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!