Stay Winning: Looking Back And Looking Ahead At Black Cinema

Vyce uses the extra day of Black History Month to reflect while also looking towards the future.

Flipping back and forth between the 88th annual Academy Awards and the Internet telecast of the star-studded Justice For Flint fundraising event on Sunday night was a bit of an overwhelming experience. There was a lot of truth to power spoken between the soon-to-be historic monologue and comedy bits of Chris Rock and the fantastic performances from artists such as Vic Mensa, Janelle Monae and the legendary Stevie Wonder. The vocal resistance against the white filmmaking establishment and the outpouring of support from elders and the youth alike for the the black community resonated strongly with me, for it mirrored my feelings and observations about this past year. And so, while the Oscar awards chose to recognize the usual suspects, I am compelled to reflect on recent events and praise the accomplishments of black culture on film, while also looking forward to what the future holds.

They killin' us out here. Some of my older peers talk about whether the streets will ever be safe again, but I wonder if they ever really were. Yet as always, we keep things moving, reaching greater heights as the years go by. I am an old man now, my best years likely already behind me. I have the whole rest of my life of new challenges to contend with, but my heart goes out to the youth coming up today. They are dealing with many of the same issues I faced in my heyday, along with the new insanity of these modern times that I could have never imagined. I think this past year in movies excellently reflected that constant struggle, the push and pull of victory and defeat, the clash between old traditions and new horizons. Moreover, I'm also glad that movies have broadened the perceptions of our experiences, though even with that comes conflict from outside and within. It has been a year of sorrow, frustration and disappointment, but at the same time I have been galvanized by hope and positivity for the future.

One peculiar thing that caught my attention in movies recently was the reaction of some people to the character of Finn in the The Force Awakens. Some have accused him of being stereotypical foolish black sidekick and/or "a bitch". I suppose there is a case to be made about how Finn represents a positive step towards defying the pressures of toxic masculinity. For my part, I appreciate that Boyega didn't just re-use some the troubled black youth tough-guy facets of his character in Attack The Block for this movie - he's just a kid trying to do the right thing. But more than that, I think that expecting black characters to be the Bad Mother Fucker is a tired stereotype as well. There's plenty of white characters in fiction who lack machismo and/or badass skills and are still endearing/enduring; why can't we have a black Marty McFly?

Hell, in Dope, the main character Malcolm is even referred to as such due to his obsession with retro '80s fashion. Both Malcolm and Finn ultimately succeed by being pro-active and trying their best, even though their best is hardly ever as cool or sexy as we might like. Having said all that, we must not completely dismiss the concerns of the detractors, for the bigger issue spurring all of this is the dearth of black characters in general. When we are only allowed one representative character in any given story, a character who is either a clown or a badass, multi-dimensional characters whose attributes exist in multiple parts of the spectrum between the two extremes become harder to swallow. It's going to take a lot more than just allowing Winston and Coach to exist in the same scene next to white girl sweetheart Zooey Deschanel to fix this.

Spike Lee addressed the plague of gun violence head on in Chi-Raq. What I appreciated about the movie was its surprisingly in-depth take on the myriad of factors which attribute to the situation. It isn't just one problem to solve; it is the confluence of many issues which beleaguer the black community and The United States as a whole. The link between ineffectual gun control laws, police militarization, prejudiced local government, poverty/class warfare and deeply rooted misogyny is all made apparent. Still, I appreciate that while it takes all these factors into account, the ending conceit still puts an onus on young black men and their fixation on bullshit gangster bravado and machismo. The film ends with a plea for universal love and a call for all of us to wake up, and its message perfectly reflects the struggle in the here and now.

