The Revolution Against the Great White Way
I want you to think back to your favorite movie when you were a kid. Mine was 13 Going on 30, my older cousin’s was Titanic, my mom’s was Sophie’s Choice. And the one commonality between these three movies is the blatantly obvious lack of any POC leads. Beautiful white women adorn the screen, with straight hair and flawless skin, a fantasy that could never be achieved for any people of color watching. I, like my cousin, like my mother, have spent hours on hours staring enviously at the screen, hoping beyond hope that we could possess that beauty, that perhaps some alteration of our skin or hair could give us that beauty.
This is a story very common to most people of color living in America. And as we step into Black History Month, I want to pay homage to those who went against the grain, who told a story on screen featuring the African American community when it was unheard of to do so.
One of these stories is Eubie Blake’s Shuffle Along, premiering in 1921 on Broadway, was the first major production to be written, produced, and performed by a fully Black cast. Shuffle Along, made during the Harlem Renassiance, was crucial to the desegregation of theaters and the acceptance of Black actors in typically White-dominated plays. While its depiction of Black people is seen as offensive in modern times, in the 1920s, it was the most progressive story about a Black community to be premiered to such a large audience. Its usage of jazz, a music type originating from Black artists, and the portrayal of two Black men as community-oriented, made the story incredibly novel, a revolution of its own.
Another is Lorraine Hansberry’s A Raisin in the Sun was one of the first plays to tell the story of a Black household and feature an almost fully Black cast. When it debuted on Broadway in 1959, it was met with a surprising amount of acclaim for the time - revolutionaries embraced the play as a refreshing depiction of the struggles of Black families at the time. The beautiful thing about A Raisin in the Sun, however, is that it not only focuses on the Black experience but the universal experience. The characters are fleshed out - Grandma Lena is portrayed as strong-willed, determined, and intelligent, while most Black women in the 1950s were portrayed as immoral and indecent. The play centers around tradition versus innovation, a universal struggle, but showcases a unique problem for Black people - in this time, many Black families had to raise themselves up and make wealth for themselves, versus having the generational wealth many White families already possessed.
The battle for more equal depiction is still being fought to this day. But we get closer and closer with each war that is won. Shows like black-ish and All American are pioneers for accurate, inspirational storytelling from Black communities. We can only hope that, for the next generation, movies and TV featuring people of color will become cult classics too.