, evolving into hip-hop and becoming a global force as just one example.”
Even within the Caribbean and its diaspora, there are ample perspectives in which these stories can be birthed from, resulting in more authentic storytelling. Francis, who was born in Trinidad and Tobago and later moved to the U.S., drew from her personal experiences to create the experimental short “Belonging.” In this intimate autobiographical narrative Francis questions her identity until discerning that healing comes from radical self-acceptance and connection to her own divinity.
In “Mada,” Elmhirst, who is a part of the Windrush diaspora (people who arrived by ship from the Caribbean between 1948-1971 to fill labor shortages in the UK after the war), places a tender lens on motherhood. Through the relationship between a woman, her mother and her son, he explores masculinity and its impact on family dynamics. It was also an opportunity to showcase the country’s language, Patois, which is often watered down to make it more palatable to Western audiences.
Maylor knows this struggle, revealing a strategy he was asked to employ for “Sprinter” called “The Yankee Take.” This required the actors speaking slower to evade the use of subtitles but during post-production, they opted out of using those takes.
“I don’t want to ever change the way that someone from the Caribbean would naturally speak to fit into a box [and] to make it more palatable to an audience. That was something we struggled with on ‘Sprinter’ because we understood the reasoning why.”
Dub poet and highly regarded actor Sheldon Shepherd, who appears in the Caribbean cult classic “Better Mus’ Come,” and other films like “Yardie” and “Reggae Boyz,” believes that Afro-Caribbean people and stories could be presented more extensively if Hollywood had more faith in its fully capable creators. “People need to believe in [the Afro-Caribbean] film industry. Not just our industry as the workforce or being a backdrop for films, but our talent.”
In fact, if more filmmakers with Caribbean heritage are tapped to tell their stories, they could directly address some of the challenges Hollywood grapples with — often unsuccessfully — when portraying their culture.
“For [Hollywood] to have some authenticity on screen, it lifts us to that level where we feel. It’s all about feeling,” says Shepherd. “Where we feel like we’re being recognized, that whole feeling where healing comes…it’s therapy.”
Joseph can attest to the healing capabilities of filmmaking. She explored her own Jamaican heritage in her 2020 film “Home.” In the film she unpacks the idea of home and identity through conversation with the matriarchs in her family during the pandemic. Joseph has clear aspirations for the future.
“Caribbean filmmakers should absolutely be telling our stories and be given the resources and belief that we can,” she says. “It is time that reps, studios, networks, producers invest and advocate for our voices to be authentically heard. To acknowledge that Black Caribbean and other diasporic voices exist here in Hollywood.”