An interesting thing happened in the comments section of the post in which I shared the short film, The Strange Thing About the Johnsons. While many were (rightly) disturbed by the film, others wondered why the filmmaker, Ari Aster—who is apparently White—chose to cast a Black family in such a controversial story. Some wondered if the filmmaker was playing to the common stereotype of Black men being hypersexual, aggressive, and abusers.

One commenter, Mkazi, questioned the representation of the Black family in the film, saying:

“If we DIDN’T live in a world where black men are constantly criminalized and hypersexualized by the media, in a world obsessed with showcasing all kinds of dysfunctional black families, a world that constantly rams these things down our throats, then the fact that this film (written and directed by a white man) focuses on a BLACK family wouldn’t matter to me.

“BUT unfortunately we do live in a world where all of these things exist. The fact that this white director chose to have this highly dysfunctional family be BLACK is no “accident”, even if he didn’t consciously make that choice (though I’m sure he did). Especially since there are so few fictional representations of black families to begin with. There is not a lot of work for black actors out there, and when there is, it’s usually sterotypical [sic] roles.” 

Another commenter, Cree agreed, wondering why abuse seems to be a popular meme among directors.

“This is the thiird film in the last six months posted by Clutch that poses black men as the abuser. Of these three films posted, two of the directors were white males. 

“I ask, why is this such a popular premise for white and black directors alike? What does it mean when films with black casts have to be centered around stories of abuse? When the majority of films showing black people are crafted this way?”

Others, pushed back against the notion that the film was pedaling in stereotypes, and even questioned if race always in play when the cast is Black.

Deech said, “It’s important to see black actors is roles that will take them out of the stereotypical box,” and Timcampi took the argument a step forward, wondering if “darker,” more controversial roles were off limits to Black actors simply because of the way in which Blacks have been stereotyped in the past.

Timcampi wondered, “It’s like darker roles are untouchable because of ‘the way black men are commonly portrayed.’ Wtf. It’s insulting.”

She continued, “Also to me it’s still insulting to say that these actors are doing nothing more than adhering to some BS stereotype. There’s a lot more going on in the story than one realizes at first glance. It’s pretty brilliant. To me it wasn’t a black family with some kinda dysfunction. It was just A FAMILY dealing with a rather private and emotional dilemma.”

The argument around whether or not White filmmakers can accurately capture “the Black experience” (whatever that is) on film has been debated before. Spike Lee was extremely critical of the decision to tap Michael Mann to direct ‘Ali’ the film about the legendary boxer’s life, noting that he—a Black director—would be able to tell Ali’s story more effectively. While others have hailed directors like Steven Spielberg (“The Color Purple”), Norman Jewison (“The Hurricane”), and Taylor Hackford (“Ray”) for being able to authentically capture an “authentic” experience on film.

So, should White filmmakers make “Black” films, especially those about controversial topics? And is race always at play when the cast is Black?

Let’s talk about it!

  • mikel

    I agree with cree, If the story can be expressed with a level on integrity and accuracy then by all means. However falling into these stereotypes that conote black inferiority are not welcomed here. Aside from that we as black people need to be telling more of our own stories and not waiting for white people to tell them for us. This is not a militant stance nor is a decree for segregation, this is more of the realization that we need to tell our own stories. If were tired of being berated in the media and misrepresented, we need to inform those who dont know about us exactly who we are. People only allow themselves to do what you let them. We (black folks) spend 3 trillion dollars annual on entertainment and media. I think we can honestly make a point that we should have a say so in who controls our image and how its represented. I I also must disagree to those who hold onto a post-racism stance on America. Everything is still very much so about race, this does not refute the idea that we can all work together. We most certainly can, just understand that in a day and age where our president is black, our first lady can still be described as uppity. So while that rift in society still exists, yes things are still very much so about race. Just look at any forum that is not black-owned an operated. CNN for instance, I cringe whenever they release a story about african americans, good or bad, because i know there will be at least 40 comments that are racist. It never fails. Yet were suppose to believe we live in a society far removed of racism?

  • mikel

    ” The beauty of someone who writes fiction (and I say this as a writer), is that our imaginations oftentimes allows us to walk in shoes we’ve never been in, and will more than likely never be in. ”

    Right but this movie isnt being depicted as a fictional tale. The director is stating that this is something that is real, this is something that is true. This works if its marketed as fiction. Its not.

    “Before production, Steven Spielberg felt very insecure about being director of the film. In fact, his initial response to Quincy Jones’ request was no. Spielberg felt that his knowledge of the deep South was inadequate and that the film should’ve been directed by someone of color, who could’ve at least related to the struggles faced by many blacks living in the old south. Quincy Jones then argued, “No, I want you to do it. And besides, did you have to be an alien to direct ET?” Spielberg appreciated his friend’s logic and decided to take the role as director of the film. ”

    And if I had to choose between oh say Spielberg and Tyler Perry directing a movie…gosh, that’s like a joke. No contest. Spielberg everytime; hands down.”

    The thing is, Spielberg does his research as seeks out those who are experts in specific fields that he wishes to document. Spielberg was absolutely right in his assessment, i am not versed in this subject matter, let me go and seek council from those who are.

    This article isnt about Spielberg so much as its about a low level hack of a director creating a film about the a facet of the black experience without consulting those who a versed in the subject matter. This doesnt mean every black person knows about slavery this doesn’t mean every black person knows about rape. However you do need a director is who is going to educate himself, do the research and portray the black experience accordingly. The reason why the article asks, should white filmakers tell black stories is because with the exception of a few movies, black people have been getting thrown under the bus by white directors.

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