In the aftermath of Black History Month, Tessa Ndjonkou presents movies that empowered her and some of the black voices that are changing how race in Ireland is addressed.
As Black History Month draws to a close and cinemas everywhere prepare for the release of Black Panther: Wakanda Forever, it seems like the right moment to assemble movies and TV shows that empowered me and some of the influential black voices in Ireland today.
I remember exactly how I felt when the credits for Black Panther by Ryan Coogler started rolling to Kendrick Lamar and SZA’s “All the Stars' '. I sat stunned and as I took in the fact that I’d witnessed something monumental as a Marvel fan but more importantly as a young Black woman. For the first time, elements of my culture were found on screen for the world to see without being turned into derision. West-African culture, dress, music and decor was omnipresent throughout the film and in the weeks that followed the release of the movie I experienced a level of pride for my culture and in my blackness that I’d rarely felt. Amongst people of the African diaspora it was understood that we had a duty to go see the film, we had to “show up and show out” to prove a point that we had tried to make for years: diverse movies deserve to be told and will be well received. The second installment in the franchise, Black Panther: Wakanda Forever, proves this point by making imperialism and grief its main themes and showing how both Wakandans and Talocan people deal with them. The devastating consequences of both these things are what oppose Wakanda, the Western world and the Kingdom of Talocan.
The importance, and the power of representation, that the Black Panther movies have, sent a shockwave through Hollywood, and is best summed up by Tenoch Huerta who plays Namor, King of the Talocan Kingdom. During the global press conference, he expressed his hope that the film “helped people embrace who they are'' like the first installment did. Since 2018, directors and producers have worked to make movies more representative of the societies we live in. Although there is much to do, the success of movies like The Woman King, released in early October with a cast made up mostly of dark skin black women, has demanded a reconsideration of which stories are worth telling. In Black Panther: Wakanda Forever, the introduction of a whole new world and people based on Indigenous and Aztec culture is a step in the right direction.
Although, there is much to do, the success of movies like The Woman King, released in early October with a cast made up mostly of dark skin black women, has demanded a reconsideration of which stories are worth telling
For Dr. Ebun Joseph PhD, historical Black non-fiction movies are the most empowering. In her panel with the UCD Africa Society on the 27th of October she featured a quote by John Henrik Clarke : “(...) History is a clock that people use to tell their political and cultural time of day (...)”. Applied to Black History Month, the African-American historian and pioneer of Pan African and African studies’ words imply that if black people know their history and the role they have had in shaping world history they will feel emboldened and encouraged to take initiatives and continue to do so. For Dr. Ebun Joseph, Director of the Institute of Antiracism and Black Studies, movies like 12 Years a Slave, King Richard, Concussion, 13th and Selma provide people from the Black diaspora with an identity anchoring: they show us how far we’ve come and how far we can still go.
As an arts activist, a filmmaker and one of the co-founder of the GAL PAL collective (a collective committed to amplifying the voices of marginalized artists in Ireland), Aisha Bolaji knows just how much representation matters. To her, “If you see it, you can be it”. She credits her empowerment as a black woman living in Ireland to the 1986 black-and-white comedy drama by Spike Lee She’s Gotta Have it. She says she found “comfort in the protagonist Nola Darling, who is just unapologetically herself” as an artist and as a modern African-American woman.
When it comes to community empowerment, young black audiences especially need to be shown what they can achieve. Dreams can only go so far if you're never shown that they can come true.
Instead of flattening and trivializing the black experience, Lee’s film shows just how diverse it can be and gives his character a storyline and an identity that does not solely revolve around racism. Nola Darling’s story is “aspirational and relatable” because it includes “joy, sex, love, mundanity and the never-ending struggle”. We agreed that as young black women, hurtling towards our early twenties, she was the role model we needed. When it comes to community empowerment, young black audiences especially need to be shown what they can achieve, dreams can only go so far if you're never shown that they can come true.
How to Get Away with Murder created by Peter Norwalk, produced by Shonda Rhimes and starring Viola Davis ran from 2014 to 2020 and made a considerable mark on pop culture and on black audiences. For participants who have chosen to remain anonymous, it was their first time seeing a dark-skinned black woman with an intellectual career be the protagonist of a hit TV-series. Annalise Keating was far away from the stereotyped representations of Black womanhood that audiences have been subjected to for decades. Far from being a caricature, she was a successful lawyer who was written to have great emotional depth. She inspired many to confidently pursue law because her simple existence implied that black lawyers not only exist but deserve to have their story told, although fictionalized. The show is a prime example of why representation needs to be found behind the camera as well: in the production team, in the writers room and even the camera crew.
Representation is not just about representing different groups but about “allowing them to represent themselves and tell their own stories so that the stories are authentic and do the communities justice.
For radio host, writer, producer and co-founder of the GAL PAL collective, Ashley Chademoyo, representation is not just about representing different groups but about “allowing them to represent themselves and tell their own stories so that the stories are authentic and do the communities justice. She expresses how “often, we aren’t given the chance to be joyful in the media” and instead the narrative around blackness is co-opted by negativity and made to revolve around racism and racial trauma only. Michaela Coel’s miniseries Chewing Gum and Rodgers and Hammerstein's Cinderella, starring Brandy and Whitney Houston, subvert this beautifully by offering a goofy coming of age comedy that celebrates the awkwardness of self-discovery and a diverse re-telling of a classic that finally gives young black children the fairytale they deserve. Films like Rodgers and Hammerstein's Cinderella do so much for younger people’s self-esteem by decolonizing beauty standards and re-valorizing their experiences. Both Chewing Gum and Cinderella, challenge damaging representations of black women found on the silver screen. Tracey is quirky and funny without only being the comic relief and Cinderella is depicted as intelligent, gracious and desirable.
The empowerment, the genuine black joy these films and these shows solicit is not due to their lack of acknowledgement of harder topics, but their ability to demonstrate how the black experience is not defined by those hardships. For Ashley Chademoyo, when these films are over and the screen goes black, you’re left “renewed and not drained or retraumatized”. On the contrary, seeing these new images of what it means to be black in our current society has the power to heal deep racial wounds that were inflicted upon us in hostile environments. To have your experiences reaffirmed in the media instead of being constantly denied and erased broadens our view of what we can achieve.