Assaulting the Archive: The Cultural Damage of The Black Biopic and “Historical” Film

The eighties were a turbulent period. The crack era personified a violent wrath that intentionally tore apart black families. The multi-talented Jackie Wilson, a trailblazer in black entertainment, lay robbed, abused, and neglected in a nursing home. Tawana Brawley, a fifteen-year-old black teen from Upstate New York, was raped and systemically lynched, and five young men were falsely accused of rape simply because they were young, black, and male. Yet despite these milestone moments, much of the eighties archive remains shunned to silence. These moments compose the portion of black life that does not warrant popular reference; rather, the eighties encompassed aspects of black life that an anti-black world needs black people to forget, and what, in this selective amnesia, we are destined to repeat.

It appeared an act of remembrance when Ava Duvernay debuted her Netflix series When They See Us in the Spring of 2019. Many rejoiced that the unsung stories of the Central Park 5 were finally being told. Antron McCray, Kevin Richardson, Yusef Salaam, Raymond Santana, and Korey Wise, who were previously all marked by four words: The Central Park Five, composed the core of Duvernay’s series which presented a telling and realistic portrait of the American (in) justice system. Though many credited the talented Duvernay with vindicating those those who remained guilty in the court of public opinion, the series proved hard to watch.

I cringed and crawled through the series. My attempts to Netflix and chill proved challenging, because I felt as though I should have been doing something. I felt as though I should be creating a solution rather than consuming a fictionalized version of a very real struggle—and this truth is, this sentiment does not reflect sanctimony, but what should be a reality. The Central Park 5, a testament to the low regard America holds black people, illustrates the low of a so called “elevated” or “civilized” society. The story of these young men delineate a shared experience of what it means to be black America. Specifically, the story of the Central Park five illustrates that black is synonymous with criminal. Yet, what appears most criminal about the docu-series is its destiny. Specifically, the series is destined to become the means of reference to this critical period in the black narrative. 

This illustrates a persistent problem with regards to the black collective and the black archive, because contrary to popular belief, films about the black experience, or notable black figures, do not constitute the black archive. Those of the black collective should only attend the movies to learn as a means of survival, and by learn, I mean learn the ways of white folk, not to meet an oppressor-approved version of our ancestors and elders.

Unfortunately, for many, Malcolm X remains confined to a Spike Lee caricature, and the Africans abducted centuries ago, reduced to images suitable for White America. The new Harriet Tubman film promises to fulfill a similar function. The controversial, yet highly anticipated, film resurrects the slave film that functions to appease white guilt and satiate white leisure. While 12 Years a Slave (2013) garnered rave reviews for its “accurate” portrayal of America’s forgotten past, it was its white savior figure, played by Hollywod-hearthrob Brad Pitt, that warranted its positive reception. Aside from transitioning pain into entertainment, the slave narrative remains the sole means many will come to know the ancestors and elders that enable present possibility. These films, however, encompass a neutered story where truth remains optional. The slave-film genre, therefore, assumes misplacement as the black archive.  

It is worth mentioning the subjects and topics that remain too contentious for exclusion into the visual archive. Nate Parker’s Birth of a Nation, for example, debuted amidst personal scandal to deflect from the film’s potential power. This delineates that slave films are fine as long as black people are portrayed comically, homely, or helpless, but not hopeful or rebellious. Similarly, I have yet to see any films about the Tawana Brawley story, an omission that illustrates that the white world wants to make sure the black woman says #metoo to a westernized femininity and not to black female systemic asphyxiation.

These omissions underscore just how important archives remain to the collective African experience. The archives do not encompass entertainment, but exist as an integral component to emerging from the margins of our own mind into the center. 

I recently heard of filmmaker Ava Duverney’s plans to make a film for activist and self-proclaimed contemporary runaway slave, Assata Shakur. The news, much like the news of of the upcoming Harriet Tubman film, incited a generally positive response, marking those who feel vindicated in the visibility aligned with a big-screen feature. This desire to be seen, marks those irretrievably wounded by a world whose narcissism engenders the marginalized to search for their reflection in their oppressor’s eyes. The word narcissism, of course, derives from Narcissus, who in the ancient myth, drowns after attempting to kiss his own reflection. This is the exact future that awaits black people who view their reflection in the visual medium presented as the archive. 

Just like the river that became Narcissus’s acquatic grave, the visual archive enables vanity not value. To drown pursuing excellence is a worthwhile cause, but to drown in disenfranchisement, which is the fate of the visual black archive, marks yet another win for whiteness at the expense of the black collective. 

Everything should not be a movie. Movies only exist to create an idle consumerism in a collective the United States works tirelessly to convince of their cultural deficit. This truth substantiates that it is not art to compartmentalize vital components of the black narrative to a film, but cultural assasination. The “historical” film or black biopic constitutes “his” story not our story. Therefore, these genres do not encompass black culture; the historical films or black biopics are what colonizers want the black collective to see so that we do not see ourselves.

Productive consumerism remains consummated by reading books and in the oral archives that transcribes what time or racism cannot take away. Books, letters, notes, and word-of-mouth represent the stories that will not become films because they teach black people a potency American culture incites them to unlearn.

The visual medium is another way to stall the black collective. Now, instead of saying “wait,” our oppressors tell us to watch, watch as our truth becomes mutilated in who and what this country needs us to be–misinformed, dazed, and distorted.

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