Race Relations and Art

Feature image public domain. Photographer Marion S. Trikosko, USNWR

This article was originally posted January 21, 2013. In light of the events in the country the past few months, I thought it would be appropriate to re-post.


Image public domain. CC National Archives
Image public domain. CC National Archives

This year [2013] is a pretty significant year for those of African descent in America. It’s the 150th anniversary of the emancipation proclamation and this coming August is the 50th anniversary of the historic March on Washington by Martin Luther King Jr. Today as we celebrate his life, some of us are reflecting on what we have been through as a people in this nation.

Being a Black Filmmaker

Personally, I’ve had an interesting life as a black man in America. I’ve actually been the target of prejudice on both sides of the spectrum. I’ve been called nigger by white people (and yes, I used the actual word instead of writing “N-word”. I don’t like to soften the ugliness of the word and numb people to that ugliness. We need to face ugliness in order to destroy it). Likewise, I’ve been called names by black folk too (a certain round cookie with white filling comes to mind. Hmmm? I wonder if that’s why I’ve had so many Asian friends in life?) I think that’s why race relations have been such an important topic to me as a filmmaker. My daughter teases that I always seem to introduce provocative racial topics wherever I can. In the music video I produced for her, I made the boyfriend white. (I actually did that because I wanted it to be an interesting twist at the end of the video). I’m also working on a personal documentary series called Mixed In America: a series about race relations and identity of biracial people.

The idea of racial identity when it comes to one’s craft is an intriguing one. Am I a “black filmmaker” or am I a filmmaker who just happens to be black. What obligations do I have to tell the “black” story? Personally, I think of myself as a filmmaker who happens to be black. (Just as wherein it relates to my faith, I consider myself a filmmaker who happens to be a Christ follower). Will my race and faith have an impact on my craft? Of course. How could they not? (As my daughter’s comment attests). They have shaped and continue to shape who am as an artist. But by no means do I want to be bound or constricted in my craft because of those labels. I want to tell stories about black people for sure. I think I have a unique point of view to bring to that discussion. But, I also have stories I want to tell where race is inconsequential.

Oscar Micheaux is regarded as the first major African American filmmaker. Image public domain.

With all that said, I am so thankful for those African American filmmakers who have come before me who DID find it necessary to specifically (and in some cases exclusively) depict the African American story. Filmmakers like Oscar Micheaux, Melvin Van Peebles, Gord Parks, Gordon Parks Jr, John Singleton, the Hudlin Brothers, Tyler Perry and Spike Lee to name a few. What I like about this array of filmmakers is that their stories are across the spectrum. From Blaxploitation to gritty urban dramas to slap stick comedy, the range of African American stories is as diverse as the range of African American skin tones. It is not lost on me that I may not have been able to tell the non-black stories I currently tell if these guys didn’t tell the black ones they told.

So, What Are You?

So my question to you today is this: what are you? Are you a Black/Asian/Hispanic/Insert-Your-Race Filmmaker? How intimately connected to your race is your craft? Are there stories about your culture you want to tell that you don’t think are currently told (or at least not told well)? Share in the comments.

(By the way, if you’re interested in being a “black” filmmaker too, I strongly suggest you read this blog post I wrote last year. 😉

3 thoughts on “Race Relations and Art

  1. Fascinating article. While I live in a black community and think about race relations a fair amount, the connection with race and our work isn’t one I’ve given much thought to. Thanks for writing on this.

    1. Follow-up: I have given a great amount of thought to how my faith informs my work, and vice versa. I tend to fall in the “artist that is a Christian” rather than “Christian Artist” which, in my experience, tends to get one culturally pigeonholed.

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