Growing up, I never consciously thought about the media I consumed. The last things on my mind were how one of my favorite characters looked like me, or how my boxed set of international dolls seemed to look almost exclusively European. Instead, any impact of not being well-represented manifested itself unconsciously.
I hated myself for not looking like my white peers. I imagined a day where I would look more like the eurocentric standard of ‘beauty’ shoved down my throat: My hair would fall to my waist without a single kink or curl; my fair complexion would match that of Snow White or Sleeping Beauty, and my eyes would match the sky rather than the ground.
A common misconception among well-meaning adults is children simply do not see race. Not only is that unequivocally false, but it sets kids up for an identity crisis down the road. When we believe someone never thinks about something, we’re less likely to talk to them about said thing. I thought about race in ways I couldn’t express as a child, those inexplainable thoughts deeply impacting the way I saw myself. I saw myself not as black but as different. My heritage wasn’t Senegalese or West African, but inferior.
The first time I learned about others who looked the way I did was in the context of slavery and civil rights. In elementary school, we learned about how Europeans created lives for themselves and ‘discovered’ parts of the world. Our knowledge of black history started with my race having our freedom taken away. They taught us about white people in a multitude of contexts: as settlers, as royalty, as victims as well as oppressors and just about every role they’ve played throughout history.
Yet, despite Africans literally being some of the first people on Earth, generally, white America sees us only in roles of submission.
The lens society views black people from translates from real life to the big screen.
Though some believe television and movies influence society, I believe they simply reflect the way we, as people, behave towards one another. I saw this again and again over the summer. Rather than putting myself through insufferable humidity by stepping outside, I spent most of my free time watching movies and TV shows if I wasn’t hanging out with my friends. I watched the entirety of the MCU, cried all three times I watched 13 Going on 30, almost blew my hard-earned money on actual Parks & Recreation merch and scoured Netflix for good biopics. There isn’t a single thing I can recall learning from an entire year of physics, but I can most definitely recite Captain America: The First Avenger from top to bottom.
One particularly uneventful day, I decided I’d force myself and my painfully low attention span to watch three movies back to back. As I searched through movie after movie, Googled top rated films and asked friends for recommendations, I noticed very few movies I saw had black protagonists. The ones that did almost always centered around race and racism. It highlighted a problem most people leave out in conversations about proper representation: Hollywood seems to have an obsession with black suffering.
Quick experiment: Without Google, name five movies, released in the last 10 years, with black leading characters besides The Help, Hidden Figures, Selma, 12 Years a Slave, Django Unchained or Get Out.
I have zero problems with these movies on their own; however, I wish I could see more movies about black people in which their blackness is not the main focus. I want to sit in a theater and watch a cliche rom-com starring a black woman. I want to go see more over-the-top comedic characters than just Tyler Perry’s Madea. I want to see more funny black protagonists, more cute little black girls saying the darndest things, more black superheroes and more black scientists.
I want Hollywood to portray more sides to black people than its current status quo.
The problem with the portrayal of black people existing in only one light bears a striking resemblance to that of our education of black history existing in only one context. It makes me see myself as inherently political; the pigment of my skin and braided hair feels like a statement rather than the culture and features I was born into.
Of course, exceptions exist.
Moonlight, for example, is a gorgeous coming of age story about a little boy navigating life while dealing with a drug-addicted mom, struggling with his sexuality and facing bullying. Black Panther, based off the Marvel Comics hero of the same name, follows the king of the fictional nation Wakanda and his battle to stay on top when faced with trouble.
Clearly, it’s possible to create stories about black people besides ones where we battle only one type of adversity.
The solution to this problem isn’t, as some assert, to stop talking about race altogether. Hollywood should continue speaking on racism because, frankly, our media should reflect every problem in our society. I believe that, through praise or criticism, we use movies and TV to highlight our strengths and weaknesses. I completely understand and support Hollywood taking on social issues. What I find problematic, though, is most portrayals of black people depicting us as victims. These limited perspectives strip us of our humanity, of every part of us besides the ones out of our control. Black lives revolve around who we are: our hobbies and our passions, our vices and our virtues, our pain but also our joy, and not only the experiences we share with one another but the experiences that set us apart.
I urge my peers to support all movies made about black people: support the Moonlights and Girls’ Trips of our time. We cannot continue to allow studios to believe we only care about black people when they’re suffering.
I fell in love with movies like The Edge of Seventeen and How to Lose a Guy in 10 Days not because the main characters overcame social limitations, but because they had unique, funny stories about their own lives. I want to see the sides of black people that follow them as people, not just as victims of something or someone else.