Beasts Of No Nation was a film that also dealt with black violence, though in a context/setting far removed from the ghettos of America. Instead of gang members waging turf war on city streets, Beasts focuses on the tribulations of child soldiers fighting in the sweltering jungles of a nameless African country. There was as significant amount of criticism against the film and director Cary Fukunaga for the film's ambiguous setting, seeing it as a failure to properly address the real world issues and sociopolitical factors that create such a deplorable situation. However, as I stated in my review, the film is not trying to make a political statement, but instead wisely goes the direction of a character piece, an exploration of PTSD and the physical and psychological toll of the ravages of war. It was actually interesting seeing that despite the different contexts, Chi-Raq and Beasts of No Nation both explore commonalities present among black youth suffering the trauma of violence. It is my hope that as people watch different movies from different nationalities and walks of life, the universality of the struggle is made clear and helps to foster unity in purpose.

This past year also provided different explorations on the black female experience. Chi-Raq dealt with the issue of male-dominated gang violence, but emphasized the power of the black woman through the dynamite performance of Teyonah Parris. This fictional icon was a reflection of all the beautiful and intelligent women I witnessed during the Justice For Flint concert. Professors, politicians and artists such as Ava DuVernay, Mayor Karen Weaver, Mama Sol and Janelle Monae, along with a host of young talent from the city of Flint, all represented their community to the fullest and showed how integral black women have always and will always continue to be in the fight for progress. In parallel to this American experience, it was fascinating to explore the experience of an African-French teenage girl coming of age in Girlhood. The film shows the unique perspective of African immigrant girls in the projects/banlieues on the outskirts of Paris, though what becomes even more remarkable is when the audience begins to recognize how much there is in common with the struggles of black women oceans apart.

I also want to single out the fantastic film Tangerine, detailing a day in the life of a pair of Latina and black transgender prostitutes, an Armenian cab driver who is all at once a traditional family man with a penchant for transgender trysts, and a white trash pimp and his side fish. Though not specifically an exploration on traditional male/female blackness, it is on a similar wavelength of those other films in that it finds universality in the uncommon. This film sees the everyday challenges by people from diverse walks of life trying to make a human connection, find happiness and find their place in this world. The stylized pastel cinematography of the urban wasteland of Los Angeles perfectly encapsulates the convergence of the outrageous and the mundane, and is truly one of the best movies of the year, and it doesn't need the acceptance from the cabal of stodgy old white men to make its worth evident.

I look forward to more great works in all kinds of media made for and by the black youth. I regret that haven't lived up to my potential to support you all, but now that the situation is immediately pressing because of the nephews and nieces I have inherited, I pledge to support you all now like I should have been doing all along. I will do so as a mentor and as a citizen here at home with my power to vote and my time and money available to support my community. As a writer, I pledge to continue to try and be a contemplative voice and consistent representative on this site and in all of my online presence. I hope to continue bringing attention to other diverse films and other forms of media that might not get the attention they deserve.

I also want to use this opportunity to promote other writers and media figures doing big things for the culture. In particular I want to give a shout out to the fantastic website Black Nerd Problems, which features absolutely fantastic discussions and analyses on pop culture and geek properties through the lens of millennial black youth. I want to shout out the terrific writer Joel Leon who continues to craft fantastic dissertations on the black experience and his work on the black internet zine Those People. I wanna shout out to a pair of special black comic book projects. The first is the upcoming graphic novel Black, a provocative spin on superhero comics which posits “In a world that already fears and hates them – what if only Black people had superpowers?”. The second project is the soon-to-be released Tephlon Funk, a love letter to hip-hop, manga, anime and the five boroughs which tells the story of youths of color trying to get by and get ahead. I even wanna give a shout out to my niggas Desus Nice & The Kid Mero, the dynamic duo doing big things on their podcast The Bodega Boys and as regular contributors to the MTV2 shows Uncommon Sense and Joking Off. During my deployments when I was just trying to make it through the day, The Hood Siskel & Ebert kept holding me down with great comedy and insight into the bizarre news back at home. I'm glad to see a pair of Bronx boys thriving and prospering while keeping things really real. Don't sleep on Desus & Mero. Which is to say, #StayWoke

I hope to continue to use this opportunity that Birth.Movies.Death. has given me to write from a unique experience which ultimately fosters understanding and unity. That said, Devin has also put out a call for more young film critics and writers of color, so if my crazy ass managed to hustle a spot here, I'm sure there's far more (and far better) young bloods out there who can really show these people what time it is.