In a New York Times parenting blog op-ed, Kimberly Seals Allers, author of The Mocha Manual to a Fabulous Pregnancy, discusses her love of mainstream films about motherhood. She talks about how she excitedly set out to see films like Sarah Jessica Parker’s flop, I Don’t Know How She Does It, Uma Thurman’s forgettable, generically titled Motherhood, and most recently, the ensemble “comedy,” What to Expect When Your Expecting. Notably absent from all these films are representations of black mothers. In fact, observes Allers, black mothers are notably absent from most mainstream films–comedy, romance, drama, horror, or thriller.
There’s been much discussion here at Clutch about black representations in Hollywood and who should be held accountable. Is it the audience, for heading out to films where we know black characters will be notably absent or underdeveloped? Is it filmmakers–black, white, and other–who should be taken to task for willfully ignoring us? Is it the production studios, who are well aware of the power of the black dollar, but green light little more black-targeted fare than Madea flicks?
Discussions like these tend to devolve along two lines. There’s the “If you don’t like the product, make your own” camp. And the “speak truth to power” camp.
For her part, Allers belongs to the latter–and, of course, she raises strong points. The most salient asserts that the dismissal of black motherhood on the silver screen isn’t an inconsequential pop culture issue, but rather a serious insight into the deterioration and denigration of black motherhood through the course of U.S. history:
The slow demise of black motherhood began in slavery where we were viewed as breeders producing commodities, not as real humans, and therefore we had no control over our experience in motherhood or our children. As slaves, our children were often ripped from our bosoms and sold, as we stood helpless in despair. What followed was a long tradition of pathologizing black motherhood. As a result, mainstream culture still sees black motherhood as a distortion of true motherhood ideals, and therefore unworthy of the big screen.
The stigma of Daniel Patrick Moynihan’s 1965 report “The Negro Family: The Case for National Action,” which designated black mothers as the principal cause of a culture of pathology, stuck. Moynihan’s research predated the 1964 Civil Rights Act, but instead of identifying the structural barriers facing African-American communities, he blamed black mothers for the state of African-American families.
The now infamous Moynihan Report encouraged the nation not to view black mothers as women doing the best they could in tough circumstances, but instead to blame them as unrelenting cheats who unfairly demand assistance from the system.
Even now, the subliminal messaging remains clear: Black mothers are not welcome at the real mothers table. My job as a black mother is to stay off the system and make sure my children don’t become future criminals, gangsta rappers, teenage mothers or welfare recipients — not glamorous stuff. With so much for me to do, let’s leave the policy-making, Hollywood imagery and big-picture idea-shaping to someone else.
She goes on to say that she’ll no longer be shelling out her hard-earned dollars on films about motherhood that disrespect black motherhood. That’s great. The best film work on black culture is done outside the mainstream, anyway. You want realism, respect, sensitivity, and reverence for the black family in all its varied forms? Look to the indie. Matthew Cherry’s The Last Fall deals with the return of a failed football star to his mother’s home. In Roger Bobb’s Raising Izzie, Vanessa Williams takes custody of two orphaned siblings. Lynn Whitfield plays Michael Jai White’s terminally ill mother in Somebody’s Child, which is slated to air on GMC later this summer. Though films that cover that cover black pregnancy are scarce (and films that deal with black motherhood in the light, comedic ways that mainstream films seem to afford ad nauseam to white moms are even scarcer), you can find a diverse array of representations in black independent film. Does this idea of having to look to the indie to see ourselves get into some separate-and-unequal pop culture politics? Yes. But if we wait on the mainstream to include black mothers in their films about flustered Upper East Side soccer moms who don’t break a sweat during their three-minute child births, we’ll be waiting forever (and missing a lot of good, under promoted films in the process).