MILWAUKEE — Since film-making started in the late 19th century, the role of African Americans has progressed slowly over time. These roles are an important influence for African Americans to see a positive image of themselves on screen.
“You’re 10 or 12 years old, sitting in front of the TV and it’s like, that’s somebody that looks like me!” Emily Kuester, a producer and director with 371 Productions said. “Look, I can do that too.”
Kuester’s work with 371 Productions, which is housed in the same building as NO Studios, is the product of her inspiration as a child. She says, the show ‘That’s so Raven’ starring Raven Symoné on the Disney Channel was one of several shows that helped motivate her.
“I remember being young and looking at Disney and seeing black girls who look like me on the screen,” Kuester said. “It was weird because in those situations they were almost the ‘token black person’ in their shows. It’s interesting to look back now and say, oh I related to that and now, I want not just one black person on the screen but everyone needs to be black.”
It wasn’t too long ago where black characters were actually played by white people in black face. The Birth of a Nation had many negative and stereotypical portrayals of African Americans that fueled negative opinions of African Americans for decades.
“Thinking back to films like The Birth of a Nation, Gone with the Wind, they had those very negative stereotypes of blacks,” Reggie Jackson, Milwaukee Black Historian said. “A lot of what we see now looks similar to those. Obviously, we don’t have white actors in black face playing those roles but we have black actors being forced to act the same way to demean themselves in order to get work.”
As film evolved, African American characters were often secondary; playing maids or butlers. However, in the 1970’s, the emergence of Blaxploitation films like Shaft, Foxy Brown and Black Caesar portrayed African Americans as the lead role.
“We have films where we’re the saviors of the end of the story,” Jackson said. “We’re the ones who are the heroes. We don’t see enough of that in white representations of black people in film.”
Jackson says, there is debate about whether the era of Blaxploitation is good or bad, as there were stereotypical roles here as well, but it was a major turning point.
“That was the first time in American history that main stream Hollywood showed films with a black hero,” Jackson said. “That was impactful for blacks to see a hero for a change.”
It’s improved today, but not by much. The Hollywood Diversity Report says two out of every 10 lead roles in movies are played by people of color. On Television, it’s slightly better; 2.2 of every 10 lead roles are played by people of color.
“I just want to celebrate black excellence all of the time,” Kuester said. “I want my TV screen flooded with people who look like me. I craved that and wanted that.”
It’s not just on screen, but behind the camera as well. Kuester says it’s important for black people to be in charge of telling black stories.
“Black representation to me is just representation,” Kuester said. “Knowing there are creators, producers, directors, executive producers, just people at every table within the filmmaking process that look like me. Black stories need to be told. You can’t put white people in charge of that. It’s not right and doesn’t make sense.”
For 20-year-old Shenika Jackson, she’s taking it to another level. She’s currently working on her second documentary, this one focused on the current unrest related to the George Floyd murder. She feels, as a young black woman, she can make an impact.
“I do want to change the world,” Jackson said. “I feel a responsibility does lay on my shoulders to tell a story because nobody else will tell it.”
“They are specific stories only black filmmakers can tell,” Reggie Jackson said. “It’s important we continue to have and support black filmmakers that represent us in a positive light but also in an honest light.”
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