Where Were the Black Movies During the Pandemic?

ma rainey's black bottom

Not so sorry to say it, but Hollywood failed us in 2020. Black people, yet again, seemed to be a very distant focus of any major studio or platform when it came to producing movies that were focused on our experiences and stories.

Of course, if you talk to a Hollywood executive, they will point to the fact that many there were many black movies produced in 2020, and that if anything, the pandemic is the reason we didn’t see as many as we would have otherwise seen. But if you look at the movies they’re referring to, almost none of them were designed with the black audience in mind, and I don’t believe any of them were given a legitimate chance at commercial sense.

For example, a movie like Tenet was a Christopher Nolan film that happened to star John David Washington in it. In terms of moving the culture forward, it’s a great thing that a made man like Nolan taps a relatively up-and-coming black actor like Washington to be the lead for his movie. But it wasn’t a black movie. In terms of getting black people to watch it, a sci-thriller about a black man trying to prevent World War III, that was always going to be an unlikely way to capture the attention of the black film-going audience.

Of course, there was John Henry, the film about the legendary black folktale. It starred Terry Crews and Ludacris. I’ve said all you need to know.

Don’t get me wrong. There were attempts. Antebellum, starring Janelle Monae, was a daring piece. However, because of the pandemic, it didn’t get the full release it deserved and thus failed to capture the attention of most black people, nor really any critic nor anybody, raking in just under $7 million in the box office, and a not good enough digital sales number for the studio brag about publicly.

The Photograph, starring LaKeith Stanfield and Issa Rae was also a unique black film coming from an emerging black writer (Stella Meghie). It did well with $20 million in the box office, but that pre-quarantine times. So for as good as it may have been, it didn’t help us get through the ills of the pandemic.

Da 5 Bloods, a Spike Lee joint, was good, but it didn’t get people talking. And Miss Juneteenth, was appropriately timed and named giving all that was going on in this country when it dropped on June 19th, but a release on VOD with little to no marketing just never allowed it to reach mainstream Black America.

The Banker was another promising attempt, and it dropped on Apple TV just a few days into quarantine times. Starring Anthony Mackie and Samuel L. Jackson, you know it had to be a good movie, and it was. And while I certainly enjoyed it, it’s not a movie that had a lot of black people talking. Some of that is because it was on AppleTV+, which I don’t think is something a lot of people in general, nevermind black people, have been turning into. It also was a historical, biographical story about a black man with some questionable things in his past being helmed by a white person, that quite frankly, missed some key points in the retelling of the story while also leaving out a lot of the cultural elements that a black director might have otherwise captured. That’s quite possibly why a film that did get good reviews never really made it into the Black zeitgeist.

The only movie that could legitimately be labeled as something that got a lot of black people talking was Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom. It got a ton of buzz with the unfortunate passing of Chadwick Boseman, who was a lead in the movie and has been nominated (and won) for several awards for his performance. Many have labeled it his best performance. And with Viola Davis as the star of the movie, you know it was a well-acted film; thus, it has an amazing score on Rotten Tomatoes. But for what it’s worth, the movie came out on November 25th–well into the pandemic, and past the point where we were still looking for TV, or really any cultural moment to pull us through. Between the seminal TV shows of the time, the return of sports, the election of Joe Biden, and everyone’s waning patience with social distancing, I think black people had already moved past the point of being held captive, and to this point, Ma Rainey has yet to engender the type of conversation one might have hoped it would have several months ago.

And I’d be remiss to ignore the The Forty-Year Old Version. Personally, I thought it was a beautiful movie, and I think critical consensus agrees with me, but it just never got the marketing support it needed to stand out, which is a shame, because this was a relatively unknown director in Radha Blank that truly deserves her flowers for this one.

So while anyone can point to black movies that came out in 2020, the fact is, we didn’t get the movies we deserved, and needed, during a pandemic that trapped us in our homes. On the TV side, however, one can say we were given our fair share of media, with several black TV shows dominating black entertainment conversations for weeks at a time during the pandemic. With Insecure, Blackish, and The Chi all debuting in the relatively early days of pandemic life, black people go their dose of conversation-worthy episodic content.

But we just didn’t leave 2020 with that same feeling when it came to movies. There was nothing to talk about. Nothing that got us excited. Nothing that had us propping up Clubhouse with 1,752 conversations about the black movie that made us think. In fairness, some of the good stuff got moved to 2021 because of the pandemic. It’s possible we would have seen Coming 2 America, Candyman, and Respect this past year, and those certainly could’ve registered with black movie viewers.

In fairness, there weren’t many general audience movies that got into the cultural zeitgeist during the pandemic, so it was a tough year for everyone. But black people really could have used that singular cultural piece of art to give us something to talk about that didn’t include death by Covid or unjustified murder. It just leaves you to wonder that if we had more black executives in Hollywood, would some studio have realized that and start to chip away at the underrepresentation in media they’ve all said they’re going to do something about.

Leave a Reply